Robert Estrin - piano expert

How to test a Piano for a Concert

Learn what to do before a piano concert performance

In this video, Robert gives you simple instructions to check a piano before a concert performance.

Released on May 14, 2014

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Welcome to I'm Robert Estrin with a really interesting show, "How to test a piano for a concert." All right. Well, this is a unique challenge that pianists face. Because unlike flutists and violinists, and French Hornists and singers and everybody else, who can bring their instrument with them, typically as a pianist you show up and you play whatever piano is there. Sometimes you have very limited amount of time to try out an instrument. So, what are some of the first things you should check out? I tell you what, there are sometimes as a pianist you have to go in to perform a concert and the first time you ever get to play a note on it is at the actual performance. That's right, you have to adjust instantly. But assuming you have at least some time to check out the piano, there are some things that are very critical. The first thing I always like to check is the pedals. Why the pedals? You think it would be, you know, all the notes in and the action all that. Well, that's all important but the pedals could be drastically different on different pianos.

For example growing up, my father had many pianos in the house and we had a Steinway Baby Grand and a Baldwin Grand. And the Steinway if you even leaned your foot on the pedal it would start sustaining, and the Baldwin had maybe have half an inch of play before it did anything. So, you want to know where the pedal engages. Also you want to listen to the pedal and make sure it doesn't thump and make noises, how to negotiate that pedal smoothly. So play a chord. Put the pedal down and then slowly lift up the pedal and you'll know exactly at what point the pedal disengages.

Now the other thing is, you know, on a chord of the soft pedal. Some pedals, you put that pedal down and it's like you throw a blanket over the whole piano. The tone changes dramatically. Other pianos, it's barely perceptible effect. You want to find out because it might affect where you decide to use a soft pedal. Sometimes you might have a piano that's very bright and you have to use a soft pedal a great deal just to make the tone warm.

Other times the soft pedal is very dramatic in its effect and you only use it very sparingly. So, check out the soft pedal. Check out the sustain pedal. Obviously, if you have sostenuto pedal, you want to make sure that it's working because a lot of times the middle pedal isn't even functioning on pianos. So, check that out too if your music calls for it.

Now beyond that, I would suggest playing two things. Play a slow melody that has...that's in the higher register so you see how long the tone life is on that piano. A little bit of a Chopin Nocturne can work wonders.


Now this has two purposes. First of all, you can see the degree of sustain, how long the melody lasts but also you can play very quietly and see how quietly you can play and still control the notes so that all the notes play. That's why a nice slow soft melody. A slow moving of a Mozart Sonata, a Chopin Nocturne, something of that nature is a great test.

But you also want to play something very big. Sometimes you'll play a piano for example, and you play beyond a certain level of volume and it will get very ugly or you might even get some brash vibrations inside the instrument. It depends. Maybe the dampers need...the damper rail guides are buzzing. Maybe the felt has worn out. You want to find this out before you go crashing into some chords and find you get, you know, these clangorous sounds.

So, maybe a little bit of some big chordal section of Chopin or Liszt.


So, really sound to something. So, you've done several things. You've made sure the pedals operate the way that you can control them. You know how much you want to use a soft pedal on this particular instrument. You want to play quietly to see how delicately you can play and how singing the tone is in a melody, and you play big chords to see how far you can push the sound before it gets ugly or if there are any problems with the piano.

So, this is a quickie test. Now, if you have more time, you could play through half a program or if you have enough time there, play through your entire program. See how it feels. Get the pacing, the sense of the heaviness of the action or the lightness. There's worlds you can learn. But a lot of times if you're pressed, you only have 5 or 10 minutes you try out that piano or less. These are things I would hit first. Thanks so much for joining me Robert Estrin of I'll see you next time.
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