The unusual hazards of playing the piano

Most people don’t realize that playing the piano has its dangers as well as awkward moments. Sometimes its not you, it’s the piano. Perhaps I should title this entry “The unusual hazards of being a pianoist.” (sic intended)

Pedals fall off: Halfway through playing in a small town on a piano in need of repair, the entire lyre fell off. It dropped down first and then flopped back under the piano. My Debussy chords sounded dry and staccato. I had the additional plan to use the very rare thing, sandwiched in the middle of the soft and sustain pedals but that was not a possibility. The Sunken Cathedral was now completely sunk.

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$60,000 mistake from a $2 piece of equipment: Piano technicians have heart attacks when they see contemporary music programmed. But, technicians can be at fault too and I don’t mean merely a bad tuning. Halfway through Berio’s “Rounds” on a Bosendorfer Imperial, the entire piano lid slid off the left side of the piano. Audience members enjoyed witnessing my legs shooting up to the piano bench in less than half a second. One hinge pin caused a $60,000 error. The score requires forearms on giant arpeggiated tone clusters. Maybe I overdid it too? As an aside, your arm hair can get caught in between the keys when rolling your arms over them.

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Piano snobs: Nope. Not talking Bosendorfer, Steinway or Fazioli aficionados. Clearly someone didn’t like that I was playing with my nose to the air. You have no choice when you have a bloody nose. We pianists prefer black and white keys over red keys.

Runaway piano: You have to decide whether you have time to scooch the bench forward towards the piano in time to the music. Chasing pianos with upper torso gyrations do not look good during the more serene sections of Mozart Concerti. Note to self: make sure the wheels on the piano dolly are locked before playing!

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Missing teeth: You may think it’s tough to play the piano with cracked or absent ivory keys but imagine what it’s like when an ebony key is missing. Your finger has to depress something lower than the white notes. It’s a very odd sensation.

Page turning: Oh! The things that can go wrong in this department! Probably best to have one practice session with your page turner. Common problems: a page is turned too late or early; too many pages turned at once; ignored repeats and/or da capos; you give a head nod and they don’t turn anyway; turning from your leftside but grabbing the page from the bottom rightside obliterating your ability to see the notes; frilly scarves dangling over the keys as they lean over to turn; swooners, or, worse: hummers; and, finally, turning the page when the piece is over anyway.

Backaches: pianists often have aches and pains in their backs (lower, middle and upper). See picture. Require the page turner, above, to do double-duty.

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Alternative Concert Halls: I love the idea of having live music offered at public libraries that have the space for it. However, at Donnell in NYC, during a rather quiet moment, the rumble of the subway could be heard emanating from who knows in what direction. Be sure to take this into account when planning your program.

Clothing malfunction: do not forget to test out your concert attire! Having one hand down in the lower register of the piano and the other stretched across to a high C can really test your seams. Hand crossing or any double elbow playing can also have major implications when the material of your clothes isn’t stretchy. Trust me, I’ve been known to pop a zipper.

Shoes too: I’ll never forget the tremelo in my leg while playing the Rachmaninoff Paganini Variations. That extra quarter inch heel caused a spasm during a particularly demanding pedaled section of the piece. Luckily, my floor-length gown covered my shaking.

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An unresponsive audience: it’s typical to receive a glare from performers when audiences applaud in between movements of symphonies and sonatas. My challenge occurred after a performance of the Chopin Berceuse. While it was nice to think everyone was spellbound, it was awkward getting up from the piano bench in silence. Maybe I overdid the concept of a lullaby.

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Check your piano out: is it in tune enough to be able to play with, say, a clarinetist? A piano I had the non-pleasure of playing was so flat, I had to transpose the entire piece by Saint-Saens. Thankfully, my clef reading was much better back then as the piece was far too chromatic to consider other options. Who knew that you might also stumble upon a piano that has only 85 keys? Not only might your grand finale not sound final at all, your keyboard orientation can be extremely distorted. Some Bosendorfer’s have several extra bass note keys. I’ve been lost at C with one of these big Bosie’s.

String fling: this is one of the most dangerous aspects of the piano. Shield your eyes should a string break during one ultra-fortissimo passage.  They can come at you at a velocity that  beats any Flight of the Bumblebee.

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Benches: most are designed poorly. Leaning on two legs of a practice bench can cause the screws to strip. Beware the bench that wobbles. Recently, I attended a concert at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. I loved all the attention to detail in the hall. I thought that the Steinway D piano and its beautifully ornamented piano bench was to complement the hall. Needless to say, when the famous pianist, whom I won’t name here, walked out on stage, I realized that the bench had been enhanced to allow for his girth. Very wise.

No lights: a concert during an electrical storm dimmed the lights to complete darkness. The audience grew very quiet. The pianist stumbled across the stage and stated that he’d be right back. He returned with a miner’s hat on his head and performed the rest of the concert with the single flashlight-like bulb pointing at the keys. The audience had a totally different experience hearing without visual distractions.

The cough drop: no single audible distraction gets as much wrath from the performer and other audience members than the noise of a cough drop being opened up. The cough drop industry thought that they had a wrapper design winner by switching from cellophane to a waxy texture.  Maybe so…but no cough ever strikes during a noisy moment. The poor hacking individual has no choice but to finger the cough drop and remove the wrapper during the most divine moment in the music.

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This is but a small sampler of things one might not consider when taking up piano. An upcoming topic will be on performance anxiety.

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About Polly van der Linde

Pianist, teacher, director of International Piano Camps in VT, for adults and children of all levels of ability
This entry was posted in Unusual Piano hazards and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The unusual hazards of playing the piano

  1. Rea says:

    Love it!!!! I am sending the page turning part to a friend of mine for whom I turn pages (he says a good job, though).

  2. pianessa says:

    Thanks Rea. Go back and see the post one more time. I forgot to add the funniest pic of all. It’s there now

  3. John Wohlstetter says:

    Polly –

    1. Stuck on piano action. Playing Chopin etc. avoids getting inside the piano.

    2. Blood on keys. Simply claim you were channeling “A Song to Remember” (film on Chopin, a Hollywood history–Chopin tubercular & playing….

    3. Lights in concert hall. In 1971 I heard Vladimir Ashkenazy give a solo recital at Carnegie Hall. It was a Sunday night, and the stage lights went half dim as he sat down to play the “Hammerklavier.” Ashkenazy finished without incident.

    4. Moving piano. I’ve played “Rhapsody in Blue” on (a) the Eastern Orient Express train from Singapore to Bangkok, with the train swaying on the track & the instrument wobbling; (b) a cruise ship in the Antarctic, with the boat rocking gently & the piano following suit. (P.S. This was the cruise ship that sank in Antarctic waters 9 years after I took it–with no loss of life but lots of lost luggage.)

    5. Subway noise. Beats rock music next door.

    6. Cough drops. Can you hear people chewing them? What about Altoids (my cough remedy). Dust in concert venue can cause this too.

    7. Silence. Polly, you got the ultimate compliment–playing a “cradle song” so perfectly it rocked the audience to sleep.

    Regards,

    JW

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