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I'm a former pianist who would like to own and play an acoustic grand harpsichord one day, but until i finish school and have a more permanent living situation that will be neither practical nor financially wise. I've decided in the meantime to get a (relatively) cheap midi keyboard and virtual instruments to practice with.

I've done some research and know that a harpsichord has a much lighter action than a piano. I'm still not sure whether synth action or semi-weighted keys would be better preparation for the real thing. most people seem to agree that neither are quite right, but there are a lot of conflicting opinions out there about which is closer. i know the best thing would be to test out a harpsichord in person but i have no idea where to find one.

so, specifically for practicing baroque harpsichord tunes, which action would be better?

  • I can't imagine synth action being right but I've only touched a real harpsichord once in my life. If I remember correctly it's more like an electric piano than anything else, and a clavinet also has some similarities. I agree that neither semi weighted or synth is right but I think semi weighted is less wrong. I'm not answering because I'm not sure. If no one who actually knows answers in a few days, I'll copy paste this into an answer and people can up or downvote it as they see fit. – Todd Wilcox Apr 18 '17 at 19:39
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    Instead of a full-size harpsichord, you might want to consider buying a spinet or virginals. The action is the same, but the instruments are much smaller and lighter. You won't get as many "bells and whistles" to play with, the compass may be smaller than 5 octaves, and they only have one manual, but none of that matters much for learning how to play one (and how to maintain one - your first challenge will probably be learning how to tune it, which may need to be done once a week, not twice a year as with a modern piano!) – user19146 Apr 18 '17 at 20:46
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Harpsichords pluck the string with a (now) plastic plectra, as opposed to hitting the string with a hammer. The physical nature of feeling the space between pressing the key down and hitting the pluck, actually plucking the string, and being under the plectra are essential to good harpsichord technique.

The touch on a harpsichord is certainly "lighter" than a piano, but that's the bare beginning of the differences between the two. I've met plenty of keyboards, and even some passable weighted keyboards that simulate a piano's touch, but nothing even close to a harpsichord. This lighter touch and the "snap" of the plectra are essential to getting ornaments in the baroque style correct.

I would suggest two options:

1) You could buy a virginal, which is smaller and somewhat less expensive than a big harpsichord. You could also consider a clavichord, which again is smaller and less expensive. It is a different instrument, but I have always found practicing on clavichord to be an excellent preparation for playing harpsichord.

2) You mention that you are a student, so your educational institution might have a harpsichord. Usually it's in a small room somewhere that no one sees it, but typically whomever at a college or university has an interest in harpsichords will be delighted that you are interested.

  • My school does have at least one harpsichord but their instrument collection is for music students and faculty only. Time to hunt for a spinet/virginal/clavichord I guess! – mlod Apr 19 '17 at 16:45
  • Good luck! I would highly recommend getting a lesson or two to start out and give you an idea of technique. – TangledUpInBlue Apr 20 '17 at 2:20
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The nearest you can get is probably a keyboard designed to simulate the touch of a tracker-action pipe organ, which has a "snap" at the top of the key movement which is similar to the "pluck" of a harpsichord.

The touch of a harpsichord is completely different from a piano or most MIDI keyboards. On a properly regulated harpsichord, the notes will sound fully when the keys are only pressed 1/4 of the way to the keybed, which makes playing baroque ornaments a completely different experience from a piano, and much easier than on a piano, once you have mastered the technique.

On a piano keyboard you can get away with "partially hitting" adjacent keys to the one you want to play, buit pianists trying a harpsichord for the first time often wonder what on earth is going on, because the "hair trigger" nature of the action means they are playing several unwanted "wrong notes" for every "right" one.

SE doesn't approve of shopping recommendations, but the only two suppliers I know are Fatar (based in Italy) and Midiworks (in Canada). They aren't cheap, and they are supplied as "bare keyboards," not as a finished instrument that you can play. You may be able to find a local organ-builder who can assemble the keyboard(s) into a working instrument - but expect to pay a few thousand dollars for it. There are companies which build these keyboards into digital pipe organs - i.e. their product is basically a "traditional" pipe organ console with a MIDI interface, intended to drive a synthesizer.

One potential problem is that a pipe organ keyboard may have a higher key weight than a harpsichord. On a real tracker-action organ, the key resistance depends on how many ranks of pipes are being played, i.e. on how many air-valves you are pulling open against the wind supply pressure, to let the air into the pipes. Actually the same is true on a large harpsichord with several "choirs" of strings, any combination of which can be plucked. But the playing weight can probably be regulated - at a price, of course!

  • first of all thank you for the well-thought-out answer. there's a lot of information here that will be very useful to me when i make the leap into getting an acoustic harpsichord hopefully in just a few years, but i really just cannot afford it or one of those midi solutions now. are there any budget solutions you can think of or am i better off just saving a bit more of my money now? – mlod Apr 18 '17 at 21:25
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References to clavichords being "like" harpsichords are incorrect. The harpsichord plucks, the clavichord strikes. As a result playing the clavichord is quite different: one can slightly vary the pitch of the struck note by varying finger pressure on the key, ie you can make the pitch 'wobble'. Also, one will never get the feeling of playing a harpsichord by playing a keyboard that is suitable for piano ie one that is pressure sensitive. Broadly speaking, the harpsichord won't make a big noise if you hit it hard. You may, when the owner of the harpsichord catches up with you!

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Harpsichord has a unique key action, light, but with a very definite point where the string is plucked. I very much doubt if you will find a MIDI keyboard that emulates this.

Surely your interest in harpsichord isn't an exclusive one - you're a continuing pianist, not just a 'former' one? Get a weighted keyboard. At least it will emulate piano reasonably well.

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