A  MAJOR  BREAKTHROUGH

November 1, 2017

 

I was told recently by my most rigorous and long-standing critic of my violins, a virtuoso violinist and long time dealer in new and antique violins, "You have achieved what you have been aiming for over the last 40 years in your violin making".  What I had told him 10 years ago was that my specific aim was to be able to build violins that were as good in every way conceivable to the best violins made by Stradivari and Guarneri del Jesu.  

Such an acknowledgement, for me, had to come from a violinist who was intimately involved in the playing, set up, and sale of the important 18th century Italian violins.  He has spent a lifetime dealing in both new and antique violins, playing them, buying and selling them.  He knows how the best instruments behave under the bow.  I have seen him pick up a violin, put it under his chin, draw one note from the instrument, make a face of disgust and put it down immediately, unwilling to touch it again.  He has no interest or patience for inferior sounding and playing violins.  Yet he is always looking for passable new instruments to sell in his shop.  That is why his approval has been key for me.  As well, he always made one or two comments, no more, every time I showed him my instruments, comments that were extremely to the point.   And if I addressed myself to those comments and invented means of solving the problem or issue he had pointed out, he would notice the improvement and point out something different that would raise the quality of the next batch of violins.  He once told me, with a tone of some surprise, that I was the only violinmaker he knew who could actually accept and then make use of criticism, apparently this behavior is something of a rarity in this field. 

When he picked up my most recent violin, one based on Guarneri, finished 2 weeks earlier, he began to play and as he continued to play he exclaimed, "This is a fantastic fiddle!! There isn't anything it can't do.  " As he kept playing he said, "It does everything! It’s got everything!" When he finally put the violin down, he picked up a violin made by a violinmaker living in Cremona for whom he said, "This is by a modern maker from Cremona for whom I have a lot of respect.  " When he set it down and picked up my violin and played on it again, he stopped and said, "There isn't a single maker today whose violins can come even close to your violins."  Naturally, his words were a real acknowledgment and affirmation for me that the path I struck for myself 40 years ago when I began making violins was the right one, the only one I know of that is based entirely on the ears to the virtual exclusion of the eyes.  

The violin he was playing is what I call an acoustical copy of an original made by G. Guarneri del Jesu in 1739.  

Credit for the success of my 40 year long undertaking is enthusiastically shared with: my critic who chooses to remain anonymous, who kindly took me at my word when I invited him to spare nothing in offering negative criticism, I say this because that is the only criticism from which improvements can be realized.  I told him that this success would not have happened without him.   With: Matt Lammers, my research assistant, who has been intimately involved in my violin making since 2015 when he made recordings on 11 different violins so I could post them on my website.  Matt's ability to understand what I am doing and the practical and theoretical underpinnings of my violin making has led to half a dozen or so discoveries on my part relating to technical means of solving problems in my violins.  His dogged determination to see me to my goal has been an inspiration.   Without Matt's ability to identify specific minor problems that only an articulate artistic musician with a fine mechanical sense, cultivated taste, and interest in the violin as an expressive tool might notice, this work would never come to fruition as rapidly as it has as in the last 2 years.   With: Marianne Ploger, whose discoveries back in the early 80's of the last century of 'frequency associated timbre' and whose insights over the last 33 years of our marriage have contributed to my understanding of how the ancient violin makers were thinking about sound, especially in the last 7 weeks when my one nagging question that has kept me searching for the answer over the last 8 years, that of how the ancient makers made decisions about how to optimize the sound of each piece of wood, was finally answered.   With: Christine Arveil, who opened my eyes to the seemingly infinite subtlety in the application of my varnish and taught me the appropriate techniques to enhance the artistic aspect of my violins.   With: Artiom Sinelnikov, my first violin making acoustical technology student and then my research partner, who has since become an outstanding acoustical scientist in his own right and who has made acoustical discoveries over the last eight years that added to our store of knowledge thus bringing the level of acoustical quality in our violins to an even higher level of quality acoustically and practically.  With: Ladislav Prokop, also my research partner and my second violin making acoustical technology student, whose expertise in setting up violins made possible his appointment as top set up specialist at a violin house in London where the administration of that business blessed our collaboration in making violin acoustical observations of the best violins in the house.  With: Devin Golka, my harpsichord making assistant, whose cheerful help moved ideas from the theoretical to the practical with aplomb.  And not least with: Shigetoshi Yamada whose assistance in selling my violins and faith in my ability to reach my goal helped my work by making sure that each violin was setup to a professional's standard then finding the violinists who bought my violins; thus was the work financed these 40 years.  And finally, with all those violinmakers whose scoffing ridicule regarding my approach only strengthened my resolve to avoid their errors of thinking and habits of making musical instruments with the eyes instead of the ears.   From my experience, it is their behavior of focusing on the "box" as the true source of knowledge about the violin that has, alas, been their greatest barrier to understanding the sound of the violin.   Its not about the box, its about the sound.   The business of making a sound with dozens of specific acoustical traits, properties, and characteristics is what causes the box to assume its precise appearance in every detail and dimension.   

I plan to have Matt Lammers make another batch of recordings as soon as possible on as many violins incorporating this new acoustical technology so everyone can hear the differences between the newest violins and the violins I was making back in 2015 and the similarities and differences between the newest violins I will be making in 2017-18 to be compared with the recordings of the antique violins already on my website.  

Now all I want to do is make as many violins of this caliber, or better, as possible for the rest of my life.  

 

HUMIDITY   AND    HARPSICHORDS, FORTEPIANOS,   AND    CLAVICHORDS

 

             I am often consulted on what in my opinion is about the ideal temperature and humidity for keeping a musical instrument like a harpsichord, fortepiano or clavichord in its best condition. Indeed, this article on Humidity and Harpsichords was prompted by an owner of one of my instruments who wanted advice about humidifiers. Since this is an almost universal problem in our times where we have the luxury of central heating and air conditioning in the parts of the world where winters happen, I thought it would be appropriate to offer all owners of keyboard instruments some advice regarding this vexing problem. 

            The simple answer to the question is: the best or ideal condition for a musical instrument made of wood is the same that is ideal for a human being. When we start to feel the effects of too high humidity, our skin feels clammy and our clothing sticks to us as though it were glued to us. Then is when we complain about the humidity being too high. Also when the temperature rises, what might feel comfortable for us where humidity is concerned if the temperature is around 72º F (22º C) will turn clammy at 85º F (29º C) and become oppressively hot and sticky at 95º F (35º C). Not surprisingly, harpsichord keys and jacks will fail to return when played as the temperature and humidity rise because the wood sucks up the humidity like a sponge sucks up water. When that happens the wood swells and fills every possible space.  

            My solution for all the instruments in my environment is to maintain as stable a humidity condition as possible. I do this by avoiding opening doors or windows unless absolutely necessary. This reduces the exchange of humidity when it is wet outside or cold and dry outside. I use air conditioning when the weather is hot, which cools and dehumidifies the rooms in which I work and where in the instruments are kept. During the times when the weather turns cold, I am obliged to heat my shop to keep the instruments from freezing and to use a serious humidifier to maintain the humidity at around 37%.  

             During cold weather, if the humidity gets higher than 40% the moisture that is being pumped into the air by the humidifier is being just as quickly extracted from the air by cold windows and glass doors which collect condensation at that level of humidity. When the temperature plummets the condensation freezes on the windows and glass doors becoming almost glacial if the deep freeze lasts long enough. When the temperature again raises all that moisture on the glass melts and soaks into the wood of which the windows and doors are made and eventually rots the wood necessitating replacing the windows and doors. 

            The effects of excessive humidity on human health can be devastating as the environment becomes a petri dish for every kind of yellow, green, black and grey mold that send out spores which when breathed in cause lung and sinus problems. The dangers of harboring black mold, varieties of which are deadly need to be investigated should your environment be so humid. 

            I was visiting a family once who owned a small collection of valuable violins including one Stradivari violin. It was winter and their windows were totally covered with frost on the inside because they were pumping huge amounts of humidity into the air. When I mentioned that after 40% the excess humidity condenses on the windows which will cause them to eventually rot, not to speak of all the humidity that penetrates the walls and freezes in the walls and the insulation causing those areas to rot as well, the owners of these instruments pointed out that their $80,000 house was clearly expendable when it came to protecting their collection of violins. I saw their point but the idea of living in such an environment because of mold and mildew with which they were living should make them a bit more concerned than they were. To each his own. What can I say? The owner of this collection is a doctor. 

              When the level of humidity is really over the top, what happens to a harpsichord soundboard is that it swells up and having no place to go eventually "washboards" as a result. Wash boarding appears like the surface of the old time washboards that were used for scrubbing clothes. In the confined space of the frame of the harpsichord, areas will rise and adjacent areas to them will sink in a rise/sink/rise/sink pattern, especially between the bridge and the side of the case. When the humidity becomes even more extreme, the rise/sink/rise/sink pattern compresses further causing the wood to fracture at the transition points between the rises and the sinking. This manifests itself as a step in the surface of the soundboard that by all rights should appear to be a smooth contiguous surface. Then when the wood dries out at some point those fractures will eventually open and the crack appears because the now compressed wood doesn't "bounce" back from such severe compression.  

            Under these extremely humid conditions every part of the action also suffers, as the keys freeze on the pins in the key frames because the wood has swollen the bearing points shut making the instrument completely unplayable. I have only ever experienced one of my harpsichords being subjected to this kind of torture and that was in Europe. It was as though the owner had drenched the instrument in buckets of water. In every case of excessive humidity, the owner of the instrument is responsible because keeping the environment suitable for human habitation means overseeing that the humidity is not so high so as to prevent the growth of molds and mildews. Living in buildings made of stone, concrete, cinderblock, brick or other such materials that love to hold moisture and transfer it slowly but continuously at a very high level, exacerbates these conditions. This is because moisture, like heat that always moves in the direction of cold, always moves from greater to lower concentrations until equilibrium is achieved.  

             One solution that I have that works for removing extremely high levels of humidity is to "tent" the instrument and place a 5 gallon bucket under the instrument and use a net of fabric, screen, or wire mesh to hold about five pounds of rock salt (like the stuff used in water softeners). As the salt attracts the moisture from the air it liquefies and drips down into the bucket. This will suck the humidity from the air first, then from the rug or floor covering, and then from the wood of the instrument. Whatever is the least hydroscopic is what will first be relieved of its humidity. 

             At the opposite end of the pole is excessive dryness. As wood loses humidity it shrinks. On a harpsichord or fortepiano, this shrinkage can amount to as much as 5/16" (7,5mm) across the entire width of a 36" (ca. 90cm) wide soundboard. When the edges of the soundboard are glued to the frame of the instrument as they are in harpsichords, fortepianos and clavichords, they are prevented from moving but all the free surface of the soundboard shrinks causing cracks to occur. Sometimes, if the dryness is of such extremity, such as I have witnessed on some of my harpsichords, there will appear as many as 11 cracks in the soundboard. These cracks usually first appear in the high treble area of the soundboard and then in the areas in the bass between the 4' bridge and the 8' bridge, and finally in the areas between the 4' bridge and the belly rail especially at the rosette. I sold a harpsichord to a college that stored the instrument in a closet. When the folks at the college wanted to use the instrument they would take it out of the closet to play it. Well, the closet was not humidified, had concrete walls that were all interior walls because the closet was under an indoor staircase that was exposed to direct sunlight. During the winter, they took the harpsichord out of the closet and found 9 cracks in the lid, 11 cracks in the soundboard, and 8 cracks in the bottom. They then asked me what to do about the cracks. I told them to cry a lot because with that kind of damage, there is not much you can do except fire the nitwit who suggested that as a location for storing a musical instrument. 

             When I know that one of my instruments is going to be expose to the rigors of mortis, I try to make the instrument in as low a humidity condition as possible, installing the soundboard at the lowest level I can achieve in my workshop. Likewise, when I know that the instrument is going to stay in an environment that has a very high humidity, I try to build it during the most humid part of the year. 

             A person from Finland ordered a double manual Taskin copy from me. Right at the very beginning of our negotiations I warned the client that because the instrument would be "living" in Finland there was a great likelihood that the soundboard would develop serious cracks because it is so cold and therefore very dry there in the winter. That person declared that all harpsichords that come to Finland get cracks in the soundboard so it would be expected. 

              My own attitude about cracks in the soundboard, especially those that are the result of dryness in winter, is that they are a signal from the instrument that more humidity is required by the harpsichord. Should one occur it is not the end of the world. Cracks offend the eye but are otherwise not an acoustical problem, because in harpsichords there is not enough energy being generated by the instrument to make a crack buzz or rattle when the instrument is played. Should a buzz develop, as I have seen in museums the solution is to slip a small piece of paper between the two sides of the crack and slip the paper down the crack until it lodges firmly in the crack. That usually stops the sound of the buzz. The same can be also said for the clavichord. However, for the fortepiano cracks are more of an acoustical problem because the instrument generates enough energy to make just about any crack to start buzzing or rattling. So fortepianos need more careful humidification during the winter than do harpsichords. 

             Obviously, when your harpsichord has developed 25 cracks in the soundboard there are bound to be serious acoustical problems. That tells the owner that he or she is seriously neglectful of the care of the instrument.  

What to do about the ravages of excess humidity or dryness. 

            It is important that when easing a frozen keyboard or jack that whoever is doing the work should determine which of the several bearing points in the action is the most frozen and use the file on that place first. The tendency to file away at the first obvious place where sticking is noticed will invariably result in taking the remedy too far and the keys or the jacks become too loose where the easing has been excessive or unwarranted. Analysis of the source of the sticking is extremely important so you don't do more damage from trying to get the keys working by any means irrespective of the damage you are doing to the keys in the process. If the keys stick at the key end where the jacks stand on the end of the key, then there should be no "air space" in the hole in the key where the guide pin guides the up and down motion of the key. The correct amount of air space in that guide pin hole is about 0,5mm or the thickness of a piece of heavy paper. The correct amount of air space between the balance pin and the sides of the balance pin hole is about the same. 

               It should be said that the correct technique for opening a balance pin hole to ease the key by removing wood from inside that hole is to remove the wood by holding the file at an angle designed to remove the wood at the bottom of each side of the hole but to remove nothing from the top edges of the hole so that the keys are snugly maintained in a position of readiness to move without being allowed to wobble on the pin because the holes were made too large. Should the holes have been enlarged enough a solution offered to us by the old instrument makers is to make a knife cut into the wood of the key from the top about 1,5mm from the side of the hole that is too large, then inserting a pointed wedge shaped sliver of hard wood into the knife cut in order to force the wood of the key over into the hole in order to close the side of the hole until the excess air space is again made right. Another solution from the old masters is to fabricate a wooden guide piece and glue it on top of the key over the hole that then becomes the means of guiding the key. Sometimes the old masters would glue a small piece of wood on top of the key on the side on which there was too much air space, thus making the key track more snugly. Do not use too hard a piece of wood lest you create a "click" sound in place of having the key wobble. 

             My attitude about wobbly keys is that all the old instruments have wobbly keys. So the question is why? Well the easy answer is that over use has made the keys wobbly. I don't buy that answer. I have noticed that keys that are too controlled in the manner in which they move on the pins and in the slots which guide the motion of the keys is that the instrument makes only one sound. Well, you might ask, since you can't control the volume on a harpsichord anyway what's the problem with that? Lack of dimensionality in the sound, that's what is wrong. The keys need to be free enough at the balance pin hole and the guide pin holes and slots to allow the player to move the keys in any direction other than a simple up/down motion in order to change the timbre, volume, intensity, and bloom of the plucked string. Harpsichords that can't do this are incredibly boring to listen to and not surprisingly, render those who play such instruments unable to play interestingly due to the insufficiency of feedback stimulation from the sound of the instrument. 

             So forcing modern standards of mechanical behavior on an instrument that is not from our time only makes the instrument yet one more boring machine available for punching pitches on and calling the result music. 

              Since actions rarely exhibit problems functioning properly from dryness, the only advice I can give about cracks is either learn to live with them once they happen or get them repaired by a competent technician who will likely open up the crack even more and glue a "shim" in the crack to fill it up. That operation is time consuming so plan to spend some money when you ask someone to repair the cracks. Only when the cracks have been caused by a breakdown in your humidification system are you likely to get insurers to help cover the cost. I had one of my fortepianos sent back to me from Europe to Michigan where my harpsichord shop still is for replacing the soundboard because someone who has borrowed the piano from its owner had left the lid open and one of the stage hands had turned on all the stage lights which heated up the soundboard to the point that it cracked down its entire length in several places, necessitating the soundboard replacement. The lesson there is be very careful to whom you loan or let use your instruments. 

Humidifiers

             There are several types of humidifiers and I have probably used all of them at one time or other. There is no such thing as a best humidifier. There is such a thing as a worst humidifier…one that doesn't do the job for which it was purchased. Every type of humidifier has its own specific set of problems. 

            Vaporizing humidifiers are those that emit a vapor of mist directly into the air. Some are activated by electrolysis using salt as the catalyst. These are steam generators. Others create the mist using ultrasound or a spinning wheel that mists the water into the air that is then blown out into the room. Both types of humidifiers leave traces of moisture in their wake. The steam generators often spit more water out than just mist leaving water spots everywhere around the humidifier. The Ultrasound or vibrating humidifiers leave a calcium dust all over everything unless one uses reverse osmosis system water or distilled water. 

            The evaporating humidifiers are by far the most common types of humidifiers. The water is dispersed by air blown over a medium of some sort (compressed fiber glass, a water wheel with a sponge like material through which air can pass, etc.) and the action of evaporation creates the humidity in the room. The problems with these types of humidification are mainly clean ability. If they are not cleaned well and often they become breeding ground for bacteria and molds that are then blown into the air for you to take into your lungs. These tend to be the quietest operating humidifiers because the air is only gently blown over the media in the humidifier. 

             When I have let one of my instruments be used for a concert in a room that has no humidification at all, has forced air heating, and is huge, I will place a large piece of plastic sheet over the entire instrument right down to the ground and insert a pan of water under the "tent" to provide passive humidification. Since the air will suck the humidity from whatever source will release it the fastest, this method works for those situations. And sometimes this solution is necessary even at home in the event that the humidifier breaks down. 

Conclusion

             Whether the condition you are faced with is excess humidity or excess dryness, the solution is to learn to sense levels of humidity by using your nose. Your nose will immediately respond to the humidity conditions by becoming stuffed up when the humidity is so high that mold and mildew instantly attack your sinuses. If the humidity is too low, the tissues in the nose lining immediately become dried out and feel like they are going to crack. If you stay in such a place for too long you will eventually develop nosebleeds. If you have a constitution that doesn't react to environmental conditions, listen to what others are saying about the humidity in your environment and pay attention to what they say. The environment that is best for humans is best for musical instruments…human beings that is who pay attention to the quality of their living environment. 


 

 

HOW TO MAKE

A BEAUTIFUL SOUND ON THE

HARPSICHORD, CLAVICHORD,

AND FORTEPIANO

by Keith Hill © NASHVILLE 2015


            Here are a few tips for pulling the most beautiful sound out of the keyboard instrument you have. 

            Why do I bother to write about this? 

           Not everyone owns a first rate keyboard instrument.  Although what I have to say is most pertinent to those who own a first rate instrument, the sound of any instrument can be materially improved if the player is willing to learn certain special ways of touching the keys and ways of making music that can have a huge effect on how the sound of any keyboard instrument develops.  The better the quality of the instrument the more profound the effect of these techniques will have on the development of the sound in such an instrument.  People come in a variety of temperaments and each person chooses the instrument which most suits one's temperament.  Those who perhaps don't have a lot of choice being financially constrained will appreciate knowing how to optimize the sound of whatever instrument they have to play.

            First of all, one of the drawbacks of a highly enhanced acoustic is that the soundboard is rendered extremely sensitive to how the action is played upon. That is, stiff fingers and wrists result in a harsh thin ugly sound. Even 15 minutes of playing in such a manner will result in leaving a permanent impression of a harsh thin ugly quality in the sound of the instrument. The soundboard permanently “Remembers” how the sound is produced. You have no control over this behavior. The only thing you can control is the quality of the tone you create when you play the instrument. The following suggestions are given as a guide to avoiding the worst possible sounds. The actual quality of the sound you make is largely dependent on the totality of the attention you pay when you are making a sound...that is why I consider the sound a person makes as a reflection of his or her spiritual nature. (Spiritual meaning having to do with paying attention to reality.)

If your harpsichord doesn't have a highly enhanced acoustic, you can still make the instrument sound as beautiful as it can possibly sound by following the suggestions below. That is because a beautiful sound as made by the player can overwhelm a mediocre sounding instrument. This is as true for a harpsichord as it is for a violin. The more you build into your imagination a sound that is gorgeous and can figure out how to manage your touch to evince from your harpsichord the best possible sound it can make, the more your instrument will continue to improve in sound. 

It is one of the two oddest facts of musical life that those who have a clear and majestic imagination of the sound they wish to hear from every instrument they play are the ones who have the best careers even if these players are deficient in other ways either musically or technically. The other oddity is that players invariably play every instrument they are playing in almost exactly the same manner that they play the instrument on which they practice most often. Those who play on mediocre sounding instruments expect a mediocre sound to come out of every instrument they play and magically make every instrument they play sound mediocre. Similarly, musicians who play on a superb musical instrument tend to make every instrument they play sound in the same manner as their own superb instrument. I noticed these behaviors almost from the moment I became a musical instrument maker and nothing since then has changed except that I have gotten older and more skilled in my craft, but these observations remain unchanged. 

Touch: 

            1. keep your fingers always as close to the surface of the keys as possible. This ensures that the quill never gets suddenly slapped against the string.

            2. when you are playing, avoid "pressing or pushing" the key down, instead "draw or drag" the key down with a motion of the finger which as closely as possible imitates the manner, quality, and shape of the motion of how large birds flap their wings. The best way to describe this motion is that it is a continuous eliptical curve which starts slowly, builds up speed until the bottom of the stroke when it snaps to rest merely with a relaxation of the muscles of the finger.

            3. maintain as much as possible as relaxed a wrist, hand and fingers...exerting only the energy required to draw the finger down in the manner indicated above as it moves in an arc towards the center of the palm of the hand, then release the tension needed to make that motion so the key can push the finger back to rest position on the top surface of the key.  Any technique which encourages tension in the muscles controlling the shoulder, arm, elbow, forearm, hand and fingers will eventually result in tendonitis or worse.  The principle of efficiency urges us to use as little energy as possible when playing a keyboard instrument.  If this means using more arm weight, then so be it.  Nothing is more damaging to creating a beautiful sound as a tight hand and wrist.  Forcing one's technique with brute force makes harpsichords especially sound like shattering glass...a sound that is enough to drive any sensitive listener out of the room in horror.

              These three techniques avoid building harsh harmonics in the soundboard.

Manner:

              Hold down as many keys as possible to build up as much sound and resonance as possible. This overcomes the otherwise dry sound of the instrument. Chopin's fortepiano technique was to create sonorities with his fingers by using "finger substitution" in order to keep notes sounding as long as possible, unless the music would be made turgid by this suggestion.  Otherwise, it builds a luxurious sonority in the soundboard. This is also one of the reason why I like indifferent damping. It creates a kind of acoustical “dirt” which the soul relishes and feels free to romp around in. I should inject, perhaps, a word of explanation here. I am fully aware that what I am suggesting by "holding down as many keys as possible to build up as much sound and resonance as possible" is harpsichord technique heresy. That is because it flies in the face of the "detached" style of playing that is required to make clear the sound of most contemporary harpsichords. My harpsichords are so inherently clear sounding they don't require any articulation at all for clarity. The only articulation needed is that for expressive intentions exclusively. Holding down as many keys as possible to build up resonance can only be done on an extremely clear sounding instrument for the purpose of ravishing the ear.  In every case, avoiding both a dry dessicated sound and a turgid sound is a good idea.  But players who play music in public need to know that no listener thinks before attending a concert, "Oh Goody!!  Now I get to go and listen to articulation!".  Listeners attend concerts in the hopes of feeling the affects intended by the composer...not to relish the articulation, the effect of which invariably calls attention to the performers technique rather than the music.  

            If you play with the cognitive techniques (you can read about these techniques by going to the ARTICLES ON heading and opening the Craft of Musical Communication article), as many and as often, and as obviously as possible the soundboard becomes accustomed to sounding in a flowing, meaningfilled way as possible. It radically improves the ability of the instrument to play gorgeously, easily and asymetrically.  Nonmetrical playing is extremely important to prevent the soundboard from absorbing a patterned "print" of the meters which will turn into a desiccated and edgy sound that is very hard to remove by the best playing.

             A word about the "detache´" manner of playing the harpsichord.  This type of touch, which was mentioned in several old treatises on playing keyboard instruments, has the effect of making inherently unclear sounding harpsichords to be more clear sounding.  Since most modern made harpsichords are to my ear inherently unclear and mushy sounding, the detache´ manner of playing is obligatory for the sake of clarity.  But on a harpsichord that is made to sound totally clear no matter how many notes are sounding at the same time, such a detached manner of playing sounds silly...as silly as hearing a speaker using an exaggeratedly articulated manner of speaking.  Such speech behavior is extremely stupid sounding as all the syllables get exactly the same amount of emphasis--to the point that understanding what is being said becomes difficult.  That said, there was a good reason in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries for learn a detached manner of playing keyboard instruments.  That is, many players would be learning to play on fretted clavichords and fretted clavichords can not be competently played on without the detached technique because when one plays either an upper or lower note that is fretted, the result is that the sound made is one that either muffles the second note or "cajangles" it.  Detaching notes avoids these musical defects.  Today, most keyboard players begin playing on the piano where an arbitrarily detached manner of playing sounds decidedly counterfeit as the player appears to be trying to make the piano sound more like a harpsichord...an uninteresting and tedious effect.


             Playing in a very singing manner, I believe, since I have yet to have a long enough acquaintance with any of my instruments (they always leave my shop as soon as they are done and I almost never see them again), but preliminary experiments on my own harpsichord (also a Taskin) indicate that this is the case, will cause the soundboard to develop strong color differences from note to note. My own instrument has become more and more "quirky" in the way that the best antiques are "quirky" as in charming, strongly charactered, both traits of which encourage a high level of thinking in improvisation, but never sound odd...only aluring.

Set up: 

            I much prefer a more uneven quilling than one that is perfectly uniform and even because it makes improvisation much easier and effortless. It also makes for far stronger differences from note to note than does a smooth voicing. These differences only get more extreme as the instrument gets played in, as they become impressed in the soundboard. Caccini wrote that notes with the same value want to be performed unequally and irregularly. Quilling according to my suggestion renders the instrument more amenable to creating a naturally uneven aspect to the music, which, as Caccini put it makes the things expounded upon more pleasant and natural sounding.  Obviously, one can take this too far, but as CPE Bach suggested in his Versuch, better too far (bizarre) than not far enough (uniform).

              In a harpsichord set up with perfect uniformity and eveness, the only way to build the differences into the board is by having a sensitive yet flamboyant attitude and apply it down to the smallest degrees in playing, which translates into strong differences in how each note is generated and in how the different harmonics on each note get brought out or supressed. Since very few players exhibit this manner of playing, the preferred set up is a naturally irregular voicing.

              The following may sound like nonsense, but, I know from experience that playing timorously or fearfully produces a hard, edgy, stingy sound. Playing with a generous loving spirit which is unselfconscious produces a robust sound, one that is brilliant but without edginess, and colorful without hardness.

              Probably the best way to build a sonorous and resonant impression in the soundboard is to roll chords, listening to the gestures created, keeping the fingers and wrists as relaxed as possible, and focus on generating as flowing and as "windy", as in windlike, an effect as possible. This is accomplished best by playing in a manner of conducting the wind flows, eddys, and outbursts using the wrists to provide the wind direction and gesture. This way of playing need not be so obvious to be effective--it is best when it happens more in the imagination.

              Finally, play using the pads of the fingerstips not the bone. Just as fat creates so much of the flavor in food, the fleshy pads of the fingers create a voluptuous and flavorful sound compared to the bone at the tip of the finger. The boney tip of the finger creates a parched sound.  Playing with the fingernail makes a hard as nails sound and eventually digs holes in the tops of the natural keys.  (Don't laugh!  I once saw a Dowd harpsichord on which all the natural ebony keytops had holes dug into them, and more extremely in the middle of the keyboard.  The harpsichordist's touch was not a touch, it was a manner of hammering the keys from about ½" above the keys, pounding the key down as furiously as he could hitting the keys with his nails.  How he could imagine anyone wanting to endure listening to that way of playing for more than 5 seconds, I will never guess.  I am just glad he never owned one of my instruments.)

Attitude:

             Listen to how each note wants to be touched based on the note that went before it. This involves intuiting the meaning of each note before you play it...no matter how fast the notes are passing. Each note, like each word in a sentence, is there for a reason. Otherwise, the composer would have removed them. Unless you understand the meaning of the individual notes, you can't give them their right expressive weight. How does that affect the soundboard. Mindlessness produces a sound that is thin, meager, and metrical. Thin, meager, and metrical has all the earmarks of scolding. Scolding has a sound that is horrible which is why it is so effective at frightening the receiver. Such a sound should never be emitted by an instrument used to play music.

               The better a musical instrument is the more it competently clarifies to the ear the true meaning of a sound, a phrase, and an expression which is why good instruments are such good teachers to those who pay attention to them. The worse an instrument is the more it expresses only what it is: a device used to produce pitches and or rhythms. Contrary to conventional understanding about music, pitches and rhythms are not music. Music is in the meaning, as determined by the Soul. A mind which focuses on meaning feels frustrated and depleted when it must fight the instrument to get any sort of meaning to come out. A mind accustomed to having to fight to make music, when confronted with a real musical instrument with an impressionable soundboard, will produce a sound that is frustrated and depleted...which inevitably gets impressed on the sound of such an instrument. Anyone listening to the resulting sound, no matter who is playing, will likely feel the frustration and depletion and not understand why they are having those feelings. This means that when playing a good musical instrument, it is imperative to maintain an attitude that is open, loving, attentive, unselfconsciously expressive, and above all courageous, centered, calm, and generous...in other words, be your true self at your best. Such a mental state will produce an extremely attractive quality of sound on any instrument. An impressionable soundboard will only be enhanced by such a sound.

On Articulation

             Articulation is an absolute necessity to make mediocre muddy sounding instruments appear clear.  That is why I do everything in my power to make my instruments clear in the extreme. This means that to play my instruments with the usual amount of articulation makes the sound dry and hard...like soda crackers. Such a sound appears forced, self conscious, and overdone. Articulation on an excellent musical instrument should only be used for expressive requirements. That is, only articulate to create a more intense affect quality to the music and for no other reason. Legato playing sounds the best on a good instrument because the instrument is so clear sounding to begin with. So I do not exaggerate when I recommend that anyone playing on my instruments does so by holding down as many notes all the time as can be reasonably managed within the intention of the music.  

             I repeat, I realize that much of what I am recommending is heretical. But anyone with ears to hear will soon notice that everything I have written here is true. I only hope that these suggestions are heeded before the soundboard of any acoustically enhanced instrument is indelibly and permanently ruined by impressions brought about by a brutal touch and coarse insensitive playing.

              Reports of Mozart's technique of playing the fortepiano suggest that he had a choppy manner of playing. This would suggest that he intended to articulate everything to a degree that creates such a sound. I disagree.  It must be remembered that he had to play on whatever piano was available and those having escapement were rare during his lifetime. Thus his technique of lifting the fingers the instant the sound was produced was a necessary technique to play all those pianos which failed to have an escapement mechanism; because if the keys were not instantly released the moment the sound was produced, the hammer would block on the string killing the sound. Interestingly, this technique is still being taught to this day despite the fact that every piano now made has a competent escapement possibility. Some things just never succumb in the face of intelligent understanding. Beethoven was also said to play with that choppy manner of playing until Clementi suggested to him the possibility of a cantabile or legato manner of playing; at which point he changed his playing style.

               Every suggestion that I have made here is based on how the human brain makes sense of heard information. Since we perform music for others, it is their brains for which we must manage the making of music so that for those who love music but have not studied it for 8 years in conservatory will derive the greatest meaning and pleasure from the music we perform. After all, they are the ones who buy the tickets to our concerts.

I hope these tips will prove interesting and helpful
 

 

A NEW HILL HARPSICHORD AFTER THE 1624 "COLMAR" RUCKERS

 

The recording offered below was recorded live by Professor of Harpsichord, Mark Edwards, at Fairchild Chapel in Oberlin, Ohio on September 27th, 2016 on my most recent harpsichord, a copy of the 1624 Ruckers harpsichord in Colmar, France.  I made the instrument in April of 2016 and finished the instrument in September.  This harpsichord is presently for sale.

Colmar Ruckers by K. Hill Opus 486 Oct. 2016.jpg