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Amateur Piano Competitors' Thoughts on This Year's Weapon of Choice

KERA’s Bill Zeeble is a huge classical music fan. He’s hanging out in Fort Worth at the amateur competition and sends us this update.

A Steinway D Credit:Steinway

The 70 pianists participating in Fort Worth’s 6th International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs all have at least one – and the same -  partner. It’s the brand new, 9-foot Hamburg Steinway D from Germany.

Unlike the other Van  Cliburn International Piano Competition (for those hoping to launch professional piano careers), amateur players here don’t get to choose their pianos. This is it, like it or not.

Many love the Hamburg. Some have problems. Long time pianist, writer and past competitor Ken Iisaka says it has a sharp attack, piercing sound, a resonant box with a long, LONG decay, meaning a sustained ring to the note after you strike it. Longer than other “Ds” he says, whose resonance seems to average half the length of this instrument.  So it’s perfect for less percussive pieces, wonderful for achieving that “singing” quality musicians often strive for with the instrument  in the percussion family.

But another Texas competitor didn’t like it. She found it exhausting to play, especially after performing fast, modern and percussive passages. “My arms got tired getting through certain sections,” she said, “and I’m in shape. And I never get tired.”

On the other hand, Dave Duebendorfer loves the new Steinway’s sound, and says there’s a “big” sound and a “rich” sound to pianos. He strove for the “big” sound, wasn’t sure he got it in his performance, but explained he needs more practice to isolate the joints in his fingers and arm to achieve that impressive wash of music that flows over the audience.

All the players I talked to  acknowledge a new piano needs time to break in. Piano technician Steve Claunch says it got here from Germany so recently that the felt on the new hammers were rock hard, firm. But that changes with time. The brightness of the piano stays and a lot of players love it. The ring (length of decay) should stay too. Players talk of being thrilled that they can “blur” the music because of that trait. Many say the action of the keys’ return after striking them could be a little faster. But the factory setting, said one, is an excellent starting point. I found another competitor who found the action almost too fast. Yet even he said it sounds great.

Another pianist who has played many Steinways over the years, including hers (built in the 1920s), says playing the competition piano is like driving a Rolls Royce. “But I’ve never driven a Rolls Royce.”

When you talk to pianists who’ve been performing so long and take their playing, music and musicianship so seriously, this variety of opinions about this one piano is of NO surprise at all.