The piano and the musician: A blogger's musings on the instrument she loves

The piano is one of the most intimidating instruments in all its glory, intimidating to play, to study, to compose for, and to buy. It's also one of the most satisfying for this one musician.

By , Neo Antennae

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    Lady Gaga donated the pictured piano to a charity auction on June 19. The proceeds of the auction go to Ten O'Clock Classics, an organization that provides classical music venues for aspiring classical artists, as well as education and inspiration for children in classical music.
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The musician is getting a little sleepy. He drinks his nightly cup of coffee, brushes his teeth, and gets into his pajamas. He turns off the lights and climbs into bed. Then, a sinking feeling overcomes him. The musician glances frightfully towards the closet. His mind goes nuts as he frantically keeps his eyes on the door. He can’t get to sleep—he knows something is in there. Eventually, the musician tip-toes to the closet and creaks open the door. There sitting is no monster or creature from the average person’s nightmares. No, it’s a nine-foot, pitch-black, 800 pound, vicious… piano.

Perhaps that scenario is overkill. Actually, it’s definitely overkill. But the idea is not. The instrument that we all grew up being familiar with, the one that almost every person on earth has sat down and clunked around on, is also one that frightens many. I recently read Alexandra Gardner’s article on NewMusicBox titled “Piano Baggage" (all of her articles are worth reading). The article talks about the piano being the most challenging instrument to write for because of its massive amount of repertoire and the fact that many people grew up playing it.

It got me thinking—the piano is probably one of the most intimidating instruments in general—to play, to study, to compose for, or to buy. As a pianist there is a sense of responsibility to sight read well, to have a large repertoire, and to have a vast knowledge of genres and composers because of the large area the piano spans in multiple sections of the music world. However, I’ve found (after experimenting on some other instruments) it’s also one of the most satisfying instruments to play and is easily the best instrument for studying theory on. Through all the stress it has created throughout its 300-and-some year existence, it’s all out of good intentions. And, even with that stress, it’s created a countless amount of wonderful things, too.

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If this were a stereotypical biography, I would say the piano we know today was born in 1709 in Padua, Italy and had a father named Bartolomeo Cristofori. Cristofori was an instrument maker and had created other types of keyboards during his lifetime, such as the spinettone (a sort of harpsichord). However, the problem Cristofori encountered with harpsichords and the like had to do with volume control—since a harpsichord’s keys are connected to devices that pluck the various strings, it was very difficult for the musician to create phrases and different dynamics in their playing.

The clavichord was able to do this (by striking its strings with a metal blade), but wasn’t loud enough for performances. While the harpsichord had the structure that proved best for a piano and the clavichord had the correct idea for sound production, both had major downfalls that led Cristofori to create something new.

He decided that this new instrument needed hammers that struck the strings but did not remain in contact with the strings (like a clavichord). His inventions eventually made up the fortepiano. The fortepiano used hammers to strike the strings like a modern piano, but the strings were very thin and harpsichord-like as was the overall structure of the instrument.

Bach endorsed a later version of the instrument, and composers like Beethoven and Mozart wrote for it. Throughout the years the range of the fortepiano grew as is evident in Beethoven’s music. In the 1820s, many improvements were made to the piano, such as the invention of double escapement action, which allowed for a key to be played in quick repetition because of the repetition lever.

Felt hammer coverings, now standard in many pianos, also emerged, allowing for wider dynamic ranges as the weights of the hammers increased because it was a more reliable material than the previously used leather or cotton. Iron frames were developed and sat above the soundboard; these plates helped pianos be able to sustain thicker, heavier, and larger amounts of strings. Throughout the years these gradual adjustments led to what we know as the piano today.

How could an instrument with such understandable backgrounds be so intimidating to musicians? In the NMB article, Gardner wrote, “Composing for piano can be wildly intimidating because of how much we know, both in terms of what and how much piano music came before this moment and in terms of our own ‘muscle memory.’” This is completely true. Many composers grow up playing the piano or end up studying the piano extensively to become better composers. It is also the instrument that claims a category of many composers’ bodies of work more than any other.

Mozart wrote 27 piano concertos and 18 piano sonatas. Beethoven wrote 32 (38 if you count some stray ones) piano sonatas and five piano concertos. Chopin wrote almost 200 pieces for the piano, Liszt wrote around 130, and Mendelssohn wrote almost 100 solo piano works. Even with those large numbers, those composers only make up a microscopic amount of piano music out there. Like Gardener mentions, it must be scary to sit down with a blank score in hand, thinking of all the knowledge we have of how to compose for the piano correctly and try to do the best possible job.

But not only is the piano intimidating to compose for. When searched, the piano comes up on every list of “most popular instruments.” There are countless pianists out in the world, and there is always a feeling deep inside many pianists out there that someone is better than me. Pianists are expected to have large repertoires and be able to sight-read well (and we have to read two clefs at once!). It’s also a scary place to be in as a pianist because of the solidarity of the position. Orchestras don’t have 15 piece piano sections. Music pieces don’t often call for four pianos. Unfortunately, politics often invade music, and competition is part of that; because the ratio of professional piano positions and pianists is probably one of the lowest ratios in the world of music, that leaves a lot of musicians cringing at their benches. It's easy to feel trapped if our vision gets clouded with these politics.

Maybe the piano’s intimidation factor also has to do with the celebrity of the instrument. Even with the seemingly long history mentioned previously, the ideas that comprised the inventions of the piano have been present for ages. Simple stringed instruments were some of the earliest instruments, and since when has percussion not been a part of music? African mbilas, or thumb pianos, were present in Mozambique in 1,000 B.C.

The medieval instrument called the dulcimer was a trapezoidal stringed instrument that was struck with hammers in the player’s hands. The clavichord is even the instrument depicted with St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music itself! The piano isn’t only a sound-maker, but a legend. It sits on its (most often) three legs, holding in the air a chamber filled with enormous potential that everyone is aware of. What child, in one way or another, hasn’t heard the infectious melody lines and bright, refreshing arpeggios that can come out of that mysterious thing that sits in their grandparents' house? It’s scary to attempt magic on a legend like that.

Despite all the daunting aspects of the grand instrument, the piano, like I said, is easily the most satisfying instrument I’ve ever played. As a child, it’s exciting to sit down in front of those 88 black and white keys, even if it took a little coaxing to get to that point. Unlike, say, an oboe or a viola, a piano can sound magical to anyone who attempts it. This is not only a motivating characteristic, but it can kindle a love for music in a child early on.

When I was little, I always wanted to play my newest learned piece for my music class at school, and I could often be found performing for dinner guests. Growing up learning the piano allows me to have a stronger sense of music theory even if it is something I never took formal classes for or spent lots of time on. Like a sheet of graph paper for math, the piano is the perfect instrument for understanding theory—it’s all laid out for you. Because so many composers write for the piano, I learned about key composers and styles of music at a younger age due to my attraction to anything containing piano.

I learned about the importance of storytelling in pieces since the piano so often is a solo instrument. If I ever want to pursue a career in composition, I have already learned the fundamental instrument! And, even though my devotion for music was kindled by my local music community and my own venturing greatly, the emotions that are brought out so naturally by playing the piano most definitely planted the seed of loving music.

So what about those composers and professional pianists? Well, for them, the piano serves as a source of motivation. Composers, you can conquer the all mighty beast. Though scary at first, it probably feels like finishing a marathon when a piano piece is done being written! As for pianists, we just have to remind ourselves why we love playing piano--for the music. We are the ultimate accompanist, and despite the scarce amount of solo positions out there, there will always be an open position for a piano in a chamber ensemble.

Plus, there's nothing that will ever stop us playing. I was sitting at my little 6 foot the other day, thinking about all the man-made politics that surround music, when I played a chord, sustained it, and stuck my head over the fallboard and near the pegs. I felt the vibrations of the clear sound in my skull, pulled my head out and thought, “That all comes from this?” Maybe all that stress really isn’t necessary.

So, perhaps that same musician is getting a little sleepy. He drinks his nightly cup of coffee, brushes his teeth, and gets into his pajamas. He turns off the lights and climbs into bed. He goes to sleep, and in his dreams is that beautiful, legendary, motivational, and loving piano.

Elena blogs at Neo Antennae.

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