I’ve learned two entirely random facts this week, both of which I will use for the rest of my days, and both of which I’m surprised I haven’t worked out before! Both regarding sound.
Our brand new Steinway model B had a little tlc last Thursday morning, ahead of Joanna MacGregor’s visit later that day. [I wondered whether it needed a little more tlc once she’d finished with the Piazzolla tangos!] Whilst it was in pieces, Steinway technician David Widdicombe explained to me how the una corda pedal works. It has always struck me as a bit of a misnomer, since on a modern piano the hammer always hits at least two of the three strings. However, I had, foolishly it seems, always assumed that the left pedal was either on or off. How wrong could I be?! Where the hammers usually hit the strings, three grooves form, and the felt in these grooves becomes more compact over time. Depressing the una corda pedal is not just a question of the keyboard moving so that only two strings sound; at varying degrees of application, the hammers hits the strings at a point where the felt is much softer (ie not in the grooves), which significantly changes the sound. In other words, it’s not just a question of fewer strings, but different timbre too. Using the left pedal will never be the same again!
[Since writing this blog, I have found an article by Stephen Hough which puts it rather better! Depressed again: the not so soft pedal.] I asked Stephen whether Is this is widely known and accepted amongst top pianists? “The old guys (Hofmann, Rachmaninov, Friedman, Horowitz) all knew. Not always great pedalling now.”]
At our choral society rehearsal last night, Ralph Allwood spent considerable time on the very first chorus of Haydn’s Creation, And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. It’s tricky; the notes are straight forward, but intonation is always a problem, and there is also a tendency for the choir to sing too loud to try to counter this. Amongst the things we explored, Ralph instructed the choir simply to barely open their mouths. Brilliant – instant results! That very afternoon I had been teaching a handful of girls in our (Girls’) Choir who can’t sing, and explaining that if you open your mouth more, more sound comes out – and they all heard the immediate difference. So why not apply this in reverse?
I put this into practice immediately today, rehearsing our Chamber Choir in Stanford’s The Bluebird. Simple instruction for the very last phrase: sing with barely open mouths. Results: instant, and breathtakingly effective. Thanks Ralph!!