Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Fortepiano: Capturing the Sound Aesthetic for Modern Playing

This post was first published by Oxford University Press:

Grappling with performing the music of early Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn on the modern piano can be a daunting experience. The modern piano is not the instrument for which their music was composed. Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn all preferred Viennese pianos (today called the fortepiano) and the traits from the inside out are distinctly different than those of the modern piano. A comparison between various physical traits of the modern Steinway D grand piano and the 1790 Walter five-octave fortepiano sheds light on the divergence between the instrument of “yesteryear” and today.
  • The modern grand weighs 990 pounds compared to the fortepiano at 187 pounds. This leaves a modern instrument capable of withstanding much more tension – 45,014 pounds of iron string tension compared to 2,094 pounds of steel string tension on the fortepiano.
  • The modern piano contains heavier keys attached to much larger and thicker hammers that are covered by felt and wool compared to keys half the weight with hammers that are covered by 1-3 thin layers of buckskin or leather on the fortepiano.
  • The key dip on the modern piano is three times that of the fortepiano and requires four times the energy to set the key in motion.
  • The modern piano covers seven and one-half octaves compared to five octaves on the fortepiano.
  •  The naturals are slightly wider and longer and the sharps are slightly narrower on the modern piano.  
  • One travels twice the distance in height going from the naturals to the sharps on the modern piano
From these physical comparisons one finds a distinctly different sound aesthetic is experienced on the fortepiano.  The fortepiano is rich in overtones with a silvery tone. The physical characteristics facilitates quick action, responsiveness, and great finesse. The sound on the fortepiano is quickly and crisply articulated with clear tone definition, and a variety of colors. An important characteristic on the fortepiano is its ability articulate musical thoughts. One idea may be quickly brought to the forefront and with equal ease and speed it may recede into the background. Indeed, the fortepiano is the perfect instrument for realizing music from the Classical Era.  Follow the links to hear the sound aesthetic realized on the instrument for which it was composed. 

How does one accomplish that different sound aesthetic on such a markedly different instrument as the modern piano?  The answer begins simply   play “as if” one is playing a fortepiano.  Play as if:
  • you are playing a fortepiano.  This will require considerable time listening to performances on fortepiano to acquaint your ear with the sound. Take time to listen to esteemed artists such as Malcolm Bilson, Robert Levin, and Tom Beghin as they perform on period instruments.  
  • your instrument is capable of clear definition in the low register.
  • your instrument is capable of quicker responsiveness and crisply articulated attack/release.
  • the changes from forte to piano are more about nuance and subtlety than loud and soft.
  •  you have only five octaves to achieve extremes in range.

As Tilman Skowroneck advocates in Beethoven the Pianist, we must learn what the score tells us about the music and what the score tells us to strive for or expect from the instrumentany instrument. We must continually listen to the feedback from the instrument to strive for the Classical aesthetic, making our modern piano translate the clarity, finesse, and vibrancy of the fortepiano. Doing so will provide new discoveries for energized and revitalized personal performing.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

What’s in Your New Year Tool Box?

Here we are, inviting another New Year into our lives.  What does this mean to us as musicians?  What new opportunities are there to embrace?  Of course, there is new music to learn, new programs to prepare, and new performances to work toward.  But, if we work toward all of these new things in the same old way aren’t we simply playing the same song, different verse? As you try on other New Year resolutions try on some music resolutions as well.
  • Go to more live performances that feature professional artists.  We can’t get better if we don’t know what better sounds like!
  •   Read a book about a new musical concept, a musician you would like to know better, or an instrument.
  •   Explore the formal structure of a new piece before playing it.
  • Count everything out loud. The amount of cohesion and focus will surprise you!
  • Play the left hand alone to listen for the “driver of the bus."
  • Determine the high point in each section and for the piece. Build your playing around it.
  •  Spend some time each week improving one or more specific technical aspects.
  • Use each dynamic change starting places in practice. Not only will you notice them, it will provide guidance in determining structure and high points.
  • Make music with another musician. This is especially important for pianists, who spend much of their time making music alone. 
  •  Sing each line of your piece.  For pianists this is extremely helpful to naturally find high places, low places, and resting places. 
  •  Orchestrate your piece. Now as you practice, see how you can make your piece sound “as if” it is a flute, clarinet, oboe, trombone, or saxophone!
  •  Perform more. We get better at performing by performing. Take your music to the local senior center. Volunteer to play for church. Offer to play at a local soup kitchen or homeless shelter. Let your music brighten the lives of others.

Start small.  Choose one item and add it to your musical tool box.  Each month add one more. Before you know it you will find your perspective, playing, and performing, dramatically transformed!

Happy New Year and happy playing!