Single-handed pianism

by Nigel Scaife

For the past few months the world-famous pianist Lang Lang has been out of action as he damaged his hand through what he described as ‘a stupid practice of Ravel’s left-hand Concerto’. He was up against pressure to decide whether or not to accept a number of performances of the piece and pushed himself too hard in trying to master the challenging music quickly. It must have been awful to have such a RSI-type injury and to be forced to severely limit time spent at the keyboard. But not wanting to miss his opportunity to open the new season at New York’s Carnegie Hall last week he came up with an innovative solution: to ask his 14-year old protégé Maxim Lando to literally lend a hand in a five-handed, two-piano version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. At the second piano was the jazz legend Chick Corea. What a great example of necessity being the mother of invention!

Had Lang Lang injured his right hand rather than his left he would probably have spent time over the last few months exploring the wonderful repertoire for left-hand only piano works, which is far richer and more extensive than that written for the right-hand. I wonder if during the last few months he ever thought about commissioning some new right-hand only pieces? He’d certainly be the person to successfully champion such new music!

So why is it that there is so much more music for the left-hand than there is for the right? It is partly because as pianists we tend to spend so much time practicing the right-hand melodic material that left-hand only practice can be neglected. The stimulus of writing a left-hand only piece for technical development is something that many pianist-composers from Czerny to Saint-Saëns have explored in etudes to improve left-hand facility. Injury certain has had its part to play. Scriabin wrote his beautiful Prelude and Nocturne Op.9 after injuring his right hand learning some of Lizst’s technically challenging music. When Clara Schumann injured her right hand she was lucky enough to have Brahms come to the rescue with his amazing arrangement of Bach’s D minor Chaconne, originally written for solo violin and now often heard in Busoni’s arrangement.

There’s also the motivation of showmanship. The thrill of playing fast and furiously as a virtuoso with just one hand has certainly been an inspiration for composers such as Godowsky. But perhaps the fundamental reason is that the left hand is physically much better suited to single-handed pianism, especially when you think about the way a typical piano piece in a Romantic idiom is written, with a tune and accompaniment. With the left hand you can play the tune with the thumb and have the four fingers provide a harmonic accompaniment. But there is also a strong historical reason in that a great deal of left-hand only pieces were commissioned during the last century by the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein.

Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961), brother of the philosopher Ludwig, was shot in the elbow during the First World War and had to have his right arm amputated. Determined to overcome this trauma and pursue a career as a pianist, he decided during his recovery to commission new works from a wide range of leading composers such as Britten, Prokofiev, Hindemith, Tansman, Korngold, and most famously Ravel, whose Piano Concerto for the Left Hand has entered the canon of great piano concertos of the twentieth century. Wittgenstein’s sheer determination to make a career for himself as a concert pianist led to an amazing enrichment of the piano repertoire during the twentieth century and he continues to be an inspiration to many pianists throughout the world.

Ravel’s masterspiece perfectly illustrates how with ingenious pedalling and clever hand movement combinations, the single-handed pianist is able to deploy the full resources of the instrument. It is the ability to give the impression that the pianist is in fact playing with both hands that is at the heart of what single-handed pianism is all about. Ravel said of his Concerto that ‘The listener must never feel that more could be accomplished with two hands’. Apparently Wittgenstein made some changes to the score for the premiere of the concerto which Ravel was less than pleased about. Sadly the two men never reconciled their differences.

Today the vast repertoire of left-hand only piano pieces is increasingly heard in concert halls, recordings and broadcasts, and there are notable exponents throughout the world. In the UK the inspirational Nicholas McCarthy leads the way. I met Nicholas a year or two ago as we were both involved in the work of OHMI – the One Handed Musical Instrument Trust. He mentioned that he was working on a new programme based on music by Rachmaninov, which inspired me to make an arrangement for him of the slow movement of the Cello Sonata. The challenge of deciding how best to convey the composer’s musical intentions through the resources of one hand at the keyboard was one that I thoroughly enjoyed! This beautifully lyrical music allows the pianist plenty of space and there is just enough scope to convey the full texture. This arrangement is featured on his next CD called ‘Echoes’ which is out later this month and which I’m much looking forward to listening to. Given the panache Nicholas displays on his ‘Solo’ CD, I’m sure it will be a real treat!

If you want to explore the repertoire for left-hand piano, there is a useful list of works here:

There’s also a book on the subject by Theodore Edel, called Piano Music for One Hand (Indiana University Press, 1994). Once you start exploring this area of piano music you’ll be amazed at the riches it contains!

Portrait of a piano tuner

by Nigel Scaife

At The Piano Shop we are very lucky to employ Richard Foster - piano tuner extraordinaire, long-serving Chairman of The Association of Blind Piano Tuners and all-round good egg! Here he reminisces about his work over the last 45 years, gives opinions on his profession, tells some terrible jokes and generally provides a fascinating insight into his working life.

When Richard was 17 he went with some other students to be tested for suitability to do piano tuning. At that time he’d been playing the piano for nine years but had little idea of how the mechanism of the instrument worked or what was involved in tuning. It was a life-changing moment:
I went along, immediately decided this was the job for me, and hoped I'd be considered suitable. Fortunately, I was, starting my training in the autumn of 1968. It was a three-year course, nominally, and I qualified in December 1970. Of course, I realised how much I still had to learn, so I stayed on until the summer of 1971, gaining experience by tuning pianos (under supervision) in different situations. I trained with my first guide dog and started my own business in August 1971, building it up gradually, confident of my ability both working on pianos and using a guide dog.

The last of the music engravers

by Nigel Scaife

Yesterday I met the last music engraver to work commercially in Britain: Victor Hope. He has very kindly given me some of his ‘boxes of music’, the tools of his trade, and an engraved plate he created especially for The Piano Shop – all of which are now treasured possessions on permanent display. It has been fascinating to learn of Vic’s career and how the art and craft of music engraving was practiced until the early 1990s when the advent of computer software for setting notation put an end to the trade.

Working life

Vic started his working life in 1956, aged 15, when he became an apprentice at the firm of P. J. Hayes. At that time there were 43 engravers in London and two in Scotland, all of whom belonged to the London Society of Music Engravers. The society was affiliated to the TUC and negotiated with music industry bosses to establish the engravers’ wages.

Vic’s apprenticeship lasted seven years. To start with he had to learn how to place notes on the stave and to cut leger lines before moving on to slurs and crescendos and diminuendos. Once the basics of engraving a plate were mastered he then had to learn to ‘pull proofs’.

Restoration: a case study

by Nigel Scaife

Sir Robert Mayer’s piano

When Daphne mentioned to her husband and grown-up children that she was thinking of upgrading her piano it was an idea that received little enthusiasm. The family piano had once been a fine instrument and a beautiful piece of furniture but it was now badly faded and broken internally. The music desk had snapped and some of the wooden moulding was missing. More significantly, the action no longer functioned properly and there were missing hammers and dampers. It was in a sorry state but although it had seen better days the family treasured it and didn’t want to see it replaced by a new modern instrument. So Daphne decided to contact The Piano Shop to explore the possibility of having it restored.

On my first visit to assess the piano, which was made by Story and Clark in Berlin, I learnt of its fascinating history and of how it had once belonged to Sir Robert Mayer - a very successful businessman and great philanthropist. He was also a fine musician who in 1923 had the vision and determination to set up a series of children’s concerts in London which lasted many decades. Generations of children, including the Queen and Prince Charles, became acquainted with classical music through his series of concerts. The Queen attended her first Robert Mayer concert at the age of 6 and Prince Charles was just 4 when he attended with his grandmother, the Queen Mother. The story goes that after about 20 minutes his fidgeting became so conspicuous that he had to be taken home to Buckingham Palace!

Daphne acquired the piano in the 1960s at a time when she was a young mother living in London:

A girl friend of mine, hearing that I was looking for an old piano to bang out nursery rhymes for my children said "Oh my mother is selling a piano at Sotheby's tomorrow. I will ask her to let you look at it." I said, " I have no money " to which the reply was "Who cares ". So the next day I set off to see the piano in Lady Mayer's top floor flat in Knightsbridge, just opposite Harrods. My heart sank. The piano was exquisite. Beyond my means by a million miles. Bardedi said "O never mind. If you arrange to remove it, you can have it. It was only Robert's travelling piano when he sailed to America on the Queen Mary. He had it in his cabin ". I arranged removers. On the day of the move I went to Knightsbridge. The Mayers were away so it was with horror that I saw a vast crane in the street, the Mayers' window removed and "MY" piano swinging out across the road. I fled. All was well and two hours later this lovely piano was in my home in Kennington. I could not think what to do, as I could offer no payment that would approach its value, so I sent Berdedi a vast bunch of flowers. The next day she phoned me and said " I am so glad you like it, and thank you darling - I haven't been bunched for years!".

There were three main areas which we worked on: cleaning and renovating the keyboard which included replacing all the felts, repairing the chipped ivories and levelling the keys; restoring the action and then regulating it so that it played evenly; and lastly French polishing the case so that it was a consistent colour. We also replaced the missing candle sconces with originals which matched the style of the piano and didn’t detract from the wonderful marquetry of the front panel.

The piano had been repinned in the past and so fortunately it wasn’t necessary to restring it or repair the soundboard which was in good condition. Once the regulation had been completed and the piano tuned, we toned it to ensure an evenness of sonority.

The restored piano is now both a stunning piece of furniture and a fine musical instrument which has many decades of musical life ahead of it. Daphne and her family are delighted:

It is really a fairy story and now it has been beautifully restored by Nigel I look forward to it providing joy to us all for another 50 years.

Reconditioned, restored, rebuilt - what do they actually mean?

by Nigel Scaife

Recondition, refurbish, restore, renovate, repair, rebuild – what do these terms actually mean when it comes to work done on pianos? There are no piano industry standards which help to clarify what a customer can expect when they are used and in my experience there is little general agreement on their definition. Different restorers, technicians and dealers have quite different ‘takes’ on them. In short, it’s a bit of a minefield! So here’s my take on how these words can be used to best effect which I hope will shed some light on what can be quite a murky area.

The La La Land effect

by Nigel Scaife

I’ve already noticed customers coming in to The Piano Shop and playing little snippets from the film that they’re working out by ear, so perhaps this fun, frothy and romantic musical will help to boost interest in piano playing and even encourage some to take up the instrument. The fact that Ryan Gosling learnt to play sufficiently well in three months that the director, Damien Chazelle, didn’t have to use a double when filming close-ups of his piano-playing hands, is now very well known. This might encourage those adults who wished that they hadn’t given up playing in childhood to get those lessons started again. Let’s hope so!

The song City of Stars, which acts as a kind of leit-motif throughout the movie, is quite memorable and I think uses the standard 32-bar AABA song form to good effect. It’s at the heart of the movie and acts as central point of reference. There will be many pianists who will want to play it. But unfortunately the music of the movie as a whole doesn’t translate as effectively to the piano as the music of all the classic musicals does, despite John Legend’s recently-released medley of City of Stars and Audition (The Fools Who Dream) which is bound to be very popular.

​Our love affair with Bechstein

by Nigel Scaife

For well over a century the British have had a love affair with the Bechstein piano, perhaps the quintessential domestic musical instrument. Along with Blüthner and Steinway, Bechstein represents the very best of German piano manufacturing, but in my view it was as much about the beauty of their cases as it was about their lovely sound that swayed the British to buy them in their thousands during the last century. The rosewood and mahogany veneers, in particular, are always so pleasing and they seem to fit comfortably into any style of room, which is partly why they remain a popular choice today. But there’s also a warmth of tone which you experience with an old Bechstein which is comforting and expressive. They’re perfect for playing Romantic genre pieces and accompanying singers and instrumentalists. There’s something homely about them which you don’t get so much with other German makers – but it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why that is!

Old Broadwood hides treasure

by Nigel Scaife

Having restored pianos for many years, I have come across a pretty diverse range of random objects when taking them apart, from a mummified mouse to old currency coins. For example, I recently found this charming complimentary ticket for a London Symphony Orchestra concert of February 5 th 1917 at Queen's Hall:

I find these things set off a train of questions: whose ticket was this? why did they have a 'comp'? were they a music critic? what was the music like? what was the audience like? It certainly stirs the imagination!

While it’s common to find paper clips, old buttons, scraps of paper and hair clips among thick layers of dust, one only ever dreams of finding stashed cash. So how incredible it must have been for some folk in Shropshire to take apart their old Broadwood upright recently and find an extraordinary hoard of gold coins hidden inside. It must have been completely mind-blowing!

The story has just broken in the press, but the actual find took place before Christmas. The owners of the piano were having it tuned and the tuner presumably took off the bottom panel to adjust the pedals and discovered the hidden hoard. They had recently been given the piano and so reported the find to Ludlow Museum Resource Centre who in turn got in touch with the British Museum.

Peter Reavill, from the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme said he’d never seen anything like it:

"The current owners did not know what to do but they came to the museum and they laid it all out on the table…. I was like 'whoa', I'm an archaeologist and I'm used to dealing with treasure but I'm more used to medieval brooches.” He added: "It's a stunning assemblage of material."

The museum can’t say what type of coins they actually are because they are trying to track down the potential owners. All they are saying at this stage is that they are highly unusual, mostly made of gold, and ‘appear to have been deliberately hidden within the last 110 years’. An inquest has been opened at Shrewsbury Coroner’s Court to establish whether they can be classed as treasure and whether an heir to the cache can be tracked down. This suggests that they are over 300 years old. So far they’ve discovered that the piano was sold in 1906 to a music shop in Saffron Walden, Essex. I imagine this information was obtained from Alastair Laurence, the owner of the Broadwood archive. What happened to it between then and 1983, when it was bought by a family in the area who later moved to Shropshire, is anyone’s guess!

Were the coins stolen? Did the person who put them there die unexpectedly without telling anyone? The mystery continues….

Ivory keys: the elephant in the room

by Nigel Scaife

‘Ebony and ivory live together in perfect harmony, side by side on my piano keyboard. Oh Lord, why don’t we?’ sang the incomparable Stevie Wonder back in 1982. While ivory has been out of fashion for piano keys since the 1950s, it remains in popular consciousness as the material most associated with our instrument. I suspect that ‘Tinkling the ivories’ will remain in common parlance for some time to come!


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