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MMD > Archives > February 2003 > 2003.02.13 > 07Prev  Next


Bigger Pianos Aren't Always Better Pianos
By Randolph Herr

Response to Douglas Henderson

After reading Douglas Henderson's article in the MMD of 030211 entitled
"Bigger Pianos Aren't Always Better Pianos", I feel that I must write
in to express some facts and opinions.  While everybody has a right to
their own opinion, I want to help clarify some things in Doug's article
that I feel could use some illumination, and so I will comment on
specific sentences in his article, numbering them as I go along;

1) He writes: "No rolls were ever scored for the 'action shift' soft
pedal!"  I feel that he should also mention that from the time of the
Duo-Art's introduction around 1914, until 1919 and possibly a year or
two later, Steinway Duo-Arts had a very unusual soft pedal mechanism
that consisted of a piece of felt moving between the hammer strike
point and the string.  This system of softening the piano is the way
the soft pedal works on every Square Grand I have ever heard of, and
I have never heard of any other Conventional Grand piano using this
system.

Whether you love, hate, or don't care about this feature, it is a fact
that by playing Duo-Art rolls from this era on a piano that does not
have this kind of soft pedal means that you are not hearing the same
thing that people heard then.

2) While on the subject of the 9-1/2-foot Concert Grand Steinway
Duo-Arts, Doug writes "The problem was the roll situation.  Aeolian
didn't want people to play their commercial expression rolls on one of
these pianos."  I am really curious to know what kind of facts Doug has
at his disposal to make such a claim.  Remember, I am not asking what
Douglas likes-I am asking how he knows what Aeolian "didn't want"

3) After a few more sentences, Doug writes: "There's a place on the
Gershwin roll where a rolled arpeggio, held down, becomes 7 or 8 notes
at Intensity #1.  This will 'fail' on the Duo-Art test roll for the
home players." Every original Duo-Art test roll that I have seen --
and I believe there were four of them -- the chord tests which "should
play" or "should miss or barely play" are tests wherein certain numbers
of notes are played _simultaneously_.  There are no tests for rolled
arpeggios that I have ever seen, and in mentioning a "test roll for
home players", he gives me the impression that he is aware of a test
roll not for home players -- something I have never heard of.

4) Doug then writes of a conversation he had with someone at the
Steinway Co.: "I brought up the fact that you need a musician "monitor"
to adjust the tempo after 2 minutes, to prevent the rolls from
accelerating, usually 25-33% in performance speed, as there is no
capstan for the roll transport."  Doug is certainly entitled to his
opinions, but to state this as a fact is not right.  Not only does it
means that all the great pianists who recorded for Duo-Art either not
know or not care (or both) whether the rolls Aeolian was issuing were
accurate or not, it actually means that every single Duo-Art roll was
DEFINITELY inaccurate because it would speed up 25-33%, and this was
either ignored or not noticed by every artist on every roll.  I will
let readers draw their own conclusions here.

5) After the previous comment comes the very next comment: "Then,
I mentioned that the steppings for the larger Steinways didn't match
those of the residential instruments, in the arranger's mind."  Once
again, I am very curious to know how Doug found out the dynamic
steppings of the larger pianos did not match the smaller, residential
pianos, and also how he knows what was in the arranger's mind.

6) Shortly after that, we come to the next point.  Doug writes "The
bulk of the library isn't that great on a Weber upright or a Steinway
OR grand, in my opinion, which is the reason why Pianola levers were
included with the typical installation."  Now that statement is just
plain wrong.  The levers were built into the piano to make them
Duo-Arts, and you don't have to be a rocket scientist to realize that
means TWO Arts.

I must say at this point that I am surprised how many enthusiasts do
not know or care why Aeolian called their Reproducer a Duo-Art Pianola.
Even Harvey Roehl in Player Piano Treasury makes a statement to the
effect -- assuming that I remember correctly since I loaned the book
to a friend who recently bought a piano from me, and therefore cannot
check it at this moment -- that the name Duo-Art was chosen because by
putting "Art" in the name allowed Aeolian to charge a high price for
their instruments!  This statement is also incorrect.

The reason that Aeolian chose the name Duo-Art is because up until that
point, the Pianola was only capable of _one_ Art -- The Art of the
Pianolist.  No one can possibly disagree that Aeolian was the strongest
promoter of active participation in using the Pianola.  When Aeolian
finally developed an electric reproducer, they now had a Pianola that
allowed both the Art of the Pianist as well as the Art of the Pianolist
-- In other words, a Duo-Art Pianola.  For Doug Henderson to say that
the bulk of the Duo-Art isn't great and _that_ is why Aeolian included
expression levers is just plain wrong.

7) Right after the above statement, Doug writes: "I could name about
35 rolls, out of the estimated 6000 commercial releases, that equal
the old demonstration rolls, or my own arrangements."  Well, Doug is
certainly entitled to his opinions about the quality of reproducer
rolls, but I can't help being reminded of that humorous expression
about people who "twist their own arms as they pat themselves on the
back."

8) Doug immediately follows the above statement with: "which is why the
word "duo" appears in their tradename.  The owner of a Duo-Art was
supposed to "cut in and/or take over" to refine the performances, on
their particular piano."  This is also just plain wrong .  The word
"Duo" is explained in point 6 above, and I would love to see even one
reference by Aeolian that people are supposed to "cut in and/or take
over" the manual levers while the automatic expression is turned on.
It is certainly possible to do this, and the Piano will not be harmed,
but if Aeolian wanted people to "cut in and/or take over" as the roll
played with automatic expression then they would have called it a
Trio-Art Pianola.

9) In his next paragraph, Doug states:" (I have a 1918 Aeolian dealer's
treatise, which explains about the dual purposes of the electric
'reproducing' player.  They come right out and say that musical people
become bored, rapidly, by the expression rolls, so suggest how to get
the intelligent owners 'involved' with their new purchase, using the
Pianola levers.)

Finally, here is a statement that Aeolian, Doug and myself all agree
upon.  For many years I have enjoyed listening to my Pianola much more
than listening to ANY reproducer.  I feel that there are two problems
with electric powered reproducers: if they are not in perfect
adjustment, then you are not hearing what the artist intended, and
if they are in perfect adjustment, then the piano is locked into exact
same performance every time -- something no human is capable of doing,
and probably would not want to do over any significant period of time,
since a performance expresses how a pianist feels about the piece at
that instant in time, and as we all know our feelings toward a piece
of music usually change over time.

So Aeolian is right when they point out that people can get bored
hearing the exact same performance over and over, and by manipulating
the expression levers, this can be avoided.

Randolph Herr


(Message sent Thu 13 Feb 2003, 20:48:40 GMT, from time zone GMT-0500.)

Key Words in Subject:  Always, Aren't, Better, Bigger, Pianos

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