The piano is not a musical instrument

My grandfather, an excellent pianist in his own right, remarked on more than one occasion that he felt that the piano was not a musical instrument.  I also heard the same thing from one of my first and arguably one of my most important musical influences, Lester Henderson, also a pianist. Their reasons?

  1. Unlike the violin or voice, a pianist does not have to have a sense of pitch.
  2. Tone production. A piano has no vibrato or critical tone production issues (like bowing and long tones) to contend with.

Over the weekend, I got to witness what they were talking about when I attended a young musicians concert that featured nothing but piano and violin.

No matter what their level, all the pianists sounded in tune. That was not the case for the violinists. The youngest violinist was five years old and while it was remarkable to see him play such a demanding piece by memory, the truth is he was out of tune from the time he started till the end. Perhaps his sense of pitch will improve over time and he’ll get past this, but maybe not.

Then there was tone production which again was really a non-issue for the pianists. Sure, some of them had a better touch, but nothing serious like what faced the violinists. Also, as the violinists  got older, their tone got better. That again was not something you could say about the pianists, since they all played the same Steinway they all sounded pretty much the same, regardless of age.

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