Boris Giltburg

Of the special bond between pianists and pianos

A shortened version of this article has appeared in the Guardian (link). It has been originally written in Hebrew for the Opus magazine (link)

Today I would like to talk about pianos. Not necessarily from a historic point of view (invented by Bartolomeo Christofori around 1700, attained its present shape and characteristics towards the later part of the 19th century), nor from the technical one (a complex mechanism of levers, rails, pins, wires and springs that transmits the pressing of a key onto the hammer, which is then thrown and hits a string), but rather from the personal one – to discuss the special bond between the pianist and the piano.

Without a doubt, violinists have just as personal and special a bond with the violin they play on, and so do trumpeters, clarinetists or guitarists—but as opposed to them (and, indeed, to all other musicians, except for organists), the absolute majority of pianists do not play their own instrument onstage. The piano is not portable, it is cumbersome and costly to transport, and hence we have a kind of a status quo: the pianist practises at home on their piano, but performs at concert halls, each one with another, different, strange piano. A piano that belongs to the hall, and which, in most cases, we haven’t touched prior to setting foot at the hall that morning.

Piano at the Musikverein (photo: Bösendorfer / David M. Peters)

The moment of the first encounter is worth describing. You enter the hall, looking forward to (or full of trepidation before) the encounter with a new and unknown piano (those of us who are optimistic hope for a good piano each time). The instrument stands in the middle of the stage, you approach it, remove your watch, empty your pockets of wallet and phone, sit down, adjust the piano bench… All the while somebody from the hall stands nearby, also expectant: while you may travel from one hall to another, and for you this is just one piano out of many, for them it is the only piano that matters, and they care, sometimes very much so, about the way you react and whether the piano pleases you.

So, the promoter stands beside you, waiting politely, hopefully, expectantly, and you, fully aware of the importance of the moment, finally play something on the keyboard: a chord, a passage, a few bars from one of the works—and the piano immediately ceases being a generic and unknown something, a specimen of the grand pianos genus, and becomes the most concrete, tangible, real thing there is. This is the piano you are going to play on tonight, and your encounter has just begun.

Piano lore can be summarised in a few short sentences:

  • There are good and bad pianos. This might sound self-evident, but it is possibly the most basic fact in a pianist’s life. Both kinds are to be found in all sizes, manufactured by all piano firms, and at any price point. That is to say that a concert grand piano (2.70m or more) costing over £100,000 can be bad.
  • Size both matters and does not matter. Smaller can be better than larger, but between two good pianos, the sound of the larger one will be richer (a function of the longer strings and larger soundboard). Sound volume and projection also change with size; a baby concert grand (1.50m) will struggle to fill a 2,000 seater hall.
  • One can get used to any piano. Seriously. There are no exceptions to this rule, even when the instrument is terrible. The better a piano is, the less time is required, and vice versa. At the same time, a good piano is multi-layered; there is always something else to discover in its tone. A bad piano functions in what-you-see-(or rather hear)-is-what-you-get mode, producing the same sound even after hours of practice.
  • One can practice on a piano to one’s heart’s content, and it’s certainly necessary and helpful, but if you want to really get to know a piano, there is no better way than playing a full concert on it, before a real audience. By the end of the concert, if not earlier, you will know the instrument; my word of honour..

It is perhaps important to mention another thing. When we see two identical objects, our natural assumption is that they are indeed identical, and if there is an element of function to those objects, we expect the two to function in the same way (we wouldn’t expect, let’s say, two cars of the same model to accelerate or brake differently). With pianos the situation is fundamentally different—they are unique, each one of them. The manufacturing process of a grand piano takes up to three years, and includes hundreds of processes, both active, such as construction and assembly, and passive, physical and chemical, the drying of layers of lacquer or glue, for example; also, adjustments, most of them hand-made, and each one of them affecting the final tone of the piano (here‘s a website explaining the process in detail). So, in the end, two pianos of the same model, manufactured by the same company in the same year, will sound differently, even to an untrained ear. The contrast in sound between different models, or between pianos made in different years or from different companies will be even more apparent.

This is to say that looking at the shiny and beautiful outward appearance of the piano is not of much help; it can conceal a superb or a very bad instrument. This trait—each piano being one-of-a-kind—guarantees a challenge, an interesting or a frustrating one, depending upon the circumstances. On one hand, there is a constant element of uncertainty, adding to the pressure and stress that accompany each concert. But this basic difference also has a positive side to it, as the pianist is involuntarily affected by the piano. We react to the tone we hear during the performance, we are forced to overcome certain technical difficulties while playing, but it goes beyond that: one could say that a good piano (like a good conversation partner) can offer new directions to our interpretations. Should we be flexible and spontaneous while playing, should we not force our will upon the instrument, but rather remain attentive to its tonal character and try to connect with it in an organic way, the piano will prove capable of taking us to lands far more distant and interesting than those we had foreseen or planned. Those lands would change from one piano to another: an instrument which possesses a warm, human tone will lead the performer to a very different place than one whose tone is transparent and crystalline.

Personally I see an advantage in this: each concert, even if the pieces in it were performed dozens of times, becomes an journey of discovery; everything remains fresh and new, and you are kept on the edge of your chair, alert and wide–awake, curious to find out how the Beethoven, the Ravel or the Rachmaninov will sound tonight. This is anti-routine. (One cannot talk about routine when discussing musical performance, of course, but this element of uncertainty, brought about by the unending variety of pianos, makes each concert even less commonplace; and if were it removed from the equation; if, one day, I were given the opportunity of playing each concert on my home piano—an instrument I know inside out—I think I would miss the situation which exists today.)

To return to our narrative: those first sounds which you had just played will give you an admittedly approximate, but usually quite accurate picture of the instrument’s sound. And you know right away, even before the brain has the time to process what it has heard. There is certainly room for adjustments and acclimatisation, both to the piano and to the acoustics in the hall, but I can’t recall a single instance in recent years in which the initial gut reaction was completely refuted later. Several hours of practising will yield an improvement of X percent in the sound you are able to draw out of the piano and will help you overcome the technical imperfections of the keyboard, but unfortunately no number of hours of practice will change a ‘don’t like’ into a ‘like’. Unfortunately, I say, as I would have loved the situation to be different.

For if you think of it, we are completely at the mercy of the piano currently standing on the stage. It is our main ally for that night, and those short moments of initial playing reveal the character of our future brother-in-arms. A comfortable piano, one which feels as the natural continuation of one’s hand, can help a pianist who feels insecure to forget their worries during the performance and to become engrossed in the music and in the process of playing. And exactly so, a bad piano can heighten the feeling of insecurity, can treacherously ruin the pianist’s concentration (always at the most dangerous moment), and make even the best-prepared pianist trip and fall. This, just from the technical side of the equation; speaking of music, those first notes are a forecast, a sign of things to come—whether the piano’s sound will give inspiration, will invite the pianist to a profound performance full of poetry, or contrarily, whether it will thwart any attempts to make the keyboard sing, to transcend the lines of notes and to try and touch the listeners’ souls.

These are, of course, extreme examples. Pianos that ‘make or break’ concerts are not ubiquitous. But the piano’s influence over the performance is very tangible, and just imagine how grand it would be if we were able to turn ‘cooking pans’ (as one wryly calls unsalvageable instruments in Russian) into piano-masterpieces by sheer willpower and determination. Yet the only possibility to affect significantly the tonal character of a piano is meticulous work done by a highly-qualified technician; work which takes hours if not days, and this is rarely possible under normal circumstances. Mostly, what stands on the stage is all there is, and this is the main reason why an initial ‘like’ is so gladdening, and a ‘don’t like’ is so unfortunate.

But what is this ‘like’? I’ll try to describe my dream piano: it possesses a singing, translucent sound with a long decay, rich, varied, lacking any aggression (what is called a ‘banging sound’—this is 90% the responsibility of the pianist, but the piano contributes to it as well, as, if its natural sound is too open and shouting, it will be harder to control). Every note is perfectly formed, rounded and bell-like. It has as broad a dynamic range as possible between pianissimo and fortissimo, with many levels in-between. All the registers of the keyboard (bass, middle, top) are uniform in colour, and there are no weak or unclear areas; nor are there any overly bright or open ones. Mechanically, an utterly even keyboard (keys equally weighted), a touch neither too heavy nor too light, allowing full control over the sound. And all of this is combined and united—a whole larger than the sum of its parts; a piano with an intriguing and fascinating character, making each interaction with it a true experience and inviting you to go further afield and explore new ares and layers in the works that you are playing.

I may have got slightly carried away. But a performance on such a piano can be unforgettable.

From this you can infer the ‘don’t like’: a metallic or unclear sound, flat and unvaried, a narrow dynamic range, an uneven keyboard, lack of personality—you get the idea. A dull, characterless piano, “neither fish nor meat”, to quote another Russian saying, is included in this category too.

You might well think that the demands are exaggerated, and how much of it will the audience hear anyway? This is both true and not true. The demands are high indeed, and each and every pianist has their own ‘bugs’. Some are especially sensitive to technical imperfections, some care about nothing beyond the beauty of the sound. Neither will every pianist be so demanding: the scale ranges from Sviatoslav Richter, who displayed almost complete indifference to the subject (though one can infer from his interviews that he was very well aware of the quality of the pianos he played on), and up to Gregory Sokolov, who is nearly infamous for the demands he poses of his pianos: demands which are fully justified, in my opinion, as Sokolov’s control of the keyboard is peerless in all what regards colours, nuances and separation of voices. The rest are located between these two poles, and in my opinion (which I cannot prove scientifically) we would find more pianists closer to Sokolov’s side of the scale, than to Richter’s.

But if we regard this from a broader perspective, these demands are not so different from those posed by any artist or craftsman of the tools and materials with which they work: the painter the brush, paints and canvas (and the light); the cook the knives and ingredients from which to prepare the meal; the photographer the camera and lenses (and once again the light!), and, if we go a bit further, the race-car driver the car they drive (which perhaps is not such a far-fetched comparison, as both cases concern the interaction of a single person with a single yet highly complex tool). The schema is similar: an artist, in whatever field, will obtain a fine result even when working with subpar materials and tools, but will achieve so much more when those are choice (on the other hand, no-one but a true master will be able to draw out the true potential of the very best materials and tools). Hence, perhaps, it is not surprising that most pianists tend to demand more rather than less from pianos.

The answer to second part of that question—what of this will reach the audience’s ears?—might come as a surprise: quite a lot. Speaking with audience-members post-concert, I have found that the listeners were very much aware of the beauty of the piano’s sound: a singing vs. a harsh/metallic sound, as well as of its volume—whether one needs to strain oneself in order to hear clearly, or whether the sound carries and easily fills the hall. However, it seems that unless the piano is singularly good or bad, after a short while the listeners’ attention switches from the instrument to the interpretation, and from then on it’s all in the performers’ hands.

An interesting question which is related to the subject, is how two different pianists would sound if ever they played on the same instrument. I once had a heated discussion with a lecturer (a musicologist, not a pianist himself) who maintained that the difference in the sounds of Horowitz and Rubinstein (click the links for a comparison) stemmed only from the differences in their pianos, and if one had only seated them behind the same instrument, they would have immediately sounded the same. At the time I could find no riposte (though I sensed this assertion was absurd), while today I would first of all refer him to a recording of any round of whichever piano competition: it is enough to hear two contestants playing on the same piano and the argument collapses immediately, as those are significant and easily audible differences. One could also compare recordings by the same pianist throughout various decades: to go on with the example of Horowitz and Rubinstein, we will find that there is much more resemblance between the sound of young Horowitz and that of mature Horowitz than between Horowitz and Rubinstein at any given point of time. In other words, each interpreter has their own specific sound which they try to reproduce on every piano they play on. Perhaps this is another way of judging the worth of an instrument: how easy it is to produce from it the sound the pianist desires.

So where does this difference stem from? My opinion is that the ‘sound’ of pianist A or B is not a simple variable but a complex one which includes both the way a single sound is produced (where there are numerous options as well, such as which muscles take part—whether the fingers only, or the palm as well; the forearm, the upper arm or the entire arm from the shoulder, or even from the shoulder blades—how tense or relaxed those muscles are; which joints are employed as ‘shock absorbers’ to avoid a harsh sound, etc.), but also the use of pedal, the way the voices are separated (such as the difference in sound strength between the melody and the accompaniment), the rubato or ‘stolen time’—the prolongation of certain notes at the expense of others to gain freedom of musical expression—and most probably many other variables, which can all be combined in countless variations and which we, the listeners, perceive as a single element, the sound of the player.

Let us return one last time to our narrative: we have tried the piano, have had the first impressions, our heart rejoiced or fell in disappointment, and then practising begins. Without our noticing, a slow and interesting process of acclimatisation occurs: the aural and tactile equivalent of eyes adjusting with time to darkness. Our ears require time to get used to the specific way the sounds spreads in that hall, and our fingers need time to adjust to this specific keyboard. The body does it by itself, and it seems that nothing is required besides time and an unwillingness to give up, plus often reminding oneself of Piano Lore Point No. 3 (“one can get used to any piano”). Several hours pass, and suddenly—it is always the same: “wait a minute, how did this happen?”—the sound becomes fuller, deeper, you have more control over hues, the piano feels less and less as strange, uncharted territory. This is the time when the practice session is at its most productive: our growing acquaintance with the instrument spurs us to intensify our attempts, as we want to test our newly found control over the sound in many different parts of that night’s programme. Simultaneously, the intensive work accelerates the speed of getting used to the instrument. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does, it’s a virtuous circle; a good place to be.

Whether we managed to fully adapt to the piano or not, the time comes, and we go onstage, take a bow, and sit behind the piano with a clear and focused knowing: this is for real. A few seconds of concentration, hands are raised onto the keyboard, the fingers play the first notes, and… wait, is it the same piano? Nearly always a small (or a big) surprise awaits us in those first notes: with the presence of the audience the acoustics in the hall has changed imperceptibly (or unrecognisably), and we need a bit of extra time (or half the concert) to re-adapt. This is the customary explanation; but it seems to me there is another element at work: the most intensive concentration during practice hours cannot compare with the standard concentration one maintains at a concert. For the duration of the live performance we simply hear things differently, as if our ears’ capability became augmented. The silence is different too: the silence of an empty hall is much weaker than the live, breathing silence of a hall filled with attentively listening people. I often feel that at that moment the connection to the outer world is severed, and we find ourselves in a kind of enclosed space and time, in which nothing exists beside the audience, the piano, the music and the player, all united by the silence. And then it should come as no surprise that the piano sounds different at first: we have been transported into a world of our own.

What drives us during the daily practice sessions is the love we feel for the composers and the musical worlds they created in their works. Before a concert, our appreciation for the audience is added into the mix, as is our desire to share with the listeners the feeling of wonder, nearly of awe, which stems from the magical process of creating the music anew on the stage. And at the moment we begin to play it is the piano which is the centre of our existence. Imagine the silence just before the concert begins, out of which emerge the first notes of… Beethoven’s 4th concerto, with their softness and nobility, or the toll of funeral bells in the opening of Rachmaninov’s 2nd concerto, or the luminous, polished tones of the opening Aria from the Goldberg Variations, or any other piano composition, of which there is a myriad, and there you shall find our love for the instrument itself, for the enormous richness of sonorities hidden within it, a richness only limited by our imagination, a richness sometimes discovered at this very moment, on the stage, in the presence of the listeners. And there you shall find our love for the gentleness and the might which is in the piano, for the virtuoso brilliance and the beautiful cantilena that it can produce, for the feeling of the keys beneath your fingers, for its polyphony and the multi-layeredness.

We finish the concert in full knowledge of all the secrets which the piano may have kept hidden previously: no corner remains unlit under the intensive spotlight of a live performance. If it was a good piano, we are left with a feeling of warmth and love, no longer directed towards some generic and abstract idea of ‘piano’, but rather to this very specific piano, the one that was a complete stranger to us not so long ago, and which we are now deeply and intimately acquainted with: the piano that shared with us the musical ups and downs of the previous two hours, the moments of musical elevation and also the blunders (and perhaps contributed to a few of them itself), that was an equal partner in all that had just now transpired onstage. And if we are due to leave on the following morning, heading to another town and another hall, in which there is also a new, different and unknown piano, then the feelings of warmth and love are tinged with sadness over the prompt farewell.

So when you next hear me or any other pianist complain about the great challenge inherent to our profession (“there is a new piano to get used to every time”), don’t believe us, or, at least, take our words with a large grain of salt.

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