October 21, 2016

Learn the Tool: The Mechanics of the Piano

Both the piano and the human playing it can be considered in terms of mechanics. Tomoko is very aware of the physicality of playing the piano.

It starts with choosing the piano itself. “Be fussy in choosing the instrument,” asserts Tomoko. “You need to have keen hearing and sensitivity to the touch.” Tomoko remembers when she bought her 1981 Steinway. “It was expensive, but it was an investment in my career.”

Pianos are very complex; a grand piano might have up to 7000 parts! Nevertheless, the piano’s functions depend on six main features: the keyboard, hammers, dampers, bridge, soundboard, and strings. For instance, the longer the strings, the better the sound; that’s why a grand piano lays out the strings on the diagonal.

The touch of the piano depends on several of these mechanisms working together. For instance, the touchweight is the amount of finger pressure needed to depress a piano key. Usually a new piano has a stiffer touch, and the pianist needs to “break in” the instrument to loosen up the action parts. While it is easier to play on a piano with light touchweight, it is better to learn on a stiffer instrument in order to build up finger strength so that the pianist can play on a variety of pianos. However, there is a trade-off: stiff  or heavy touchweight can be tiring and may strain the player’s own physiology.

There are other differences between types of pianos, such as an upright and a grand, that impact how one plays. With an upright piano, when you want to play the same note again, you have to release it almost to its original position, but a grand piano has a special mechanism that enables you to re-press the same key more quickly, which comes in handy for fast trills and other repetitions.

The mechanism of the soft pedal also differs between types of piano. On an upright piano the hammers move closer to the strings when the soft pedal is used, so that the hammer strikes with less force. On a grand piano, the soft pedal shifts the hammers a bit to the side so that only two strings rather than three are struck, which produces a softer sound.

And then there is the body’s own mechanism as it interfaces with the piano. But that’s another story…. In any case, Tomoko advises: “You need to be comfortable with the music AND the instrument.”