The piano is an unmusical instrument, in some ways the least musical of all instruments. It is by nature impersonal, a purely mechanical device. Its hammers are totally indifferent to what triggers them. Anything or anyone can depress a key and the same pitch will be heard. Its pitches are almost always out of tune, all of them equally out of tune even when freshly tuned. Once a key has been depressed the player is helpless to influence the sound. The myriad expressive techniques available to melody instruments are off limits to the piano. Unable to be shaped by dynamic nuance or vibrato, its sound is left to die a slow death.
Yet the piano remains the most popular of all classical instruments. It is the easiest instrument to play poorly, the most difficult to master. What it lacks in the expressive shaping of any single note it makes up for in its emulation of the entire orchestra. It is the string section, winds, brass and percussion, all in one! Yet it eclipses the orchestra: The piano’s 88 keys reach lower and higher than any orchestral instrument. It can be the solo soprano or the entire choir. Its allure lies in the interaction of notes horizontally, within a single line, and vertically, as musical lines react to one another, balance one another, competing for attention.
The piano is the most and least versatile of instruments. It is ubiquitous in song accompaniments and much chamber music. It substitutes for the orchestra in rehearsals for ballets and musicals. Even entire symphonies can be played on it. It gives us full harmony, polyphony and polyrhythms. Yet pianists, at home with their own instrument, are forced to play another at every venue, a cruel disadvantage to the concert performer.
The pianist is removed from his instrument; the instrument is not embraced like a cello or bassoon. The fingertip does not come into direct contact with the piano’s sound-producing body, as the player’s body does with more truly musical instruments; rather, the pianist merely activates the sound indirectly by a complicated contraption of levers, jacks, hammers and dampers.
Hit hard, the piano shrieks in pain, yet when caressed it delicately communicates love. Only the volume of each note lies under the pianist’s control. It is a wonder that infinite variety is concealed within but a single determinant!
The modern piano looks generic compared to the master craftsmanship of antique pianos. Its black exterior is more forbidding than inviting. At nine feet or more, a concert grand is an imposing statement.
Yet for all its august greatness, the piano is an intimate confidante and lifelong companion. A lifetime of piano practice can be a path to ever-deepening refinement, an expression of life’s joy, of heartbreak, melancholy and ecstasy. All of life’s experiences can somehow be communicated via this wordless black box, for all its gross deficiencies. The piano is transformed into an extension of the soul of anyone with the patience to unlock its secrets.