Do Hands Talk to Ears?

A physicist student of mine was looking for a used grand. In six or eight weeks, we checked a number of instruments in stores and homes. At first she didn’t observe much, largely forgetting each piano by the time we reached the next. Then quite suddenly she started saying things like, “This one has sweeter treble than the last,” or, “This action feels like molasses. The others felt freer.”

Some time after this step forward, we tried a lovely pre-WWI Bechstein in a private home. I played, she walked the room listening, and we had our first disagreement: she loved the sound while I disliked it. At a loss to explain our difference, we decided to trade functions; so she played while I listened. Surprise: our judgments also traded! Now she disliked the sound and I loved it.

We agreed that the piano’s action felt different from what we were used to; so sensitive it all but trembled at our touch. We speculated that the unfamiliarity of touch might “cross over” in our minds to affect our perception of the tone quality. I don’t know if this finds justification in cognitive theory; but a European master technician confirmed that in some very old Bechsteins, a spring contributes a highly sensitive feel; thus, at least some of our impressions may be correct.

The question for my student was whether tone and touch were rewarding enough to make mastering an unfamiliar action worthwhile (remembering that she would still have to deal with modern touch on other pianos). She decided to keep looking, and ended up finding an excellent seven-foot piano. I confess that I still wish I could play the Classical literature on that Bechstein—if only occasionally!

Copyright © James Boyk 2013. All rights reserved.
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