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I have been playing the piano for the most part of my life, but I am becoming increasingly interested in the harpsichord. Has anyone made this "transition" before? Are there some pitfalls which one should be especially aware of? Assuming I have rather extensively played Bach before on piano (and with decent technique), would it generally be a lot of work invested in order to be able to play Bach fugues on the harpsichord at a satisfactory (or even comparable) level?

Note: I am using the term "transition" only for lack of a better word. I do not intend to give up on playing the piano. Perhaps someone has experience with playing both instruments?

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    Excellent question, by the by! Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be much interest in harpsichords anymore. – MrTheBard Dec 19 '14 at 19:29
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I hope someone with actual harpsichord experience chimes in, since most of what I'm writing here is hear-say.

As you no-doubt already know, the two main things that you lack on a harpsichord, compared to a piano, is a long sustain, and any appreciable dynamics. I've heard that one way to compensate for the lack of dynamics is to vary the duration of the note. If you hold a note for it's full duration, then it is perceived as being louder than if you play with in a more disconnected articulation. Thus articulation is not used so much a means of phrasing, as it is a means of conveying accent and meter.

This emphasis on articulation is addressed, for example, in the following PDF: Elementary Harpsichord Technique, by Roy Truby, originally published in The English Harpsichord Magazine (1975), and reproduced (with many other articles) at http://www.harpsichord.org.uk/EH/ehm.htm. It stresses playing with a more detached (non-legato) articulation, and taking care to not slur from a weak beat to a stronger beat (unless specified by the composer). OTOH, it also warns against hyper-correcting, and playing everything staccato.

Another technique for accenting notes is to use ornamentation (trills, mordents, and the like), which was a very important aspect of Baroque keyboard music, about which, much has been written. Trills can also help with sustained notes, since you'll often find a trill placed over a long note, so as to sustain the sound from that note.

For larger sections of dynamic (and tonal) contrast, some harpsichord are endowed with alternate stops or registers -- differing sets of strings, with different tonal qualities, which can be played, either individually, or sometimes coupled. Perhaps the most recognizable of these is "Lute Stop", which has a very thin, veiled sound, like a lute (hence the name). By some accounts, this affect was much-loved by Bach.

Another effect, which you probably can't get on a digital piano (unless it has fairly sophisticated acoustic modelling), is sympathetic vibration. That is, if you continue to hold a key down, even after it's sound has died away, the string will still be able to vibrate whenever it shares a common overtone with another string that's being played. This can lead to a fuller, more resonant sound. This effect happens on pianos as well, but (at least without the sustain pedal) it can be less noticeable, given the piano's greater ability to sustain notes. This is also a reason why playing in justly-tuned keys (rather than Equal Temperament) sounds better -- there are more shared overtones, leading to more resonance.

You may also want to check out the classic period text on the topic: Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments by C.P.E. Bach (perhaps the most famous of J.S.'s numerous children).

  • No variation in dynamics, to be sure, Caleb, but actually a good harpsichord has sustain comparable to most pianos, despite the softer tone. Check out these two rather good renditions of Scarlatti's K208: piano harpsichord The melody is being played slightly perlé, but listen to the held notes at the section cadences. – user16935 Dec 23 '14 at 1:38
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I played piano for 10 years before starting harpsichord. I largely play harpsichord now, although I do a lot of pinch-hitting on piano for church services, etc.

Learning to play harpsichord well will expand your mind as a pianist and open up new performance opportunities. Additionally, there are many fantastic Baroque composers that are rarely heard because their harpsichord pieces do not transfer well to piano.

It is a mistake to think of a harpsichord as a piano without x (without dynamics, without sustain, without pedals, etc.) Harpsichordists create dynamics and sustain sound differently. For example, a harpsichordist might create dynamics through how long they hold notes, overholding notes, arpeggiating chords, how quickly they "attack" the notes, and other tricks. Similarly, there are ways to sustain sound on the harpsichord.

In addition, fingerings on the harpsichord are somewhat different. Articulations, rarely specified in Baroque pieces, are not absent but instead must be chosen. Many composers had ornament tables: composer-specific signs for different trills and mordents. In repeated sections it is typical to add ornamentation, and what kind of ornamentation should be added depends on the composer and time period of the piece.

If you are serious about this endeavor, it worth having a lesson with a professional harpsichordist to demonstrate some of these techniques. If you read French (or can find a reasonable English translation), this is a great treatise on French harpsichord playing that touches on the mindset and considerations of performers and composers of the time.

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As a harpsichordist and pianist, I can say switching from piano to harpsichord should not pose any significant challenges. I started playing keys on an 88 key keyboard, and then went on to transition to harpsichord, and then a grand piano. As Tim mentions, dynamics do not exist on a harpsichord.

Anything that you can play on a piano you'll be able to play on the harpsichord sans the dynamics, of course. So the Bach fugues that you play on the piano will translate well to the harpsichord. I find it a little easier to play the harpsichord, but I also feel that the lack of dynamics makes the instrument a little less forgiving. Your playing becomes very transparent.

The action on a harpsichord is quite different from a grand piano, or even an electric 88 key keyboard. Unfortunately, the actions on harpsichords in general vary greatly between harpsichords. It may take you a little bit of time to get used to the action. I have played several harpsichords, and I find that most of them have a much lighter action than any piano I've ever played, excluding 61-76 key keyboards.

You should have no issues transitioning from piano to harpsichord.

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I think everyone has touched upon the "aural" feel of a harpsichord and the lack of a real sustain. I'll address the physical aspect of playing a harpsichord. In the piano, you have a hammer striking the strings, whereas in a harpsichord, the strings are plucked. In the case of the plucking, you need to have a certain amount of force (usually same across all keys) to make the keys sound. I had many instances in where, like a pianist, I would "soften" my touch in the more quiet parts but then the harpsichord wouldn't sound! The piano has a low force threshold to produce any sound, but the harpsichord's threshold is much higher. To summarize, on the harpsichord, you need a higher average / more even force and a quicker attack especially if the keys are deep.

Second, the keys are also narrower on the harpsichord, so it may be a good idea to do some arpeggios or scales before each practice session to acclimate your fingers and hand position.

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There are many preconceptions about switching from piano to harpsichord, as many people assume, since the keyboard is similar, that the techniques associated with piano are transferable.

It is possible for pianists to thrash out pieces on the harpsichord, but it's a huge mistake to assume that piano playing and harpsichord playing are the same thing.

An easy way to spot a pianist vs someone trained in harpsichord is the hand shape and use of the arm. Also, the fingerings are quite different, but more important is the hand shape. For harpsichord, the fingers are not stretched out but curl under the hand, not protruding outward when passages are played, and the arm is never needed to deliver force, it all comes from the finger joints.

Pianists automatically attack the keyboard making a harsh tone and loud banging; the force needed for the plectrum to pass through is minimal.

To take the instrument seriously means changing your entire way of touching the instrument if you have been playing pianos beforehand. This means going back to learning all scales and fingerings anew. This takes years until the old habits are gone and the new ones set in.

Very few piano pieces sound well on the harpsichord either, only serving as a very short novelty. It's an instrument you should commit to if taking it up -- or it will always be a novelty.

As a commenter pointed out, playing Bach's fugues on a harpsichord as you would on a piano will have a bad effect. Don't make the mistake that years of training on piano makes an able harpsichordist, The touch, theory of harmony and spirit should be given the respect they deserve.

Any pianist should try a harpsichord; but give yourself a few years and think honestly about your touch/style/understanding vs what's stated in the actual treatises written before the 1800s, not what your piano teacher says.

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No experience on a proper harpsichord, but my piano (electronic) has a harpsichord setting. Obviously the sound is fine, but it also disables the touch sensitivity. So from that aspect, it's possibly easier to play stuff, as dynamics don't exist! Since I play fairly percussively and dynamically on piano, it feels odd that nothing happens! Action wise - don't know about a real harpsichord. Are new ones still available to buy?

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I recently bought a Dolmetsch spinet harpsicord after playing piano my entire life. As I just retired I was going to build a harpsicord but found the spinet. I have found the touch to be very different. Of course, there are no dynamic changes or pedals so there is an interpretive learning curve. However the greater difference is the care the harpsicord needs in terms of tuning, dealing with temperature and humidity as the effect the action. So the switch is from being a musician to being a musician/caretaker. I use Kortick's book the harpsicord owners guide and recommend it as essential to a new Harpsicord caretaker/owner. As he lives within 2 hours I did have him give my instrument a fine tune up and so have a great little instrument but it takes some adjustments almost every day. It is well worth the time as it us a different and somehow more rewarding experience than the piano. Best wishes.

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I recently started a degree in harpsichord after playing the piano. You do need a different set of techniques for the harpsichord, especially if your goal is to always produce the best quality sound. On the harpsichord, the slightest motion will make a difference so a good way to practice is to experiment with the sound by using different touches. Of course, the key is listening, your fingers will follow the sound that your brain tries to projects. Some say you should only finger movements given the light touches of harpsichord keys. It is not always case. I find that small wrist/arm movements can be conductive to producing better sound in certain instances. You should also be aware of the fact that most harpsichords are one of kind, which means you need to constantly adjust (more than you would on different pianos). Again, if you know what you want to hear, the fingers will naturally follow.

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