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?