The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Will electronic pianos eventually replace Steinway concert grands? Period pianist Malcolm Bilson thinks so. What does Jenny Lin think? | September 30, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

Acclaimed period pianist Malcolm Bilson (below) was in town this past week for a residency at the University of Wisconsin School of Music.

Known these days primarily as a fortepianist, Bilson (below) performed a beautiful and illuminating recital Sunday night of sonatas by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven that was a model of both clarity and expressiveness.

An outstanding scholar, on Monday night Bilson also delivered a lecture based on his DVDs about reading scores and music notation, especially in the Classical era.

But it was the master class for University of Wisconsin piano students that brought out Bilson, the seasoned and incisive teacher. He listened to students perform the opening movements of sonatas by Mozart (K. 576) and Beethoven (Opp. 101 and 110) and urged them especially to capture a sense of spontaneity and improvisation. He also stressed the importance of studying the score one hour for each hour you spend practicing at the keyboard, something the masters Chopin and Theodore Leschetizsky among others, also prescribed.

Bilson gave the students the choice of playing on a Steinway concert grand or his own fortepiano (below), so they could compare the action, sound and articulation. One preferred the older fortepiano, two the newer concert grand.

But Bilson, who said he enjoys provoking thought and disagreement, mused aloud at one point: “Do you really think Beethoven composed his sonatas dreaming of a Steinway concert grand that was 200 years into the future, as some people say?”

“I don’t think so,” he answered emphatically. “Composers write for the instruments they have at the time.”

He even predicted that one day the Steinway concert grand may also become a “period piano” as electronic digital pianos gradually replace acoustic ones.

Does that seem outrageous?

Well, you might want to remember that keyboard titan Martha Argerich often practices on an electronic keyboard.

You might also want to read and listen to an NPR story about and performance by pianist Jenny Lin (below).

She has recorded acclaimed albums (below) of Shostakovich and Mompou on a standard concert grand. (At bottom, she also performs Mompou’s haunting “Secreto” on a standard acoustic grand at New York’s “Le Poisson Rouse.”)

But then she turned around and recorded some of those same works, along with music by Gershwin, on an electronic piano, a Korg M3 (below).

The results on the electronic keyboard are interesting, and perhaps better than you might expect — especially if, like The Ear, you relish the touch and sound of the modern acoustic grand piano.

Anyway, here is a link:

http://www.npr.org/2011/09/26/140504948/jenny-lin-tiny-desk-concert

Read and listen for yourself.

Tell The Ear what you think and hear:

Will the electronic piano some day replace the acoustic piano the same way the Steinway concert grand replaced Beethoven’s Broadwood fortepiano?


Posted in Classical music

16 Comments »

  1. I agree. I Prefer to play a yamaha s90es through a flat pa system than a steinway model l. It won’t be very long till digital piano performance will be indistinguishable from the real thing. I love the fact that digital is always in tune. Real pianos lose some tuning after 1 sitting, drives me bonkers. I see Kuwai VPC + Ivory in my future !!! Kind of sad though 😦

    Comment by ross chapman — December 10, 2016 @ 1:07 pm

  2. It is impossible to predict the future.

    If people continue to purchase pianos, all will be well. If not, we could be drift into a dark era of electronic piano concerts, self-driving cars, and people buying one-way tickets to Mars.

    Comment by ken — March 23, 2015 @ 11:50 pm

  3. IM a hobbyist musician self taught. Mostly 60’s rocknroll. My daughter is an opra singer who should be singing professionally. She is a housewife raising two small children. I’m a psychotherapist.

    I live classical and jazz but cannot seem to play that well.

    I have a Kawai uptight and several digital pianos toland and Kawai. Here is nothing better than a real acoustic. Piano. Digitalis are portable but there are not the same. My daughter wing go near a digital piano. They make some really good ones but they still on it have the same sound and feel

    Comment by Joseph P. Carlino — October 19, 2014 @ 10:17 pm

  4. I think those of you who doubt this is a possibility need to check out several things: Yamaha’s GranTouch and Avantgrand series (for action, and somewhat for tone), and computer software like Modartt’s Pianoteq. If you compare what is out there to what was available 5 years ago, and then to 15 years ago, and 25, you will see the technology improving by leaps and bounds.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love Steinways and fine concert grands, but for the most part they are not getting any better. So there is a fixed level of quality that the newer technologies must reach. If they keep improving as they have been, it stands to reason that at some point in the future they will, if nothing else, come very close.

    I use a GranTouch hooked up to Pianoteq, and I can tell you that it is more of a pleasure to play (Brahms, Schumann, jazz, anything) than about 98% of all the acoustic and digital pianos I run across.

    That last 2% is very difficult to achieve, but who knows?

    Comment by bmajazz — October 18, 2013 @ 5:07 pm

  5. I don’t really think digital pianos will replace acoustic pianos. Digital pianos have some obvious benefits (lighter, smaller, cheaper) in some situations, but the sound quality produced with a computer chip and speakers just doesn’t compare to a real piano with strings. For a real performance, you just can’t beat an acoustic.

    Comment by Brian Webber — July 26, 2013 @ 8:39 pm

  6. Digital pianos must be a boon to concert pianists at home. I remember my violin teacher’s parents’ home containing a full size Steinway grand that just about filled the whole room. Imagine trying to practise, say, Rachmaninov on it!

    Comment by Laraine — September 17, 2012 @ 11:55 pm

  7. What kind of stupid question is that? We live in the year 2012, and even some of the most technically advanced pianos (Shigeru Kawai for example) still can’t even match up to the magnificence of even the smallest pianos. While they have largely replaced grand pianos and upright pianos, electric pianos will still never be able to perfectly emulate a Steinway, or any piano for that matter.

    The only reason electric pianos have largely replaced acoustic pianos in homes is due to the fact that they use significantly less space, and sound almost just as good. Older pianos are often a lot better then newer ones. That is why most musicians (including The Beatles and Billy Joel) will play “rebuilt” pianos, with aged wood and modified components.

    At the moments, Yamaha is the best electric piano you can buy, considering that they are largely bought, sound very near to an acoustic piano and in some cases compared to Yamaha’s acoustic pianos, which are inferior to Steinway. As much as technology excels, I still firmly believe that we will NEVER have an electric piano that can perfectly emulate a Steinway. I’ve seen many pianos, since I live in ny, and some are really good, some are really fun, and some are just plain excessive. For example, some Kawai pianos will have a soundboard, occupying more space when everything can be done electronically. My school happens to have a Roland digital grand, and I find digital grands useless, for the price just buy a regular. And even it can’t match up to the Yamaha wood grain upright piano. Please heed my advice and buy acoustic ones if you have the money.

    Comment by drevog — May 8, 2012 @ 10:06 pm

  8. Thanks for sharing a useful information, I will bookmark you blog

    Regards,
    Pitakon

    Comment by Narmadi — January 24, 2012 @ 2:12 am

  9. Hi there, i´m a piano technician in Brazil and some of your posts are very interesting. I would like to know if can i use your posts in my blog. Thank´s in advance and keep up with the good work.
    Regards from Brazil

    Comment by Reforma de Pianos Brazil — October 22, 2011 @ 5:31 am

    • Alo and Ola,
      Thank you so much, Reforma, for reading and replying with such kind words and thoughts.
      Yes, by all means , please feel free to use my blog postings and the blog itself, either by linking to them or by crediting them to JACOB STOCKINGER/THE WELL-TEMPERED EAR at word.press.com
      I am honored by your request and would love to have a lot of readers and subscribers in Brazil, a very dynamic country in so many ways. I appreciate all the help you can give me.
      And thank you too for taking care of pianos and pianists like me. It is great work.
      Be sure to see the new movie “Pianomania” about a piano technician in Austria. I am sure you will love it.
      Best wishes,
      Jake

      Comment by welltemperedear — October 22, 2011 @ 11:22 am

  10. The format is too narrow and I can’t read it the right hand side. This only began happening very recently. Can you make suggestions on how to correct this?

    Comment by Claudia Melrose — October 1, 2011 @ 7:31 pm

    • Hi Claudia,
      I don’t what the problem is.
      Others have reported similar things.
      I have reported it to WordPress and they are looking into it.
      In the meantime, I suggest either unsubscribing and then resubscribing, in case some update messed things up.
      Or else go directly to the blog site for a while and see it loads OK.
      Please let me and others know the results.
      I apologize for any inconvenience and will try to get it fixed ASAP.
      Best,
      Jake

      Comment by welltemperedear — October 1, 2011 @ 9:36 pm

  11. Dear Ear,

    I don’t think and sure hope that electric pianos don’t replace acoustic ones. I believe that electric pianos are completely different animals than acoustic and that a Steinway concert grand and a fortepiano are more similar than an electric and a Steinway. Despite the type of acoustic piano, all acoustic pianos have a clarity, depth, and beauty that a electric one could never hope nor dream to achieve.

    The problem that I see with an electric piano is that it (unlike a Steinway) has a recorded sound and one cannot manipulate the keys to produce a wide spectrum of tones from it nor create the wide range of dynamics that are unique to the modern day piano. The keys are thick and hard to press down and the overall experience is just YUCK. Steinway may become a period piano (hopefully way after I’m dead), but it will only be due to the invention of a NEW acoustic piano that better suits the pianist.

    Thank you for this wonderful insight into other people’s perspectives on the matter.

    E

    Comment by 3mlee — September 30, 2011 @ 9:53 am

    • Hi 3mlee,
      As an amateur pianist, I agree with you fully and share your hope that the switch from acoustic to electronic doesn’t happen in my lifetime.
      I would miss the feel of a real piano.
      Electronic keyboards feel too much like organ keyboards to me.
      Just hit the keys with a hammer or umbrella or anything at all, and voila — out comes a note.
      Thanks too for your kind and encouraging words.
      Jake

      Comment by welltemperedear — September 30, 2011 @ 11:09 am

  12. Calling Walter Gray. John Langfeld would love to hear from you fb or email.

    Comment by John Langfeld — September 30, 2011 @ 6:44 am

    • Hi John,
      Thanks for reading and replying.
      I am happy to help out.
      I have forwarded an email to Walter with your email address and request.
      Let me know if you do or don’t hear from him.
      Best,
      Jake

      Comment by welltemperedear — September 30, 2011 @ 11:10 am


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