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