I have played some pretty awful pianos in my years as a volunteer pianist— neglected, beat-up instruments sitting in overheated rooms, serving primarily to display fake plants, candles, and craft projects. It’s a challenge, to say the least, to get a pleasing tone from a beastly piano.
Sometimes the pianos I play have keys here and there that make no sound when pressed. One time, the silent keys were middle C and the B just below, smack in the most-used part of the keyboard. I pointed out the problem to the activities director, who seemed unconcerned. Maybe she figured it wasn’t a big deal since I had 86 other keys at my disposal. On another memorable occasion, the promised “piano” was a three-octave keyboard (37 keys, combined white and black) without a stand or a pedal. That was limiting. But let’s face it: I’m spoiled by my creamy-toned Steinway grand at home. In my view, few pianos measure up.
Unlike other musicians who tote their instruments with them, pianists are stuck with whatever piano is available. There’s nothing I can do on the spot to fix a piano in need of tuning, or one with keys that stick. But I do have a trick up my sleeve to deal with pianos that produce a tone so abrasive I want to run for cover. My secret weapon is the soft pedal.
Most pianos have at least two pedals. The one on the right is the sustaining or damper pedal, used to connect notes fluidly. The sustaining pedal holds the dampers off the strings, so they keep on vibrating, allowing the sound to continue after I lift my fingers off the keys. The pedal on the left is the less frequently called for una corda or soft pedal. This one moves the hammers so they strike fewer strings for each note, creating a softer sound.
Adding soft pedal helps me take the edge off the nails-on-a-chalkboard quality of a poorly maintained piano. With the soft pedal depressed, that harsh timbre is a little less noticeable because the sound is thinner, more distant. This tamer sound is often easier on the ears of my elderly audiences, whose hearing loss can be coupled with increased sensitivity to noise. They struggle to hear soft sounds, but loud sounds are painful or distorted. Hearing loss of this type leaves a narrow range of comfort for listening to music.
I try my best to find a happy medium. So it means a lot when listeners compliment me on my “touch” at the piano. (Then they invariably add a comment about another volunteer pianist who “bangs” on the instrument in a heavy-handed way they don’t appreciate.) “Touch” is hard to describe. It has to do not only with my technique, including the particular way I strike the keys, but with interpretive elements, too, like phrasing and expression. Put it all together and you get my sound, different from other pianists, and apparently quite recognizable to the seniors I play for regularly. I was just coming down the hall listening to the music and I knew it was you before I saw you!
If they like what they hear—even when it flows from a piano in dire need of love and attention—my secret weapon must be working.
Copyright © 2014 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.