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How the wrong piano can ruin a performance

-by Harry the Piano

Pianists are perhaps unique amongst musicians in that until they reach the zenith of their careers (and even then to a large extent) they are reliant on the instrument provided. The provider may be a private client, theatre, hire company or concert hall. Those who spend their life hauling double basses, harps or drum kits around the world might, with some justification think that an enviable thing, but I would counter that at least when they arrive at the venue they know the instrument they will be playing!

I once was employed to be part of a large-scale cabaret event in Scotland. Luckily, as the event required some rehearsal I flew up in the morning and arrived at the venue at midday. I could scarcely believe my eyes when my prospective instrument was shown to me. It was an old upright piano, horribly out of tune and with four notes missing in the bottom two octaves – literally holes in the keyboard like one of those pictures of old centre halves smiling at the camera with a couple of teeth missing!

I told the owner of the venue flatly that I couldn’t perform on such an instrument. He scowled at me and uttered the phrase – ‘a bad workman always blames his tools’. Luckily at this point the event organiser showed and was more sympathetic – a baby grand from a local hire company was ordered and arrived a few hours later, just in time for the show. Granted this is an extreme example but it is certainly true to say that taken as a whole, the pianos I have played everywhere from the Holders festival Barbados, the Adelaide festival, the Albert Hall, Buckingham Palace, the Palladium, the Manasterly Palace Cairo, the QE2, the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire plus many years at Broadcasting house – to name but a few of the literally thousands of career engagements I have undertaken – have been very much a mixed bag. I wouldn’t be so indiscreet as to name the howlers, particularly amongst that selectively illustrious list of venues, but there certainly were some notable unpleasant surprises amongst them! Obviously, this particular experience in Scotland was at the comedic end of things, but there is a vast palette of potential pianos and the nuances between barely adequate, decent and first class has a huge effect on one’s performance.

When you trust an action and tone to respond exactly to your playing, you relax, play more fluidly and creatively and can sense that the audience respond to this. Creating a beautiful sound which enhances whatever is being performed, either written or improvised, is one of the primary goals of any pianist and it’s the thing most commented on by audience members afterwards. Of course that is down to the practice, discipline and ability of the musician but in truth it is very much a two-way deal between performer and instrument.

What does emerge clearly over decades of playing is a favourite instrument; when one is fortunate enough to be able to specify the same from a hire company or a particular piano manufacturer for an engagement, it does take a deal of the stress and uncertainty that always surround a live performance or broadcast to a large audience out of the equation.

I have long been a fan of Kawai pianos, never having played one that I didn’t enjoy. I particularly relish their warm middle register, top end clarity, evenness of action throughout and power yet distinctness of the bass. The Shigeru Kawai grand that I played on most recently was the zenith of all of these qualities. Versatility and response of an instrument is paramount particularly for my style of playing which combines virtuoso classical with improvisation and requests from the audience to play any song in any style. When one is undertaking genuine improvisation on that scale one needs to be absolutely confident in the touch and response of the instrument as the slightest distraction caused by an inferior piano can easily ruin a performance. On a scale with a tired 84 note upright at the bottom, a Shigeru Kawai is certainly at the top of the pile!

To find the right piano for your performance, click here to find your nearest Kawai retailer.

About the author

Lauded by Jonathan Ross as ‘The best damn pianist in the civilised world’, Harry’s extraordinary talent has taken him worldwide with solo cabaret shows in the Albert Hall, Moulin Rouge and festival appearances from Barbados to Adelaide as well as headlining on the maiden voyage of QM2 alongside Dame Shirley Bassey and The Opera Babes. Resident pianist for five years on the Big Breakfast (Channel 4), he then musically directed BBC TV shows for several years and is now a regular on The Now Show (BBC Radio 4), Friday Night Is Music Night (BBC Radio 2) and the go-to improvisor for In Tune (BBC Radio 3) amongst other things where presenter Iain Burnside noted ‘You can’t be a pianist and not be a fan’. His ability to play any tune in any style on request has led to over 3 million hits on YouTube and appearances with everyone from Simply Red to David Bowie and Andrea Bocelli to Charlotte Church. 

‘His phenomenal talent, charm and wit are a delight’ – Stephen Fry.

‘Spellbinding. Uncanny. Genius.’ – (Times. Independent. Guardian.)

For more about Harry the Piano, visit www.harrythepiano.com

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