In the first installment of this series, we talked about the evolution of the piano in terms of traditional pianos and the new design elements being implemented. The use of synthetic materials in traditional pianos is an incredibly interesting development in piano design and production. I received a number of comments from all of you and I really appreciate the conversation and insight you all provided.
In this next installment, I would like to discuss the advancement of pianos when it comes to digital and hybrid pianos. They have come a long way, so long that they are actually becoming a preferred format for certain musicians and venues.
Many years ago the first attempts at making electric pianos emerged. In truth, they sounded nothing like actual pianos. The Wurlitzer and the Fender Rhodes pianos had traditional piano keyboards but they produced bell-like sounds. It wasn’t until the late 1970’s and early 1980’s with the invention of digital sampling that digital pianos could actually sound like a real piano! They achieved this by having little recordings for each note and then looping them – the technology wasn’t available to record the entire length of each note so only a small sample of the attack portion of the note was used. The decay of the notes was achieved by looping a portion of the sound and fading it out. I actually owned a Kurzweil K250 – an 88 note digital wooden key piano, one of the first instruments capable of replicating the sound and feel of a piano. I enjoyed producing many soundtracks in my studio since the Kurzweil offered hundreds of strikingly realistic instrument replications.
Since that time, digital sampling has evolved tremendously. Now digital pianos most often have several recordings of each note at different velocity levels. The realism of these instruments is simply astounding. There is actually a newer technology called physical modeling which takes into account the attack of the keys and the hammers hitting the string and many other aspects of the sound we never thought possible when digital pianos were first invented. This technology makes it possible to replicate pianos that couldn’t exist in the real world – twelve and twenty-foot pianos, aluminum strings – the possibilities are endless.
Some of the best digital pianos today are software based, which is why a lot of professionals utilize something called keyboard controllers. These don’t produce sounds but they actually transmit key information via MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) to a laptop, computer, or sound module which allows the player to use the latest in technology without having to buy new keyboards every year.
Digital pianos generally fall into two categories: portable and home units. Portable digital pianos are generally used by professionals. They usually have no speakers or very small speakers on board. They are hooked into sound systems for performance and recording. These are like portable pianos except they produce sound digitally and have a much simpler type of action mechanism. The other type of digital piano can actually look like a real piano but they have no strings or soundboard. They also produce the sound digitally but have substantial sound systems built into sometimes extravagant furniture.
In my opinion, some of the inexpensive digital pianos are just as good as units costing much more. When you spend more you are mostly getting better furniture and more substantial sound systems. Some of these high-end digital pianos from Korg, Yamaha, Kurzweil, and others are so advanced they offer the players even more options than ever before. You can plug in microphones to harmonize your voice with the piano; you can record yourself digitally creating full orchestrations! There are music software programs for learning music theory and more.
But are digital pianos really a substitute for traditional pianos? In a pinch, yes. But what’s more impressive about these instruments is the things you can’t do with a traditional piano. As far as recording music, the software available on these pianos is incredibly powerful – you can record multiple lines of music, you can bring up your notes and edit them; the options are endless. It’s like having a word processor for music at your fingertips!
But when it comes to hybrid pianos, things get a little more interesting. Roland and Yamaha have pianos now that are considered hybrids – they are trying to bridge the line between digital and acoustic pianos and they are getting closer.
Some of these hybrid pianos like the Yamaha AvantGrand actually have full piano actions in them and function as normal, but the sound is created digitally.
These pianos can be incredibly useful in certain situations. If you ever had to practice on a practice room piano in a school, you know how hideously out of tune these pianos almost always are. With people playing them constantly they will hardly ever be in tune or voiced to a decent level of performance. Traditional pianos just aren’t capable of withstanding that kind of use. With a hybrid piano – where the action is the same as a real piano but the sound is digital – this can provide a better alternative to an acoustic piano. There are plenty of situations – like hotels or restaurants where hybrid pianos offer an ideal solution.
The question is whether we will ever get to a point where hybrid pianos are actually more common than traditional acoustic pianos? I believe that there is nothing better than an acoustic piano, however, in certain situations, I would much prefer to play on a high-quality hybrid piano than a beaten up acoustic piano.
As always, I’m interested in your opinions and thoughts on this matter. Robert Estrin: Robert@LivingPianos.com (949) 244-3729
In the first installment of this series, we talked about the evolution of the piano in terms of traditional pianos and the new design elements being implemented. The use of synthetic materials in traditional pianos is an incredibly interesting develo
This is an interesting topic; particularly for me due to my recent trip to the NAMM Show (National Association of Music Merchants) here in Orange County California. This is a huge annual gathering of music industry professionals attracting around 100,000 people!
The question of whether or not the piano will continue to evolve as an instrument is a difficult one. Many people believe that the piano was done evolving at the end of the 19th century – since many instruments produced at that time are considered modern pianos in every respect.
Note: I will discuss at length in a future article and video the technologies of digital and hybrid pianos which I consider to be a new category of instruments.
However, while some companies have made enhancements to piano design over the years – accelerated actions, tension resonator systems, etc. – there hasn’t really been any fundamental changes to the instrument in over 100 years other than manufacturing technologies.
This perception changed for me somewhat over the weekend. While I was attending the NAMM show since I had the opportunity to try many different pianos from all over the world. I kept coming back to the Mason & Hamlin piano booth and trying their new composite actions.
I spoke at length with Bruce Clark – the designer of Mason & Hamlin pianos about these new actions which are made almost entirely from carbon fiber, not wood. And to be perfectly honest, I have been skeptical of the benefits of the use of synthetic materials being utilized in actions.
My original feeling was, “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?” The type of piano actions we see in most pianos made from wood, leather and felt have been around for over a century; they have worked well for a long time; why change now? But this weekend I had a chance to really put them through their paces and I was pleasantly surprised!
The very interesting thing about this new design from Mason & Hamlin (and there are new technologies by other companies, notably Kawaii) is that they are so lightweight in the action that the keys do not need to be weighted with lead. This basically means that there is less mass in the key and it takes less inertia to overcome. There is a quickness, a lightness, and a response that really has to be experienced to understand; they feel different from traditional piano actions!
But the question is; are these better actions? Will this be the future of pianos one day?
Let’s just jump to the conclusion that they are better actions for the sake of discussion. If this is the case, how is it possible to transition? In that I mean there are a lot of different obstacles these pianos and actions must overcome in order to become mainstream.
First of all, Mason & Hamlin produces around 150 pianos a year; so these actions are not very prevalent at the moment. While Kawai produces far more pianos, their actions are a hybrid utilizing wooden shanks and composite materials together, so they aren’t radically different in feel from traditional actions.
The problem is this: what would happen if you bought one of these pianos with the newest synthetic actions that are easier to play. Would you have difficulty transitioning in performance to a traditional piano? This is a serious question for concert pianists and pianists of all skill levels since typically you can’t take your piano with you to performances.
Another problem is unless these types of actions become somewhat commonplace, technicians may not have the skills needed to keep them regulated properly. They are very different actions that require new techniques for adjusting. Each new action design requires piano technicians to learn new skill sets.
Perhaps these pianos really are the future and the next great innovation in the instrument is underway. Or is it just another one of the advancements to the piano that has fallen by the wayside over the years? Only time will tell.
I’m very interested to hear your thoughts on this matter. Please contact me Robert Estrin: Robert@LivingPianos.com 949-244-3729
This is an interesting topic; particularly for me due to my recent trip to the NAMM Show (National Association of Music Merchants) here in Orange County California. This is a huge annual gathering of music industry professionals attracting around 100
I really enjoy your videos on your website and Youtube. Can you please show me how to play the opening jingle for your videos? I’ve noticed it changes frequently but the foundation remains the same.
I appreciate your interest in the Living Pianos theme! It’s really quite easy to play. Basically, you play a G octave in the left hand and an F-major arpeggio (broken chord) going all the way up the keyboard in the right hand. Then resolve to a C major chord first playing a D on top going to an E. That’s it!
You can simplify things even further if you have limited piano technique. You can simply play broken F-major chords hand over hand up the keyboard if you aren’t comfortable playing a rapid arpeggio with one hand. I believe watching the video will clarify things for you.
Please let me know how it goes! Robert Estrin Robert@LivingPianos.com 949-244-3729
I really enjoy your videos on your website and Youtube. Can you please show me how to play the opening jingle for your videos? I’ve noticed it changes frequently but the foundation remains the same. Thanks, – Mike I appreciate your interest i
What pieces must be original to keep the original sound of a piano?
Just the soundboard or also the strings and hammers and so on?
You are right, if the soundboard is replaced, some people feel that the piano is no longer truly original. I have a video on that subject that I just made:
What is the MOST Important Part of a Piano?
The bottom line is the original quality of the manufacturing coupled with how fine the restoration has been done. While there are many companies making high-quality piano parts, only very experienced technicians know which are the exact right match for a particular piano. It is essential to utilize the correct parts installed to precise specifications to keep the original geometry of the piano essential for high-level playing and superior tone. Be sure you know the piano and people you are buying from to assure things are done correctly.
I have really enjoyed reading your insightful essays and watching your enthusiastic and expressive videos! I am a violinist/opera singer who plays enough piano to accompany students and have 2 daughters who are studying piano plus other instruments. I was recently helping my (just turned) 7-year old daughter practice a piece by having her play the right hand alone, the left hand alone, and then both together since she was having trouble with trying to play them at the same time initially. Her piano teacher gave me a big scolding for separating the hands, saying if you don’t always play them both together, you never learn how to play/read well. I’m not enough of an expert pianist to know any better since my first instrument was violin, and I learned piano from a wonderful teacher after I’d already played the violin for 10 years. Can you please let me know your thoughts on the matter? I had no idea it was any kind of controversy!
Thanks so much!
Thanks for the great question! You are both right. When sightreading music, it is absolutely necessary to keep the eyes on the music and play hands together to get a sense of the piece. The hardest part about sightreading on the piano is playing the hands together and the only way to improve reading is by tackling this head-on with both hands.
However, in memorizing music it is the opposite. There is simply too much information to absorb playing hands together. It is necessary instead to break the music down to its intrinsic components a small section at a time, hands separately and master each section before going ahead. You may appreciate my video on memorization here:
How to Practice the Piano – Memorizing Music – Music Memorization
You may share this with your teacher to get their opinion about practicing sightreading compared to learning a piece (memorization).
Here is another video of mine about how to develop sightreading:
How to Practice the Piano – Sight Reading – Tips for Playing Piano
Robert, What pieces must be original to keep the original sound of a piano? Just the soundboard or also the strings and hammers and so on? Thanks, Rafael Justiniano. You are right, if the soundboard is replaced, some people feel that the piano is no
This question encompasses quite a bit of information, but it has value in presenting it all in one video – as these topics have a lot to do with one another. They are all essential when it comes to getting the most out of your piano and making sure it plays its best. Each one of these subjects can be incredibly detailed, and I may create more detailed videos and articles for each one of them – but for now, I will provide an overview of all three!
First, we will deal with Regulation. Regulation encompasses the myriad adjustments on the action which is the entire mechanism from the key to the hammer and dampers. Each key in the action has about 100 parts. There are approximately 8 different adjustments for each key: from key height, key depth when depressed, let-off of the hammer after it’s struck, to other details of hammer movement, and other adjustments affecting repetition, power and more.
The basic explanation of regulation is getting an evenness of touch for all of the keys on the piano. In other words, all 88 keys should have an equal touch when playing – no key should be harder or softer than another; no key should be higher or lower than another; the response must be identical for all keys.
When it comes to Voicing, it’s the same principle in keeping a consistent state for all notes. However, voicing deals with the tone of the piano, not the mechanics. Every key should have a consistent sound from one another. If the touch is the same but specific notes are brighter or more mellow in tone, it is impossible to get a smooth musical line since some notes will be out of place in the melody, either not matching volume, or tonally different in some way.
How is voicing achieved? Through working the hammers to get a consistent volume and tone from all keys. The felt on the hammers needs to be accomplished to get consistent tone on all notes. Several things affect the hammers including the shape, how it impacts the strings, and the hardness.
There is a tremendous amount of work that goes into voicing a piano. For example, if the hammers on some notes are too hard they will need to be needled; if they are too soft, they will need to be treated with chemicals, typically lacquer. This treatment will need to be performed on each hammer, and the response of each string within each note should also be uniform in tone.
Last we have Fine Tuning. A piano can be tuned, but there is something referred to as concert tuning. A concert tuning encompasses not only making sure the tuning is pure but making sure it will stay in tune! It’s not nearly as easy as it sounds. Fine tuning will require a technician to pound on the keys and make sure the piano won’t go out of tune even with a tremendous amount of force of a concert pianist playing virtuoso music.
I’ve also seen tuners who will fine tune a piano and then close everything up, hold down the sustain pedal, and then hit all the keys with their arms to excite the soundboard. The hope is that the strings can be reset securely to hold during the performance.
The truth is, there is no end to how far you can go with a piano. You can continue to make finer and finer adjustments and never really reach a real level of perfection. Like one definition of infinity, you can get halfway closer to perfection again and again with diminishing returns on time spent.
If you have ever had the opportunity to play a piano after it has been voiced, regulated, and fine-tuned, you will never want to play anything else! It really is that big a difference on a great piano.
Thanks again for joining me, Robert Estrin at LivingPianos.com: Robert@LivingPianos.com: 949-244-3729
This question encompasses quite a bit of information, but it has value in presenting it all in one video – as these topics have a lot to do with one another. They are all essential when it comes to getting the most out of your piano and making sure
Where are the steps and half steps in the major scale?
I mean, why is the half step between the 3rd and 4th notes (E and F) and not between 4th and 5th, or 5ht and 6th…?
This is a great question. In fact, centuries ago the half steps were found in different places. These were called modes. Basically, if you start a scale on different notes, the half-steps will occur in different places. Think of playing the white keys starting on D and ending on D instead of going from C to C. Instead of having half-steps between the 3rd-4th and 7th-8th notes, as in a major scale, they would be between the 2nd-3rd and 6th-7th notes creating what is called the Dorian mode. You can start modes on any scale degree creating different modes.
Eventually, the major/minor tonality caught on. One reason for this is the power of the raised 7th. While the minor scale is actually a version of the Aeolian mode (which are the notes starting on the 6th note of the major scale) it is most often found in 2 altered forms, the harmonic minor (which has a raised 7th) and the melodic minor (which has a raised 6th and 7th). What is so powerful about major/minor tonality is that some tones are stronger than others. There are active tones which must resolve to restive tones. Just try playing a slow major scale ascending and stop on the 7th note. You will feel incredibly compelled to play the last note. That is the power of tonality!
I have a 7 foot Steinway piano. During these terribly cold months, it has been going out of tune.
I have a damp chaser. Would a microfiber blanket be safe to cover the INSIDE of the piano?
Also, what temperature should my gas heater be kept at night?
please let me know. I read your e-mails; they are very helpful.
Your piano will keep its tuning best in a stable environment. The rule of thumb is if the piano is sitting in a place you would be comfortable sitting day and night, your piano will probably be fine. A string covering blanket could be helpful. However, the underside of the soundboard will still be exposed. Fluctuations of temperature from the 60’s to 70’s shouldn’t present problems. Avoid direct sunlight on the soundboard. This can change the tuning rapidly.
Hi Robert, Where are the steps and half steps in the major scale? I mean, why is the half step between the 3rd and 4th notes (E and F) and not between 4th and 5th, or 5ht and 6th…? Ricardo Ricardo, This is a great question. In fact, centuries ago t
Can You Play the Piano Too Hard?
This is a very common question I get all the time. However, it’s mostly a concern for parents with young children who are worried about the damage that might be done when their children bang on the keys of the piano. I find it very funny actually – as I see this quite a bit – where a young child will go to the piano and start banging on the keys and the parents tell them, “don’t do that; you’re going to break the piano!”
The truth is your kids won’t be able to harm your piano simply by playing it with their fingers. Now, it’s a complete thing altogether if they drop something heavy or sharp onto the keys – that can cause some serious damage. But just playing the piano with their fingers is little – to pretty much zero – risk of any sort of damage.
A concert pianist playing Liszt or Chopin or other composers will play the piano with such force that even if a child hitting the keys with their fists they would never be able to equal the power of the pianist. Pianos are designed to withstand a tremendous amount of force.
Now, the question of whether or not you can play the piano too hard is a bit more involved. When it comes to sound quality, it is possible to play the piano too hard – to the point where the sound quality is degraded. For example, a concert level Steinway or Baldwin or other top-tier pianos (voiced on the mellow side) would be able to withstand an extreme level of playing and produce a very nice and clear sound. However, a cheaper piano – or one not regulated properly with harder hammers – would not be able to withstand the same amount of force without sacrificing some of the quality of the sound; you will most likely get distorted tones.
The biggest factors when it comes to sound quality and playing the piano too loud are the quality of the instrument and the hardness of the hammers (or how the piano is voiced). A piano that is voiced bright will have to be played a little more gently. I find this to be common when it comes to European pianos. They tend to be voiced a little more on the bright side and it is easier to overplay them.
The best guide is to simply use your ears. There might be a Steinway that is voiced too bright and there might be a Bechstein that is voiced on the lower end – it’s all up to your ears and you as the player to tell what is working and what isn’t when it comes to sound.
Is there any indication that you can be playing the piano too loud? Other than looking around the room and seeing if anyone is covering their ears there is the possibility that room acoustics can play a very important role in the loudness of the piano.
This took me a very long time to learn properly but the room in which a piano is placed has a lot to do with how it sounds. There is a possibility of an undersized piano for a room – where it will sound too quiet and the pianist will play the instrument harder to get more sound – and there is a possibility of the piano being too big for a room as well – leading to sound degradation and unhappy listeners. This truly is a topic for another video, but again just listen and make your own judgment as to whether or not the sound quality is ok.
Thanks again for joining me Robert Estrin: Robert@LivingPianos.com (949) 244-3720.
Can You Play the Piano Too Hard? This is a very common question I get all the time. However, it’s mostly a concern for parents with young children who are worried about the damage that might be done when their children bang on the keys of the piano
I’ve been watching your tutorials on YouTube and found them inspirational, I too wish to one day play the piano professionally. I’ve just got a keyboard atm because my home can’t support a piano.
What do you suggest I practice on a daily basis to become better and more fluent in music? Do I need a tutor? I’m just really unsure on those topics and it worries me.
I wish you great success in music! If you want to work as a pianist, there are many different possibilities. So, the preparation necessary will be determined by the specific goal you have. In any event, having great training is essential for the vast majority of people who make careers in music. I suggest immersing yourself in music and piano and developing some sort of vision as to what you want for yourself. Then you can work backward from that point. You may realize that having a piano and lessons are important facets to assure progress depending upon the nature of the career you aspire to.
All the best-
I asked about the Grotrian because there is one I’m considering in Chicago, a 2010 Charis model (6’10”), pre-owned. But I’m just not sure about the piano. It has a gorgeous sound, but it’s badly regulated, with uneven action, problems with p-pp playing in some registers, many keys remain sticking up when you push them up. I’m concerned about what happened to that piano when it was privately owned(in Colorado).
Is this normal for a new piano? Any guess on what happened to it?
Could you recommend a reputable tech in Chicago? Thank you again.
I would be very cautious about the Grotrian you are considering. It is not normal for an almost new piano to have these sorts of problems. It calls into question the history of the instrument. If it is being liquidated at a fire sale price, it could be worth the risk. Please let me know what they are asking for the piano. It would be wise to get a technician to look over the instrument to make sure there isn’t something severely wrong with it.
Hi Robert I’ve been watching your tutorials on YouTube and found them inspirational, I too wish to one day play the piano professionally. I’ve just got a keyboard atm because my home can’t support a piano. What do you suggest I prac