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As I live in an apartment complex, I'm limited to playing on digital pianos; something I can plug headphones into so I don't disturb my neighbors. I recently purchased a Yamaha P95 and have been blown away by the quality of the instrument. However, I found that when I went to play the pieces I had learned on an acoustic Yamaha upright, I had extreme difficulty getting the instrument to sound soft and melodic, something that my keyboard makes effortless.

The keys on my keyboard are weighted very heavily, and the advertising suggests that it tries to mimic a grand piano. I can't verify this in the near future as I don't have access to a grand, so I'm asking the general audience. Are grand pianos "heavier"? Is it easier to play notes softly on them? I felt like the upright was very light compared to my keyboard, and I don't know if this is a universal trait, or just the way this particular upright was designed.

I guess, to state it as briefly as possible: are uprights and grand pianos different enough that certain styles of music prefer one or the other? Or am I just inexperienced? (Do I need to re-learn the "feel" on the upright to play it softly?)

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I guess I should point out: I will soon be auditioning for the music program at my college on piano, and although I'm not sure, I think the audition is on a grand piano. If that's the case, and there's a big difference, I suppose I need to go straight to that and avoid trying to adapt to the upright. –  Nicholas Flynt Apr 2 '12 at 13:25
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You absolutely need to practice a bit on a grand. The feel is very different, enough that it could very well trip you up. –  Matthew Read Apr 2 '12 at 17:54
    
A music school piano audition will almost certainly be on a grand. You should get some warm-up time on a similar instrument when you go for your audition, however; that may be enough time to adjust. Pros rarely know what instrument they'll be playing until they get to a gig, so they've got to be ready to adjust in whatever warmup time they have. –  NReilingh Apr 3 '12 at 2:29
    
@Nicholas, if the people organising the audition are sensible people, they will let you practise on the very piano your audition is on. Ask them. This is a usual thing. Whenever I performed at a piano competition or a concert at my college, I was given twenty minutes to an hour of practise. –  Turion Apr 4 '12 at 8:14
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YOu can have easy access to a grand piano. Just find one in a public place (e.g. hotel lobby) which says "do not touch". Look both ways and when the coast is clear, go ahead and touch it. –  Kaz Mar 4 '13 at 8:16

5 Answers 5

There are many factors that can affect the final result of one's playing. When it comes into one's dynamic range, one should pay attention chiefly to the lever system length: as Turion pointed before, grand pianos have longer key mechanisms, augmenting the range of velocities that can be applied to the overall movement. Other points that could be of interest are the build quality, type of wood used, and overall string length. Usually, most budget upright pianos will be made of stiffer, less mature wood, which include the very hammers (hence most uprights produce a less-than-quiet "thump" when hammers strike the strings). Furthermore, the shorter strings of upright pianos tend to present more traction, lending another stiff component to the sound quality of such piano.

Beyond this, one have to pay attention to the build quality of the piano's soundboard, and never forget the size of the resonance box (much bigger/greater in the grand). These factors will influence directly the richness and warmth of the sound, allowing in direct proportion for a much wider range of harmonic mixtures, attacks and response (both tactile and aural).

Normally, digital pianos tend to mimic the touch of a grand piano. One should notice, however, that the vast majority of digital pianos are limited to internal memory and (127) MIDI velocity levels when sampling the notes and compressing the resulting sound files. This way, while having a possibly faithful simulation of the mechanical aspect, aural response is limited from the start, as subtler nuances and transitions through the full dynamic range are not totally achievable. Sound richness and harmonic mixture will be, in most cases, illusory and artificial even when compared to most budget upright pianos.

To wrap up this reasoning, I should say that every musical instrument lends its own personality to the music to be played. It is the duty of every accomplished musician to try using and knowing the instrument beforehand. Even some minutes of previous practice can help on finding the overall touch that said instrument can give you. This way, one can at least try the hardest to produce the most rich and adequate dynamic range, as suitable for the moment/style/genre in question.

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Uprights and grand pianos are different, although some uprights claim grand piano action. Well-adjusted action is important. A nice take on soft playing: http://jamesboyk.com/?p=351

Good luck!

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Can you explain better? –  Sergio Jul 8 '13 at 21:34

While I agree with the previous answers, there is one point that must be made; the action of a piano's keyboard is dependent on the manufacturer, the setup, the age, and the level of maintenance.

For example, my church recently purchased a new (to us, it's actually 15 years old but in immaculate shape) Yamaha C3 baby grand (6'1"), to replace an older Kawai 5'10" grand in the sanctuary. The Kawaii had been the mainstay of service for about 15 years with our church, during which time very little maintenance was done on it. As a result, the Kawai had flattened hammer felts making the velocity of the note produced by the same key press different from key to key. It also had a very heavy action, and as is the nature of Kawais, the tone was very bright, almost harsh in a stone vault like our sanctuary. As a result, despite the skill of our music minister, the piano had to be played with the sostenuto pedal pressed almost all the time, and the shortcomings of the instrument were obvious during talent shows and recitals when student players and even professional-level guest players sat at the instrument.

The new Yamaha has a much lighter action, and since it's in such good shape the action is very consistent across the keys, allowing for the player to be more dynamic when playing it without worrying that a particular key will or won't sound when pressed at a particular velocity.

So, the statement that a digital keyboard mimics the feel of a grand piano with "100% accuracy" is a highly dependent statement at best; dependent on not only the brand and model, but the exact instance of the instrument used for comparison. 9 times out of 10 any such statement is marketing fluff. I'm not saying that weighted keys in any given digital keyboard are bad, per se, but you will definitely develop a preference and if the digital keyboard does not fit it, you won't like it.

If you want a lighter touch, try a Roland; I've plunked around on their Fantom-G series a bit and the weighting of the keys is noticably lighter than some other brands I've tried. Be advised they make unweighted-key versions of the same model line, and I am talking about the piano-weighting instead of the "organ-weighting".

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I agree with Turion's answer. I would add a few additional points:

I found that when I went to play the pieces I had learned on an acoustic Yamaha upright, I had extreme difficulty getting the instrument to sound soft and melodic

Acoustic Yamaha upright pianos are notably (or notoriously, depending on who you ask) "bright". That is, they consistently have a bell-like, piercing tone to them rather than a more soft, mellow, rounded sound. So first off, I would say that your experience probably has much to do with the sound itself.

Are grand pianos "heavier"? Is it easier to play notes softly on them?

Generally, yes and yes. A couple things come to mind.

I would note that if you are accustomed to using the "soft pedal" to assist playing very quietly, you should be aware that the soft pedal action on a grand is completely different than the soft pedal action on an upright. An upright assists your playing softly by moving the hammer fallback rail closer to the strings, so that less of the force applied by the key to the action actually translates into hammer velocity.

By contrast, the soft pedal on a grand actually moves the entire action slightly to the right which has two effects on the tone. First, the notes where the hammers strike two or three strings normally now only strike one or two strings, thereby producing less sound. (The remaining not-struck strings are of course still free to vibrate sympathetically.) This of course explains why the soft pedal on a grand is called the una corda -- the "one string" pedal. Second, hammers are made of felt which gradually gets grooved as it repeatedly strikes the strings. Hitting the soft pedal changes the intersection of the hammer head and the strings such that the ungrooved portion of the felt strikes the strings. This typically produces a more dull tone.

Leaving the soft pedal aside, there are also big differences in the grand action compared to the vertical action. The different mechanical advantage of a longer key was already mentioned. An obvious difference is that the hammer is being propelled upwards, against gravity, instead of sideways in a vertical action, which certainly has an effect upon how well you can control the velocity with which the hammer strikes the string. Grand actions also have an additional escapement which vertical actions lack, which allows for faster repetition at a given volume.

Are uprights and grand pianos different enough that certain styles of music prefer one or the other?

It's complicated. Obviously if you know a particular piano well then you'll be a lot better at playing any piece in any style on it, and you'll be a lot better at knowing what sorts of pieces sound best on that piano. There are some pianos that call out to have ragtime played on them, and those are maybe not the best pianos for Rachmaninoff, and vice versa.

You'll also find as you play more pianos that different manufacturers make pianos with different characteristics. Every Yamaha upright I've ever played had exactly the same bright tone and crisp touch. Yamaha approaches piano building as an engineering discipline; everything from the way they cast the iron plates to the assembly of the action parts is tightly controlled to narrow tolerances. Steinway by contrast builds pianos of extremely high quality but with a great deal more variation in them; two Steinways of the same model can come out of the same factory and have quite different tones to them.

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I think I used some uprights with true una corda pedals (the keys were slightly moved to one side by pressing the pedal). –  ysdx Apr 9 '12 at 21:40
    
+1 for the detail; wish I could give +5 :) –  American Luke Apr 9 '12 at 22:40
    
@ysdx: It is quite rare to find a true una corda pedal on an upright, but apparently some do exist. I have never personally seen one. –  Eric Lippert Apr 9 '12 at 22:43
    
@ysdx, I think this is a thing seen on older uprights with a different action mechanism (dampers above hammers). Mine is 120 years old and behaves as described by ysdx. However, I've never seen a modern upright with that mechanism. –  Turion Apr 16 '12 at 9:03

Modern, large grand pianos still give the best feeling when playing.

Upright pianos normally require more force and often don't allow soft notes to be played easily. The quietest note on an upright piano will normally be louder than the quietest note on a grand piano. Therefore, when practising soft pieces or fast, repetitive (Toccata-like) pieces, a grand piano is a great advantage.

This is not necessarily because the keys are heavier, but because of fundamental design differences, for example the length of the key. Every key extends into the interior of the piano. The length of the lever part of it is important: The longer, the easier to control the sound. Big grand pianos usually have very long keys and therefore are playable very well.

I have a 120 years old upright with a quite peculiar action. After years of practise, I can somehow play softly on it, but I can play softer on a good grand after a minute of practise.

However, a good, modern upright might still have a bit better action than a small, very old grand.

If Yamaha says that their electric piano tries to mimic a grand piano, then this is a bold promise. On the other side, improving over an average upright should not be too hard for an electric piano.

Conclusion: Big grand pianos are the best pianos to play. Your ability to play soft on it will be much better than on a regular upright. A good electric piano might already be better than an average upright.

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I have a 1915 model M Steinway medium grand (sometimes called a studio grand) that has the original action, obviously needs restoration. In this present state my Yamaha Synthesizer with semi-weighted keys has better action. This is a rare case of age vs. technology. –  filzilla Apr 2 '12 at 22:52
    
@filzilla, fair comment. I will add to my answer that it applies to modern, large grands. –  Turion Apr 4 '12 at 8:16
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What if you pop the top off and drop in a wool blanket? –  Kaz Mar 4 '13 at 8:17
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That's being done with the middle pedal in many modern uprights. It's called a practice rail or practice pedal (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Practice_Rail) –  Turion Mar 4 '13 at 13:56

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