A Piano by any other Colour?

A school that I’ve recently been working for just received a generous anonymous donation of a baby grand piano, insured for £60,000. I happened to be there the day after it arrived and was one of the first among the school to play it. As such, I was asked what I thought of it and, for the sake of politeness and diplomacy, I didn’t say what I thought.

A choir for which I play use an upright piano with one pedal that doesn’t work and another that hung loosely from its hinges for eight months until a piano tuner kindly put it back in place. Playing this piano is like a game of Buckaroo! since you never know which bit is going to fall off next. In addition, the string of the lowermost F consistently flies straight into the heart of the periphery of the sound it is supposed to produce, so one has to be a bit careful when doubling octaves willy-nilly.

One upright piano I teach from (not my own) apparently has slim blocks of metal in lieu of certain strings; one note ‘clicks’ upon release and the instrument refuses to allow anybody, adult or child, amateur or professional, play anywhere between mezzo-piano and mezzo-forte.

Finally, a concert in which I recently played featured an old and – as it turns out – very delicate grand piano. After I had played a few items, another performer played an own composition that featured thick, fortissimo cluster chords played with the fists and elbows. Consequently, the piano to which I returned following his performance was not, it seemed, the same one that I had first played: the tuning was knocked out and the action was suddenly a little irregular (though that might have been my imagination).

There’s a point to these piano encounters, dysfunctions and temperaments (or lack of) – I could continue to list them, but what associates the four characters above is that they’re all brown.

Conspicuously, I’ve only played a handful of brown pianos that were any good. My experience is of course limited, but I have nevertheless noticed conspicuously more ‘idiosyncrasies’ within brown pianos than their black, usually glossy, brothers and sisters. There is of course no shortage of questionable black pianos,[1] but the overall quality still tends to be that much higher. This is of course fine and, in the case of pianos whose limbs could spontaneously detach, can add an element of fun to any rehearsal.

It has, however, left me wondering firstly, whether indeed it is true that brown pianos tend to be, on the whole, worse and secondly, why this might be so.

So far, my main assertion addresses both questions at once: it may be an issue of newness. Visiting a number of piano showrooms, almost all of the pianos on show appear to be black, suggesting a general preference for this colour.[2] The only exception I can think of that I myself have encountered is a Stuart & Sons grand piano which the RWCMD owned until 2009. It was a powerful instrument and noticeably energy-efficient, requiring little effort in order to produce a full and resonant sound. Newness is not, of course, an immediate hallmark of superiority (as anybody who has visited a musical instrument museum (Finchcocks or the RCM Museum, for example) or who enjoys the sound of period instruments would probably attest[3]), but if fewer brown pianos are now available, and those of them that are around in homes, schools, churches and concert venues are themselves old and deteriorating, then it seems almost inevitable that the colour of a piano could give some kind of clue as to its quality.

Surprisingly, Yamaha took this question seriously and kindly went to the trouble of offering an answer:

“We have received confirmation back from our marketing team for our Classic Division. They confirm that ebony pianos are more popular, therefore many of these pianos will be newer than the other wood finishes that you may have played. This may mean that they have been more looked after and therefore sound better. Yamaha do still manufacture other wood finished which all have the same standard as their polished ebony equivalent.”

Interestingly, and by contrast, Stuart & Sons proudly asserts that ‘only one black painted piano has thus far been built’. This may be less a reaction to the apparent trend, however, and more a desire to show off the unusual appearance of the Australian woods used in the manufacture of many of their pianos. Nevertheless, it is interesting (to myself, at least) that the matter of the colour of an instrument, which in itself isn’t an issue at all, has become a key selling-point as opposed to a cosmetic afterthought.

So for now, at least, black pianos seem to be the order of the day. However, like Invasion of the Body-Snatchers or The Stepford Wives, when they start to be replaced by newer, more superior brown pianos in our homes, towns and cities, we’ll know that the uprising has already begun…

Post-Script: A fortnight after this blog was posted, the pedal of the second aforementioned piano fell off again. I suppose I was asking for it.

[1] Essex pianos, manufactured by Steinway & Sons, are strikingly poor. In balance, they are promoted as entry-level, lower cost pianos for beginning students (see http://www.steinway.com/pianos/essex/), nevertheless the benefits of even young students having access to the kind of high-quality pianos that float like a butterfly and sting like a bee shouldn’t be underestimated. This in itself is a topic for another blog post…

[2] Even with these newer brown pianos on display, I haven’t yet found an equivalent black piano in the same showroom or warehouse that hasn’t trumped them on quality by some margin.

[3] Tangentially, but still on the subject of colour and design, anybody who has visited a musical instrument museum will be aware of some of the extravagant and elaborate designs that have existed over the centuries, itself a related topic for another time.

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