Interview with Robert Estrin

Virtual Sheet Music Interview No. 3 - December 5th, 2010

  
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Comments:

Zuhair Bakdoud on September 18, 2013 @12:32 pm PST
I found that you have an email address for others to reach you. I could try to send you the actual arpeggio I mentioned in my previous message - via email?
Zuhair Bakdoud on September 18, 2013 @2:35 am PST
Robert, I have a question based on your teaching of "hand position and finger pattern" in playing ANY piece of music. The question: Chopin etude no. 1, op 10, c major: there is one arpeggio consisting of D sharp, followed by the first G natural below it, followed by the f natural below the g natural, then b natural, then again D sharp etc. Is the first B natural the first note of next group? Or, is the SECOND D sharp the FIRST note of the SECOND group? I am very sorry I have had to use WORDS to locate the keys, but I could think of a way for actually sending you the notes on the treble staff. Please, forgive me for this. Thank you. Zu.
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Robert - host, on September 19, 2013 @1:54 pm PST
Please indicate the measure numbers so I can figure things out for you. Thanks-
Pat Fisher * VSM MEMBER * on September 11, 2013 @1:21 pm PST
When are you coming to Phoenix with your vanfull if instruments?
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Robert - host, on September 13, 2013 @12:20 pm PST
I would love to perform in Phoenix! If you have any connections there, please feel free to contact me.
Rick Tozzie * VSM MEMBER * on February 24, 2013 @6:04 am PST
Fascinating, a great presentation. I am not sure if this is the right forum but the subject of player pianos was not touched. Does outfitting a present day fine piano with this type of memory devise compromise the instrument?
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Robert Estrin - host, on February 24, 2013 @7:17 pm PST
Good question! The answer is, it depends upon who is doing the installation. Installing a player system involves cutting a notch in the keybed. If this is done wrong, the integrity of the piano can be compromised. It is important to utilize piano technicians who specialize in player installation who have years of experience. In that case, the player has no detrimental effects on the piano whatsoever.
johnsherrott * VSM MEMBER * on January 27, 2013 @5:59 am PST
Unfortunately I am in Australia and would like to see more of your videos. And have you any records or dvd's available
Jo-Anne Gannon on March 19, 2012 @3:28 pm PST
Excellent interview - great information - especially for my young students who own digital pianos.
cardaddy on July 26, 2011 @1:12 pm PST
Hi dude! I fully agree with your thoughts.
Roger * VSM MEMBER * on December 24, 2010 @12:06 pm PST
Fascinating interview. A pleasant, witty and knowledgeable guest. As a pianist/composer and piano recording archivist of many years, I still learned much. Great questions, Fabrizio.
I'm sharing this with others.
Roger O. Williams
Peter Crane * VSM MEMBER * on December 16, 2010 @5:06 pm PST
A very interesting and well-constructed interview Fabrizio. It was also good to see you in the flesh - you are a real person after all! Thank you for including my questions in the interview and congratulations Robert for your relaxed and informative style. Most enjoyable, thank you. Peter PS. My piano is a beautiful hand-made Ronisch which I adore.
Questions selected for this interview: 10
 1. Would be interested to know how Robert feels about today's great advance of Digital pianosby Ben
 2. Robert, do you have a favourite manufacturer for top quality performance pianos? Why this one?by Peter Crane
* VSM MEMBER *
 3. What years were square pianos made and why did the shape change to what we have now?by Jan Booth
* VSM MEMBER *
 4. I have a German Schwechten upright grand, the tuning pins are loose can anything be done to tightenby Ian Williamson
 5. How would you discribe the tone differences among Steinway, Yamaha, Bechstein, etc?by natto
* VSM MEMBER *
 6. How to prevent my piano to go out of tune too often?by Juan Sabera
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 7. How was the decision made (and who made it) to move from a plucking to hammering the strings?by John Stonko
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 8. Which piano composers have written with a true sostenuto pedal in mind? A neglected technique?by Peter Crane
* VSM MEMBER *
 9. When and when not to use the pedal including the 'soft' pedal in baroque/classical music?by Robert Clayton
 10. How different were the strings of early pianos when compared to modern pianos?by Francis Pau
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Other questions posted but not selected: 28
 1. Why did they make the Modern piano so complex? (Why does it need a hundred parts to play 1 key?)by Nathan Moore
 2. What changes in piano design do you anticipate in the coming years?by Joe Allbritten
 3. What technology improvements could the current piano take advantadge from?by krikorik
 4. what impact have the industrial and tech revolutions had on the piano?by Linda
 5. What piano tech. improvements have been tried in the past better than current but neglected today?by krikorik
 6. What would be the main points about articulation when playing Baroque pieces?by Jenny Dawson
* VSM MEMBER *
 7. Have you ever had occasion to contemplate the enantiomeric piano? How about a pair of racemic pianoby Charles E. Miller
 8. Is the modern Digital Pianos preferred to the modern day students as tuning is not an issue?by Rajan
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 9. Have you played a Stuart & Sons (Australian) Piano? What is your impression?by Peter Crane
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 10. 88 keys? When and why. Have yet to see piece with lowest or highest notes.by nomer son
 11. Should one use the sustaining pedal when playing Bach's keyboard music on a modernn piano ?by Francis Pau
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 12. Any advice about how to evaluate piano tuner and to have good relationship with him/her?by natto
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 13. Are you familiar with the Mohr double keyboard piano? Can you explain why it never became popular?by Charles E. Miller
 14. Would you please print some of the 30's and 40's big band sound for pianoby Richard
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 15. Does he write the kind of music for piano like the big band era? If so, could you put them on the wby Richard
* VSM MEMBER *
 16. the frequencies of the cmajor scale? Is there a convenient mathematical formula?by Edward Osborn
* VSM MEMBER *
 17. What is your advice on cleaning the keyboard side of Piano? What material can we use safely?by Rajan
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 18. What is your advice on daily practise of scales and Pieces? What books do you suggest?by Rajan
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 19. My 1928 Steinway is a beast to play; any way to lighten the action w/o replacing it?by Maggie Hood
 20. HOW CAN I BEST PRACTICE YOUR F.S.'S AVE MARIA PIANO/VIOLIN IF I HAVE NO ACCESS TO A VIOLIN PLAYERby VINCENTMASSIMIANO
* VSM MEMBER *
 21. Can old peapllby Roald
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 22. How to teach the history of Piano Music to young children?From Baroque to Modern Jazz?by Rajan
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 23. How can we strengthen the left hand in Piano Playing?by Rajan
* VSM MEMBER *
 24. we snould play the way as what composers heard by that time or the way they might wanted ?by raincat
* VSM MEMBER *
 25. How can one improve his piano skills,please advice?by Mutemi Adams
 26. Any suggestions on how to make and keep a child (under t/w/eens) interested in playing the piano?by Bell
 27. I have an old Heintzman upright grand - late 19th century. Will it be worth the cost to refurbish?by John Kellner
* VSM MEMBER *
 28. My piano is 100 years old and the action isn't good. Is there anything to be done to restore this?by Rebecca Moulds
* VSM MEMBER *

Fabrizio Ferrari: Hello and welcome to this third Virtual Sheet Music interview. My name is Fabrizio Ferrari and our guest today is Robert Estrin. Hello Robert and thank you for joining us.

Robert Estrin: It’s a pleasure to be here with you today.

FF Born into a family of musicians, Robert Estrin is an acclaimed pianist, teacher and composer who has performed a nationwide and throughout Europe. But Robert’s real passion is for the piano itself --- its construction secrets and its fascinating history. His passion led Robert to create The Living Piano, a journey through the history of the piano.

Well, Robert, could you please tell us more about this creation of yours? What is The Living Piano and how this idea start?

RE Well you know, Fabrizio, I come from a musical family. My father, Morton Estrin is a concert pianist as well as my sister and my whole extended family of musicians. And you know, I’ve performed for many years but I noticed something particularly in this country which is that audiences are aging. I played concerts and oftentimes I’m the youngster in the group. And so, I felt the real need to try to bring younger people into the fold and I came up with an idea of a concert experience that would show the whole history of the piano in one fell swoop.

And so I embarked upon this project. In conservatory, I actually major in piano and French horn. I never really had a background in the early instruments. So the first step was acquiring them. So I got a harpsichord and a beautiful two-manual French baroque harpsichord and a replica of Mozart’s piano. And what I do now is I take these instruments out and dressed in period customers, I do a concert playing all the period styles on the authentic instruments. I have a young protégé Bijan Taghavi who comes out as young Mozart and I perform this with the orchestras and art centers, community centers, conventions.

FF Wow!

RE And for audiences of all ages seem to really like it and it’s a way to bring people from a wide cross section to the wonders of the piano.

FF That’s wonderful! I’m thinking, it is a kind of interactive performance with your public where people ask you questions?

RE Exactly! Yeah! As a matter of fact, at the end of all performances, I allow the audience to come up to the stage and try out these instruments...

FF Oh really?

RE Yeah, yeah! So we have a lot of fun with it.

FF Wow! And I was wondering, what kind of questions do they typically ask?

RE Well, it depends. I did a performance for example for the Piano Technicians Guild National Convention and they had very technical questions. I also did it for the Music Teachers Association Annual Convention and once again, different set of questions. Now, I did one in Sta. Monica for an elementary school and as you might expect...

FF Yeah, sure.

RE There were very different questions there so there’s a wide range from technical questions, musical questions, question about the touch and I do involve the audience particularly when I’m doing this for younger audiences, I bring kids up throughout the performance. So instead of just telling them about how these instruments respond, I’ll say who has taken piano lessons. I have people come up and I say “play this” and I ask them to describe the touch so that they can share with their peers what these instruments are like.

FF Wow! That’s very interesting. Wow! That’s wonderful.

And I know also you are a passionate piano collector of course. So my natural question is: What do you like the most about the piano?

RE The piano does a lot of things. That’s a great question. The piano for one thing is not only an instrument that is intrinsic to all other instruments in that, if you are a violinist, solo violinist, flutist, French hornist, clarinetist, cellist, it doesn’t matter, singer, when you play a solo performance, you are playing with a pianist.

So piano is a part of a piano trio. It’s a part of a string...there’s so many ensembles where the piano is part of yet the piano is also the quintessential solo instrument because you can play complete scores and it’s very gratifying to be able to play complete music and the repertoire is unbelievable. It’s unparalleled. The amount of music written for solo piano exceeds all other instruments combined.

FF Yeah, I understand. I’m a violinist but I prefer to play the piano for fun. Yeah! Because the violin is taking just 15 minutes to tune it up and then we’re ready to go but yeah, I love the piano too actually.

RE Yeah, yeah.

FF And just out of my curiosity, how many pianos and ancient keyboard instruments do you currently own?

RE Well you know, as I said, I grew up with not only a musical family but we had multiple pianos in our house. If you go back to the golden era of pianos prior to World War II, there were hundreds of American piano manufacturers. In fact at one time, there were 1,800 factories producing pianos in the United States contrast that to the present where last year, there were only a total of 1,600 pianos built in the United States.

So I‘ve made it a personal mission to find these pianos and bring them back to life so an adjunct of my Living Piano: Journey Through Time is my living pianos, classic-restored pianos and I have Steinways and Bluthners and Baldwins, Bechsteins, all these instruments, some of them are only maybe 20 years old. Some of them going back to the 1800’s all meticulously restored and because of the economy, nobody else is buying these instruments. I shudder to think what happened to them and as a result also the prices are incredibly low for what you get because a new Steinway or Mason & Hamlin, which are the last remaining American piano manufacturers, started about the 40,000-dollar range and these instruments, I’m able to acquire and have rebuilt, I could sell for a tiny fraction of that and help art centers and pianists and families who appreciate the difference.

FF Yeah, absolutely! I’m wondering, do you have most of those pianos downstairs here?

RE Yes, you know, we’re fortunate to have found this beautiful loft here in the Orange Country and the upstairs where we are now is actually a concert space...

FF It’s wonderful, really amazing.

RE ...where we have art district concerts and artdistrictconcerts.com is information about that. Downstairs I got a good deal of my collection of instruments and I also have a studio in Laguna Beach where I have concert grands...

FF ...where we met, where we met. I remember that.

RE Yes. I have a lot of the really large grands over there.

FF Great! So I’ll be sure to check them out before leaving downstairs.

RE Absolutely.

FF Great! Looking ahead, what are your plans for the coming years and what exciting events you have scheduled?

RE I’m bringing my Living Piano near and far --- Bakers Field, Temecula, some places. I finally outfitted my van so I can move my instruments myself.

FF Oh wow!

RE Because that’s been a major expense and it’s also been kind of more attention than anything else. It’s like waiting the movers to show up and waiting: “Are they going to get here?” So now, I can control that. So I can really bring my Living Piano to more distant locations because I concentrated mostly on Southern California. But now, I can just pop these instruments in the van. It’s been custom fit. So that’s one thing.

And the other thing is starting this concert series here because as you well know, moving to the loft here in the Santiago Art District is a recent thing for my wife, Florence, and myself and we started the art district concerts. Our first concert is actually Friday so we’re starting with a big bang and then we have a whole series planned of masters and mentors where we have some extraordinarily talented young artists on the first half and then seasoned professionals on the second half which is a very nice way to introduce the public to these emerging artists and to have the young artists inspired by the professional musicians.

FF That’s wonderful. I hope to be able to come because I’m really interested.

RE Would love to have you.

FF Wonderful. So for everyone interested in learning more about Robert Estrin and Living Piano, please visit www.virtualsheetmusic.com/interviews/estrin to find links to Robert’s videos, his websites and to get in touch with him.

So it’s now time to move on with the questions we have been collecting over the past few weeks from our website audience. We received more than 30 questions and let our audience decide which ones they like best through our voting system we have on our website.

So here are the most popular questions for you, Robert, today. The first question is by Ben who asks: “I will be interested to know how Robert feels about today’s great advance of digital pianos.”

RE Digital pianos are interesting offshoot. You know, the capabilities are far greater than what an acoustic piano is capable of. For example, for people living in apartments be able to practice with headphones, being able to tie in to personal computers for music notation for recording, and to be able to expand the sound palette with virtually any instrument or sound effect possible. These instruments are terrific for that and there’s music software for learning theory and all of that.

But if your primary motive is playing the piano, there’s really no substitute for the expressiveness that a piano has. As good as digitals are, you plug them in and they sound the same no matter what, they’re very easy and all of that. A real piano has just when you push a key on a grand piano, you’re setting in motion almost a hundred parts. Whereas on a digital, you’re setting about 2 to 3 parts so obviously, it’s not going to have the same level of expressiveness. As far as the sampling while the basic tone is precise because they’re recording real pianos, there are always so many recordings they can do and there are only so many things they can take into account. Of course, they keep getting better.

FF Sure.

RE And for certain applications, they are actually terrific like for example, if you wanted to put some background music to a video whether it’s a real piano or a digital piano makes not as much difference.

FF Yes, sure.

RE To record a real piano, you have to tune it, mic it. It would be a whole day project. With this, you can plug it in. Boom, you’re done! And it’s probably good enough for the background on a commercial or something like that.

FF Yeah sure. From my personal experience, I have this old piano of course that I use for work. And that sometimes, I use it just to play myself some Gershwin because I enjoy it.

RE Alright!

FF I play sometimes. But my feeling is why I get I get tired from the keyboard of the digital piano. So probably because of mechanics completely different.

RE Exactly.

FF My hands just hurt a lot after a while.

RE On a footnote to that: Years and years ago, back when MIDI first came about, I became one of the first dealers in the country to offer MIDI retrofits to acoustic pianos. And it occurred to me back then and this was decades ago that somebody should take a real piano action and with a digital sound...

FF Exactly!

RE ...so you at least get the feel. And then finally it’s happened and Yamaha has something could be called the Avant Grand. And they have a real grand piano action in a box. And for a practice room piano or for a restaurant’s place because I could tell you every conservatory I’ve ever been to, any music school, the practice in piano sound hideous because you can’t keep them in tune when people are playing on them 20 hours a day. The hammers get hard as rocks and they can never be voiced properly and this is a great alternative for applications such as that.

FF Absolutely. So the next question is by Peter Crane who asks: “Robert, do you have a favorite manufacturer for top quality performance pianos and why?”

RE You know as I said, today, there are just two companies left and I should mention there is a third relative newcomer, Charles Walter, in Indiana who builds about 60 pianos a year. Mason & Hamlin and Steinway and the others and altogether, they are only making less than 2,000 pianos. They are both great pianos. But you know, my favorites are, it comes out in the individual piano. Bechstein and Baldwin and Knabe, all these companies from years ago, even A.B. Chase, companies you haven’t heard of --- Conover, Hazelton. When there are 1,800 piano manufacturers, you got to figure that there had to be at least a couple of dozen that were topnotch instruments and each one has its own personality.

Like if you’re a family and you had seven kids and you said: Who’s your favorite?” You couldn’t do that. With pianos, I might sit down and pay the exact same piece on three to four pianos downstairs and I wouldn’t even approach the pieces the same way. They inspire different performances and perhaps I like a Bechstein for Mozart and maybe I prefer a Mason & Hamlin and Broms. So it’s very difficult to pinpoint one instrument.

FF Sure.

RE And then each manufacturer depending upon the era that piano was made might be better or worse depending upon what the standards were and who’s building the pianos at the time where they source their soundboards and other materials.

FF That’s interesting. So the same brand done in different years.

RE Dramatically different. Like for example, Steinway was bought by CBS in the 1960’s and the quality of the instruments in the 60’s and particularly the 70’s was no match for what they were doing particularly prior to World War II when they really had competition and they were producing phenomenal instruments. And in the 70’s even experimented with Teflon bushings in their actions which caused problems.

Baldwin at the same time, just as a footnote, Baldwin purchased Bechstein in the 1960’s and their quality in the 60’s and 70’s was unparalleled. They all have their ups and downs. Mason & Hamlin had bankruptcy in the 90’s, their quality really deteriorated and now, they’re coming back in the ownership of PianoDisc. So you have to really know what was going on in the companies.

FF But now, is Steinway back on the high standard?

RE Steinway is making very, very good pianos. Personally though, whenever I perform and I go to schools and I see they have old Steinway and a new Steinway, most of the time, the old ones seem to have more soul, more character and perhaps, one facet is these instruments do need to age to a certain extent, new out of the box, Steinway is rarely is as good as it’s going to get.

FF Yeah. By my experience, I, coming from Europe of course, we are used to the German Steinways and I always love them. I studied at the conservatory in Milan and we used to have old Steinways everywhere, grand pianos.

RE Right.

FF When I came here on the US, I thought Steinway was the same but actually they are completely different kind of pianos.

RE There are notable differences.

FF Yeah.

RE The action of New York Steinway is completely different from the action of a Hamburg Steinway. Hamburg uses a Renner action whereas New York builds their own action. The soundboards are also a little bit thicker in the Hamburg Steinway so there’s a little bit more resistance not to the feel but to the tone to get them.

It’s hard to generalize because you could go right now to Steinway hall and play three different Model B’s and all be dramatically different. These are handmade instruments. It’s not like a Yamaha where you play a C7, you pay five of them and the differences between them are very, very small because the manufacturing is much more precise.

FF Yeah sure, sure.

RE But the benefit of a hand-built piano is when you find the one that you like, it might be that instrument really suit you that’s a personal connection.

FF Absolutely, absolutely. We’ll talk about the Yamaha later on.

RE Sure.

FF Alright, so the third question is by Natto who asks: “How would you describe the tone differences among Steinway, Yamaha, Bechstein and so on?

RE This is a really good question I have given a lot of thought to and describing sound in words...

FF It’s not easy thing.

RE Give me creative license here. I actually having development something I’m calling the tone line which shows all the piano brands and their relative tone.

On one end of the spectrum, you have clarity and on the other end of the spectrum, you have thickness which isn’t to say that these are absolutes but generally speaking, the European pianos tend to be clearer, thinner, brighter. These are words to describe them and the American piano is fatter, diffuse, creamy.

So along those lines though you have, I think the American pianos and this isn’t necessary that current crop of Mason & Hamlin but in the vintage instruments, Mason & Hamlin is probably the fattest, most diffuse sound you’ll ever hear on a piano. Steinway’s got a little bit more of a muscular kind of growl to it and then you get the Baldwin, you got a little bit more clarity but it’s still a fat tone.

Then you start getting to the European pianos, on one extreme, you got Bechstein and Boesendorfer and pianos like Pleyel, even Schimmel is in that category of the thinner, sometimes described as a bell-like tone. And then you get to some of the other European pianos that get closer to the American sound like Bluthner which has perhaps a rounder tone, a little bit fatter, not quite the clarity of Bechstein and Boesendorfer but not as fat as Baldwin and certainly not as fat as Mason & Hamlin.

So it’s kind of like that’s the way I perceive it and of course, it’s easy to find exceptions to that rule because voicing has a great deal to do with pianos. If pianos are rebuilt, the type of hammers that are put on, voicing is not only the shape of the hammers but the hardening or softening with either chemicals or by needling them. By needling them, you’ll get a warmer tone rather than a brighter tone but the intrinsic clarity versus diffuse fatness I think is intrinsic to the scale design of these instruments.

FF Very interesting. I was wondering, what about the Japanese? Where can they be placed?

RE The Japanese...it’s interesting, they tend to be more of the brighter variety. But there’s a different tone that the Asian production of pianos have because it’s a completely different methodology. Think about it. A Steinway or a Mason & Hamlin that lists for 60,000 Yamaha will list for 25,000 and a Chinese piano for 12,000 so there’s got to be difference.

One difference is the way the plates are made. The plates of a Mason & Hamlin, a Baldwin, Steinway, and even the great American pianos are made with a wet sandcasting. It’s a process that takes weeks to cure the metal whereas as a Yamaha and almost all of the Asian production pianos use a vacuum mold process. While just as sturdy, the metal is not as dense. So there is a certain metallic edge to the tone that these pianos are going to always have which beneficial for certain styles of music. You’ll notice Elton John chooses Yamaha.

FF Yes.

RE Because that tone is going to cut to a mix better than a Steinway or better than a Mason & Hamlin. But if you’re looking for the round warmth, when you play, really play Yamaha, it’s going to give you that edge. Whereas on the American pianos and handmade German pianos, as you get bigger, it opens up, it makes it harder to get louder in a way because you don’t get to that point of that brightness the same way you do even when their voice is brighter, there’s a difference to the tone.

I know other difference is the type of woods that are used. Without getting too technical, I’ll mention one other facet.

FF Yeah sure.

RE The rim of the Asian pianos are made out of soft Luan mahogany indigenous to the area instead of hardwoods found in the American and German pianos. The soundboard being embedded and remember the piano will vibrate and when it hits the rim of the American pianos, the vibration comes back to the soundboard and so you have a more sustained tone. Then the Asian pianos where the rim vibrates hits the soft rim, the soundboard vibrates hits the soft rim, it cushions the sound so you get a stronger attack and not quite the same singing sustained because it doesn’t have the rim supporting that continued resonance.

FF Sure, very interesting. So you can’t actually compare Asian pianos with the major...

RE Not generally.

FF Not generally, exactly.

RE To be fair, Kawai has there Shigeru series which is a handmade piano.

FF So they have a hot label...

RE Yes! And Yamahas, their S series and these instruments are handmade instruments of the highest possible standards and if you want to compare Yamaha or Kawai to Steinway or Mason & Hamlin, you really have to look at the Shigeru Kawai or the S series Yamaha.

FF Okay! I didn’t know about that so nice to know, thank you. So the next question is by Ian Williamson who asks: “I have a German Schwechten upright grand and the tuning pins are loose, can anything be done to tighten them?”

RE Surprisingly, yes! Whether it’s worth it or not, it’s a judgment call. There are two things that can be done. One is a pretty involved thing which is if it’s never been done before, they can be restrung with pins that are 2000th of an inch larger generally it goes by so if it has what are called 2-up pins in it which are the factory-size pins generally then you go to 4-up and you can repin and restring the instrument. If the pin block is still solid, does not have any cracks, this can be successful and you can get more life out of the piano. Kind of a shortcut, believe it or not, it’s crazy glow. I’m not kidding.

FF Really?

RE Yeah! Your superglow. It’s a technique that tuners know about. They don’t talk about it very much because it sounds so crazy.

FF Yeah. Really, I didn’t know that.

RE What they do is they put the piano on upright. You have to put it up on its side so that the pins are facing up and they just put a little bit of the glue around all the pins and believe it or not, this usually or in many cases, can give you years of tuning stability in a piano that might be toast. It’s definitely worth trying. You have nothing to lose. I would never do it to piano to sell because I couldn’t be sure how long the process would last but it is something that if you have a piano that otherwise doesn’t need any major work because just refinishing the case is thousands of dollars, replacing hammers is a couple of gran so you have to ask yourself are they piano that might only sell for a thousand dollars.

FF Exactly.

RE In this market, you have to ask yourself: “Is it worth it?” and sometimes it is for sentimental value or if you just love the piano.

FF Absolutely, I agree. The next question is by Jan Booth who asks: “What years were square pianos made and why did the shape change to what we have now?”

RE Square grands were actually, just kind of a footnote, an offshoot that happened for a little while and never caught on. It was a short parallel development in history of the piano that doesn’t have a great significance. It was a terrible design really because they look like coffins. They are 7 feet long this way so the keyboard is here and the piano is 7 feet this way. The strings go this way. Instead of going across this way as it does. So as a result, this is the crazy thing about them.

If you look at the keys, the key is in the base, are like several feet long to reach the base strings and they get shorter and shorter so the actions are just horrendous. And if you have one of these instruments you want to restore it, there are very few people who’ll work on them and even if you get it all done, they’re not really very good instruments.

FF I see. I see, alright. Okay. The next question is by John Stonko who asks: “How was the decision made and who made it to move the plucking to hammering the string?”

RE It was a harpsichord builder by the name of Christofori in your native Italy.

FF Yeah.

RE ...who is credited with inventing the piano. Of course, when he invented, it’s a far-cry from the modern piano but indeed he had the idea of developing a hammer action instead of plucking the strings with duck quills as was the custom at that time.

To accomplish this, a technical hurdle of escapement had to be invented so that the hammer would hit the string and escape the string. It doesn’t sound like a major hurdle to overcome but at that time, it was a big deal and that was the first...the modern piano incorporates a double escapement so in playing rapidly, the hammer doesn’t have to travel its full throw.

FF Very interesting. The next question is by Peter Crane who asks: “Which piano composers have written with a true sostenuto pedal in mind and neglected the technique?”

RE Yes, you know it’s funny, I played the piano since I’m a little boy. I only gotten to use that middle pedal a few times. The sostenuto pedal which is a selective sustained pedal which only holds notes that you push down before depressing the pedal. So if you play a C major triad and while holding that chord, push the middle pedal, that C major triad will continue to hold but no other subsequent notes played will hold.

A lot of people wonder what it does because if you don’t push it at the right time, it doesn’t seem to do anything. That’s why I gave a little explanation. It was only invented in the late 19th century so the only composer really who use it are the impressionist like W.C., Ravel; twentieth century composers Prokofiev, [Partch]. But even in those works, they are seldom used.

FF Yeah, those composers suggest they go see Ravel. Do they actually write on the score to use the...

RE Yeah! You’ll have a part that there’s no other way to negotiate the notes.

FF Oh yeah, sure!

RE You’ll have an active down here holding and then your hands are up here.

FF Sure, sure.

RE Unless you want the whole thing to be a blur with the sustained pedal like you had to do with Beethoven who would sometimes write things like that and you’re left with this half pedal and try to keep it going a bit without muddying everything else. So it’s very useful. You can even use it for earlier music if you find creative uses. Occasionally, I’d use it in earlier music just to avoid the muddiness that you get with using sustained pedal in such circumstances.

FF That’s a great tip to remember. It’s great. Okay! The next question is by Juan Sabera who asks: “How to prevent my piano to go out of tune too often?” I’m very interested in there.

RE There’s a saying among piano tuners that you can’t tune an out-of-tune piano and there’s some truth to this because if a piano gets low in pitch for example, a tuner starts tuning one end of the piano and because of the pressure exerted on the bridge which then pushes down the soundboard, the other part of the piano that he might have already tuned or she might have already tuned will start to go out of tune.

So one secret is never put off your tunings. You should tune your piano even if it still sounds relatively in tune because the whole piano may dip lower or even some of these go higher. And when that happens, the next tuning won’t hold as long. So the more often you tune your piano, you’ll get to a point where you almost don’t have to tune it.

The other things are keeping temperature and humidity as stable as possible and don’t play it very much. The playing of piano will knock it out of tune so you have to balance your enjoyment of the piano.

FF I understand.

RE I keep my tuning hammer around. I touch up all my pianos on a regular basis and have them tuned as often as I can possibly can.

FF I understand, okay.

RE So that’s the secret.

FF I’m going to try that. Okay, the next question is by Francis Pau who asks: “How different were the strings of early pianos when compared to modern pianos?”

RE You know if you come downstairs and check out my Steinfort piano, you’ll see the strings are very thin, thinner than violin strings. The piano scale design today because of the caster and frame of the early pianos were all wood, they couldn’t support the string tension. The high tension strings, it’s a much thicker string. Piano wire, if you go inside a piano and touch the treble strings, it doesn’t feel like strings. It feels like you’re just hitting a solid piece of steel. There’s something like 20 tons of combined string tension exerted on the plate whereas the early pianos were just wood construction and have very thin delicate, the whole mechanism is delicate. You and I can take my forte piano work across the room with it. They’re very light.

FF Yes. The next question is by Joe Albritten who asks: “What changes in the piano design do you anticipate in the coming years?”

RE As I mentioned, the Avant Grand that Yamaha has produced I think, it was sad in a way because of the romance of a real piano. There could come a time when the sheer cost of the piano not just producing it but maintaining it will make instruments such as this much more common place.

And personally, I welcome that in certain circumstances. I would hate to see concert halls have these electronic hybrids but I would prefer to practice on one of those and practice room situations because if you’ve ever been in practice rooms, the instruments are so horrendously out of tune and the voicing so bad that they have something that the tone never varies at all would be incredible. So I think that this makes a lot of sense.

Just so that you know though, these instruments don’t come cheap. It’s a 15,000-dollar piano for a digital hybrid. It doesn’t have strings. It has amplifiers and digital sound reproduction and some physical modeling characteristics, speakers, amplifiers but it does have a real piano action. So I think this will become a more common place.

But we’re also going to see the real piano for years and years to come because there is no substitute for what a piano can do. The total expression is unparalleled and the fact that the piano is still here over a hundred years after the piano as we know it really has remain unchanged since about the late 1800’s so I think we’ll see it continue for a long time as it is in this current form.

FF Yeah, we’ll be happy because of that. Nice. So I have just my final personal question...

RE Sure.

FF ...which is about my Baby Grand Yamaha I have. It’s pretty old Yamaha and it actually goes out of tune very often something every 2 weeks.

RE Oh boy!

FF I’m really tired of that so I don’t know if I need to replace the piano, get rid of it or is any fixing that I can actually apply? Can you help me with that?

RE I’ll come over there with some crazy glow.

FF Yeah, exactly. I’ll try that.

RE You know, I’d have to know more about the instrument and the general condition what’s worth doing with it. Another technique that I didn’t mention earlier is tapping the pins. If there’s room, sometimes you can tap the tuning pins in a little bit further...

FF Oh okay!

RE ...and get a little bit better tuning stability. There’s a lot of things that could cause that depending upon how old the piano is, how much it has been played and if it has been restrung --- sometimes the restringing is sloppy – if the coils are not tightly wound or even the manufacturer. Sometimes a piano’s manufactured in a sloppy manner. Just tightening the coils on the pins will help tuning stability.

Tapping the strings at the bridges can help not only tuning stability but it can enhance the tone quite a bit. Because you get better termination of the string on the bridge which transfers the sound on the soundboard. So there are a number of things you can try before giving up hope. But it might be that it could be a time to consider looking at other options for yourself and oh I might be able to help you with that.

FF Okay, we’ll be in touch soon.

RE Alright! It sounds great!

FF Okay, I think we are done with the interview and I’m going to go downstairs to try your piano.

RE Beautiful!

FF So thank you very much Robert for joining us today.

RE Alright, thank you!

FF And thank you for watching.

ROBERT ESTRIN REFERENCES

Videos
Video about pizzicato
by Robert Estrin


Pianos for Sale
Baldwin piano model R
various pianos available


Sheet Music Downloads
Virtual Sheet Music digital edition
Sonata K 545 for piano by Mozart Get it on Virtual Sheet Music
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