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I have a good piano at home, but there was (and there will be again) a time where I had to play a piano that is terrible in mnay aspects.

It is a baby grand piano that is only really used for choir, and simple music is played on it that doesn't matter as much as the choir. Besides choir, it is used for an annual concert with many instruments, but the piano is used by me, playing a solo.

They say it gets tuned in the beginning of the year, but I guess it's so old that it gets out of tune in less than a year.

Here are some of the problems:

  1. It sounds like it always has the damper pedal pushed down a little more than half way. What if I don't want that?

  2. When you push the keys down, it's a bit hard at first, but when it goes down, it comes out as mezzo Forte or Forte because of the initial force of just trying to get the key to go down.

  3. The piano is the opposite of a bright piano. It is hard to hear the different notes being played, and although my songs may sound impressive to non-pianists, I still want it to sound good. Since the piano isn't bright, it's hard to hear some of the dynamics and such.

  4. When I play very complex tunes, you can't hear everything going on because of all the previous mentioned issues. Simply put, it sounds like a jumble of notes.

Besides other tiny issues, is there a way to get rid of or deal with the issues I showed?

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    Offer to pay for tuning and repair out of your own pocket? The thing is that once pianos get old enough they often can’t be repaired completely to new condition. Bring your own portable digital piano? Jan 7 at 14:21
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    Why do you "have to" play that piano? An electronic piano is the obvious quick/cheap workaround. Is there a reason to not use one? Jan 7 at 16:07
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    @MichaelCurtis - my 1st thoughts too. In fact, several times I've used my digital in preference to an offered inferior piano. However, OP may not be fortunate to own such. Would you go out and buy one specially? And expecting the organisation to is a step too far. As an aside, one of my MDs has just asked me to find a decent digital, £2-3K, to save me humping mine along to rehearsals and gigs - but sadly, most of us are not that lucky!
    – Tim
    Jan 7 at 16:14
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    Another anecdote: important long-distance gig arranged. Piano was to be shipped in for it. Arrived to find they're forgotten the lyre & there was no way it was going to arrive today. Hasty call round local music shops we got a Clavinova shipped in to place next to it. Not really loud enough when paired with a National Opera Tenor, but we got away with it. It was plenty of fun after hours, though, when we had two pianos for everyone to do impromtu duets on;))
    – Tetsujin
    Jan 7 at 18:53
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    @Tetsujin Ah, priorities. :) Sounds like your friend came through on that then!
    – Graham
    Jan 10 at 17:10

5 Answers 5

9

Having accompanied high-school kids in music contests for a number of years, and played on atrocious pianos, both in practice rooms and for the performance, I feel your pain. :)

I was certainly not attempting any sort of solo work... and might have refused, if offered.

My approach to needing to play effectively and reliably on an unfamiliar but lousy piano (especially without any chance to practice on it) is to try to rise above the deluge of problems, on the fly. Don't count on the damper pedal for anything, don't count on subtle dynamics being possible, don't count on keys working fluently... and do expect to have to exert inordinate amounts of force to get keys to play. So it's more like keeping the right rhythm, with hints of tonality. :)

Especially for accompanying, perhaps rhythm, with vaguely correct tonality, is the most important. Attempting subtler things, but having trouble, and losing a grip, is bad... especially if accompanying kids who're shaky anyway, etc.

And, in another aspect, such pianos "are what they are", and any time spent during a performance bemoaning that they aren't better is wasted, and a distraction to the performer (and audience). Some virtuosic solos will be impossible, and there's just nothing to be done.

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  • ... of course, getting entrance cues right, in the right rhythm, when accompanying, is essential, too, regardless of everything else! :) Jan 9 at 23:36
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I'll present one more approach that hasn't been mentioned so far: sometimes you have to choose your program based on the setting. As a violinist, I'm lucky enough to be able to always bring my preferred instrument along with me, but even the acoustics of the space might influence my choice of pieces. I'm not going to play "Flight of the Bumblebee" in a cathedral—it would just melt into one giant glissando. I would play "Spiegel im Spiegel" in a cathedral, where its sustained tones can bloom at their leisure—but not in a coffeehouse, where it will just get drowned out.

So if you have enough repertoire at your disposal, you might choose to avoid pieces that would suffer from unresponsive action or muddy tone. Maybe stick to things less nimble, more expressive, that get more impact from dramatic interpretation than from rapid technique.

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    +1 for providing the link to the soundtrack for the rest of my stackexchange browsing!
    – CCTO
    Jan 7 at 22:26
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You need to stand your ground on this one. If you've already pointed out the shortfalls, and it's fallen on deaf ears, then there's definitely a problem.

You need to be present when it's next tuned - to discuss with the tuner what reparations are necessary, or whether it's on its last legs. If it's nearly dead, there are a couple of options. Encourage the sponsor (?) spending to replace (or repair if possible), with something that you may recommend; or make it clear that you're very unhappy trying to make it (and you) sound good, so you may withdraw your services.All that depends on you and your relationship with said sponsor.

As far as the piano itself is concerned - be guided by the tuner, sometimes it's a waste throwing good money after bad - but the piano needs to be quite neglected or over 100 yrs old for that, quite often. There's not a lot you can do, yourself, as sorting out is a skilled job, not one to practise learning how to mend pianos on.

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When I play very complex tunes, you can't hear everything going on because of all the previous mentioned issues. Simply put, it sounds like a jumble of notes.

Like @Andy Bonner said, some pieces just can't be adequately played in a big, empty room.

The reason is the reverberation. This is a property of the room and not of the instrument. There is such a thing like reverberation time and if the shortest notes get near or below the reverberation time, nothing can be done to distinguish between them.

What can be done in high-reverberation environment, then?

  1. As @Andy said, adapt by changing your repertoire.
  2. Install heavy curtains or at least carpets in the hall. The owner may or may not cooperate.
  3. Fill the hall with listeners. They help a lot by literally absorbing the sound, but this may not be obvious when you try to play in an empty hall.
  4. Try using hearing protectors. Sounds counter-intuitive, but sometimes helps. The piano will sound even more dull (for you), but you will hear better what you are playing.
  5. Just blindly play what you intend to and hope for the best. The performer is usually in much worse position in regard to the reverberation. The listener gets somewhat cleaner sound.
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  • OP's problem is the piano, not the room - which in any case will not be empty for a concert. -1.
    – Tim
    Jan 9 at 9:54
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The problem you have trying to play a conventional piece on a bad piano is that there will be a disjoint between your body language - dramatic hair tosses and impassioned facial expressions and the actual sound produced. So I'd suggest make your performance more theatrical, and move the focus away from the sound that the piano makes.

Here are some suggestions for unconventional piano performances:

  • There are some piano pieces that involve playing the piano lid with your hands. (I saw one of these performed when I was at school - can't remember title or composer, but it always stuck in my memory). Or write your own…

  • I don't know if you've seen the show Stomp, but you could do a related item with two performers seated at a closed piano, performing on the lid.

  • You could "prepare" the piano with paper clips, marbles and so on. Or you could perform a textural piece by strumming the piano strings and process the results with a looper pedal. You can also incorporate the sympathetic resonance of the strings by pressing the sustain pedal hard, or shouting into the strings. Or you can manually damp strings with your fingers, so you could play a rhythmic pattern on the keyboard, changing the amount of damping that you apply to the string.

  • Get a crowd of musician friends so there's as many of you as possible playing the piece, everyone contributing one finger. You could have some lying underneath, some lying on top, and so on. Then the performance is about the event, not about the sound of the piano.

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