The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music lesson at a ranch: Bad pianos can make you play better – sometimes

April 8, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

It will not come as a surprise to most amateur pianists when I say that my recent chance to play a nine-foot concert grand Steinway on the UW-Madison campus made me play better. It felt great. The treble sounded clearer, the bass boomed and the action helped my articulation and touch.

What’s not to love?

With a great piano, you often feel as if the piano is playing itself, much the way you feel that a really well-engineered car – say, a Mercedes or BMW or Lexus – is driving itself, even when it is you who is behind the steering wheel and is really in control.

But even lousy pianos have lessons to teach you too and, as I found out recently, bad pianos can actually improve your playing.

(Not every professional pianist would agree. Rudolf Serkin and Vladimir Horowitz traveled with their own pianos, while others like Maurizio Pollini and Alfred Brendel travel with their own tuners. On the other hand, Claudio Arrau, Sviatoslav Richter and Arthur Rubinstein were said to relish playing different pianos of varying quality. Rubinstein even said that playing Chopin always made a bad piano sound better.)

My own experience happened over spring break, while I was staying for a few days at a dude ranch in Tuscon, Arizona.

In one room outside the Southwestern-style main dining room sits an old spinet, not even an upright, an old Story and Clark blond wood piano. (See the photo below that I took.)

Now I make no excuses for the ranch’s otherwise conscientious management. Why anyone buys a piano and then neglects tuning it and regulating its action is beyond me. It is like ignoring a major investment – like letting your car or your furnace go without a tune-up to ensure optimal performance.

But that’s what has happened over the years. And so the piano continues to sit there, usually played by curious children before (the “Star Wars” theme is popular) or after dinner when they are not watching the large screen TV in the next room.

Anyway, a couple of mornings and evenings, I sat down to limber up and practice some Bach and Schubert, some Chopin and Scarlatti.

At first I was frustrated by how badly the keys moved and how badly the soft and sustaining  pedals reacted.

But soon I began to realize: This old neglected piano is making me use my fingers. I mean, really use them. The fingers on my left hand had to clearly articulate the bass line, while the fingers in my right hand had to carry out one-handed polyphony.

After a while it didn’t sound so bad – at least not to me and not to the usual crowd of onlookers and fans, children and adults, who usually gather around a piano that is being played.

Now this is not an argument to neglect pianos. Probably because the desert air is so dry, the piano wasn’t so out of tune that it sounded like a fortepiano or as if it had thumbtacks in its hammers. When it comes to pianos, too much humidity seems a worse fate than too much dryness.

So now I am back home playing my usual grand piano, and I find I am using my fingers more and the pedals less. And playing the piano, after all, is about moving your fingers – not about pressing down on the pedals to smoothe over difficulties and phrasing or soften the sound.

Of course, I knew that. But now I really know it—from first-hand experience.

And despite the positive outcome of my recent adventure, I still think most serious piano students should practice and play on serious pianos.

Oh yes, and the desert piano I played was in a room where a man was hanged.

That added a certain je ne sais quoi atmosphere and focus (or was it distraction) to my music-making. But that is also another story for another time.

Has my experience happened to anyone else?

Do you have a bad piano story that turned out either good or bad? Please let me know about it.

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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