Selecting a Performance Piano for Concert Hall or Home
This article is primarily concerned with choosing a concert grand, usually around nine feet in length, for a performance venue such as a concert hall. However, recognizing that some of the concepts presented here also apply to choosing performance-grade pianos in general, I have added comments at the end that concern the choice of such an instrument for a home environment, noting in particular where the advice for home use differs from that for concert use.
THE SELECTION OF A CONCERT GRAND usually falls to piano faculty at a university, the music director at a church, or pianists hired to choose an instrument for an orchestra. Occasionally these pianos are selected for homes. This article assumes that you have chosen a brand and model, and are now about to select a specific instrument from among several examples. Professional pianists are most qualified to make these selections because they generally have played a large variety of pianos, and the differences among the pianos in the selection group may be so subtle as to go unnoticed by the average person. In most cases, these high-quality finalists sound so good that it is very difficult to choose one as better than the rest. This article attempts to define and shorten the selection process.
The process itself is simple: First, eliminate the least powerful instruments. Then concentrate on the quality of sound, and finally on the action.
In a concert piano, sound is the primary criterion for selection. Of course, we want the pianist to like the action and to feel an artistic kinship with the instrument, because that increases the possibilities for musical self-expression. But in reality, the function of a concert grand is to sound good to the audience, with an abundance of power that allows it to perform a wide range of repertoire. Ideally, the best instruments possess both incredible sound and perfectly performing actions; but for the purposes of selection, the pianist must distinguish between these two elements.
Power and Projection
A concert piano should be chosen that can be heard above a 100-piece orchestra and whose sound will project to the rear of a large hall. Even though the piano might not be going into a 3,500-seat auditorium, it needs to be chosen as if it might. Why? Because any piano can be voiced for a smaller room, but a less powerful piano will be limited in the larger space. In the world of concert grands, one can never say for sure where a piano will eventually be used — it could be purchased for a small chapel, and end up one day being played in a concert hall. Because most buyers of concert grands are institutions, even a concert piano purchased for a home may one day be sold into a performance situation.
Piano tonal qualities can be explained by separating the elements of tone into four categories: pitch, timbre, sustain, and volume.
The pitch is controlled by the tuning of the instrument. This may seem obvious, but the terms used to describe piano tone can be confused with those denoting tuning. Pianists' verbal descriptions of tone are often completely different from those of technicians, and here communication can become confused. For instance, an instrument that a technician would describe as "bright" — that is, as having a more metallic tone — might be described by a pianist as "sharp"; which to the technician, of course, means that the piano is tuned higher than A-440.
The piano's timbre is a function of the relative strengths of the different harmonics produced by its vibrating strings. Think of timbre as the difference between a singer singing an A and a clarinet playing the same note. The notes are the same, but the sounds are completely different. Although timbre is influenced by the piano's scale design, most pianos can produce many different timbres — not just a simple bright or mellow — and this can be changed by voicing the hammers.