By Nahre Sol
Recently, I realized that the piano had become invisible. After performing professionally for more than two decades, my field of vision narrowed as I delved deep into the details of piano technique and repertoire. My focus became limited to the part of the piano I touch - the keys. This scenario does not seem uncommon among pianists.
There is often a separation between the discussion of playing the piano and the instrument itself. This is the case even when it comes to piano maintenance. Very rarely will a pianist be involved with tuning and mechanical repairs of their instruments. We consider this the piano technician’s domain out of fear or out of ignorance.
There is also a separation between a piano’s identity and the pianist’s. Many factors lead to this. First, the grand piano, as the name suggests, is one of the largest and most majestic musical instruments. Even upright pianos are not portable by any stretch of the imagination and cannot simply be tucked away in a closet. Because of this, it usually becomes part of a home’s furnishing. While this has influenced many families to house pianos as part of their home decoration, sometimes this causes pianos to blend into the background. Since I grew up with a piano in my childhood home, I took the piano for granted. I saw pianos as a fixed element in each space. I never even questioned how each piano I played came into existence. Each piano had a fixed touch, a fixed quality of sound, and a fixed set of visual elements. I was preoccupied with building my skills to be immune to the different characteristics of each piano. I thought I should be able to adjust my technique accordingly.
While practicing to perform recitals and enter piano competitions, I became singularly attentive to my hands and how they were moving on the keys, rather than considering the piano as a whole. It was also ingrained in me that pianists must remain flexible and accommodating to whatever piano is presented to us, especially while in music conservatory, where our biggest concern was often simply finding an open room in which to practice. I turned my focus to adapting to the instrument rather than considering each piano’s distinct character.
This year I visited a piano factory. I was granted access to the Fazioli factory in Sacile, Italy, with a personal tour by Luca Fazioli, Project Manager for Fazioli and the son of its founder. I went into the factory not knowing what to expect, but as I stepped inside, I immediately felt that I was about to experience something that would have a significant impact on not only my broader understanding of pianos but also how the elegant architecture of the piano inflects the sounds we are so intimately attuned to.
This was a first impression I will never forget. Even though there were dozens of stations, teams of artisans working diligently, and copious amounts of material crowding the factory space, the environment was absolutely serene and calming. It moved me because it was reminiscent of the sincerity and focus I feel in music conservatories, concert halls, and study rooms. I viscerally felt that there is nothing casual about building a piano, at least not at Fazioli.
As one would expect at any factory, the level of organization and methodical nature of the entire procedure is completely optimized. This is helpful for efficiency but also necessary to facilitate the high volume of steps it takes to transform the raw materials into powerful instruments that allow pianists to play the full range of the piano repertoire.
First, I saw the large slates of wood being seasoned for use as the outer rim. They quietly sit in a carefully controlled environment for at least six months while stabilizing. I was surprised by how long the waiting period was, but next, I found out that the wood for the soundboard had to “season” for three times that length - at least 18 months! The soundboard is the most crucial part of the piano and must reach an exact moisture content to produce the desired tone.
I walked by many stations where various artisans worked on small sections of the piano. Many of these components looked very unfamiliar to me — the deepest I had explored within the piano was the action, where the keys are joined to the hammers through a series of complex parts. I was surprised by the sheer number of these parts, invisible to the eye but vital to the ear, working inconspicuously within these mammoth instruments.
I always thought of pianos as giant masses that were extremely heavy. I never considered the fact that the strings are only able to produce sound under enormous pressure. When I got to the station where the iron frames were being adjusted, I saw the tremendous amount of force the frame supports from each of the 230 or so strings when pulled to pitch. Grand pianos carry about 30 tons of force as each of the strings carries about 200 lbs of tension. This fact alone has changed my posture at the piano as I feel the incredible internal force behind each flick of a key and vibration of a string.
Nearly all of the steps of this intricate procedure rely on the perfect completion of the step immediately prior. This cumulative process leaves no room for error. The assembly alone is unimaginably complicated — there are more than 12,000 separate parts! Therefore, all of the steps must be carried out in a slow and methodical manner.
An unexpectedly fascinating part of the tour was seeing the pounding machine in action. As its name suggests, it pounds incessantly for six hours, pressing each key over 7,000 times! This ensures that the piano is properly broken in before leaving the factory.
Another detail illuminated by my tour was Fazioli’s capo d’astro bar, which is uniquely adjustable so that each of the inverted triangles that support the strings near the pins is separated from each other. This new design makes the strings harder to break, and it is something that I would never have seen on my own. However, the result of this innovation is very relevant to every pianist.
As a coda to the tour, I was able to spend some time playing the piano in the Fazioli Concert Hall, located adjacent to the factory. The sound, touch, and aura of the piano on the stage embodied the combined efforts of everyone who worked on each of these pianos. Hearing this piano in particular helped me grasp the importance of matching a piano with a suitable space that respects its size and characteristics. The shape and size of the hall amplify the piano’s precise, warm, and bold sound. It was apparent that tremendous care and attention were put into finding the perfect placement and maintenance for the piano in order to maximize its potential in relation to the specific acoustics of the hall.
As a further surprise, I was greeted by Mr. Paolo Fazioli himself while playing on this piano. I will never forget that moment, for it is an incredibly rare occurrence to meet a piano maker while playing a piano that he created. From our brief conversation, I was able to feel his immense passion and endless dedication to the science and artistry of piano-making. He mentioned that he is currently concentrating on research to make improvements to the concert grand piano. He also spoke about devoting himself to both tradition and innovation, concepts that can often seem in opposition. I believe Fazioli pianos have struck an elegant balance between these ideals.
With this experience, I gained a more solid understanding of how sound is actually created by the piano, the factors that influence a piano’s characteristics, and an overall heightened appreciation of the beauty of pianos. I have noticed a shift in how I approach my instrument. I am more engaged in listening to the entirety of the sound produced by the piano rather than focusing so much on what is immediately in front of me, and this has made me a better listener. My awareness when playing the piano is expanded, changing the shapes and colors of the lines that I play, and my sense of time within the music.
Nahre Sol performs, composes, and teaches an eclectic mixture of music that draws from aspects of improvisation, the avant-garde, traditional Western forms and harmony, jazz, and minimalism. She runs a notable series of videos on Youtube that distill her distinct perspective as a classically-trained pianist with an insatiable appetite for new ideas about music theory, harmony, practicing, and composition. She has gained notoriety and over 500,000 subscribers through her videos breaking down the stylistic elements of great classical composers and documentaries that share excursions into various genres she explores. In 2019-2020, she was the co-host of Sound Field, a music channel by PBS Digital Studios, alongside drummer L.A. Buckner. Learn more about Nahre on her website.
She holds degrees from The Juilliard School and The Glenn Gould School of The Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. In 2013 she was a recipient of the Harriet Hale Woolley Grant, which enabled her to study in Paris under Gabriel Tacchino and Narcis Bonet, pupils of Francis Poulenc and Nadia Boulanger. Nahre's music has been premiered in New York City, Buenos Aires, Paris, and Toronto by artists and ensembles such as Ema Nikolovska, Kunal Lahiry, The Happenstancers, the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra, Michael Hey, Julian Martin, Han Chen, and Jeremy Smith. She has also contributed to the soundtrack of Boss Baby II upon invitation from Hans Zimmer and Steve Mazzaro and composed music for the Rayark video game DEEMO II. Nahre is a regular guest speaker and teacher at institutions such as Carnegie Mellon University, Boston University, M.I.T., Syracuse University, and the University of Costa Rica, among others.