Playing a Whisper

Just about every piano can play mezzo forte or mf. It’s not all that difficult to get a piano to sound as loud as the resonant body will allow. It’s all in the power you can put behind the articulation. The challenge with a piano is creating a soft, intimate sound.

Particularly with vertical style pianos, we must create enough space for the hammer to fall away from the strings. This is the point of “let-off.” If the hammer doesn’t let-off then it blocks against the string producing only the sound of impact. The inverse problem of let-off is if the hammer falls away too early so that it must traverse the distance by the force of momentum- this forces the musician to put more force into the note just to guarantee the note is heard which results in louder playing. The ideal position for let-off to occur is as close to the strings as possible allowing for seasonal changes in humidity, humidity which can warp the wooden rails ever so slightly but more than enough to change let-off.

One of my customers has an instrument where either the quality of the wood or the grain alignment is so incredibly responsive to humidity change that I have to adjust let-off regularly throughout the year so that they are able to make music. In one season there’s far too much left to inertia that it only plays loudly, so it gets adjusted, the next season he finds the hammers creating that percussive blocking sound.

There is another option of course, don’t use wood! I service many pianos where the wooden rail has been replaced with aluminum. Problem solved? Nearly. the let-off buttons are threaded like a screw, also made of metal. Metal isn’t susceptible to humidity changes but it is susceptible to temperature change. In the Southeastern Pennsylvania Summer we are very fond of air-conditioning which shrinks the screw and the aluminum rail. The holes don’t shrink, they expand because the metal shrinks away which under extreme situation can generate a clicking sound but mostly just allows the regulating screws to change position.

The most reliable way to maintain let-off at the closest point possible is to marry the two materials- quality wood rail fit perfectly inside an aluminum U-channel. The aluminum prevents the wood from warping during humidity change and the wood holds the regulation screws nicely through temperature change.

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This allows for very stable regulating, liberating your piano technician to comfortably place let-off much closer to the strings. What this means for the performer is that you can always be sure that your most delicate repertoire will sing in the whisper it deserves.

Does My Piano Need New Hammers?

As my piano service matures, I find myself thinking more and more that many pianos need new hammers rather than just reshaping. The older felt is simply too hard and dense to work with anymore, it’s impossible to create a warm, welcoming sound in the music. There’s a few reasons for this:

  • Constantly striking the strings in the same location has compacted the felt
  • The closer to the hammer core, the more compressed the felt is to begin with
  • As wool ages it shrinks, becomes hard and brittle
  • Sometimes the glue adhering the hammer felt to the molding comes undone.

When you can’t achieve the sound you want, playing the piano becomes a self defeating endeavor. I don’t want to over prescribe this maintenance so I went searching for validation and below is an answer I found on a public message board validating my position.

Like everything else the hammer felts wear out. each time the hammer strikes the string it gets slightly compacted and wears grooves into the hammer felt. As the felts gets harder as a result of this the tone of the piano usually becomes harsher and more metalic. It’s a very gradual process so you won’t notice from one day (or even several months). For a concert grand I’d expect to replace or reshape the hammers about every 5 years. for someone’s home piano usually about every 15-20 years. 

A brush is the wrong tool for removing the grooves, instead you use fine sandpaper to take off one layer of felt at a time, while maintaining the shape of the hammer. Talk to your piano tech about what you want out of the repair and he’ll be able to help you out. Be aware that if this is 100+ year old piano the cost of a repair may end up being more than the cost of a nicer piano. (based on that kind of maintenance history there are probably also several other issues that should be addressed) Also Piano hammers don’t necessarily have to be replaced. You can usually reshape the hammers at least once, sometimes 2-3 times, It all depends on the condition of the felt. This removes the compacted and worn our part of the felt that has the grooves. It’s really impossible to give advice without actually being able to inspect it.


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