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MMD > Archives > January 1999 > 1999.01.16 > 14Prev  Next

Good Pianists Cope With Bad Pianos
By Douglas Henderson

Hello MMD readers,  I noted with some interest the recent posting about
the quality and condition of the pianos which many artists are "forced
to use" for their concert performances, and how this topic relates to
the operation of player pianos as well.

Many's the time I've been to a concert, amazed that the virtuoso pian-
ist could cope with the instrument, and my applause was often more
for the artistic success of the musical compromise between Man and
Faulty Machine (the piano action!) than anything else.

A few years ago Masanobu Ikemiya, of the New York Ragtime Orchestra
and many ragtime festivals, played in Bath, Maine -- an evening of
largely Gottschalk selections, which are demanding on any pianoforte.
The instrument was a Louis XV Baldwin grand, probably from the
'fifties, about 5'8" (the Steinway 'M' size, roughly).  His program
included Pasquinade and The Union by Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and some
equally demanding ragtime selections.

The hammers on this instrument were like teak wood, and Masanobu,
through his fantastic technical skill, managed to play the correct
notes; but, his left foot kept adjusting the action shift (soft pedal)
nonstop throughout the entire performance.  While the audience heard
pianissimo to sforzando accenting effects, viz. the entire dynamic
range of the grand piano, what they didn't realize was that Mr. Ikemiya
was "adjusting the hammers" to control the dynamics, moving them
sidewise all the time in order to elicit the appropriate tonality,
ordinarily achieved by the keyboard touch on a properly-regulated

Another time I shared the stage with Wm. Albright, Sue Keller, Mark
Lutton and others on one of Masanobu's ragtime shows, the 1929 Story
& Clark player being placed to the right of the stage which couldn't
accommodate the upright, due to a short staircase.  The instrument at
the college was an _old_ Steinway with a tubby sound quality and, while
playable, really required hammer voicing and complete rebuilding.  By
contrast, my Story & Clark 'Reprotone' upright, which plays full-scale
88-Note and 'reproducing' rolls, transposing both formats as well, was
voiced, ultra-regulated and placed in the concert hall to maximize the
dynamic range.

Afterwards, many people commented on how great the diminutive upright
sounded vs. the large Steinway (probably a B model) on the stage.  Mr.
Albright, who passed away unexpectedly last year, even elected to play
the 'Reprotone' for the multiple-pianist finale, and probably for the
reasons that my traveling player was in superior condition all the way

Not long ago I attended a performance of Rhapsody in Blue, with a
terrific pianist playing a new but stiff-action Yamaha concert grand.
So poor was the repetition that the pianist, whose technique I know on
an intimate basis, played "chords" and "accompaniment" much of the
time, even during the piano solo sections. (The audience probably
wasn't wise to this musical alteration, however.)

While my Story & Clark has outclassed many 'house' pianos, new and
old, usually grands, the fact is that musicians, by nature, are there
to entertain people.  If it means a compromise in the performance or
working-around some defect in the instrument, most of them will attempt
this feat and pull it off successfully (save for a few in the audience
like me, who marvel at their performance abilities).

By contrast, I find that many who own pedal players (let's bury the
inappropriate "pumper" term, for fire engines) and 'reproducing' pianos
don't ever attend keyboard concerts or play audio recordings of piano
music that frequently.  This is essential, since the Pianolist is like
an orchestral conductor, and the thought process has little or nothing
to do with the art of keyboard playing.  The mind, through the hands
and/or feet, should be controlling and modifying the music roll ar-
rangement up to the limits of its own inherent structure.

(For example, you can't add staccato on a muddy Ampico arrangement
allegedly played by Zez Confrey, when it doesn't exist on the copy,
unless you get out the tape and start "editing" an old commercial roll,
as I have done many times for my own musical pleasure.  On Victor
Records Confrey had snappy staccato, and this can be simulated by al-
tering the music roll perforations, but not by the Pianolist through
the pedals and hand controls!)

Thus, beyond the rebuilding of the player action and the restoration of
the piano itself, there is that essential "human" element needed in the
music roll field.  Unattended 'reproducing' pianos lack the sparkle of
tune-tuning, and always need tempo correction as do the standard pedal
player instruments.  The Pianolist, or roll interpreter, is compromis-
ing in much the same way as the concert artist does on the second-rate
pianos he/she is oven given for concert tours.

My local technician, Paul Rice, once said, "The pianos in Maine get
worse as one goes North of Portland and inland and at same time."
(This is true, as I discovered later on with some Pianola performances
and experiences with the house grands en route.)

The size and make of the piano are really not that important, as
the keyboard artist, or Pianolist, reaches a balance with the total

From the player action side, I wish more people would _listen_ to
live piano music (or audio versions of it) and then try to achieve as
much of these concepts as possible when playing rolls.  Practicing and
replaying special rolls is an important facet as well.  It's too easy
to "run through a box" of titles than for one to select a couple of
arrangements and try - through practice - to push the Pianola (or
modify the 'reproducing' piano) into greater musical heights.

Having played with open reel tape recorders since 1949, my audio
experiences were in tandem with music roll activities from the start,
in the early 'Fifties.  Would-be roll interpreters should _record their
performances_ and listen to them closely.  The tape machine, hopefully
without AVC (automatic volume control), will reveal much, usually
starting with a tempo creeping upward as the music progresses, the
threshold being 2 to 2-1/2 minutes in many cases.

Just as the keyboard artist has to be ready for any emergency with a
house grand, so does the Pianolist -- due to the variables of pneumatic
striking -- for the concert performance.

Spend a little time tape recording your roll interpreting efforts,
and study the results. Having a metronome handy is also a good tool,
especially when learning the art of controlling the roll speed norm.

If more Player-Piano owners would learn to modify the performance,
much as the concert pianist does with the pedestrian pianos offered
on-the-road these days, far more of the general public will be
attracted to the infectious medium of the perforated paper music roll.

Hope the above will inspire some MMD readers to go that 'extra mile'
for the sake of a good Pianola performance!

Regards from Maine

Douglas Henderson, Artcraft Music Rolls
PO Box 295, Wiscasset, ME 04578

(Message sent Sat 16 Jan 1999, 23:38:25 GMT, from time zone GMT-0500.)

Key Words in Subject:  Bad, Cope, Good, Pianists, Pianos

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