Key Facts | History of Piano | Choosing a Piano

Key Facts...

FACT: There are 18 million nonprofessional pianists in this country. 79% are female; 21% are male. The average age is 28.

FACT: One out of 20 people play piano in this country.

FACT: A quarter million NEW pianos are bought every year in the U.S. and nearly one million OLD pianos are sold.

FACT: There are 30 million pianos in the U.S. (maybe more!).

FACT: Pianos are considered the wave of the future for composition and performance.

FACT: The piano is the most universal instrument.

FACT: The piano dominates the music world.

FACT: An entire symphony orchestra can be represented on the piano's 88 keys.

FACT: Most music is composed at the keyboard and then transferred to other instruments.

FACT: The range of the piano extends lower than the bottom 16 foot pedal note of an organ and higher than the top note of a piccolo.

FACT: The piano is totally complete and needs no assistance from any other instruments, but almost all instruments in solo need the piano for accompaniment including singers.

FACT: Choirs practice with the piano and so do dancers.

FACT: Pianos are used for listening music, concert music, background music, and sing-a-long music.

FACT: The piano is education, fun, therapy. It is a hobby, an avocation, or a full-time business.

FACT: A piano can be suited to the largest concert hall or the smallest home.

FACT: Pianos can bring rewards to the earliest beginners and yet meet the musical demands of skilled artists.

FACT: The piano can be a means of human expression, yielding thunderous sounds to soft, gentle music.

FACT: There is a resurgence of the piano in recent years, not just numbers seriously studying the instrument, but is used in marketing, advertising, store windows, and department stores and fine restaurants for dining pleasure. Piano paraphernalia such as piano pads, keyboard scarves, and T-shirts have also hit an all time high.

FACT: The piano means different things to different people.

FACT: A few years ago, the highest price ever paid for a piano was $390,000 for a Steinway grand built in 1884. Its name is the Alma-Tadema Piano" for a painter who supervised the decoration of it. Recently, a new record was set by the same piano. The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, recently paid $1.2 million for this Victorian piano. The auction house, Christie's in London, said it was the highest price ever paid for a piano.

FACT: The biggest or grandest piano ever built weighed 1-1/3 tons. It was 11 feet 8 inches long and made in 1935 by Challen in England.  A picture of this instrument can be seen in Pierce's Piano Atlas (the handy little book available from piano supply house that contains the year of construction of every piano ever made according to its serial number).  (Info courtesy of Lyn Bronson.)

FACT: One of Cristofori's original pianos is still in existence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

FACT: the Schubert Club located in Landmark Center, St. Paul, MN, has a fine collection of pianos and other early instruments. Pianos used by Brahms, Schubert, and Liszt are on display.

 

History of the Piano

According to the book of Genesis 4:21, Jubal was the first accredited musician and instrument maker. He was "the father of all such as handle the harp and organ." How crude must have been the first vibrating strings! We can only use our imaginations. Strings were stretched across bows, hollowed gourds, and fastened with pegs or ties. Strings are set in motion by plucking, striking or bowing. Jubal's harp found its counterpart in the lyre and harp of Ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians, Chaldeans, Syrians, Greeks and Romans.

 

Early examples of plucked string instruments are the harp and lyre family, psaltery (a shallow box played by plucking the strings with the fingers or a pick), and the harpsichord family which includes the clavacin, calicembalo or gravicembalo, clavicytherium. The harpsichord was the dominant instrument until the 1700's. Early harpsichords were table top models, oblong box having a limited number of keys. Each key with its plectrum attached plucked one string. The sound was small and of short duration. Eventually, they were placed on legs or stands and sometimes even two or three keyboards were added. This is very similar to the electronic keyboards we see on rock bands when several are stacked up on a stand.

 

The dulcimer was really the instrument from which the modern piano evolved. Strings were struck with a mallet. This percussion instrument was first found in the Middle East. Later, the Europeans developed the clavichord to control the mallets.

 

In 1709, an Italian named Bartolommeo de Francesco Cristofori developed the piano. He called the instrument "gravicembalo col piano e forte", meaning that it could be played both soft and loud. He also developed the method whereby the strings were struck by a hammer, which after striking the string falls back away from it allowing it to continue vibrating. This is called "escapement" and is the basis for all modern pianos.

 

Cristofori's hammers were covered with leather, but in 1840, almost a hundred years after his death, felt was added which gave a more mellow tone color. This inventor also developed the shifting soft pedal arrangement called the "una corda". The middle pedal or the "sostenuto" pedal was not developed fully until 1874.

 

The first piano had only 4-1/2 octaves; eventually with later developments over the years, the piano came to have 88 keys and was standardized as such in 1890. 88 keys is 7-1/4 octaves. Milestones in this development were the Broadwood piano with 5-1/2 octaves in 1790 and the late Beethoven piano with 6-1/2 octaves in 1804.

 

Today in the 20th century (almost the 21st!), there is an explosion of information and with that comes development of the electronic keyboards and synthesizers many of which may be connected to the computer via a cable. With the proper software programs, information from these keyboards can be stored, sounds can be layered to form an entire orchestra, editing of scores to perfection, and printing of music can be performed. There seems to be no limit to the capabilities - only the limits of the human mind and imagination. Just think of all the songs we would have if Bach or Beethoven were alive in this era of modern high tech!! All of this, however, will not do away with the acoustic piano, as this instrument still is unmatched. Hopefully, the music world will draw the good from both kinds of keyboards for improvement of all music.

Bibliography

Bielefeldt, Catherine C., The Wonders of the Piano, Belwin-Mills Publishing Corp., 25 Deshon Drive, Melville, NY 11747, 1984.

Harding, Rosamond E. M., The Piano-Forte, Da Capo Press, New York, 1973.

Oringer, Judith, Passion for the Piano, Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., Los Angels, CA, 1983.

Wier, Albert E., The Piano, Its History, Makers, Players and Music, Longmans, Green and Co., New York, 1941.

 

Choosing a Piano

By Alan D. from New Zealand

I believe that there are some important basic knowledge and fundamental considerations that are vital to anyone empowered with the choosing of a Piano, some of which are not widely identified by piano buyers – many are secreted away by piano sellers or deemed to be inappropriate knowledge for their ‘customers’.

 

This short, sometimes whimsical report is ‘composed’ to help guide this choosing process towards a satisfying conclusion.

These words represent my personal opinion based upon my observations and experience as an enthusiastic amateur and multi-piano owner who is occasionally consulted concerning the selection of new and used pianos.

 Definition - 1 (the simple one)

 The piano is a TONE making machine - its ability to proficiency manifest musical tones, to the satisfaction of the pianists/audience, is the most fundamental measure of its utility.

 Definition - 2 (the physicist’s one – see the Deverell Filter Theory:-)

 The piano is a FILTER – the hammer strikes the string (the potentially bad noises are filtered out) - the good energy/noise is ‘magically’ converted into beautiful tones.

 Definition - 3 (the students, and perhaps some teachers, definition of a good piano)

 A good piano is one upon which even the WRONG notes sound better.

Introduction

 

Like people, every piano is different and every piano is imperfect, therefore, the selection process may be compared with the choosing and maturing of a very good friendship. The fundamental difference is that, unless you are your own tuner/technician etc., there are ‘other’ parties to this friendship and your Technician should always be included.

For the choice to be successful, the piano, the room/venue in which it is to be located, the technician/tuner, the music and YOU (or the users of the instrument) must all get along.

 

Musical Transparency  (the magic between the pianists and the music):

 

The ultimate piano is:  ‘That instrument that perfectly manifests the musical intentions of the player’

All assessment method and tests should be directed towards the identification of the current properties (transparency) and latent and maturable potentials within the instrument and it’s ability to durably supply musical utility.

Concerning Brands & Quality    (myths and mystique):

In spite of the best arguments of salesmen, marketing executives and advertising folks etc., pianos are NOT made by “brands” they are made by people (with the assistance of some machinery and the technologies deployed in their design and manufacture).

The quality of the production of ANY ‘brand’ is an item-by-item, step-by-step, product of their workers efforts and the materials deployed during the entire process (which for concert grand's may take up to 1 year) and the service and support afforded to the piano during its useful lifetime.

Many of the 'old-world' brands are now manufactured in Korea by Samik or Young Chang who are called the OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturers) - Like the Boston (a Kawai OEM piano), the detailed specification may be defined by the Brand owner's management and marketing staff.

The initial quality inherent in ANY piano is ONLY that which is discernable or identifiable as a result of careful qualified assessment. The parameters used for measuring are a composite of objective and subjective judgments according to the sensitivities and pre-conceptions of the jury. The jury should always include:

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An appropriate selection of prepared/familiar music

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The quality of the friendship/partnership is ONLY as durable as the qualities identifiable and/or measurable AND sustainable in the instrument.

 

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As a broad generalization, all piano manufacturers make some good and some not-so-good pianos.

 

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Some piano manufacturers make some excellent and some not so excellent pianos.

 

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Some, typically the better-known international brands, make more magic pianos and some less than magic pianos.

 

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All piano manufacturers produce pianos that LOOK like magic pianos, however, their reality and or their illusion need careful testing to expose those that are just a visual and/or mechanical deception.

 

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Be prepared to buy a quality piano of ANY brand that is within your budget. A quality piano will always be relatively easy to sell to a musically minded person (unless his/her qualities have been compromises by the ostentatious infections of brand). This being said, I recognize the general qualities that have, from time to time, been manifested in magic pianos bearing the following brand names (not comprehensive or in any order and some names are nowadays just badges fitted by the contracted OEM):   Baldwin Bechstein

    

Concerning Testing Methods    (practical due diligence):

 

This is the complex semi-objective process by which the properties and or potentials of a piano may be assessed. The methods prescribed here are those that I use but are completely open to the preferences and procedures of those more expert than myself and, in particular, your technician and you. This is the process, which is so difficult to adequately describe in words – an MP3 with vocal commentary would be more adequate. It also requires practice to become a competent assessor - SO – at least practice this on your present piano several times before attempting it on the objects of your intention.

 

1)    Establish surroundings that will afford clear sound assessment.

2)    Play every individual chromatic note in sequence as quietly as is possible to play it – feel the touch/response of the action and listen carefully to the tone of each note as played.

3)    Make notes concerning any un-evenness in the action and tone in particular identify any fuzzy notes or strange resonance etc.

4)    Test the damping of the piano by striking notes and/or chords with the sustaining pedal engaged and disengaged – lowering the sustaining pedal slowly on to the sounding strings.

5)    Play some scales and exercises that establish your familiarity with the idiosyncrasies of the piano – may take 5~25 minutes.

6)    Play, preferably from memory, various pieces that you have an intimate knowledge of and identify the tonal nuances, the harmonic effects, the modulations and judge the ease/transparency with which you can manifest the music.

7)    Make objective and/or subjective notes of your impressions and discuss as appropriate.

8)    Repeat all the exercises on other instruments as appropriate.

Note – there are perhaps 10~20 more major and minor steps that I have yet to describe – there are many technical steps that the technician will choose to undertake ……….. There are 8,000~12,000 individual parts in a piano so a more detailed assessment and testing list will be written up another day – God willing …….. 

Concerning Comfortable Buying/Spending (more due diligence):

 

As with any purchase, the buying should be a comfortable fit to the resources and needs of the purchaser. We would all like to stumble across a bargain BUT the comfort tests must, never the less, always be diligently performed. As an ancient wisdom teaches: 

"Judge ye not by appearances,

but judge by righteous judgment."

Comfort in the BUYING is possible only when all the risks are eliminated/minimized. This is only achieved by spending time, and/or effort, and/or money in eliminating the RISKS of a poor purchase. This is your insurance policy for an assurance that you are buying a quality representing value-for-the-money being spent. All after purchase surprises should be good ones resulting from your technician maturing the potentials in the old or new piano.

Any piano salesman worth his salt, will not force/pressure a customer into a buying decision but will guide the buyer towards the assessed ‘comfort’ zone and will be patient, understanding and accepting of this fundamental right to satisfaction.

Contrary to some popular pre-conceptions (an urban myth propagated by piano salespeople), a piano need not be a lifetime commitment - we learn to discern - we can buy/sell/trade/swap as demand and/or opportunity occurs.

AlanD  (who has bought a piano or three.... and recognizes some qualities and potentials BUT who would still seek the advise/confirmation of his trusted technician above any other person, after all it is the technician who inherits the responsibility for its tuning and maintenance etc.)

 

Sundry Notes and Observations:

I owned a 5'8" Young Chang (about 12 years ago) under the "Wagner" brand and with some extensive 'finishing' work it became a very acceptable piano considering the moderate price. I have occasionally recommended 'value-for-money' purchases of Korean pianos and a dealer friend of mine specializes in them for his next level of piano below his European brands.

The Koreans, as with the Japanese manufacturers before them, have founded their initial businesses on value for money and are now pursuing the quality standards of the piano buying world’s expectations. They seem to have modeled their designs more along European than Japanese/American lines and, assuming the availability of the natural materials, will match the Japanese volume market models in the near future. The contest for market share is already won (Korea is now the biggest producer of pianos in the world). The ‘prestige’ (concert) market still resides with the European, and Japanese. Steinway Hamburg & NY have the lions share of the concert market by a significant margin and while Yamaha, Kawai and some newer up-start companies are making ‘noises’, brand loyalty and unqualified skepticisms are restraining new innovations and customers are deferring to the perceived safer decisions.

By enlarge the concert piano buying market is controlled by committees and such committees tend to have more power and less qualified knowledge concerning the choice of pianos. Ignorance and conservatism tends to direct their decisions to the ‘safe’ brand that is perceived to make the best pianos yet, as argued above, the reality is that it is only through an appropriate choosing process that the unique qualities and potentials of ANY piano are assessed - NOT simply the brand! This situation will change ONLY when there is better education.

As for the "re-builders who use brands" (per force of the fact that they are not beginning from scratch) this is unavoidable - however, the best re-builders put more NEW into their rebuilt pianos than the 'brand' - their 'craft' replaces the craft that was worn out, or the 'craft' that was less than the re-builders minimum standard.

The re-builders deference to the original 'brand' on their rebuilt pianos preserves and perpetrates the 'brand' myth, however, this is 'brand' is not the sole focus of their endeavor. There ARE re-builders of sufficient standing and reputation who will add their name to their rebuilds when they have applied major changes/improvements. I suggest that such re-builders are the pioneers of the piano industry. Some of these people are putting in more research and innovation than many of the leading brands!

To some extent we have all become BRAND junkies - this is often the infection resulting from momentary 'greatness' reinforced by advertising - this 'disease' can destroy objectivity and the 'comfort' of a wise choice.

I have suggested before that most modern advertising will use ANY device known to mankind, to psychology etc. to pervert the balanced buying decision - these extravagant and sophisticated marketing tools serve the interests of brand awareness and of SALES but not necessarily of brand 'quality'.

Advertising - without original ‘greatness’, may create new brands.Creative 'reality' is not produced by advertising - it is created by real 'people' doing real work, with the materials nature and the sciences provided for us.

High quality is not created by 'brands' - it is created by the 'crafting' of refined ideas; by the manifestation of high ideals; by the pursuit of excellence; by the dissatisfactions of mediocrity; by the desire within mankind to explore his genius; etc.

I live for the day when we have more magic pianos, for the magic music to be played upon, by the Master Pianist Magicians.

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 Last update:  Monday, June 11, 2018 09:17:54 PM