Saturday, April 17, 2010

Just A Little Ranting

This post is about musical instrument transportation. Some past events have stirred some reflections and ideas on this subject, and I figured this would be a good venue to express my thoughts in full.

Everybody always complains about having to lug their instruments around to gigs and performances. It's pretty much a given in a musician's life. "My double bass is enormous AND I have to take an electric bass too"; "I hate dragging my bulky drum set around"; "my contrabass clarinet is so unwieldy"; "my tuba's so heavy, my arms are going to fall off"; et cetera, et cetera. However, I'd like to submit that us piano players have definitely got it the hardest when it comes to performing in varied venues.

Sure, I understand that carrying a big instrument around is a pain in the butt. I play the euphonium and the trombone in concert band, so I've lugged my fair share of bulky instruments around. However, even though his instrument weighs as much as he does, at least the sousaphone player gets to carry his own instrument around.
At least musicians with portable (or even semi-portable) instruments get to choose the quality of their instrument and get to play an instrument they're familiar with.

Piano players have no such luck. Their instruments are so big and heavy that transporting a piano to a performance is completely impractical and mostly impossible, unless you're fantastically famous like Elton John and you have to have your flaming red piano with you everywhere you go. Normal pianists are completely at the mercy of the establishment to provide them with an instrument, and sometimes the instruments available leave a lot to be desired.

I play the piano in a jazz combo with a few friends that all have pretty big instruments, and we play gigs at restaurants and venues all over our local area. The tenor sax player has a pretty big case to carry around, the bassist has a big double bass and an electric bass and a big amp, and the drummer has all the different cymbals and toms and bits and pieces. Since I almost never take my own instrument (we occasionally take a digital piano for me when there's no alternative), I end up helping load and unload other peoples' equipment all the time. The drummer always says "Thanks for helping me, man. Carrying my drums around everywhere is such a pain", and I always think "it's a bigger pain to not be able to carry an instrument around. I'd rather be carrying a big bulky instrument around than relying on the mercy of the event organizers."

Throughout the course of our combo's career, I've played on everything from eleven-foot Steinway concert grands, to driftwood pianos with tin strings and only half the keys, to nice-looking pianos that could sound nice if anybody had bothered to tune them in the last fifty years. I've also played on Steinways that sounded terrible (mostly tuning issues) and weird off-brand pianos that sounded and played like a dream. I've seen my fair share of different pianos, and I can definitely say that pianists are at a disadvantage when it comes to instrument transportation. Our bassist gets to carry his beautiful $7,000 double bass with him everywhere, but sometimes I'm stuck with pianos that cost half that and sound like it, too ($7,000 buys a fantastic double bass, but $15,000 is not too much to pay for a decent-quality piano, and that's only at the low end).

The issues with a piano aren't always tuning, either. Sound quality is another huge deciding factor, but that pretty much can't be helped. If the piano's soundboard is crap, then it's crap. But sometimes there are other small problems as well. Sometimes there are keys that don't work. Sometimes only certain keys are out of tune. Sometimes the key action is too low and you can't get good volume out of the piano. Sometimes the damper action is too low and you either get bad sustain or poor cut-off from the sustain pedal. Sometimes the pedals won't work or the action on the pedals will be too low or high. Most of the time, people don't like you dismantling their piano to address these various issues.

Digital pianos are an obvious solution to the problems presented by relying on other peoples' pianos.
They never need to be tuned, they're portable, can be set up easily, are less bulky than acoustic pianos, and you can amplify them and increase the volume easily. However, I dislike digital pianos for many reasons. Sometimes venues I've played have provided digital pianos. Most of the time, they don't realize that a sustain pedal is an absolute necessity when dealing with any sort of piano. I've taken to carrying my own sustain pedal to gigs, just in case, because I've ended up playing pipe-organ style piano - trying to sound fluid and connected without a sustain pedal - one too many times.

Unless you have the most ridiculously expensive digital piano out there, the instrument's synthesized sound will almost always sound like crap. The sound samples, however well blended, still sound nothing remotely like a real piano, and the volume controls are way too finicky. Even if you have a ridiculously nice-sounding digital piano, they just don't feel right.

Digital keyboards with unweighted keys feel way too light, more like a toy than an actual instrument, and it's hard to be accurate and subtle when playing on unweighted keys. Weighted keys, on the other hand, are often weighted too heavily, making the digital piano feel heavy and unwieldy. As with unweighted keys, accuracy and subtlety suffers, especially at faster tempos. I have yet to ever play a digital piano with keys that felt naturally weighted. There's nothing like a good solid block of natural wood mechanically hitting a hammer and pounding the strings on an acoustic piano. Digital just doesn't compare. I'm not entirely opposed to playing digital pianos, and I have played digital pianos for many gigs before, but if there's any alternative at all and any opportunity to play an acoustic piano, I'll usually take it.

Basically, what this all boils down to is: When I'm rich and famous, I'm having my fourteen-foot super-grand piano shipped everywhere I play so I don't have to bother with any of this crap again. If the rich and famous thing doesn't quite happen, I guess I'll have to learn to deal with it, because the problem certainly isn't going away. Unfortunately, there will always be an over-abundance of poorly-tuned, poorly-cared-for pianos out there, and someone will always want you to play them.