The Specialists’ Corner – The Fine Art of Piano Voicing (Part 2)

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(Part 1, posted on March 24)

In the first instalment of this blog, voicing was defined as a technical procedure aimed at optimizing the transfer of energy from the hammers to the strings to achieve a desired instrumental sound.

There are three aspects to consider here:

1 – regulation,

2 – knowledge of hammers and head alterations,

3 – technical and artistic considerations.

What follows is a further discussion of each of these three topics.

1 – Regulation

The main purpose of regulation is to adjust the mechanical structure of the instrument so that it aligns itself with the harmonic one. By and large, it is easier to proceed this way than the opposite, because the harmonic structure is much more innate or built in to the instrument than the mechanical one. There are two stages involved here.

First are the pre-regulations. These deal with the positioning of mechanical parts according to a number of tuning points, 12 for each key, 88 x12 in total. This ensures a coherency of regulation over the whole keyboard.

Next comes the actual task of regulation. Its goal is to allow maximum control over the dynamic range offered by the instrument. This is achieved by enabling the hammer to move in a way that is most natural to the touch. The instrument must then be regulated in accordance to the distances measured between the various parts, all of which are established by the manufacturer. Most importantly, these specifications have to be rigorously applied over the whole keyboard. The technician does this by taking vertical readings from a number of keys in the middle range, each one measured from the frame below to the strings on top. From then on, he need only replicate the measurements obtained to the remainder of the instrument.

2 – Knowledge of hammers and head alterations

Technicians usually work within the norms set by the maker, but all is possible here, at least if do not stray too much from the rules. Yet it is still possible to alter the shading of the instrument’s sound by modifying the hammer heads. For one, they can be treated with chemical products (a generally American approach), or worked on with a voicing tool (preferred by Europeans – see illustration bolet). This operation can significantly alter an instrument’s sound in terms of volume. In home use, for instance, a piano need not be as powerful as in a concert hall setting, so a much softer sound can be achieved this way. By and large, pianos are built more sturdy now, so much so that there is a kind push towards instruments with greater sound projection. The action of hammers on strings is now such that pianos have to be built to endure more tension over lengthier periods of time. Piano makers have thus standardized their norms considerably over the years to fulfill this goal.

The voicing tool

3 – Technical and artistic considerations

As noted in the first instalment, this is the most elusive part of the equation. Here we enter into an area that is far more subjective because of the very words we use to define music and its beauty. From a purely technical point of view, the goal of voicing is simply to let an instrument produce the widest range of dynamic nuances allowable. Yet there are no universal standards here, because every manufacturer builds instruments to his own specs.

Because of this, the technician has to proceed with great care. In fact, half of his work depends on listening. He has to play the piano first to understand its tonal colour, then he has to get a clear grasp of the player’s expectations, to know for instance what a person strives for, or what he or she has in mind when talking about a “warm” or “brilliant” sound, and the like. The technician has to decipher the user’s musical mindset, putting him at times in a somewhat delicate position. While shere technical know-how and experience are essential assets, they are nothing without some sensitivity to the fine art of piano voicing.

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