Anatomy of a piano

21 May 2013 | By Behind Ballet


Ballet and the piano are beautifully, inseparably linked. In professional companies, morning class is accompanied by a pianist, who usually also plays for rehearsals, and the ripple of piano music is the dominant sound of any ballet HQ. We asked our Principal Pianist and Music Librarian Stuart Macklin to walk us around one of our rehearsal pianos.

We use rehearsal and concert pianos supplied by Kawai, our Official Piano Partner. The piano we’re looking at is a Kawai RX3, which is the largest of our rehearsal pianos.

Why a grand piano?
A grand piano has a richer sound than an upright (especially in the bass, as it has longer strings), but the main advantage of playing a grand piano in the studio is that the pianist can see over it, and so has a view of what the dancers are doing.

The surfaces of piano keys used to be made of ivory; the key-surfaces of the RX3 are made of synthetic ivory. When the pianist touches a key, it pushes a hammer, which strikes a “note” – a group of three strings. As the notes progress down into the bass end, they have two strings. The strings of the lower notes are wrapped in copper wire. This makes them fatter, which means they reverberate more.

The dampers are made of wool felt, and sit over the strings of each note, pressing on them. When a key is touched, the damper lifts as the hammer strikes the note, allowing the strings to sound. When the key is released, the dampers sit back into position on the strings, stilling the sound. If there were no dampers, the sound from one set of notes would keep ringing on as other notes were played, producing aural chaos.

Sound board
The sound board, made of solid spruce wood in the RX3, makes the sound of the strings resonate, in much the same way as it does in other string instruments like violins or guitars.

Piano tuner’s card
When a piano tuner comes in to tune our instruments, they leave a card tucked in the piano to show it’s been serviced. Variations in temperature and a lot of use make pianos go out of tune. Because the studios are full of dancers, the temperature fluctuates often as they adjust air conditioning and heating, open the windows, and dance. A roomful of sweaty dancers can generate quite a lot of heat! Our rehearsal pianos are also used far more frequently than regular pianos, so they are tuned about four times a year. The Kawai pianos stand up well to the amount of work they do. More fragile pianos subjected to this schedule can end up with broken strings.

Upright pianos have two pedals, but grand pianos have three. The pedal on the far right-hand side lifts all the dampers, allowing the pianist to create a legato (“tied”) sound with notes flowing into one another. The middle pedal, called the sostenuto (“sustained”), is the grand piano’s extra pedal. This allows you to sustain certain notes while others sound as usual; so, for instance, you could strike a chord and have it sounding underneath your next run of notes. This is rarely used in orchestral reductions, although sometimes a composer will write music for the piano that employs this effect. The left pedal is called una corda (“one chord”), but is more often known as the soft pedal, as it muffles the sound.

Symmetries, opening in Canberra on Thursday, and Vanguard, opening in Melbourne on 6 June, are both triple bills that heavily feature the piano – and performances from our beautiful pianists Stuart Macklin and Duncan Salton.

Photography Fiona Howat