Light vs. Heavy Actions

Question: Hi Albert,

I have three pianos: two digital Rolands and a Steinway upright. All three have a very light touch. The problem is that after learning a piece with fast runs that I’ve worked hard on, I try to play the piece on other pianos and it’s like I never looked at the piece. I can’t even play the introductory four notes on a piano with a heavier touch. I looked on the internet to find out what the touch should be. I came across a site that said many students have learned to play on a digital piano and expect to play on pianos with a light touch. However, even if a student learned on a piano with a light touch that student may not be able to reproduce that same music on a much heavier touch that one’s teacher is likely to have.

My dilemma is this: Should I have a piano tech make my touch heavy or leave it as it is? I tried out one teacher who had a piano that I thought was unplayable. She believed a piano should be as tight as possible. Another teacher I had one session with worked in a Jordan Kitts piano store and had several digitals and a Yamaha grand. I’m concerned that I’m never going to be able to play for a teacher (with a heavier touch piano) when I’m so used to learning and playing on either one of my digitals or my light touch Steinway.

Do you have an opinion on how the touch should be and should I have my piano adjusted (assuming it can be) so that there is an easier transition from my piano to a teacher’s piano?

Thanks as always Albert. You are an invaluable resource!!!

– Loni (Maryland, USA)

Albert’s reply: This is a wonderful question and one I have considerable experience with. As much as I didn’t want to touch its light and perfectly balanced action, I had to have my 1930s Schweighofer made heavier simply so I can play other pianos in concert and not have to fight my way through a performance.

It’s a situation all modern pianists know, and we all simply have to be equipped to deal with it. Basically, we have to be prepared to play the heaviest possible piano action, regardless of our personal preference. I find it inexplicable that so many piano actions are so heavy. We work hard to play very difficult music such as the Chopin Etudes at the composer’s specified tempos, and seldom do we remember that pianos were far lighter when the music was written. (The lighter actions, combined with shallower key depths, indeed made it easier to play fast, but this relative ease at achieving higher speeds also carried with it more difficulty controlling the sound.) What’s more, modern pianists risk injury from playing fast, dense and loud music on very heavy actions.

I remember my very first lesson with Paul Badura-Skoda. I played Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata, among the most technically demanding pieces in the piano literature. His Steinway was so heavy I felt that I’d have to be an Olympic weightlifter to play it! He explained that he got a second action for it and had it made very heavy as a response to his first American tour, during which he encountered unplayable pianos! (Badura-Skoda was also the first modern pianist to pioneer the use of historical fortepianos of Mozart’s and Beethoven’s time, with their featherweight actions.)

You may wish to have your upright weighted, but not necessarily. Upright actions are different from those of grand pianos. The keys may appear the same from the outside, but the fall board hides the rest of the keys, the length of which differs greatly compared to a nine-foot concert grand. The fulcrum and balance of a piano key are affected by weighting one side of the lever. Modern piano actions have 48 grams of resistance in their middle octave as a general standard (from which many pianos deviate). Bass keys are heavier (the larger hammers are heavier), while the keys get lighter as you go up the piano. It’s possible to have an action that measures the standard 48 grams yet feels stiff, as well as a heavier one that seems to play itself. It all depends on the individual action and how well it’s regulated.

I’d talk to a Steinway technician before making any changes to your piano. Since Steinway makes outstanding uprights, it’s likely that your piano achieves perfect playability at exactly its current weighting. Remember that playability is a combination of many factors, and that weighting the keys will affect how hard the hammers strike the strings and hence the sound. You don’t want to end up with a stiff action that sounds less refined due to lesser playability. Also keep in mind that having the keys weighted is quite an expensive job – you’d have to budget a good $1000 to $1500 (I’m guessing), but you can have the action completely regulated at the same time. My best advice is to talk to a Steinway technician to learn the ins and outs of adjusting your piano’s action.

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