I attended a workshop this past weekend in Seattle on voicing.
What is voicing?
Most people think of voicing as altering the sound of a piano in order to make it mellower or brighter. To talk about piano tone only with those two terms is like limiting your wine vocabulary to "oaky" and "fruity."
Can you imagine a wine steward presenting you with a bottle of the finest red, madame. This red offers an oaky taste, a perfect pairing for your dinner there, which is also tasty and pairs well with oaky-ness. Oui, oui. But I'd prefer fruity. Ah yes! The fruity. Very nice choice.
Is that not the lamest conversation about wine? I used to date a fine-dining waiter who'd stick his nostrils right into the glass, snort in the bouquet, pronounce a touch of onion, dirty socks--in complete seriousness--hints of mint, various stages of flavour from first whiff to ebbing aftertaste. Okay, it bordered on the ridiculous--but maybe not! What do I know from wine?
Keith Akins taught the voicing workshop, which was held at LightHammer Piano near Seattle. Keith began the class by commenting on how impoverished our lexicon is when it comes to discussing piano tone. From there, we moved on to listening, comparing the voices of five baritones singing the same excerpt from Mozart's "O, Isis und Osiris." I thought this was a smart way to begin--the human voice, regardless of how many pianos one tunes, is more familiar than any other instrument. Having devoted my youth to classical singing, I found it easy to pick out my favourite and identify why. Kurt Moll performs with the passionate restraint required of a Mozart aria. His tone is round and full-bodied--buttery, was the word that came to mind. It is relaxed but not uncontrolled. I could visualize the shape of the mouth, one of the factors affecting vocal tone. Not too bright, not to dark, that porridge was just right.
From there we moved on to listening to pairs of violins and comparing the tones, then finally to pianos. "Brightness" and "Mellowness" is certainly an element in voicing. A tone sounds bright when we the higher harmonics--or partials as they are called in piano work--at greater volume. But there are other aspects to consider, commonly known as "bloom" and "sustain."
The sustain is perhaps the easier concept to consider. It means how long the sound continues after the hammer strikes the string (and before releasing the key, which would of course dampen the sound). A beautiful piano will have nice sustain, not just decay the instant the string the is struck. Sustain is more difficult to achieve as you work your way up the keyboard, to those shorter strings, which typically has more to do with soundboard limitations than anything else.
Now, imagine a time-lapse video of a flower opening up. That is bloom. It means, when the hammer strikes the string, does the note sort of open up? Does it have a shape to it? Does it bloom? (And not in the way out-of-tune unisons do...)
Some words that come to mind while thinking critically about piano tone are woody, metallic, pinched, wet, muffled, harsh, underwater, and of course oniony with a hint of dirty socks.
Voicing is something that can be done to a piano with each visit--concert pianos get touched up before every concert. But generally, the pianos I encounter have not had regular maintenance and doing a thorough voicing job would require several hours. To address all the factors contributing to a piano's tone, I would have to tune it, level the strings, seat them at their bearing points, reshape hammers, then mate the hammers to the strings. The piano should also be properly regulated--poor regulation can have a big impact on tone as well. Needling the hammers would be the final step in the piano's ultimate spa-day package. And the piano would also need to be tuned a couple more times following this work.
This was Keith's advice too. However ... when pressed for time, he did demonstrate some techniques for making a big improvement to tone in a short period. It wouldn't be the text-book solution, but perhaps the more practical approach for many piano owners here on the Sunshine Coast, given budget constraints. As Ken, my mentor, says, you can always make a piano sound better.
Incidentally, most of us at the workshop really hated the piano in an early Glenn Gould recording. "Are you kidding me?" was one person's comment. I don't have those recordings to share with you here, but below are Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations in two different recordings, on two different pianos. Youtube videos aren't the ideal way to listen carefully to a recording, but I think you can still hear the differences. Which one do you like better?
Compared to the mechanism that propels the hammer toward the string, the wool felt hammers themselves look like pretty simple parts, right?
But in order for that hammer to have the necessary resiliency, durability, uniformity and length of wool fibres to get volume and an orchestral range of tone out of your piano, there are many considerations. The first one is the raw material.
Only virgin wool will do, which means the sheep has never been sheared before. This virgin wool is longer and contains more lanolin, a kind of wax in wool, than non-virgin wool. With each shearing, the wool contains less lanolin, making it drier and more brittle. Lanolin is a key ingredient in the resiliency of the hammer, which plays a huge role in tone.
So the wool is top quality virgin wool, and where this comes from can change year to year, as well, depending on the weather -- a particularly rainy season can impact the quality of the wool, for example.
I recently attended the Canadian Association of Piano Technicians convention at UBC where Melanie Brooks of Brooks LTD., a long-established company selling piano hammers, took us on a virtual tour of a felt manufacturer in Europe. First the wool is cleaned. Cleaning wool traditionally was done through a process called carbonizing, using sulphuric acid. This washes away all the "dirt, sand, dust, mud, vegetarian parts," as Norbert Abel of Abel Hammers explains. Carbonizing can also remove lanolin, so new techniques are used by Abel, for example, to create a "Natural Felt" hammer in order to retain the lanolin. The resulting hammer is not as white, but who cares?
Once it's cleaned, the wool is willowed, carded, combed and then felted. Basically, you take a fluffy mountain of wool, turn it into a giant mattress-sized fluffy piece of wool and then compress it down to a slab of felt the size of an atlas (remember those? Pre-Google-map).
The piano is such an amazing instrument that involves so many different skilled craftspeople and materials, and beauty-queen sheep. "What I can't bring to you," Melanie said after the final photo of the factory tour, "is the smell." And what is that? "A wet, wool sweater times a million in a factory full of heat and steam, day after day, after day," she laughs.
Once the slabs of felt are made, they are cut into triangular prisms with gradually increasing mass from one end to the other. This prism is the material for one set of 88 hammers, the higher mass end destined to become the bass hammers, and the lower mass end for treble.
Then on to pressing the hammers! I'll do a post just about that next.
I'm working with Ken right now to rebuild the action on a 9-foot Baldwin concert grand here on the Sunshine Coast. To decide what hammers to put on this piano, Ken must consider the size of the piano (those long strings need bigger hammers to get volume), the geometry of the action (to ensure we maintain the action leverage -- or, if the leverage was too high or too low to begin with, what kind of hammer we need to improve the leverage), and the design of the other parts (the hammers and shanks need to fit the wippens we'll be using, for example). I'll be posting a story about that, too, so you can see the before and after.
A couple of weeks ago I made a trip to a giant music store in Vancouver. I made my way upstairs to the piano floor where I proceeded to play almost every piano in the place.
Most of one room was made up of Yamaha grands, with a couple of Schimmels in there, too, ranging in price from a modest $12,000 to around $70,000. The Yamahas all have that distinct Yamaha sound, a kind of cheery purity to it. If a Yamaha grand were a person, she would be a hopeless optimist, would shrug off any disaster -- house flooded? An indoor pool! -- something like that. This is not very technical.
After my trip around the Yamaha room, I made my way to the Steinway room. If you don't know anything about classical music and are asked who your favourite classical musician is, you're safe saying Mozart. Of course, Mozart. Why not? I think it's the same with Steinway. Do you have trouble hearing the difference between a hundred-year-old upright and a brand new grand, but want to sound like you are a discerning and cultured music patron? Just say Mozart. (Although I don't recommend putting on airs. Life is just more interesting when we're honest.)
Of course, Steinway isn't everyone's favourite, and the quality of sound, I discovered, can really vary from one instrument to the next. In that Steinway room, there were definitely some instruments that had a bite to them, a substantial sound but one articulated with a chomp, while others were really mellow. I found my favourite, a Steinway D, a nearly nine-foot concert grand (with a price tag of $220,000!).
Now if Steinway were a person, he would be an older brother, maybe by about five years, who thinks that he's had to shoulder the job of parenting you, even though he's mostly been something of a bully/nag, and always gets what he wants because he's really smart and skipped a grade and your parents sort of tip-toe around him like he's some kind of genius, and he IS really talented, but still. Please note: I do not have a brother, so this really is about the Steinway.
I played a Petrof recently, a Czech piano that had been purchased in Canada not long after the iron curtain finally lifted. It has a dark, mellow tone, and is more percussive than some pianos -- the sound of the action parts contributing to the quality of sound. It was a serious piano. There is no joking around with this piano. If it were a person, he would insist on being addressed by his full name, probably two or three middle names to boot, and would scorn happy endings. Again, not very technical.
Who is your piano?