As pianists, we can’t take our piano with us when we have to perform outside of our homes or practice rooms. Most instrumentalists practice on their own instruments, get to know it’s quirks, then pack it up and take it with them whenever they have an opportunity to play in public. Since we can’t pack up our pianos wherever we go, pianists have to be ready to adapt quickly to any piano.
In some cases, this means dealing with out of tune and imperfect conditions, just because that’s what is available. In other cases, you may get a chance to play on an upgraded piano, but if you’re used to your own out of tune and imperfect piano, it might not feel like that great of an experience.
Whether you have a recital, gig, church job, choir accompanying opportunity or you’re just visiting relatives and trying out their piano, you’ll want to be ready for any type of piano. Here are some things you can do to prepare to play on a piano that’s not your own.
Have an Easy Warm-Up Ready to Go
You don’t want to test out a piano with music that you’ve worked really hard on. There are too many possible surprises that an unfamiliar piano can throw at you. Instead, have an easy warm up in your repertoire that will give you a chance to try out the piano.
Most people warm up with a scale and a chord progression. You’ll want to play your scale in multiple octaves so that you can experience the full range of the piano. Your chord progression will help you to get a sense of how you will need to balance the treble and bass. Be sure to use the sustain pedal on your chords so that you can get a sense of how the pedal feels.
You could also warm up with an etude, an excerpt of a piece you know well, arpeggios, a chromatic scale or any other technical exercise you prefer.
Whatever warm up you have on hand should give you a quick snapshot of the piano.
Take notice as to how different ranges of notes feel, what chords feel like, and if the pedal is working correctly. You’ll also want to make sure to warm up in the key that you will perform in. You wouldn’t want to do a warm-up that only uses white keys only to start playing and discover a problem with the black keys.
Tune in Immediately to the Sound and Feel of the Piano
When you’re doing your warm up, don’t just go through the motions. Make sure you’re completely aware of everything going on with the piano. Here are some things to think through:
- Is the piano in tune? Playing an out of tune piano can be really disorienting, especially if you have a really good sense of pitch or perfect pitch. Even worse, playing a piano that’s partially out of tune can cause a lot of problems. A few off keys can be really distracting.
- What is the tone of the piano like? Is it bright or mellow? Do the notes easily ring out or does it feel like the sound is trapped inside the piano?
- How easy are the keys to play? The action of the keys can vary greatly from piano to piano. Some pianos have a very loose action, which means that the keys play and sound with ease. Other pianos might feel heavier or stiffer. Your own piano is probably at one end of the spectrum and playing a piano with looser or stiffer action than what you’re used to can be a big adjustment.
- How does each range of the piano sound? Often times, the low, middle and high ranges of the piano can have completely different sounds. This means you’ll have to compensate when you’re playing. For example, if the bass keys sound louder or play easier than the treble keys, you’ll want to tone your left hand down. Sometimes the high notes ring out really loud, but the lower notes sound dull. In this case, you’ll want to energize your left hand more so that your harmonic foundation doesn’t get lost. Sometimes the middle range of the piano is really bright and the two ends of the piano sound more mellow.
- Are there any physical problems with the piano? Pianos are made up of thousands of moving parts. It’s very common for one of these parts to break or not work optimally. Some keys might stick, others might feel loose or wobbly, the pedal could squeak. There might be some keys that don’t make a sound at all. In a perfect world, piano technicians can easily fix and maintain all of these things, but it’s likely that you’ll be expected to play an unmaintained piano at some point.
How to Adapt to a Piano with Heavy Action
As we mentioned above, some pianos might have keys that feel really heavy. This means that when you start playing, your sound will seem weaker than you prefer. You might feel like you don’t have good control over the keys. Maybe some notes don’t sound at all when you play them.
When this happens, here are a few ways you can compensate:
- Don’t strike the keys harder, but rather play with heavier arms. If you engage your core as you play and let the natural heaviness of your arms drop into the keys, the sound you get from the piano will immediately blossom.
- Sink deeper into the keys. Imagine that under each key is some molding clay. You want to play each key so that it will leave a deep impression into that clay. This is another great way to awaken a dull sounding piano.
- Take all of your dynamics up a notch so that your quietest notes don’t get lost.
- Exaggerate your fortes to give your sound more strength.
How to Adapt to a Piano with Loose Action
It can be overwhelming to play a piano with loose action if you’re not used to it. Everything will sound bigger and louder than you expect, mistakes and all!
Here are a few ways you can quickly adapt to a piano that seems too loud or too easy to play:
- Don’t worry about playing too loudly. Compensate with a beautiful tone and expressive playing. Remember that what you are hearing sounds completely different than what your listener is hearing. Even though you might be overwhelmed by the volume of your own sound, your listener probably doesn’t notice it. Just focus on producing beautiful and engaging music.
- Exaggerate your fortes so that they don’t sound the same as pianos. Your pianos will probably seem too loud, so make your fortes even louder.
- Continue to sink into the keys to avoid a “watery” sound. Using the same technique mentioned above will give life to your music. Even though you won’t have to work very hard to get a big sound, you’ll still want to optimize that big sound by making it sound full and rich.
Things to Watch out for in Digital Pianos
Digital pianos have come a long way in recent years and newer models of digital pianos sound remarkably authentic. However, just like with any piano, there can be a huge variance in how they respond to your playing.
Here are some things you’ll want to be aware of in digital pianos:
- An uneven volume. Instead of a hammer striking a string, digital pianos have a contact strip underneath the key that tells the computer of the piano what kind of sound to produce. When these contact strips accumulate dust or begin to wear out they cause the piano to produce some unexpected sounds. You might notice certain keys sound too loud or that there is a slight delay in the sound. Unfortunately, there’s nothing you can do about this on the spot since it requires a technician to replace the contact strips. Knowing that this is a normal issue with digital pianos can prevent a lot of frustration.
- Excess noise when playing keys. Some digital pianos, especially older models, don’t have a completely smooth action. This means that playing and releasing each key produces some quiet “thumping” sounds. It’s not a huge deal, and a lot of time, the sound of your music will cover it up, but it might be distracting if you’re not used to it.
- Lack of control over tone. It can be really difficult to get a nice, consistent tone out of a digital piano, especially older or lower quality models. Sometimes finding the right balance between getting a strong sound and making the keys sound at all can be really difficult. Sometimes the pedal doesn’t respond quite the same way as a real pedal and it can be hard to get the amount of sustain you’re looking for. Just remember that you’re hearing many more details than your listener is so try not to be distracted by all of the quirks in your sound.
- An artificial sound. One of the biggest complaints about digital pianos is that they just don’t sound quite right. A lot of people describe the sound as “tinny” or “artificial”. New digital pianos have made a lot of progress on this front, but the reality is that many churches, schools, and choir rooms still have much older digital pianos in them. This is another thing that you just have to work through mentally.
- All those buttons. Most digital pianos are equipped with all kinds of buttons that can turn the piano into a powerful music-creating tool. This is great if you know your way around the buttons and what they do. However, if you show up to play an unfamiliar digital piano, it can be challenging to work with all of those buttons on the spot. Things like the power switch and volume control should be obvious. But, be careful not to push unnecessary buttons. They could launch the piano into unwanted beats and sounds and you may not know how to turn them off.
Things to Watch out for in Acoustic Pianos
Though you will likely encounter many acoustic pianos in your career, there are a few things you should always keep a lookout for.
- Tuning. The most common issue you’ll come across with an acoustic piano is that it’s out of tune. Pianos go out of tune fairly easily for reasons such as moving the piano, weather changes, humidity changes, heavy use or neglect. A well-maintained piano is tuned at least a couple of times each year and should stay relatively in tune if it’s kept in the proper conditions. But, when you show up to play a piano, you never know if it’s due for a tuning or what it’s maintenance history is.
- Loose or wobbly keys. As pianos age, it’s common that all of the moving parts loosen up. This means that there might be a little bit of give in the keys that make them move side to side just a little. This can feel really unsettling at first if you’re not used to it.
- Sticky keys. Another common issue is that keys on an acoustic piano might get stuck once they are played. This means that they don’t release to their original position on their own. This can be particularly unnerving because it means that when you go to play that same key again, you won’t hear or feel it play. Having a sudden change to both the feel and the sound of your music can be really difficult to adjust to.
- Squeaky or noisy parts. A squeaky bench or pedal can be really distracting to a pianist. But, remember that a piano has thousands of moving parts, so there is the possibility of many other things creating unwanted sounds. Rattling and buzzing sounds from inside the piano are very common. Like many other issues that arise, there is usually nothing you can do about it on the spot, so it’s best to learn how to work through the distractions.
Find as Many Opportunities as Possible to Try out Different Pianos
In conclusion, although it helps to be mentally prepared to play any kind of piano, the very best way to handle inconsistencies is to get used to playing on different pianos.
Take any opportunity you can find to play a different piano.
It’s especially important to play different pianos in non-stressful situations so that you can take the time to adjust as needed. Then, if you are playing a different piano on the spot, you’ll know how to adapt more quickly.
Also, it’s helpful to become accustomed to playing in distracting situations. It’s nice to practice in our comfortable home or practice room environment where we can get in a zone and really focus. But, once you venture out into a more public place, you never know what kind of distraction you’ll have to work through while maintaining an excellent piano performance. You can overcome this challenge by deliberately practicing in distracting or non-ideal situations.
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