101 • I disagree with Otto Ortmann

"There's more to music than meets the ear."
Otto Ortmann

As a scientist, Ortmann was not consequential with this statement:
Music is exactly and only what meets the ear. What happens after the airwaves set the eardrums in motion, however, is where the mystery begins to unfold.

Ortmann was almost absolutely astute in his scientific observation that the only factor responsible for the diversity of piano sound is the speed of hammer to string, particularly after the hammer is let off from the guidance of the repetition lever. His research of the phenomenon of piano sound production was a daring undertaking since pianists - including myself – want to believe in magic when it comes to sound production on the piano; a kind of sorcery conjured by a special ability of the artist. But facts are facts.

Ortmann observed essentially two different ways a piano key can be pushed: a) percussively (speed changes during depression, particularly fast-slow-fast) and b) follow-through (speed either accelerates or remains constant all the way).

a) When the key is hit percussively, it briefly escapes the finger; the sound is perceived as unpleasant and hard when depressed fast, and hollow and wispy when slow. The pianist can't feel that key escape because of the speed of the event and the softness of the pillow on the fingertip; the finger never completely looses its tactile contact to the key top.

b) When the key is accelerated with a follow-through contact, the sound is perceived as full and sonorous when depressed fast and slender and subtle when slow, and always pleasant. The finger stays fully connected through the entire acceleration all the way to he bottom of the key-bed.

There must be a grey zone, something in-between of percussive and follow-through, but it's penumbrian and thus irrelevant (too shady to measure) to Ortmann's research.

What remained puzzling is that, since that moment of unguided trajectory (without static connection other than the hinge) occurs in both cases of key contact (better than "attack"), after the hammer shank is released from the jack tip, it shouldn't matter by which means the hammer is accelerated to that point. When the end speed of the hammer is exactly the same, the quality of sound should be exactly the same as well. Due to the flexibility of the felt covering the hammer head, the contact to the string is always about 6 to 7 milliseconds; that makes the difference of the speed of key contact (still better than attack), and thus resulting volume, irrelevant. Therefore only the kind of key contact (percussive versus follow-though) should make a difference, but there was no scientific explanation for that phenomenon other than empiric observation.

And yet there is beautiful and ugly sound ... not to mention majestic, celestial, singing, and sublime. As piano sound is a personal expression, the baring of a soul, it seems incomprehensible and counter-intuitively that speed of hammer to string alone determines the mystery of sound. And while Ortmann observed and analyzed a phenomenon, he offered no substantive scientific explanation for the divergence between artistic expression and experience and the measurements of his ingenious apparatus. There seems to be a conundrum, if not a full-fledged paradox, forced by deduction from his observations: How can there be different sound qualities, even with different kinds of key contact, when the end speeds of the hammer are identical?

Here is one possible explanation: The Hephaistos theory: Research by Anders Askenfeld revealed observations, measurements, and computer simulations of hammer shank vibrations. Ortmann's instruments were not refined enough to observe this intrinsically related phenomenon. Ortmann's research of percussive vs. penetrating key contact and Askenfeld's research of oscillating hammer shanks might have a connection: When the key is hit with sudden force (percussive attack), it sets the individual piano action in motion so abruptly, with such a shock to the machinery, that the hammer shank vibrates in an erratic manner. The hammer (dowel and head) is not rigid (wood) and the hammer-to-string touch not instantaneous (6 to 7 milliseconds independently of speed/force).

Imagine an acrobat seesaw in the circus: in order to propel the athlete standing on the other side, it is desirable to accelerate one side fast but gradually and continuously; same on the playground seesaw. Imagine what would happen if a grand piano was dropped on one side of a seesaw … the acceleration would be so sudden, a shock to the system, that it would create undesired side effects.

Now imagine slamming down on an elaborate mechanical seesaw catapult made of over 120 parts. The shock of a percussive attack on the piano action produces a particular, irregular, kind of stress to the whole mechanism. The hammer-shank absorbs that as a vibration and continues with an irregular oscillation. That oscillation is transferred to the hammerhead and thus to the string in those 0.006 to 7 seconds of contact. The string vibration unfolds with undesired, "parasitic" overtone structures.

When the key is pushed with a follow through contact and the key/hammer is accelerated smoothly and consistently, even if very fast, the controlled descent of the key produces a flexible and organic oscillation of the hammer-shank and hammer that transfers to the string, creating a (usually) desired string vibration which unfolds with euphonious overtones structures.

Another possible, and my preferred explanation for the difference in piano sound beyond speed of hammer to string: Magic. A kind of sorcery conjured by a special ability of the artist.

More scientific investigation would be interesting.

A few additional observations:

• Different hammer speed and specific key contact is responsible for range of tone volume and color; even acceleration produces good and controlled sound; the finer we can gradate the key descend, the better. Hence a flat angle contact (slightly below 45°) of the finger pillow to the key, transmitting a forward down movement supported by weight, is a solid base for expressive piano playing with dynamic control.

• Investigation of single key depression is revealing but limited. Balance and gesture, not single notes, ultimately amount to quality of sound. The secret of the magic of the golden, the majestic, the tragic, the sublime, the singing sound lies in the balance between voices, in specific overtone mixtures and their dynamic curvature; a matter of individual taste, of artistic personality and expression. Only the body, the pianist mechanism knows how to produce the proper weight distribution, especially in continued melodic lines, which is relevant for music making on the piano.

• Many notes in a passage – horizontal movement – produce a different sound than separated single note and thus the gradation of sequential notes is the far more relevant pianistic concern, but it's far beyond computation or objective observation of individual key action or finger movements. As chords in stillness can have character, passages in motion can also have character.

• Hard, percussive attack is sometimes necessary for the appropriate and desired expression. After we learn how to play the piano with the vastest gradations of follow-through, penetrating, weight, and momentum techniques, sometimes we do need to slap (from the wrist) or hit (from the arm) the keyboard for the desired sound and expression, but always with mechanical balance and physical relaxation.

Addendum: Ortmann also researched the physical apparatus: bones, muscles, tendons, and finger tips, and their physical as well as natural parameters as far as weight, momentum, and leverage are concerned. His results give a brilliant deductive description of the perfect type of piano technique. As an example of its empirical representation, however, Ortmann presented the example of the category shattering and idiosyncratic pianism of Horowitz.

It makes one doubt whether the phenomenal and utterly unique pianism of Horowitz can be an ultimate example of the perfect piano technique, as there have been others with techniques in no way inferior: What about the pianism of Gould, what about Richter, what about Cziffra, what about Rubinstein (both), Godovsky, Friedman, Lhevinne, Moisevich, or Hoffmann, and let's not forget Rachmaninoff. And let's not forget that piano technique, art and craft, is an expression of individual vision through a medium and not the dominance of a medium through craft alone. A universal piano technique theory must be fundamental and all embracing, and encompass as well as explain all ways of ultimate piano playing. The indubitable pedagogical question is: What do Horowitz and Richter have in common? And the answer comes to absolute basics: 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, the development of a personalized technique, the absence of unreleased tension, and the comprehensive use of the pianist mechanism.

A theory of a perfect technique derived from physics alone, not taking into account the biological and psychological diversity of the individual, is myrmidonian.


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