Trevor Stephenson demonstrates how to tune 18th-century Well Temperament. Shows how to listen for beat speeds in thirds and fifths. Demonstrates the differences between just and tempered intervals.
This is played with wonderful fluidity and emotional depth. I have heard recordings of this piece played by “international pianists” on concert grand pianos, who have music degrees and been to conservatoires etc, but this completely self taught pianist playing on a digital piano plays it so much better in my opinion!
Mark Fowler only started learning piano at aged 18, and taught himself to play BY EAR!! Yes, that’s right- he couldn’t read sheet music, had no teacher and learned by himself. At the age of 33 this is what he has achieved. This is how talented he is. Many international pianists started the traditional way at aged 5-8 with teachers, doing music degrees etc.
As someone who struggles with sheet music and sight reading, I love discovering self taught pianists- it is proof that there are many ways to learn Piano- we are often told that we HAVE to have a teacher- that we cannot learn alone; we HAVE to learn the traditional way, must do scales, must learn to read sheet music before we can play Piano- pianists like Mark Fowler show otherwise.
Where and how did you study music?
I am completely self-taught. I simply practiced on a daily basis most of the time throughout my life. I never practiced scales or traditional techniques to enhance my technique or musicality, I often played, or rather attempted difficult pieces that were beyond my level of playing, thus by practicing them I eventually improved my overall playing this way.
There is perhaps no right or wrong; that each of us can reach into ourselves, forge a connection with our pianos, and find that inspiration, let the beauty of the Piano, our hearts and music come together to find our own natural way to play. In Mark’s case his desire to just play flowed…
Mark Fowler was born in the city of Peterborough, England in 1979. He started playing keyboards at a fairly young age but did not take piano seriously until 18. At 21 he bought his first piano and since then has progressed at a phenomenal rate to reach the standard of playing he is at today. Completely self taught, Mark believes his early love and passion for classical music by composers such as JS Bach, Beethoven and Mozart is what motivated and consequently drove him to learn piano by himself.
From a young age Mark could not read sheet music and so developed an innate ability to learn music by listening to it, or to play ‘by ear’ as it’s more commonly known by today. Mark is now capable of both learning music ‘by ear’ or from sheet music/score, and has a vast and constantly expanding repertoire list, most of which he knows from memory.
Recently Dr. Godoy turned the technology on a fascinating question: How were such classical pieces as Mozart’s Variation K. 500 and Hummel’s Etudes, Opus 125, originally played, and how might that have made a difference in sound and in audience reaction?
To find out, Dr. Godoy struck up a collaboration with Christina Kobb, a doctoral candidate at the Norwegian Academy of Music and head of theory at Barratt Due Institute of Music in Oslo. Ms. Kobb has developed an unusual expertise: She has learned how to play the piano according to techniques described nearly 200 years ago.
As a visiting student at Cornell University in 2010, she researched 19th-century pedagogical piano treatises — essentially, instruction manuals for piano playing. The techniques that they described, she realized, differed drastically from those she had been taught.
“I was not following even the most basic instructions given to beginners at the time,” Ms. Kobb said. “I wondered, ‘Would this make a difference in my playing?’ ”
For the next three years, she gradually replaced her modern way of playing with 19th-century technique, gleaned from around 20 treatises. Most were written in Vienna in the 1820s, while a few were published in France and England. Her primary source, however, was “A Complete Theoretical and Practical Course of Instructions on the Art of Playing the Piano Forte,” the seminal 465-page treatise published in 1827 by Johann Nepomuk Hummel, one of Mozart’s students.
While modern players tend to hunch over the keys and hold their forearms nearly perpendicular to the keyboard, 19th-century style dictated that pianists sit bolt upright. The posture prevented players from bringing their weight to bear on the keyboard, instead forcing them to rely on smaller finger movements. The elbows were held firmly against the body, with forearms sloping down and hands askew.
As Ms. Kobb became more fluent in this approach, she found that certain movements — jumping quickly between disparate chords, for example — became swifter and more fluid. “The elbow against your body serves as a sort of GPS, so you always know where you are,” she said.
Chords and scales sound smoother and can be played faster, Ms. Kobb also found, and dramatic pauses between notes — often a matter of physical necessity rather than of style — are lessened. The old style also allows the performer to be more discriminatory and subtle in choosing which notes to stress, Ms. Kobb learned, producing a performance that is subdued by today’s standards.”
They appear in every city ~ tall old upright pianos from yesteryear. They seem massive compared to today’s standard. In fact, it would be an anomaly to find small pianos that were made before 1930. Why? For 2 reasons: First, the technology of making small piano actions was not widely developed; and second, there seemed to be this idea of making elaborate and spectacular cabinets with grand-like tones. The only way to accomplish that was through the use of long strings and a large soundboard necessitating a taller piano.The wheels of trends move slowly in pianos. From a cosmetic perspective, it took nearly 75 years for elaborately carved pianos (circa 1850) to turn the corner to have more simple lines (circa 1920).By the end of the Second World War and into the 1950’s and 60’s, making pianos ‘compact and convenient’ became the mandate. Having a ‘big old upright’ became unfashionable. At the same time, rising labour costs gave way to efficient manufacturing and attention to detail was replaced by utilitarian designs. There weren’t many embellishments or carvings to speak of. Finishing resins also began in the late 60’s and early 70’s to usher in an era of black glossy pianos.It was near this time that something switched – something that would affect the piano industry forever. By late 80’s and 90’s digital pianos and keyboards became the new experiment for parents with budding musicians.
As the digital age emerged, some people argued that these would NEVER replace acoustic pianos. And they were correct. However, that is not to say that digital pianos and keyboards didn’t alter the industry. With time and technology, digital pianos have become more authentic sounding and feeling. So have they finally become a replacement? Well, that depends on your expectation. If you’re used to the subtleties of felt striking strings, and the nuances and shading of color in music, as well as the ability to truly ‘feel’ sound then the answer is no. If you want portability, decent tone, volume control with no maintenance, they might be the solution you’re looking for.
The bigger question however is “How has the electronic age affected the present day piano industry?” Well it’s time for some big broad brush strokes – ones that create generalities but also may shed some light on what is up and coming in the world of piano sales for the future.
Shoppers are moving back to the fact that bigger is better. Also, the cabinetry details are also becoming more significant. Two-tone wood with gloss black are coming of age as well as decorative veneers of exotic woods such as bubinga, macassar and even simple cherry or mahogany. It appears that the cosmetics of pianos are getting a bit of a makeover and the manufacturers are moving towards larger instruments. The giants are once again emerging.
To end, I’d like to point out that there are a few manufacturers moving back towards 138cm or 55” tall pianos (Steingraeber, Bechstein, Bluthner and Heintzman to name a few) and tell of a recent incident that sparked this article. Through a series of events, an old Ronisch piano (still being made today by Bluthner) became available locally. Being the curious sort, I had to go take a look. It was not a 52” tall piano – standard height for tall piano manufacturing today. No, it wasn’t even 55” tall… it was a whopping 58” tall (145cm)!! I had to acquire it mainly for the reason that I’ve never seen an upright piano this large (pictured at the top of this article). To be honest, I don’t even know what I’m doing with it yet because it’s sitting in my hall. When I pass by, I quite often play the lowest notes – sounds that I’ve never encountered on a large upright piano. Finished in burled walnut, this forgotten treasure of yesteryear is an example of how piano makers (this one from 1885) desired to make a grand sound in upright form. As consumers are looking once again for timeless heirlooms and pianos that truly inspire through beautiful cabinetry, amazing tone and responsive touch, I believe that the industry may move back to 55” tall pianos as part of the repertoire of piano making in the future and discontinue smaller instruments. The piano industry is quickly becoming a niche market and makers are just now feeling the effects of 150 years of trends coming full circle.
We celebrate the world’s most popular instrument with a look at 26 of its greatest features.
With its expressive range, sheer physical presence and colossal repertoire, the piano reigns supreme. From Cristofori’s early 18th-century piano prototype to today’s gargantuan Steinway grands, the piano has been a constant presence in the concert hall, pub, jazz club and pop stadium – no other instrument is as versatile or wildly thrilling. Witness Beethoven’s tempestuous sonatas, the boundless colour in Debussy’s preludes and, of course, the technical gauntlets laid down by Liszt’s almost implausibly difficult output.
But it’s the piano world’s great practitioners too that seduce, many of us flocking to see them perform as much as to hear them. From the flamboyance of Paderewski and Martha Argerich to the cool perfection of Alfred Brendel and Mitsuko Uchida, there’s a magnetic aura that surrounds a master player.
With Institute français’s recent announcement of ‘It’s All About Piano’, a festival dedicated purely to the piano, we would like to present our special A-Z guide that celebrates the world’s most popular instrument.
The Piano, once held pride of place in many British homes ( and pubs!) from the middle of the 1800s to the 1930s. Bringing people together for a song, family gatherings and celebrations…many an evening the sound of the piano drifted into the night air and warmed hearts and souls with the sounds of those sweet keys. In the days before even radios and recordings, never mind instant digital music, the Piano gave people accessible music- it was interactive, intimate and creative.
If you have a dear old Piano in your home, perhaps you might now think twice about sending it to die:
For a second, the JCB’s claw hangs in the air, a metal vulture waiting to swoop. Then, with a jolt, the giant yellow arm jabs forward and lands on top of the piano. Wood splinters and the instrument tips backwards, hitting the ground with a tuneless clang. Its wooden casing breaks open, exposing its strings, and the claw delves inside to pick out the piano’s soundboard. Metal screeches on metal. One leg flies off, another skids across the yard. Within five minutes, all that’s left is a pile of matchwood, an iron brace and a tangle of rusting strings.This place, a recycling depot on the outskirts of Bristol, is just one site where pianos come to die. Similar scenes are taking place all over Britain as more and more owners send their instruments for scrap.
Can you imagine if this attitude had been adopted shortly after his passing in 1827? His pianos would not have been saved, restored etc. And we would not have the opportunity to see and hear pianists like Melvyn Tan play the Broadwood ( see an earlier post on this blog of Mr Tan playing Beethoven’s Broadwood fortyepiano).
The upright taken apart by the JCB in Bristol was well past its sell-by date. Made in 1882 by John Broadwood & Sons Ltd, which claims to be the world’s oldest surviving piano manufacturer, it was bought in 1987 by a retired nurse, Barbara Jones, to encourage (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) her children to play.
Already 105 years old, the piano was part of a backlog of instruments awaiting renovation at a local piano restorer, and Mrs Jones bought it for just £50.
Until 2pm on Thursday, when it joined the celestial orchestra in the sky, the piano had sat in Mrs Jones’s dining room, gathering dust, save for Christmas time, when it was wheeled out for a rendition of Hark the Herald Angels Sing or O Little Town of Bethlehem. It’s a similar story in thousands of other homes, where the piano has been superseded by other forms of entertainment, from the DVD player to video-game machines, or hi-tech keyboards.
It’s a cruel fate for a family friend; often one that holds many special memories:
It’s an ignominious end for something that — more than any other piece of household furniture — embodies years of family memories.
“Our customers sometimes get quite upset,” says Jon Kelly. “Pianos have often been passed through generations of one family and have great sentimental value. We’ve been on jobs where people cry when the piano’s taken away.”
On one recent occasion, says Mr Kelly, a husband had passed away. He was a musician and, although his piano would have doubled as the perfect monument to his life, his widow was moving to a smaller property and didn’t have the space to take it with her. “She was so upset she couldn’t watch when we took it away,” says Mr Kelly.
As some of you will know who follow my blog- my dear Old Cecil is one such piano, that is now no longer” holding the notes”- I certainly had a few tears at the prospect of this kind of fate for Cecil. I cannot even type it. So Cecil still stands in my lounge, and a digital piano in my bedroom.
Many people would think me a sentimental fool. But no…Cecil has a history- I learnt something off Cecil’s creator, and whose home Cecil once lived in, in the 1920s. A descendent of Cecil’s creator once emailed me. Cecil bridges periods of history- for the early 1900s to now. For someone like myself, who loves real tangible history that can be touched and felt, Cecil is special.
Maybe one day I will have the means to have Cecil totally restored; if not I’ll put a shelf in and my music books can be housed there.
Some people have had some wonderful ways to give old pianos a new life, once their musical life comes to an end:
Today, only about 4,000 acoustic pianos are sold in Britain each year — around 800 grands and 3,000 or so uprights — compared with 14,000 in the late 1960. Hardly any are made in Britain.
Today, John Broadwood & Sons employs just four people, including Mr Laurence, and makes, on average, one upright piano a month. The company makes 75 per cent of its money through restoration work.
“Fortunately, the Broadwood name generates a lot of repair work,” he says. “But it’s a huge disappointment that we’ve lost our piano industry, by and large, in this country.
“Young people are good at simulating things on a computer. They have very nimble fingers, but they don’t seem to be interested in craft skills any more.
“If a country loses its skills and knowledge, it makes the economy much more vulnerable. And it makes it a much more boring place to live in.”
A sad situation indeed. Of course there is a lot to be said for digital pianos- they do suit modern living; and I am fond of my Privia Piano…but do we really need to throw away memories, history…love?
Pianos are so much more than an instrument- there’s something romantic and heart warming about them. I have found even people who have no interest in classical music and pianos seem to find it interesting if you have a piano in your home- especially instead of a TV ( in my case).
I suspect this sorry situation is the same in other countries; however, I have read that there is a huge passion for pianos in China, in no small part to the success of the pianist Lang Lang. If this is true Lang Lang is a true friend of the Piano!
I will now leave you with the haunting sound of a piano played long ago, captured on a home wax cylinder recording: