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I play an upright piano with particularly heavy keys, and whenever I'm learning a very fast song (e.g. parts of Clementi Op.36 No.5) I wonder if even the composer couldn't have played it on my piano due to its key weight and recoil time.

From an analytical perspective, are there pianos considered "in good playing condition" for which the keys' action mathematically forbids a humanly playable speed (like certain runs and trills in the link)?

Or, from a musician's experience, are there instances where an expert pianist has been unable to perform on a concert piano due to aspects of the keys' action, or where a piano first required special regulation to make very fast playing possible?

Edit: I'm an amateur, so obviously my technique precludes a large range of humanly possible speeds. But as an example, there are many things I can do on an unweighted synth that I cannot replicate on my piano. I am wondering if expert pianists face this problem even from one piano to another.

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    Note that grand pianos generally have a better designed action than uprights, and the grand action can be played faster. – Todd Wilcox Aug 26 at 20:53
  • I played this piece in high school on the family spinet, but much closer to the tempo in the recording that "guest" has provided below than the one that you provide. – BobRodes Aug 27 at 3:59
  • Piano keys should be weighted. A friend of mine, a professional pianist, had a grand piano where the keys were too light. She said she couldn't built a proper technique on that, so she got a piano maker to put led in all the keys. – Lars Peter Schultz Aug 27 at 15:23
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If you are interested in more information on this, check out Charles Rosen's book, "Piano Notes".

In short, in conjunction with a local provider, concert pianists pick a piano to play at the venue where they will be performing and the piano technician adjusts the piano to the liking of the performer.

I have played pianos that are generally "in good playing condition", no sticky keys, a working pedal, relatively in tune, where the keys just do not bounce back as quickly as I need them to. This has really happened on pianos that are not concert-quality and just used in a church, school, or home. I have experienced this mainly on upright pianos (I don't think I have ever experienced it on a grand, even a baby grand, which makes sense because the key mechanism working the hammers is shaped differently.)

I have never had a problem in a professional chamber concert or recital. I am not a concert pianist that would go play with an orchestra or anything like that, but in those cases my second paragraph would pertain. I don't think a pianist really has to worry about this in a professional setting.

That being said, a lot of my (paid) work involves accompanying school and community groups, and I have played on some really bad pianos in various performance settings that are not "professional".

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There is no reason why you shouldn't be able to play the Clementi on any piano that "works" at all. Clementi was Italian by birth, and Presto in Italian just means "fast". It doesn't mean "the fastest speed that you can just about play the notes without crashing out."

In fact Mozart made the put-down comment that "Clementi is a charlatan, like all Italians. He marks a piece presto but plays only allegro." It wasn't a kind thing to say, but there is some truth in it!

If you find playing the sonata hard work, the reason may be that you aren't using the correct technique. In particular you are trying to play everything with your fingers only, instead of using forearm rotation to bring the big muscles in your arms an shoulders into action.

Take this as a guide to tempo:

Clementi's idea of "presto" isn't the same as Beethoven's. This is "fast" - and you wouldn't want to try to play it at that speed on an upright piano with a sluggish action.

  • OP's technique might be the issue, but it doesn't matter whether it is or not. OP asked whether piano key action was a problem for professionals/experts, and also whether it would ever be mathematically impossible to play something of sufficient speed. Frankly, I fail to see where User Sam's technique comes into play. If you were trying to say that no, no pianists ever have issues with this, then you should have been more explicit, because that isn't how this post reads to me at all. – user45266 Aug 26 at 23:44
  • @user45266 I think that Sam's technique comes into play by implication. If he weren't having trouble playing the piece on his piano, he probably wouldn't wonder whether Clementi himself would have trouble with his piano, would he? As for "mathematically impossible to play something of sufficient speed," I guess you'd have to define what "sufficient speed" means. – BobRodes Aug 27 at 4:06
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    @user45266 Respectfully, I will disagree with you. Perhaps it's my experience in sales. When I sold pianos (as I did for a while), people would come in and ask all sorts of questions. Plenty of those questions had their basis in one misconception or another. For example, someone might come in and ask if piano X had a "heavy action." Why? Because some competitor told them that piano X has a heavy action, not suitable for their children. So, the question behind the question, if you will, is whether piano X is suitable for their children. (...) – BobRodes Aug 28 at 4:41
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    @user45266 Similarly here, I think the OP is asking the questions he's asking because he's having difficulty getting the piece up to the speed that he wants, and he wants to know whether it's because of his piano or not. Well, probably not. Probably, it's because he needs to practice it more, and more correctly. – BobRodes Aug 28 at 4:43
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    @BobRodes The question has been answered to my liking by Heather and yourself, but the speculation about my technique and motives is irrelevant and incorrect. Despite having played for 20+ years, I just haven't had many opportunities to play grand pianos. After further research and talking with coworkers, the consensus is that an upright is mechanically less capable of very soft, very fast playing than a grand. This seems right from the feel of the recital grand when I was in school, but I never had free time to play with it -- I only remember the drastic difference in feel during performance. – Sam Aug 28 at 13:43
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Clementi was famous for his technique (octave trills in one hand, for example — how does anyone do that?), and I feel quite sure that his abilities would have outstripped the limitations of some of the pianos that he played on. My feeling is that there are certainly times that you have to slow down fast pieces to accommodate the instrument you're playing on. But more often, it's a matter of learning how to play the piece at the tempo you want.

A heavy action, per se, doesn't make it more difficult to play fast. (In fact, a too light action can be very difficult to control.) The main limitation is the speed with which the key is able to repeat. In grand pianos, this is generally faster; because the hammers are horizontal instead of vertical they can make better use of gravity and their action is consequently simpler.

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