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The piano: inspiring great music since 1700

The piano was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori sometime around 1700, and it has inspired centuries of musicians and composers ever since. It was originally called the pianoforte, because it could play soft (piano) or loud (forte). Keys activate hammers, which strike strings stretched in tune on a massive metal frame atop a soundboard and enclosed in a wooden case. The harder you strike a key, the louder the note sounds. Most modern pianos have 88 keys, and it’s really easy to get a note to sound good by just touching a key. But this is where the simplicity of the instrument ends.

My mother got an antique upright piano when I was a kid, and it remained drastically out of tune for its entire life in our house. (I offered to get it tuned, but she liked it the way it was.) It dated from the 1800s, and the black keys were real ebony, while the white keys were covered in actual ivory. I started playing around with that instrument years before I picked up my first guitar.

Guitars, however, were much more portable back in the 1970s. Needless to say, I fell in love with the guitar, and it became my primary instrument. But I still loved the piano as well.

When I started playing professionally, there weren’t many options available for easily portable stage pianos. Digital pianos were still a few years off. I did play a number of electronic pianos on stage, but none of them sounded particularly good — or would ever have been confused with a real piano. The closest a stage pianist could get in a semi-portable fashion was the Yamaha CP-70 or CP-80 electric grand piano (or similar models from Kawai and Helpinstill) — basically a moveable small grand piano in pieces (in road cases) with electric pickups. They had their own particular sound and they often needed tuning after each move. They were easier to move than a real grand piano, but they still weighed around 300 pounds.

In 1986, the stage piano world changed. Keyboard manufacturer Roland introduced the RD-1000 digital piano, and put those same sounds in a rack-mounted module they named the MKS-20. (Elton John played an RD-1000 on stage for several years back then.) It was revolutionary — I could use one of my existing portable keyboards connected via MIDI to this amazing module that put out a wonderful (for the time) acoustic piano sound.

Since then, the world of digital stage pianos has exploded; keyboards with good piano sounds are easily within reach of even the casual player. I have a stage piano with a full 88-key weighted (like a real piano) keyboard that puts out a very convincing acoustic piano sound through speakers — and it weighs just 24 pounds. In the studio world, most digital audio workstations (DAWs) that recording professionals use also come with some amazing acoustic piano samples, some of which can take up gigabytes of storage to accurately reproduce the best Steinways, Bosendorfers, Yamahas, and even antique pianos that Mr. Cristofori might recognize. When one listens to a modern recording, it’s very hard to tell if it’s a real piano or a digital one.

That being said, there’s nothing like sitting behind an honest-to-goodness real grand piano. The feel of the keys, the sound of the hammers hitting the strings, the air that surrounds and enhances the vibrations coming from the strings and the soundboard — these are things that the best digital pianos just can’t reproduce. Playing a real grand piano is akin to a religious experience. If I had the space to own and maintain a real grand piano, I’d probably be a much better piano player — I’d play it all the time.

If you’re wondering where this musical meandering is going, I’ll make it as clear as a crystal Steinway: I get to play a real grand piano (a beautiful Yamaha) for this week’s Facebook Live online concert Friday night. A couple of friends — I won’t mention their names (but their initials are Lorna Sanchez and Brian Tewes) — have a real nice grand piano in their home. Lorna plays, and she graciously offered to allow me to play her piano for my online concert. I’ve played that piano before, and it sounds really nice. Really nice. Needless to say, when they offered, I jumped at the chance.

It doesn’t hurt that Brian and Lorna have some really nice bourbon and scotch around the house as well. Needless to say, I am really looking forward to this Friday’s Social Distancing Concert. With the easy availability of COVID vaccinations and a semblance of normalcy returning to our lives, audiences for these Facebook Live concerts aren’t as big as they were a year ago. But we still have a community of friends and virtual family who gather each week for these. I hope you’ll join us at 7:30 p.m. Friday! You can find me at www.facebook.com/johnbartus.— Catch John Wednesdays at Herbie’s, Thursdays at Sparky’s Landing, Friday on Facebook Live, Saturday afternoon at Boondocks and Saturday night at the Key Colony Inn. Music wherever you get your streaming or downloads. www.facebook.com/john.bartus

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