Pianist to Pianist

A collection of pianistic, pedagogical, methodical, musical, artistic, and cultural contemplations, concepts, observations, and concerns, from pianist to pianist, pedagogue to pedagogue, musician to musician and from a curious and critical observer.

The art of Bel Canto on the piano is a magical skill, a rare achievement, one of the last secrets of the great romantic pianists. Bel Canto needs sublime control of the key and sound; fluid and caressing movements; perfect, almost overlapping legato; a cornucopia of overtones ranging from murmuring parlando to iridescent vibrato; a domineering diva for a right hand and a shy and submissive maestro for the left.

For the melody to sing in Bel Canto style, the timing of counterpoint and attention to bass line have to be sacrificed. In order to sing Bel Canto, one bends all forms to the whim of the melody.

The finger connects to the key, the hand connects to the hammer, the arm connects to the string, and the shoulder anchored in the torso connects to the sound board of the piano. Investigate each connection with awareness (kinesthetic and acoustical) individually; then combine them in hierarchical symmetry.

The same way the point of a Katana becomes an extension of the master swordsman, and the blade and the movement become as one; the same way the car becomes an extension of the master driver, and the tire touching the asphalt becomes likes an outer...

"There's more to music than meets the ear."
Otto Ortmann

As a scientist, Ortmann was not consequential with this statement:
Music is exactly and only what meets the ear. What happens after the airwaves set the eardrums in motion, however, is where the mystery begins to unfold.

Ortmann was almost absolutely astute in his scientific observation that the only factor responsible for the diversity of piano sound is the speed of hammer to string, particularly after the hammer is let off from the guidance of the repetition lever. His research of the phenomenon of piano sound production was a daring undertaking since pianists - including myself – want to believe in magic when it comes to sound production on the piano; a kind of sorcery conjured by a special ability of the artist. But facts are facts.

Ortmann observed essentially two different ways a piano key can be pushed: a) percussively (speed changes during depression, particularly fast-slow-fast) and b) follow-through (speed either accelerates or remains constant all the way).

a) When the key is hit percussively, it briefly escapes the finger; the sound is perceived as unpleasant and hard when depressed fast, and hollow and wispy when slow. The pianist can't feel that key escape because of the speed of the event and the softness of the pillow on the fingertip; the finger never completely looses its tactile contact to the key top.

b) When the key is accelerated with a follow-through contact, the sound is perceived as full and sonorous when depressed fast and slender and subtle when slow, and always pleasant. The finger stays fully connected through the entire acceleration all the way to he bottom of the key-bed.

There must be a grey zone, something in-between of percussive and follow-through, but it's penumbrian and thus irrelevant (too shady to measure) to Ortmann's research.

What remained puzzling is that, since that moment of unguided trajectory (without static connection other than the hinge) occurs in both cases of key contact (better than "attack"), after the hammer shank is released from the jack tip, it shouldn't matter by which means the hammer is accelerated to that point. When the end speed of the hammer is exactly the same, the quality of sound should be exactly the same as well. Due to the flexibility of the felt covering the hammer head, the contact to the string is always about 6 to 7 milliseconds; that makes the difference of the speed of key contact (still better than attack), and thus resulting volume, irrelevant. Therefore only the kind of key contact (percussive versus follow-though) should make a difference, but there was no scientific explanation for that phenomenon other than empiric observation.

And yet there is beautiful and ugly sound ... not to mention majestic, celestial, singing, and sublime. As piano sound is a personal expression, the baring of a soul, it seems incomprehensible and counter-intuitively that speed of hammer to string alone determines the mystery of sound. And while Ortmann observed and analyzed a phenomenon, he offered no substantive scientific explanation for the divergence between artistic expression and experience and the measurements of his ingenious apparatus. There seems to be a conundrum, if not a full-fledged paradox, forced by deduction from his observations: How can there be different sound qualities, even with different kinds of key contact, when the end speeds of the hammer are identical?

Here is one possible explanation:

Bei aller großartigen Fähigkeit als Interpret bedarf es dennoch eines glücklichen Augenblickes, eines Kairos, um wirklich bedeutende Kunst zu erschaffen, ein wirkliches Band zwischen Komponisten und Hörer zu flechten. See: 352 • The Flow...