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.


AnthonyB said...

I'll have to admit that the Roland does have a pretty hard bottom to the keystrokes. I knew this getting into it but the piano had all the features I was looking for when compared to some of the other alternatives I was looking at. Good connectivity, USB thumb drive for midi, USB to computer for midi in/out midi ports if needed, line in/out for speakers if I ever go down that road, headphone jack, etc. This allowed me to easily upgrade to pianoteq which I have been using for a while now to replace the built in sounds.

I'd also like to inform you aw2pp that Ludovico Einaudi now has a confirmed USA tour date in Milwaukee, WI on Octover 16th and the message about it somewhat hints at possible other shows as well (besides the previously announced New York/LA shows.)

I'm not sure if you'd be interested in the show but I figured I'd bring it up. I'm sure you would love a chance to possible hear Le Onde live. :)

Always Wanted to Play Piano said...

WOW! Milwaukee? That's an easy trip.

BTW, the Pianoteq upgrade sounds awesome. I meant to mention that last recital.

Unknown said...

Piano Rhythm Techniques

Rhythm is an essential ingredient of music. A musician must know how to create alluring tunes and must possess the

sense of rhythm.

A pianist can play the right keys but if the timing is not right, then music can be meaningless and unpleasant to the


Here are a few ways to keep steady rhythms:

1. Loud counts!
Another way in learning rhythm and keeping track of it is counting out loud. Counting loudly makes our minds

comprehend the rhythm pattern and it is imprinted in our minds. If a pianist begins to count the rhythm in a musical

composition from one to four and then repeats it again and again, then the rhythm begins to flow into the keys of the

piano, as well. A pianist can relate the notes to the beats, in the music scores, easily, when he/she keeps count of the


2. Clap, Tap, catch rhythm!

A person can grasp the intricate musical rhythms by clapping one's hands, clapping on one's laps and by tapping one's

feet. This is an effective way in learning rhythm. Sometimes the rhythm in a song, changes in the middle of the song.

This can be challenging but a pianist or a musician can get back in rhythm by clapping or
tapping. When one plays on complicated music composition, one can take some time to clap and get back one's

rhythm and timing.

3. Imaginary piano!

To get accustomed to the rhythms, playing on an imaginary piano is of immense help. A piano player can select a

song and then play an imaginary piano. The rhythms can be played on an imaginary piano. This exercise allows a

pianist to understand musical rhythm patterns better. A pianist who has learnt the art of playing on an imaginary

piano can grasp the beats, even if the music slows down or speeds up and he can play on time.

4. Rhythm Accompaniment/Metronome
Do you have a keyboard that comes with rhythm accompaniment?
This is no doubt one of the best way to keep a piano player rhythmically straight!
You are probably aware that most piano player are solo player.
We don't get to play in a band or an orchestra. The best way to imitate an ensemble setting is by using a rhythm

accompaniment tool.

Yoke Wong
Take Your Piano Playing To The Next Level

Unknown said...

Commitment to the practice will greatly improve your piano playing technique, but mainly in relation to the timing. practice is essential.
best piano course