Every degreed music educator has some experience playing a piano. Most students of music have either taken some sort of group piano course or have taken independent private lessons. But what happens after your coursework in college? Does the piano get incorporated into your teaching or does it collect dust and sit in a corner of your music room?
To begin let’s start by learning about the acoustic piano. The modern acoustic piano, which is used in most music rooms, typically has 88 keys. These could be from Grand or Upright pianos. Earlier pianos during the 19th century had either 64 or 73 keys depending on the make and model.
Grand pianos create sound by having the hammers go up and then hit the metallic strings. This requires a little more force than it’s counterpart the upright piano. In contrast the upright piano is set-up in a horizontal fashion. As a result, the hammers of the upright piano requires less force to create a sound of the same intensity.
When you open up the piano you will notice that it has a series of thick metal strings. The left or bass end of the piano is strung with bass strings for the 1st octave. Next, the strings switch to double strings and then changes to triple strings for the rest of the piano. It is important to note that the 2nd octave and treble range uses thinner metallic strings than the bass end of the piano.
The Acoustic Feel
The acoustic piano gives you a more realistic and organic feel. Dr. Lindeman notes that with an acoustic piano it is much easier to sing and be expressive with an acoustic piano. Part of the reasoning behind this is because the acoustic piano’s strings are struck as opposed to an electric piano which is not.
The modern acoustic piano typically has two or three pedals at the floor near a performers feet. The pedal on the right is called sustained pedal. When you press this pedal, and you press a key on the piano, there are a series of dampeners that are raised up and allows the sound to sustain. Consequently, when you lift your foot off the pedal the sustain stops.
The second pedal is called the soft pedal. What happens here is that the pedal physically moves the hammers from side to side so that they are striking less of the string. As a result, this makes the sound softer when pressing the soft pedal. In addition, when you press the soft pedal you will see the keys shift slightly. If you happen to hear a slight groan when this happens, this means that you need a qualified piano technician to lubricate it.
Many of the more modern pianos also have a third pedal in the middle. This middle pedal is called the sostenuto pedal. The function of this third pedal is that it sustains just the bass strings. This enables the performer to sustain any of the bass notes or chords in the left hand and play the treble melody without it sound muddy.
Everyone wants to sit down at a piano and perform a beautiful song. But how is this sound actually created? The way a modern acoustic piano makes a sound is from the hammers which are raised when you press the keys which strikes the metallic strings. The harder you press the keys the louder the sound will be, conversely the softer you press the keys the softer the sound will be.
The hammers are traditionally constructed out of wood and are covered by felt. This is what actually creates the sound. “As you can image there are literally thousands of moving parts,” Dr. Lindeman conveyed. “You want to take particular care with it.”
Taking proper care of a piano is important. These instruments should be respected like any other musical instrument. Be sure not to put a drink or food on the piano. It is very easy to spill into a piano and is one of the major causes for pianos needing to be repaired.
In addition, the metallic strings are sympathetically deadened at the end by two felt strips. Be sure to never remove these pieces of material. In general, the piano is not a toy and it is wise not to mess around with the insides of it.
Tuning the Piano
Tuning the piano is a complicated process. It is best to use a certified piano technician when doing this. When you open the piano you can see that it has a series of pins called a pin bock. Each string is individually attached to one of these pins. To tune the strings of the piano, each pin must be adjusted with a special tuning wrench. Consequently, due to length of time and complexity of this process, the certified piano technician is the best person for the job.
The Piano’s Environment
It is important that you are aware of the environment that you place a piano in. Once the piano is tuned, it can be affected by the temperature and humidity. Those who live a dry climate will want to use a humidifier to control the levels of the humidity. This keeps the wood frame of the piano from drying out and needing more tuning.
In contrast, those who live in very humid environments, such as those in the southeastern United States, you will want to get a dehumidifier to help maintain a constant temperature and humidity level.
Generally speaking a piano should remain in tune for several months. If you can avoid moving a piano, it is best because it is likely it will move it out of tune. Obviously this is not always possible so be sure to plan out how you will transport your piano so that there is a minimal chance of needing additional tuning.
There is more than having a properly tuned piano required to create a beautiful melody on a piano. You can improve your sound by having the top portion of the piano opened up. This allows for more of the sound to come out. You can also choose to lower the lid halfway. This is called “half stick.” By doing this it makes the piano sound a little quieter.
Most importantly, it is vital to know how to avoid making a bad sound on the piano. You never want to bang on a piano. Dr. Lindeman points out that we have all seen an unaccompanied child come up to a piano and start to bang on it as hard as they can. He points out that the child probably can’t hurt the piano however they’ll probably help make it go out of tune quicker. That is one of many reasons why pianos should be treated with respect.
Moving the Piano
The piano is a very heavy instrument. It is often made of materials such as metal and wood that can get damaged. Fortunately many pianos have wheels. When moving the instrument be sure move any obstructing items. This includes any cables or wires. You will also want to close the lid of the piano as well.
Storing the piano should be done in an area that has a stable temperature level, humidity and is out of direct sunlight. All of these factors could contribute to having to tune the piano more often.
The Piano Bench
The piano bench is the proper piece of furniture to sit on when you are playing the piano. To properly sit on a piano bench make sure it is at a height where the elbows are level with the keys. Good quality benches are called “artist benches.” These benches have a screwing mechanism on the sides that will lower and raise the height of the seat.
General Piano Maintenance
To emphasize the point, you do not want to put any liquids or food on a piano. Despite this warning people will do this on accident and will spill beverages that will seep into a piano. If this does happen be sure to clean up the mess immediately with a soft rag or damp cloth.
For general cleaning and dusting purposes use a damp cloth to swipe the piano. Try to avoid using any commercial furniture cleaners because there is a chance you will deteriorate the wood. It is better to be safe than sorry.
In contrast to acoustic piano there are electronic pianos. Unlike their counterparts electronic pianos are easier to transport and store. There are many manufacturers of electronic keyboards such as Yamaha, Roland, Nord, and Casio. All of these companies are the best in the industry.
When choosing a personal keyboard it is not 100% straight forward and easy to do so. It depends on what feels best to you in terms of the feel of the action, the weight of the keys, and the available sounds. Depending on your budget you may end up spending anywhere from $50 – $10,000 depending on the features you want.
Electronic keyboards vary in terms of the number of keys they have. Popular keyboards such as the Yamaha CP4 has 88 keys whereas others such as the Nord Electro 5 have less.
The electric piano is designed to sit on a sturdy stand. It is important not to skimp out on purchasing a cheap wimpy keyboard stand because it will need to handily hold the weight of the keyboard.
Electronic Piano Inputs
The electronic piano has a variety of inputs it can use and serve the needs of it’s user. It is important to understand that these keyboards need to be plugged into some sort of amplification system. Typically keyboards are plugged into a speaker of some sort with a quarter-inch chord. Sometimes electronic pianos will also use a stereo or XLR cord.
In addition to using an amplifier to hear the electronic piano you can also use headphones that can be plugged directly into the keyboard, mixing console or amplifier. It is not uncommon for many keyboardists to use a bass or guitar amplifier. These work fine. However, to get the best sound it is recommended to use an amplifier that is specifically created to be played with an electronic piano.
Much like acoustic pianos it is also important that electronic keyboards use pedals. There are always inputs for a sustained pedal and midi connection. The sustain pedal performs the same function as it does on the acoustic however, the cables are often weak and break on occasion. Fortunately these pedals are readily available at most music stores. Note that some cheap and off brand pedals may have reverse polarity. So instead of pressing the pedal to sustain a note, it does the reverse and when you lift off the pedal it sustains the note.
Maintaining an electric piano is not the same process as an acoustic. These keyboards are tuned to the industry standard. This is generally set at “A” 440 Hertz. It is recommended that electronic pianos be tuned by a professional however, it is salient to note that some tuning can be altered by changing the synths.
One of the huge attractions to electronic pianos is that they possess a variety of different sounds depending on the manufacturer and how much you spend. Most electronic keyboards will give you basic sounds such as acoustic piano, Fender Rhodes, organ, guitar and various synthesizer pad sounds.
Good electronic keyboards can also alter sounds through the use of two wheels. The first wheel is the pitch bend. This allows the user to play a note and actually bend a pitch adding an expressive element to the sound. The second wheel is called the modulation wheel or the “mod” wheel. This wheel is programmable and can be used to add special effects. These effects could include chorus, vibrato and other exciting sounds.
Protection and Repair
Electronic keyboards can be very heavy and moving them can be challenging. If your keyboard is heavy and difficult to move, be sure to find someone to help you. In addition, seriously consider getting a good quality keyboard case. These will run you approximately $200. This is a wise investment because repairing a keyboard will run you a minimum of $75 per hour from a professional repairman. As a result of having a quality case, you will be able to store all your cables in it and shield the instrument from external elements.
When you are finished using your electronic piano or keyboard be sure not to store it in your car. Not only will you tempt thieves but drastic temperature fluctuations may cause unwanted changes. The best location to store your electronic keyboard is in a place like a closet out of the way until it is needed again.
In conclusion, Dr. Lindeman has clearly outlined the “dos” and “don’ts” of quality piano care. As music educators I ask that you consider if the use of your piano or electronic keyboard is used in a purposeful way. If it is used in performances and instruction, also ask yourself is your instrument maintenance practice as strong as as your performance practice?
The piano is a beautiful instrument and a true pleasure to listen to. I hope these few words of wisdom from Dr. Lindeman provided some sort of helpful and reflective insight into the use of your piano inside and outside of the classroom.