Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Some observations on piano and key touch

Recently, while staying at a Marriott that was hosting a convention, I happened across a large Kawai grand piano. And of course I sat down and hammered out a halting version of Hava Nagila, followed by an absolutely outstanding Le Onde. The people in earshot (there were two or three, it turned out) were duly impressed.

And so was I. The piano as probably around 6' in length, and the bass was fantastic. Some of the middle notes were a little out of tune, and I'd have liked some more sustain, but my main reaction was to the key feel. As much as I liked the sound of this piano, I found the touch to feel cheap. Which really surprised me, for reasons I'll get to shortly. Over the course of the next two days (lots of downtime at these conferences, not to mention the 375 mile drive home afterwards) I gave this significant thought. Results follow, and I would really like your input here. Don't make me go back to Pianoworld and start a thread in the Piano forum on this question... things can get ugly in there.

After thinking about, every piano I've played, with two exceptions, can be categorized according to touch in one of two categories.

The first category I'll call "Switches". Every key is clearly pressed or not pressed, in the same way a switch is either on, or off. These pianos offer some initial resistance when a key is pressed, which lightens mid-travel down to the bottom, ending abruptly. Done well, these keys create sort of a snick-snick sensation, something akin to rowing through the gears of a well-tuned manual transmission. Almost* every digital piano I have ever tried has this feel, including higher-end Rolands, Casios, and Yamahas. But lower-end digital pianos, such as Casio's CDP-100 and the ubiquitous Williams pianos sold by Costco (and others, one presumes) have them as well. Even a number of acoustic pianos, such as my piano teacher's piano (a tiny Emerson grand), Sue's cousin Patty's piano (a tiny Apollo grand), and the large Kawai I mentioned earlier. I mentioned that piano's action surprised me... when I looked up the serial number, I saw that it had been built in 2006, which meant it had the much-lauded Carbon-fiber action. I didn't care for it. It felt cheap to me. Sure, many high-end instruments have it, but so do some low-end instruments, and (unfairly, I realize) I associate the sensation with cheaper instruments.

* - Almost, that is. Hold that thought.

The second category is the opposite of the first. I'll call these "Mushers". The keys have a gradually increasing resistance as one presses towards the bottom. But the bottom isn't a firm, abrupt end... rather, it is soft, cushioned one, where it is sometimes difficult to know whether you have, in fact reached the bottom. Ole Bessie, my in-laws' ancient upright, has this feel. So does the recital piano at church (a 10 year old Kawai RX-1, I am told). My old colleague Jeff had a Charles Walter I once told you about... it had this feeling, and I really liked that piano. Then again, my Houston friend Mitch has a 15 year old Young Chang grand that I didn't care for at all... and it had it, too. I can't think of a digital piano I have played that replicates this feeling.

I guess if I had to choose between the two categories, I'd have a slight preference for a Musher. Done well, I feel like I have greater dynamic control (insofar as I have any such control at this point). But the problem here is that it is easy for this to get out of whack, and if the resistance doesn't increase / decrease progressively up and down the keyboard, it becomes very difficult to play well. (This is the main problem with Bessie, whom we've gotten to know very well recently*, as well as the Houston piano.)

* - More on that in an upcoming post. You wouldn't believe it.

Those two exceptions? Among the couple-dozen pianos I have played over the last two years, only two cannot be easily categorized as either a Switch or a Musher. The first is our very own Casio Ap-200. Mainly, the touch is so light, it defies categorization. It lacks the initial resistance of a Switch (which is why I preferred it over similar Yamahas). But the end comes somewhat abruptly, making dynamic control difficult.

The other? My college buddy's Steinway. As luck would have it, we're going to stay at Dr. Crane's house this Thursday night, on our way down to see my Dad in Montgomery, AL. I'll let you know what Jillian* thinks of it. Somehow, his piano, although it underwhelmed me at the time (weighing the experience of playing it versus what I know it costs), nevertheless managed to be neither a Switch nor a Musher. And yet, it was both. Which makes no sense. And I am not a good enough writer to come up with fancy words to demystify this. We'll just have to play Le Onde on it, and get back to you.

* - Although, no matter what she thinks of it, we're not getting one of these... I majored in Math (among other things) at Vanderbilt, and as such, have a pretty good facility with numbers. Even I can't count high enough to estimate the unimaginably large number of software licenses we have to sell to even begin considering a new piano. Much less a $60k Steinway. It would be easier to just commute to Kentucky and play Dr. Crane's once in awhile.

So help me out here. Does this match your experience? Most of you who commonly stop by (thanks for doing so, by the way) are piano players your own right. Some (hi, Anthony B) have very nice digitals, far upmarket of mine. When you cross-shopped, did you experience this same dichotomy? Others (hi, Professor K) experienced the confusion and joy of playing many highly-regarded grands... how would you describe your pianos, and those you like / dislike?

- Aw2pp, who obviously thinks about very frivolous things on long road trips.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Succinct Book Review

The Supplement to Larry Fine's Piano Book is the best bathroom reading since the last Calvin and Hobbes Treasury was released.

- Aw2pp, who may have to start turning down offers from the NY Times Book Review crowd if he keeps churning out quality material like this.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Secret to Classical Music: It's Just Music - Culture - The Atlantic

Once again, my apologies for extended blogger silence. I was at a conference most of last week (although the hotel had a piano... more on this soon). And this week, we're doing our best to get something closed before the close of our Fiscal Year at the end of this month. But, since you probably allocated a certain amount of time to fritter away anyway (you're here, after all), take the five minutes it will require to read this.

The Secret to Classical Music: It's Just Music - Culture - The Atlantic

There are two follow-up posts as well. Great stuff.

- Aw2pp, who is available on TV, on the Internet, and on Your Phone.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Where's the recital?

Sorry for the delay, I am still recovering from Epic Fail (as the kids these days say). I haven't had the time courage to pull the camera out of the trunk of the car, much less view the clip or post it to Youtube.

Really, it was bad, and I am a little shaken and discouraged from it.

- Aw2pp, who doesn't park anywhere after a 2" snow fall.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Back from the recital


Jillian was amazing. Awesome. She played with a smile on her face, and clearly, obviously enjoyed being up there.

Mine? I was so bad, so unbelievably bad, that I am actually a little proud of myself for plodding through. More details later.

- Aw2pp, who now needs to go resume his place on the Blackhawk's Bandwagon.

Pre-Recital Practice

I've read threads Piano World (Home of the World Famous Piano Forums!) where folks posit that one should NOT play their recital piece the day of a recital, until it is actually time to do so. This is crazy talk, to me. I want to play as much as I can, then show up 90 minutes early and play it again on the recital piano. So far, I've probably gone through it a dozen times today, with probably a dozen or so more ahead of me. And you know what? It's not going well. Little annoying errors here and there.

Just saying is all.

(Quick update with information that doesn't warrant its own post... just played three takes in a row that I liked. I'm quitting while I am ahead.)

- Aw2pp, who bets Chopin went through this all the time.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

T-minus one day...

... before Recital. Yes, tomorrow evening, Jillian and I play in front of dozens, nay, SCORES of friends, family, and curious onlookers compelled to attend only by their sense of morbid curiosity. I had my last pre-recital lesson yesterday, during which time I played Le Onde three times*. The first, not so well, but then again, I never play well at the beginning of a lesson. But who among us does?

* - Yes, that probably means I've now played it 300 times over the last three months.

The second, sloppy, and in fact, I got distracted halfway through, thinking about an error I made in the first half, and how I was going to play it SO MUCH BETTER the second time through... which, of course, since I was distracted, I messed it up even worse. But the third...

... the third...

Wow. I know a lot of words, but I don't know of any to explain how satisfied I was with how I played it the third time. I was another person. The music took on a new life.

Naturally, I have no expectations that that will happen again tomorrow. But wouldn't that be cool?

- Aw2pp, who is starting, for the first time, to play piano.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Tale of Two Trip Legs

I had to get creative to get to Phoenix. For the outward leg of the trip (Chicago to Phoenix), I cashed in some miles. For the homeward leg, I bought a last-second fare. Let's examine the differences.

Chicago - Phoenix
This was sweet.

"Need to check a bag, Mr. Aw2pp, no problem? How about two, no extra charge? Very good then. Now, see all those people standing in that long security line? Yeah, the unhappy ones looking at their watches? Go around them to the priority lane, and we'll get you through TSA screening quickly. When you get to your gate, listen for priority seating, and board before everyone else does. Sorry we couldn't get you in First Class this time, it's all filled up. But if you book a little earlier next time, we can make it happen for you. Would you like an Exit Row seat instead? Window or aisle? Ok, very good then, thanks again for flying American."

Phoenix - Chicago
Because, as you know, our tournament ended a little sooner than planned, I was at the airport this morning 11 hours before my scheduled flight. Thinking being, it would be better for all involved if Sue could pick me up at, say, 11:30 AM (while Jillian and Jason were at school) rather than at 9:30 PM (when Jill, Jay, Ro and Joey should be sleeping, but instead would have to accompany her on the 82 mile trip to and from O'Hare). So how did that go for me?

"Hey you, if you want to check that bag of yours, it'll cost an extra $25. What's that, you want to be added to the stand-by list for other flights to O'Hare? Are you serious? We only allow our Platinum Plus and Executive Platinum members to stand-by for other flights. You are clearly NOT one of those. In fact, you bought your ticket May 16, so you are way down on the priority list. It'll snow here before you get on one of these earlier flights. On some days, we would allow you to pay $50 extra for a spot on the stand-by list, and you're welcome to give that a try, but today, you have no shot. You'd just be wasting your money. Not that we wouldn't be glad to take it. Anyway, enjoy your 11 hours at Sky Harbor airport, and enjoy your middle seat on your three hour flight to Chicago this afternoon. Thanks again for flying American."

Any idea what to do in Phoenix for 11 hours? At least I get to sleep in my own bed tonight.

- Aw2pp, whose boarding pass says simply "Steerage".