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#378046 - 03/31/07 06:48 PM Sloppy technique or too heavy action?
vippo Offline
Full Member

Registered: 02/02/07
Posts: 292
Loc: Sterzing (Italy)
I've searched around a bit, but didn't find any conclusive answers, so here I go with my question:

during my search for a new grand piano, I have found out that I just can't play pp on a piano with a heavy action. I have been playing on fairly light pianos all my life, especially the one that is our family piano has a very light action, so it might be a bad habit.

Fact is, I can't seem to get faster passages to sound even and smooth in pp, and I really have a hard time controlling the force with which I have to play a note or a chord to get a beautiful ppp even in slower pieces. The most troubling in absolute seems to be 16th accompainment in Schubert's Impromptus Op. 142 No. 1 in f minor. Those stupid notes either just don't sound at all or they are hopping around like angry fleas instead of producing an even, smooth "carpet" of sound...

I can play it quite satisfyingly on pianos with a lighter touch, but there's no way to get it right on a Seiler for example.

Now, my question is, am I spoiled by the lighter actions I am accustomed to or do the heavier actions expose the undeniable flaws in my playing technique more?

And, thinking a bit further, as I am a) not going to have to perform on different pianos and b) not be improving my technique significantly any more as I can't get enough time to practise technique in earnest, do you think that I should just stick with a light action (I'd greatly appreciate hints in this direction because it means less effort \:D ) or is it worth the effort and practise in order to master the difficulties of heavier actions? Or will it simply take some time to get used to the heavier touch?

Thank you in advance!
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#378047 - 03/31/07 06:53 PM Re: Sloppy technique or too heavy action?
Hayley Rae Offline
Junior Member

Registered: 03/31/07
Posts: 15
Loc: Somewhere
Nothing wrong with you - pianos are just made heavier and louder with every passing minute. Given what the modern instrument has evolved into, it would really be more accurate to call it the forte.
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#378048 - 03/31/07 07:22 PM Re: Sloppy technique or too heavy action?
Lousy Pianist Offline
Junior Member

Registered: 01/18/07
Posts: 12
Loc: Toronto, Canada
I don't think it has much to do with your actual technique, although I'm sure many others here can give much more informed feedback,... but in my experience, it's alot easier to trasnfer from a heavy action piano to a lighter action than the other way around. I'm personally more used to playing on a lighter action, and I did experience the same problems you did when I started playing on heavier actions, but gradually I think you learn to adjust to it and learn what touch is right. I don't think it's so much your technique that's the question, but how you adjust and use your technique... does that make sense..?

On a side note, I was at a Steinway dealer near my school and I sat down at one of their Boston's for a test run. The action was so light that the opening chord of Rach 2 came out to be a forte for me... ><" and then there's the steinway at my school whose actions is so heavy that playing fast octaves on it literally hurts beyond a few bars...

Cheers,
Ted
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#378049 - 03/31/07 09:14 PM Re: Sloppy technique or too heavy action?
whippen boy Offline
3000 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/02/05
Posts: 3886
Loc: San Francisco
This topic is a perennial favorite; in fact, I think I could name all of the people who will disagree with me right after I post this! \:D

In my opinion, it is better to learn on a heavier action (within reason). As Ted mentioned, it is easier to adapt to a light action whenever one confronts that situation.

If you only plan on playing your home piano and never hope to play anywhere else (should we call you the boy in the bubble? \:D ) then I'd say get the lightest action you are comfortable playing upon. The same might be true if you are prone to hand injury.

Otherwise, I think it is better to have a moderately heavier action.

I find it easier to play ppp on such an action, rather than one that is so light you have to "pull back" in order to play softly. That "pulling back" is a source of hand tension.
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#378050 - 03/31/07 09:31 PM Re: Sloppy technique or too heavy action?
whippen boy Offline
3000 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/02/05
Posts: 3886
Loc: San Francisco
One more thought (a bizarre one, but humor me \:\) )...

If you were a marathon runner involved in an interplanetary competition, would you rather do your training on a world with gravity greater than Earth, or less?

If you lived on the Moon you could run about easily (especially if it had oxygen :p ) but if the competition is on Earth you'd find it difficult to walk, much less run a race.

It might be a bit tedious to live on a planet with more mass/gravity, but you would get used to it, and you would really build up your muscles. If you went to another world with less gravity everything would seem effortless - you would be stronger than the other competitors.
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#378051 - 04/01/07 12:46 AM Re: Sloppy technique or too heavy action?
pianojerome Offline
9000 Post Club Member

Registered: 01/01/05
Posts: 9868
Going on whippen's analogy, runners actually do something similar here on Earth -- many of them train high up in the mountains where the air has less oxygen so that their bodies are forced to work more efficiently. Then, when they run at more reasonable altitudes, the greater oxygen intake makes things so much easier.
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#378052 - 04/01/07 01:37 AM Re: Sloppy technique or too heavy action?
Dan Moos Offline
Full Member

Registered: 10/17/06
Posts: 95
Loc: Bellingham, WA
All other things being equal, the heavier action will give you more control (within reason of course)

Imagine a key with zero resistance. You could not control its travel, it would just fly off you finger. With a heavier action, you are able to slow down the hammer to a finer degree.

If you aren't used to this feeling, it will be difficult, but in the long run, you will have greater control. My dilema with heavy action is speed and stamina. That too goes away as I spend time with the instrument. I have yet to play an instrument so heavy I couldn't eventually do what I wanted on it, but very often I find cheap consoles with uber-light feel that are impossible to control dynamicaly.
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#378053 - 04/01/07 04:10 AM Re: Sloppy technique or too heavy action?
John B RX2 Offline
Full Member

Registered: 03/31/07
Posts: 24
Loc: Liverpool, England
Generally speaking I too would recommend a heavier action for practice - equally, for the reason above, a heavier action is more controllable.

It will probably partly be a technical problem - not that you've bad technique, but that you need to employ a slightly different one on a heavier action. I always think of it as pulling the note down - the tendency with a lighter action is to push it down from above. Try lowering your wrist slightly on a heavier piano - that often gives you more control in pp playing.

It is well worth spending some time on a heavier piano action, to get used to the feel and technique required, because in the longer term it will pay off!

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#378054 - 04/01/07 06:56 AM Re: Sloppy technique or too heavy action?
vippo Offline
Full Member

Registered: 02/02/07
Posts: 292
Loc: Sterzing (Italy)
Thanks to you all for your replies!

whippen boy, absolutely no offense taken, but I notice with some concern that your puns and jokes start to approach what in german you'd call "bottom drawer" (two words: "minute" waltz...) \:\)

Seriously, though, I'm not the "boy in the bubble", and neither do I hope to never play anywhere else, but as a matter of fact, my ability firsthand and, on top if it, the opportunity to perform publicly in an ambiente where such finesse matters is just not there...

therefore, although it absolutely makes sense, the "training" aspect isn't all that important after all. But then again, who knows?

As I am looking for a piano to buy, what it all comes down to is if I can get used to a heavier action so to be able to buy a piano whose action I'm not really comfortable with... my question here is not if I should buy something I'm not 100% comfortable with, but the question I want to ask is if one can get used to a heavier action after a lifetime (20 years) of playing on lighter pianos? John has inherently answered this, but my inquiring mind needs a larger sample...

John, thanks for the tip, I'm going to try this the next time I play on a heavier piano.

Lousy Pianist and Jedi, it's not like I have trouble playing on lighter actions... on the contrary, I can get the finest ppp out of pianos with lighter action while staying perfectly relaxed. Or at least I claim to be relaxed, because I feel so \:D
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Proud owner of an August Förster 190 Serial No. 164163

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#378055 - 04/01/07 09:30 AM Re: Sloppy technique or too heavy action?
Numerian Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 11/04/05
Posts: 1071
We are all supposed to judge pianos in part by their ability to generate considerable tonal range, from ppp to fff. But I think, vippo, you are on to a better assessment by using specific musical examples.

For example, the Schubert impromptu you cite doesn't call just for ppp, but for a lightly balanced, undulating set of arpeggios against a delicate melody. You can do this on a well-regulated concert grand in a hall, because the overall volume needs to be elevated anyway, and a concert grand usually gives you more control over tonal gradations. But a home piano typically makes such passages difficult - your only option sometimes is to raise the level of tone for the whole piece. Keep the left hand at mf or forte, and the melody even louder, but this is hardly satisfactory.

Related to this would be the many leggiero passages one comes across, in Chopin etudes, Mendelssohn's Songs without Words, most Mozart, Rachmaninoff cadenzas. A heavier action is going to slow you down and tire you out.

A third example - keeping some chords distinctly quieter, even pp, against other chords, such as Liszt requires (Liebestraume, e.g.). This should be easy to do, but usually isn't unless the action has moderate to low friction and a certain sense of "snap back" where the keys quickly jump back into your fingers. In slow passages, a somewhat heavier action makes this easier to do.

It all depends on the circumstances in which ppp is required, and then on your technical abilities. Since you are not apparently performing regularly on other pianos, get the action that makes you the best musician possible - in your case a light action. Your piano playing is 99% for your own enjoyment - why make it any harder to enjoy yourself?

By the way, I think it is a myth that touring professionals prefer heavier actions because that is what they will meet in concert halls. At the very top end of the business, where much is at stake, musicians such as Brendel, Barenboim, Pollini, Kissin, etc. are very fussy about the instrument and the actions of the Steinway D they are going to play. I've talked to technicians who prep these pianos, and the requirements are very demanding and very precise (several pages of instructions from one Russian artist, e.g.). The actions do not come out heavy by any means. Some of these artists travel with their own technicians. Brendel is said to bring his own tools and will needle the hammers to get the right ppp he wants from the una corda pedal. One prominent musician has said he won't play on a D that Brendel has just used - the regulation is just too different from a usual concert grand. Pollini this year brought his own "souped-up" Steinway that an Italian technician had prepared; it even had the technician's name on the side logo below that of Steinway (quite a few people from the audience when up to the stage at intermission to figure out what this new type of piano was). Some artists will insist on a Hamburg D being flown in for their recitals if one isn't available. A year ago, Lang Lang cancelled a performance of his Don Juan fantasy. Since he otherwise seemed in good health through the recital, I can only assume he was not sure he could do all his great tricks on the D he was given.

The bigger the artist, of course, the more they can demand. Average artists will have no choice but to use whatever is kept backstage or in the basement, but the smart ones will work closely with the local technician to get the action they need. For all these artists, tone is important - especially that it project well throughout the hall - but action is paramount.

I've learned for my own home piano to spend my time with the technician on regulation and voicing. I don't think we talk at all about tuning, since this is done every six months, but every two-three months he will spend at least an hour on regulation. After two months the action tightens up in a way I can feel, by not being able to do as well in certain passages that are easy when the action is newly-regulated. I use your Schubert impromptu as one of the examples, plus some Liszt, Beethoven for trills and fast chords, Rachmaninoff/Bach for polyphonic playing, and Hummel especially for regulating leggiero passages. Brahms is particularly useful to display voicing issues.

The thing most people forget when searching for a high-end piano is that they should also be purchasing a high-end technician. If your technician only does tuning, it is time to change to someone unafraid to work on the action, the strings, the hammers, the pedals, etc. Get the best technician available in your area, otherwise your investment in your piano will not pay off.

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#378056 - 04/01/07 10:00 AM Re: Sloppy technique or too heavy action?
vippo Offline
Full Member

Registered: 02/02/07
Posts: 292
Loc: Sterzing (Italy)
 Quote:
Originally posted by Numerian:
For example, the Schubert impromptu you cite doesn't call just for ppp, but for a lightly balanced, undulating set of arpeggios against a delicate melody. You can do this on a well-regulated concert grand in a hall, because the overall volume needs to be elevated anyway, and a concert grand usually gives you more control over tonal gradations. But a home piano typically makes such passages difficult - your only option sometimes is to raise the level of tone for the whole piece. Keep the left hand at mf or forte, and the melody even louder, but this is hardly satisfactory.
Exactly, playing mf against mp would completely change the character of the piece (therefore I don't really like Brendel's rendition of this particular Impromptus, even if the others are very beautiful).

For my taste the pp written is absolutey imperative, not just for the arpeggi, but also for the melody! I used this particular piece because it is the one from my "repertoire" that I believe is one of the most unforgiving in terms of evenness and very delicate play over longer stretches.

As for the chords the problems are not as accentuated, but still on heavier actions I always seem to miss some notes...

 Quote:
It all depends on the circumstances in which ppp is required, and then on your technical abilities. Since you are not apparently performing regularly on other pianos, get the action that makes you the best musician possible - in your case a light action. Your piano playing is 99% for your own enjoyment - why make it any harder to enjoy yourself?

[...]

The thing most people forget when searching for a high-end piano is that they should also be purchasing a high-end technician. If your technician only does tuning, it is time to change to someone unafraid to work on the action, the strings, the hammers, the pedals, etc. Get the best technician available in your area, otherwise your investment in your piano will not pay off.
Note to all future repliers: I will only heed advice along the lines of this, Hayley Rae's and whippen boy's posts \:D

Seriously, though, that's exactly what I thought... Why make life harder when I don't gain anything but risk frustration...

and as for the technician, wanting to be a good father, I already made the decision to find the best available surgeon for my baby, once it's here...
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Proud owner of an August Förster 190 Serial No. 164163

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#378057 - 04/01/07 10:18 AM Re: Sloppy technique or too heavy action?
kluurs Offline
3000 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/24/02
Posts: 3739
Loc: Chicago
This is all relevant to me. I was playing on a 1914 Steinway with a very light action. I would then got to my teacher's studio and play on his piano where I had a heck of a time adapting to his piano. It was a much firmer action. It was frustrating.

So I sold my piano and bought the firmest action I may have ever encountered. It had a gorgeous tone - but an action that required Hercules to play. Soon, my piano teacher's piano seemed light be way of comparison. But if I was trying to play La Camapanella on my piano, I had to take frequent breaks while practicing or risk injury.

Other pianists who used my piano struggled. Eventually, I changed pianos two more times.

It's important to have a piano you can work with. It's also important to have a technique that can work with a modestly wide variety of pianos. I think it isn't a bad thing to play on more than one piano every week. It forces us to think and adapt.

In an ideal world, the concert pianist might have 2-3 pianos available to them to help keep technique where it belongs.

At the same time, continuous work on a firm piano action - helped me to develop a better weighted arm technique - but I'd prefer to work on a "responsive" or balanced action to do the greatest proportion of my work.

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#378058 - 04/01/07 11:23 AM Re: Sloppy technique or too heavy action?
pianoloverus Offline
Yikes! 10000 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/29/01
Posts: 19105
Loc: New York City
 Quote:
Originally posted by Hayley Rae:
Nothing wrong with you - pianos are just made heavier and louder with every passing minute. Given what the modern instrument has evolved into, it would really be more accurate to call it the forte. [/b]
What makes you say that pianos are getting heavier? Which pianos have made their actions heavier in the last 10 years? I actually think, if anyhting, the trend is towards lighter action these days.

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#378059 - 04/01/07 11:45 AM Re: Sloppy technique or too heavy action?
John Citron Offline
3000 Post Club Member

Registered: 07/15/05
Posts: 3925
Loc: Haverhill, Massachusetts
Vippo,

I can understand where you're coming from. When I was younger, my piano - a lowly Wurlitzer spinet - had a very light action compared to my teacher's piano. I would be able to fly along and play very lightly at home, but when I went up to Phillips Andover for my lessons, I could barely play the Steinway D I had my lessons on! I would struggle to play the notes clearly and softly on one hand, and had to beat the melody out with the other.

Eventually I ended up studying with someone else who also had a Steinway D. This piano too had a very hard, to me anyway, touch that I could never control properly.

One day my new teacher introduced something new to me - he had me use arm and body weight behind the notes instead of just my fingers and wrists combined with being as relaxed as possible.

I have found that this helps with the tone control because instead of using just my fingers and wrists to play softly or loudly, I employ my arms and body weight behind them. It's easier to play lightly if you pull back the weight from your hands, and easier to play louder if you push a little bit behind them. This alone is the biggest difference in my technique from the years before.

Recently I an opportunity to play pianos at both ends of the spectrum. The first piano was a Steinway B at New England Conservatory. This piano had a firm, rather hard action, yet I was able to push behind it to get the tone I wanted. (I was just trying the piano just to see what it was like before a student recital I was attending).

The other end of the spectrum was an 1820's Katholnig with a very light Viennese action. I found that if the piano is played with just the fingers, the action is almost uncontrollable and the keys fly away from the fingers like playing on air. If however, I used a little bit of balanced weight behind the hands, I was able to control the tone the way I wanted. These pianos do require quite a bit more finger work due to their inherent differences in the action between these pianos and a modern grand, but once I got used to the difference I was able to produce the tone I wanted.

John
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