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Posted By: Seeker Field Report - Accompanying on a Steinway "D" - 10/13/19 09:25 PM
This weekend I played for two singers in the Mid-Atlantic Region of the NATS Artists Awards Competition on a NY Steinway "D". The venue was the Abramson Family Recital Hall at the Katzen Arts Center at American University. It is a beautiful facility, and the hall is quite lovely. The university is fortunate to have donors like the Katzens and the Abramsons.

The Room: I think it seated about 250 to 300 people; no proscenium arch on the stage. It is a lovely space visually. Acoustics were a bit "wonky" with sound going out and not coming back. (I wonder if this could have been caused by some panels that had been installed on the stage so we could enter from the back without being seen. Perhaps they absorbed some of the sound we would have heard from the rear wall of the stage?) Singers reported that it was difficult to hear the piano(!) though they stood in front of it and to the right of the tail of the piano as seen from the audience. I certainly had difficulty hearing the singers clearly when I was working with them.

The Piano: It was a competition, and I didn't have time to take note of the serial#, but from what I could see, it was a not new, but perhaps 10 to 20 year old New York "D". (I base that on the size of the pedals which were not as small as the newest ones seem to be). Regulation was pretty good, though Bb1 decided to ring on after I took my hands off the keys and pedal. My page turner reported that the key stayed down; I couldn't see that, but I did push down the damper (in front of the judges) so we could get on with the next piece.

If the ideal piano is a "PianoForte", or maybe "PianissimoFortissimo", this particular "D" was a MezzoForte-Forte, at least in some registers of the piano. The voicing was odd to me. The soft pedal had ample travel (though I could hear the keyboard moving side to side when I pressed it...), using it made absolutely ZERO DIFFERENCE in the quality and character of the sound and almost none on the VOLUME.

Further, the effect was... different in different registers. From the 1st Capo up, it was impossible to play under a MF. Below that, more so. "La Chevelure" from Debussy's "Trois Chansons de Bilitis" was a nightmare for me. As I caressed the first of the descending eighth note figures, that Steinway positively HONKED the notes out in a MF. Bellini's "Ah! non credea mirarti", went more easily, but the soft parts of the accompaniment center between F2 and F5... really more around C4, and the piano was more responsive to soft playing in that area than above it.

On the louder side, the orchestral reduction of Strauss' "Composer's Aria" was easy enough to play (at least as easy as playing a Strauss orchestra part on a piano can be) from the point of view of varying degrees of Forte. I would have preferred a bit more "bite" in the voicing of the wound strings in the bass, but that's my taste.

Volume aside I found the piano a bit on the monochromatic side.

Informal polling of fellow pianists and singers showed them to be "d'accord" for the most part with my observations.

Final Observation and Question(s): I did, out of curiosity when I was done playing have a look at the hammers in the piano. They appeared almost brand new, lots of "meat" on them, ungrooved. I suspect they were some earlier than most recent version of NY hammers on which some "tone building" juicing had been done, if somewhat inexpertly from my point of view. I cannot account for why there was no difference in tone color when using the soft pedal; this was a new (and unpleasant) experience for me. I hasten to add that the hammers did not have that over-lacquered nasty nasal sound that I remember from my younger days; they were just LOUD.

What would account for them sounding the way they did?

Why a "D"? When I was part of a committee involved in piano purchases for a university, I found that the vendors were pushing a "Concert Grand" as the solution for smallish (300 seats and under) fairly live venues. My personal opinion is that a "B" or some other 7' ish instrument would be more than enough. I am of the opinion that a "D" was overkill for Abramson Family Recital Hall. It's a small, live room. No, the seats were not filled, but they were upholstered, and I don't think people would have made the room substantially less live acoustically.

Were I asked to play a concert on that piano in that room, I'd first have a long "think" about what I could play that would work in that space on that instrument. The "Images" of Debussy would not make the cut; Prokofiev Sonata #7 more likely, Islamey, more likely to work. Mozart could be difficult - it would sound BIG, Chopin Nocturnes- nope; Bb Minor Scherzo, probably OK, and so forth.

End of Report - One Pianist's Opinion
Fascinating report/perspective. Thank you.
Sounds like it just needs voicing. The newish hammers won't have a huge difference in tone on the una corda if the shift does not take the hammer off the left string. Some voicing is done so that the color changes and not the volume. But that would take into consideration that a little wear was on the hammer. Also we usually put nine foot pianos in halls that size but just voice them to the hall. It may have just come up a bit more and had not been voiced down. This is a very minor adjustment.
Originally Posted by S. Phillips
Sounds like it just needs voicing. The newish hammers won't have a huge difference in tone on the una corda if the shift does not take the hammer off the left string. Some voicing is done so that the color changes and not the volume. But that would take into consideration that a little wear was on the hammer. Also we usually put nine foot pianos in halls that size but just voice them to the hall. It may have just come up a bit more and had not been voiced down. This is a very minor adjustment.

Thanks for your expert assessment.

It being a competition without having any prep time to try the instrument prior to playing it, I wasn't in a position to look to see how far right the una corda moved the hammers--- though the travel seemed long enough.

Won't argue about the 9' piano thing with an expert. I'd certainly PREFER a 9' instrument
voiced to the hall. I have no idea how much playing the piano had since the hammers were installed prior to my playing it.

As to minor adjustments (una corda pedal travel and voicing the new Steinway hammers), I won't argue to the contrary provided the technician has the requisite expertise and experience... like you.

Last point - I didn't mention regulation, but it also might need a bit of tweaking, e.g., in let off & drop. Isn't there some correlation between the ability to play very softly with let-off? I remember the keyboard seemed level - no drop in height in the heavily used areas of the instrument - which - I think points to fairly recent regulation. And while I'm on the keyboard, the key bushings seemed fine - they didn't have the snug feeling of a new keyboard, nor were they worn out. Keyframe was bedded properly as evidenced by no knocks when I smacked down the FF's in the Strauss.

All in all, a nice enough piano, just louder than I would have hoped for in that room in those circumstances.
I suggest you try to forward your comments to the manager of the event and/or the facility. This could help get the situation improved.

Sorry the piano did not meet your needs and thanks for sharing your experience.
Thank you everyone for a very informative thread. There is a very notable difference in volume and tone when I use the soft peddle at home. Almost like the sound change as you try to start whispering. Seeker - I do admire your skill in playing for the vocalists and toning down the volume without pedals.
Ed - it's been my experience that people won't always thank me (or any other pianist not in the "top tier") for letting them know about perceived deficiencies in an instrument... That said, I have asked some of the NATS teachers who have known me and my work over many years to carry my observations forward as gently, politely and appropriately as possible. It may well be the case that piano has been "voiced to perfection" according to the tastes of those on the piano faculty at the school. People do have differing tastes. However, as I stated above, several of my fellow collaborative pianists reported similar perceptions about the instrument as well as the acoustics. I was also clear to write that the bass (wound strings) could have used a bit more bite **for my taste** which means they were acceptable to me. If I wanted more bite, I could accent more, reduce the use of the damper pedal, etc --- more work --- but still possible, as opposed to not being able to coax a PP out of the piano for the Debussy. In one case I perceived a deficiency, not so in the other.

j&j - I actually DID use the soft pedal which helped me to reduce the VOLUME a little even if it didn't afford me the color changes I wished for. I know there are a lot of folks who believe we should avoid the soft pedal as kind of a "cheat" to play softly. The reality is that the soft pedal has multiple uses. As an example, in one of Peter Feuchtwanger's master classes he advised a pianist to use the una corda on a FORTE passage on the exposition of a theme, letting it up on the elaboration of the theme later as a way of getting more interesting "color" in the sound. He said that he had learned some of this from Horowitz when he visited him at his NYC flat. And then there is Leon Fleisher, a pianist who I remember as having an absolutely beautiful sound. I had the opportunity to play some Beethoven Sonatas for him in his studio as well as play in one of his masterclasses years ago, and I was always so busy watching his hands and listening, that I didn't observe his pedal technique when he was demonstrating for me... Many years later I recently saw Fleisher play at a local piano shop on a Yamaha C7. He got very lovely sounds from the instrument, AND, from where I was sitting about 10' away from him in the 3rd row, I could see that he was "all over the soft pedal", actually ON and OFF, as he played.
In the context of universities and music schools with performance venues:

Those professional and advanced amateur pianists who make serious efforts to keep their own pianos well-tuned, well-voiced and well-regulated often look forward to a performance opportunity on a (hoped-for) good concert grand in a professional setting. We are often seriously disappointed when the instrument in what might be generally considered a professional venue is not up to par.

Some of us come to realize, even in schools with a serious piano department, that it's not the demands of the teachers in the piano department that bring the performance piano(s) up to professional standards, but rather it's the budget restraint that limits the attention that is paid to those sometimes slightly ignored instruments.

Pleas for more serious maintenance may be heard but too often are dismissed because the budget just doesn't allow for the extra expense of higher maintenance. It has been observed that those who hold the purse strings don't realize the need for such maintenance.

As Seeker (Andrew) observes, one often has to tread a very delicate line in making requests about performance piano maintenance; such requests are often not taken kindly because they are viewed as criticism by those who think that they are doing all that is required to keep their pianos professional-ready.

Originally Posted by Seeker
Ed - it's been my experience that people won't always thank me (or any other pianist not in the "top tier") for letting them know about perceived deficiencies in an instrument...
Were these perceived deficiencies in just this particular D or in all D's? If the former, I'm not clear about the purpose of your post. OTOH I'd be surprised if most D's have a problem playing very softly.
If you don't expect to play there again soon, I think it's worth a brief communication. In the absence of useful feedback, complacency sets in.

In many academic settings, piano tech services are provided by independent contractors who are not employees of the college or university. When this happens, the job of short, medium, or long term planning for instrument maintenance and purchases tends to shift to either the department administration (who are rarely pianists, and don't understand why this is so expensive), or they become the job of whomever the senior piano faculty member happens to be at that institution. When the job shifts onto one party alone, instead of an open dialogue between the technician, keyboard faculty, administration, retailers (when appropriate), and development pieces of this puzzle, mistakes get made...more often than not, in my opinion. I've fielded phone calls recently from other keyboard faculty in my area, who have no idea what "normal piano maintenance" should entail for their inventory, no idea what services and repairs cost, and no idea about which technicians to hire for the work, when they're unhappy with how things are going.

As a result, it's been my experience that 25% of the institutional concert instruments I play here in the southeastern US are quite nice, 25% are just okay, and the remaining 50% are either not performing anywhere near their potential or are in need or significant repairs/rebuilding/replacement. Knowing a little about the tech side of things actually becomes a curse, because I can count far too many times where, instead of having a dress rehearsal the day before a concert down here, I end up working on the piano in the hall for 4 hours, so it's salvageable for the concert.
Concert grands are problematic in that they have by far the highest degree of variance instrument to instrument along with creating the highest expectations. They are also the pianos that most piano technicians are least familiar with.
Steinway Ds are the most common and are by far the most aggressively marketed as the pinnacle of piano performance raising expectations even higher.

The variance instrument to instrument can be the quality of the tuning, regulation and/or voicing, but it can also be something deeper that is related to the quality of the factory parts. It can also be related to the factory workmanship.

Additionally, the inconsistency in climate in which the concert grand is stored can easily reek havoc on an otherwise acceptable instrument. The newer the concert grand the less stable and while a University may find the funds for an expensive concert grand, it is rare when they consider what it takes to bring that piano to a performance level and the costs associated with maintaining it.

Some concert grands, even from the same maker, will be better suited to a 300 seat hall then others. Some concert grands may require more custom work than others to excel in a given space. All things being equal, I would always prefer a concert grand, but it has to be the right instrument with the right work done.

Also,different pianists ( this is a general point and no comment on Seeker's pianistic skills ) will be able to better manage the imperfections or unfamiliarity of an instrument. Controlling concert grands is a bit of a skill in and of itself. Just because one is bulletproof on their 6' home piano does not mean they will be able to control a concert grand.

Finally, some concert grands are dogs. Lemons. Even really expensive ones that seem to be in fine condition. They may be better suited for home use with lower expectations.
I think if you get around and play enough instruments in enough venues you will find enormous variations on all of them (and the cheaper/smaller the pianos, the wider the variation to the low side). Obviously the less sturdily built pianos will deteriorate faster in a university concert hall situation where they are subject to varying climate situations, students abusing them, and continuous rough handling and movement. I don't know a lot about American University, but a perusal of the piano faculty (which appears to be a single assistant professor, two musicians in residence and an adjunct), suggests to me somewhat less than world class commitment to piano education and attention to the finer points of the equipment prep. A Steinway D may well be the best choice for the long term abuse the piano may suffer in their venue. I have been to Universities with large piano collections and the Steinways, for better or worse, are the most durable.

A situation more likely to produce a satisfactory outcome would be to borrow a Steinway from the C&A program. Most major retailers have these available and provide them through relationships with local concert halls and/or whenever a visiting Steinway artist is in town. I don't know all the rules for "borrowing" one but I know they are professionally moved a fair amount and maintained and prep to artists' standards by techs. They can be quite fabulous.
My comments were specific to this specific New York "D".
Keith - thanks for saying your remarks wasn't a comment on my skills as they apply to adapting to different concert grands. I would go further than your comment about controlling a concert grand to say that it is more than that, and it involves a sort of re-registration in how one plays. Things sound DIFFERENT on the bigger instrument and usually better. As to "control", I agree with comments I've read from you and others that the longer keys **generally** afford the pianist more ability to control the sound. That I found this NOT to be true on the Abramson Family Recital Hall "D" is why I wrote my starter post to this thread. I am completely "d'accord" with you on your other observations Your comment about storage conditions, e.g., is spot-on. As on example, I still remember a 25 year old Kawai concert grand in Wuhan. It was stored in a box back stage with no climate control and within 10' of loading dock style doors (often kept open for long periods of time). Not only did that piano have blocking hammers (absolutely no after-touch), but it had dozens of falsely beating strings from... corroded strings (Wuhan can be VERY hot and humid when it isn't cold and dry or cold and humid).

Your (Keith's) comment about technicians not having the requisite experience on "D"s is more direct than I might have been when I responded to Sally Phillips' comment that the piano probably needed just "minor adjustments" in voicing and the travel of the una corda pedal. These are, perhaps minor, when done by somebody who knows how to do them and does them often. Not so for the less knowledgeable and experienced. That's why, despite the fact that I know how to do some things to maintain my piano, I "hire out" to have those things done by someone with more expertise and experience.

All - While I don't get a chance to play them all the time, I **do** play often in venues small and medium sized as well as in recording studios for the most part on different pianos with the most common being Steinway "B"s and Steinway "D"s followed by the Yamaha C7. I have fond memories of some instruments, e.g., a fabulous Hamburg "B" in a recital space at Shenendoah Conservatory, a nearly new New York "D" on the main stage at the Kennedy Center, a Shigeru-Kawai SK-7 in "The Hall of the Moon" in Shanghai. I can also remember some instruments that were memorable for less desirable reasons, e.g., the New York "B" at the Washington County Arts Museum (rather brittle at the top), a Baldwin SD-10 at University of Mary Washington, and so on.
Seeker - I enjoyed reading your field report and your thoughtful perceptions of the Steinway D you played for the recital.
The opportunity to play another piano other than my own is quite rare and to play a Steinway D is incredibly rare. Your post reminds me that whenever I play a different acoustic piano that not sitting in a dealership, I need to be prepared to quickly adapt to the piano in front of me. It also reminds us that if we’re going to give a speech, sing, or play an instrument, we need to check out the facility, the stage, the sound and the instrument ahead of the event.
It also reminds me that the biggest high priced pianos need a piano techs attention even more than does my C3. Plus keeping my piano fully and regularly maintained keep it pristine and when and if other people play it, they should have a pleasant playing experience even if they don’t care for the Yamaha sound. This might be a stretch, but IMHO a big beautiful piano that’s not properly maintained is like a handsome/ beautiful young child that’s completely out of control and horribly behaved.
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