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The Piano Compromise Part 1 - Seemingly Impossible

In this article, I discuss how and why the piano has always, and will always be my de facto musical instrument. I discuss the nuanced variables of tone and key-action, as well as some of the complications surrounding piano-ownership (namely size, cost and maintenance).


Where It Started


In my youth, everything I learned about music, I did so at the piano. The principles of musicality; rhythm, melody, harmony, dynamics, scales, key-signatures, and how all these things (and more) symbiotically interconnect in the creation of music; all taught to me or personally realised whilst sat in front of something akin to what's pictured on the right (that's not the actual piano I played as a kid, but one of the same manufacturer and model).


Side-note 1: the hand-me-down piano that we had in our house when I was young was actually a pianola (self-playing piano). It used a pneumatic system, operated by foot-pump-bellows (as seen in the above picture). It was a relic of a bygone era that predated radio or the phonograph/record player and was at one time, the pinnacle of home entertainment. Google "player piano" or "pianola" to learn more. It's wild stuff! Anyway...


For all intents and purpose, the old piano in our house was my vessel to all-round musicianship and allowed me to form an understanding of music that went beyond merely listening to music. For example, rather than just being aware that a piece of music stirred my emotions, I grew able to understand the artistic, scientific, theoretical and creative principles that invoked that feeling in me, and was thus able to apply that to my own musical creations on the piano.


But more than this, the piano was a companion of sorts; a confidant, a counsellor, a safe-space, a safety-net, a release, a friend. No matter what I was going through or feeling, high or low, or any degree of existential teenage angst I may have been going through, it was as if the piano understood things that I couldn't find the words to express in those heady years of adolescence. It may sound somewhat corny but Sampha said it best when he wrote (No One Knows Me) Like The Piano. This notion is something, I'm sure, many pianists like myself will relate to.


To this day, I feel more comfortable and at peace when sat in front of a piano than anywhere else, and because of this, I've always maintained a special affinity for the piano. It introduced me to making my own music, it taught me patience, and in many respects changed my perception of the auditory world. Put simply, it's the instrument I feel most able to express myself with. I therefore regard the piano with the utmost reverence; it would be a desert island essential, taking priority over any other aspect of musical technology.


However, with all that in mind, whilst it's one thing to be able to play the piano and to regard it as an extension of my self; it's another thing entirely to actually accommodate one in my life.


The Realities of Piano Ownership


Between their complex mechanics, the 18+ tons of pressure on the frame (due to the string tension), and the sheer size and weight of the instrument, they're really only at their peak within the first twenty years of their life (give or take - it all depends on how played-in they are and how well they're cared for).


That's not to say a well maintained piano can't still play and sound great after 30+ years of use; I've played beautiful pianos that are older than me, however these are the exception and not the rule.


Side-note 2: there is an entire industry devoted to the restoration of vintage and antique pianos, restoring them to a like-new condition, however this is a separate discussion entirely, both in terms of tone and price (old pianos have a distinctly different tone, and to have one restored can cost more than a new piano).


Tonally - A piano's tone doesn't grow and mature in the same way as an acoustic guitar or violin's tone does. Rather, over time, their sound-boards can often become tired and lose their tension (even splitting or cracking). Higher-end models with curved soundboards have been known to lose their crown; the slight curvature in the soundboard's construction flattens due to string pressure, which results in a loss of tonal richness.


Mechanically - Piano actions (which are very complicated and utilise many moving parts) fatigue, and their responsiveness dwindles, costing a great deal of money to have them restored.


Maintenance - To be kept in good condition, pianos require stable humidity and regular tuning and maintenance (four times a year minimum, in my opinion, which is likely to cost upwards of £200 a year).


The Uniqueness Factor - With the large range of tone-woods found in pianos, and the broad range of subtle variations across all tone-woods, no two pianos (even of the same manufacturer and model) will ever sound or behave in quite the same way (tonally). This is why concert halls will often have several grand pianos, so that prior to a concert, the pianist can spend time with them all and choose the one best suited to the repertoire of the performance. I.e: for personal use, you really must try before you buy (and buy the exact piano you tried!).


Distinctly Different (Grand Vs. Upright Piano)


One could write extensively on the differences between upright and grand pianos, as there are a great many, but I'll attempt to summarise in brief below.


Tone - Typically, grand pianos have longer strings (usually with duplex scaling) and a superior cabinet design containing a greater amount of tone-woods. There is therefore more resonant material utilised in the activation and transference of sound-waves, yielding a larger array of harmonic overtones and greater dynamic potential. The grand piano's versatility in this regard is unparalleled amongst acoustic, keyed-instruments.


Action - Grand pianos are not as hampered by size restraints as upright pianos are. Therefore grand piano actions (pictured here on the right) typically utilise a longer key-stick (than what's found on an upright piano).


As per the laws of physics, the longer pivot length of a grand piano key requires less pressure to initiate movement, and therefore the grand piano key can respond more accurately to a delicate touch (when compared to an upright piano).


Another noteworthy point is that the hammers (which strike the strings) in a grand piano are reliant solely on gravity to return to their resting position, whereas an upright piano mechanism (pictured here on the right) has a more complicated, vertical design (due to size/packaging constraints) which needs to return the hammer to a vertical resting position.


The upright piano's more complex, and arguably compromised vertical action combined with a shorter key-stick length, impacts on the upright piano's ability to respond as accurately (as a grand piano) to a more delicate touch and rapid note repetition. Generally speaking, upright and grand pianos feel and sound like distinctly different instruments, each with their own character and personality.


Please note that this is a crude and surface-level summary and I'm not suggesting that upright pianos are not good. There is well in excess of 150 years of innovation in pianos and therefore some upright pianos are seriously good! I've played some real beauties (most notably a flagship C.Bechstein upright). However, premium upright pianos begin to blur the financial line between upright and grand pianos (as discussed below).


Budgetary Considerations


I've played many pianos, good and bad, upright and grand, and with the level of playing experience I have, I know precisely the sort of piano I desire to own: approx. 6' mid-size grand piano, most likely from Germany or Japan (Hamburg Steinway, C.Bechstein, Kawai or Yamaha).


A new German or Japanese piano of this kind is likely to cost anywhere upwards of £35,000. Second-hand, these pianos are typically upwards of £25,000 (if they're young and in very good condition). To put that into context of the modern, independent musician, it would take somewhere in the region of 12,000,000 Spotify streams (before expenses and transfer fees) to earn enough money to buy a grand piano of this ilk.


To further complicate matters, a 6' grand piano has a footprint of approx. 1.5 x 3 metres and it needs to be in a large enough space to acoustically do justice to the piano's tone. I.e. not only does one need to be able to afford a grand piano, but one also needs to afford a property large enough to house it (note: I'm a rental trapped millennial, stuck living in a part of the UK where the average house price is £500,000/$650,000).


A premium upright piano (such as a Yamaha U3, Kawai K-800 or C.Bechstein Concert-8) typically have a string-length and sound-board size close to that of a small/mid-sized grand piano, and so can sound extremely rich and beautiful. They're ideal alternatives for people in need of a good piano, but who lack the space for a grand piano.


Whilst significantly less money than a grand piano, these premium upright models can exceed £10,000.


As incredible as pianos are, and despite their special place in my heart, I simply don't have anywhere near the sort of disposable income necessary to invest in a piano. Therefore, a good quality upright piano is out of the question, and a 6' grand piano is beyond a pipe-dream.


I Can't Live With Or Without You


Since venturing out into the world of independent adulthood (circa 2006/2007), I've had a couple of ropey, old uprights (acquired for free) which served their purpose, but weren't any good for meaningful practice or technical improvement. These had to be let go due to moving into flats where access and/or noise was a problem (but it was no great loss - these pianos were rough, to put it mildly!).


For several years I've made do with an 88-key weighted MIDI controller and digital piano sounds generated either from synthesisers or sample libraries on computers. Today's technology is decent and these digital work-arounds went some way to satisfying my need for a piano. Importantly however, I have been fortunate enough to work at schools and colleges with access to (some very nice) acoustic pianos that I could play during my breaks. This has always helped satisfy my desire to play real pianos, nevertheless, not having a good quality, inspirational acoustic piano in my home has long been an itch I couldn't scratch.


During the Covid lockdowns however, I did not have access to the nice pianos at work, and this unscratchable itch to play an acoustic piano (at home) started to become unbearable. The six months of lockdowns and school closures was actually the longest period of my life that I'd gone without laying hands on an acoustic piano. I needed to find some way to achieve an authentic piano experience at home, however with all the points raised above, this seems like a truly impossible task!


But if There's a Will, There's a Way, Right?


In the next article, I explore computer software and sample-library options in the vague hope of finding something (anything) that provides me with meaningful piano-playing satisfaction.