Finding a Piano's Good Stuff

By Richard Huggins
From AccompaList, a Resource for Church Accompanists
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Recently I played for a multi-day event at another church. As always, I approached the sanctuary with fear and trepidation, because pianists are an unusual lot of peformers--we don't get to haul our favorite instrument with us wherever we go. (I don't think any other type of performing artist quite appreciates the impact of this---having to play whatever the committee of Tom, Dick and Harry selected way-back-when.)

Cautiously I walked up to the piano and peeked around the edge to the fall board. After all, they all pretty much look alike up 'till then. I had already noticed that it was French Provincial (not a good sign, in my book, as that may indicate it was bought by furniture buyers, not knowledgeable musicians...not to say it's impossible to get a good piano in that style, it's just not been my experience. It also often indicates a piano donated by someone named Mildred, since not many churches intentionally buy a French Provincial piano for the sanctuary.). Sure enough, it was not a brand I like. And it was an older piano (though that's only important if the brand and/or the history of the piano's maintenance is marginal).

I sat down at it and began to try it out. It has been my experience that I can tell about a piano's strengths within only a few chords. This one wasn't going to be exceptional, unfortunately. The action almost immediately revealed itself. The tone likewise. The only purpose of playing further was to find whatever good elements there may be. And that's my topic for this article---finding the good.

While this article doesn't apply to lots of folks---because they rarely play outside their own church--even so it can apply to the very piano you do play. Older pianos can suffer from several maladies, including worn out felts on the hammers, which can not only produce a thin sound but also can fail to effectively dampen the notes. They can suffer from an uneven action, a clacking (noisy) action here and there, and certainly from a mushy action. Pedal mechanisms can be slushy and/or noisy. Intonation often is a problem, as it may not have held its tune very well from when it was last tuned, which quite possibly also was too long ago.

Anyway, you're getting my point! Finding the good elements on a piano can almost be stated in the reverse: finding the "not so awful" elements! In other words, maybe there's nothing really good, but there are elements better than others. By that I mean that you have to explore how the piano sounds or responds in different registers, what its action lets you do, how well the pedals work, and so forth. And then you have to adjust your playing technique accordingly.

First, time itself is needed, for it will take some time for your brain to adjust your touch to the piano's capabilities. Really, this does happen; I've experienced it many times. Gradually you will find yourself playing to the piano's capabilities. This might mean slower playing or lighter playing. It assuredly will mean pedaling carefully (see next paragraph). It might mean watching out for a note that is horribly out of tune.

In almost all cases, inadequate pianos need tight pedaling technique. This one thing alone can make a great deal of difference. Pianos that don't sound all that good on any given chord or harmonic passage certainly sound awful when a previous chord or harmonic family spills over due to sloppy pedaling technique. So, you may have to think more consciously about your pedaling in order to make sure the dampers are getting the notes dampened as you wish for them to be.

The piano's tone may be muddy in the bass, requiring you to avoid using as many low octaves as you can remember to avoid, and, again, keeping your playing extra-clean through careful finger technique and pedaling technique. The piano's upper end may be harsh and tinny, so you have to adjust there as well.

I have found these things to produce the best results: making sure the melody is clearly lifted out from amidst the other notes, making sure I use tight and complete pedaling technique, not playing in a style in which the piano doesn't sound good, and emphasizing areas where it DOES sound good. (For example, if it's middle range is pretty good, I might choose to play arrangements that hover in those areas, rather than all over the place.)

Don't forget that wonderful philosophical mandate called KI.S.S.---Keep It Simple, Stupid! (Forgive the "Stupid," but you get the gist!). Few comments are more satisfying than "You made that old piano sound really great!" In fact, of course, all I did was not ask the piano to do things it didn't do well, and don't we all wish life itself worked that way?