The Horowitz Steinway: ultimate challenge in piano technique

Misha Dacic and Alan Fraser exchange experiences on the Horowitz Steinway

It just keeps getting better. Today we started at noon and finished when they closed the store up at 6. I played for four hours, then Misha played for an hour, and then when I had thought I was completely exhausted and couldn’t possibly do anything more, his playing inspired me, drew me back to the piano like a magnet, and then the most interesting part began.

Slight changes in touch evoke a change in the piano tone from silver to gold

I had watched his hands and listened to his sound closely, like a hawk. When I sat down again, I found myself drawn by some invisible impulse to play differently than before, to become even more liquidly skeletal and just melt into the piano to find an even juicier tone, a more stark difference in dynamic levels between melody and accompaniment. Let’s say I had been getting silvery sheen surrounding each note, but now, with a slightly fatter sense of the melodic finger in key (but not produced by anything like a heavier touch) that sheen started shifting in hue, becoming more golden. Imagine a painter painting in the style of Seurat with tiny dot brush strokes and then switching to a slightly fatter brush for wider daubs of colour, let’s say more like Van Gogh. The colour seems just as rich, perhaps richer, but there’s a slight loss of differentiation, of fine variegation.

Misha asked me, “What are you doing, the silver sheen of your sound went away.”

“But Misha, now I am doing what you did, look! It’s great!”

“Yes I see you are doing it more like me now, but the sound is worse.”

In piano tone, gold not necessarily more valuable than silver…

That surprised and puzzled me, but anyway I went back to a hand that stands up more rather than melting in to the keyboard, and my silveriness came back. It was another stunning demonstration that on this piano, less is more – less effort gives more riches of tone and expression. Then Misha sat and tried to imitate what I had been doing and lo and behold, his sound acquired that differentiated quality, it was even richer than before. “Hey, this is what I have been trying to find all week!”  says Misha… Each note was somehow more defined but in the opposite of a rough way… there was more space between each of his notes, and that space got filled up with sheen and colour instead of emptiness. The metallic (but in a positive sense) sheen the Horowitz Steinway is capable of producing is nothing short of miraculous.

The culmination of a 3-decade study of piano technique

In a way, this week has been the culmination of a 30-year search. Our experience bears out everything I write in my book, plus everything from the second book which is not out yet (be patient please, because now there are going to be a couple of new chapters written before that one is done!). We took the principles of orchestrated differentiated sound, and how best to produce that sound, and applied it in a medium of undreamed of responsiveness. The instrument gave back to us so much more than we ever expected.

Tension anywhere in your body stops the magic happening.

But inaccurate skeletal alignment anywhere in your body  also stops it happening. You need to stay poised, alert in every way, physically vital and mentally astute like a hawk. Such heightened concentration completely lacking in tension or effort is something we are not used to striving for.

My thanks go to Steinway – to the people who made this instrument back in the ’40’s, to the tuners who brought it up to this amazingly high level of performance, and to Steinway’s present management which makes this wonderful gift available to us.

A normal piano technique is totally inadequate to the task at hand

And I venture to be so bold as to offer a piece of advice to any pianist lucky enough to play this instrument: don’t bring your normal arsenal of fireworks to it. Don’t think that banging it or trying to produce a big, explosive sound will even remotely allow you to enter Horowitz’s aural-expressive world. The impression that he banged is all illusion. You must change everything about your playing if you want to have any chance at all of unlocking its secrets. That is why so many pianists don’t like it – they bring their normal technique to it.

You can learn so much from this instrument if you give it the chance to teach you. But to do that you must abandon everything you have brought with you and enter an unknown world of finer touch, greater sensitivity, and a new, calm, almost disinterested centeredness deep within oneself. The power that can be expressed on this instrument is huge, almost dangerous in its electric intensity, but it is of a totally new order – it comes only from “non-power.” Of course you can look for these qualities no matter what instrument you play, but none will reveal so much to you about your internal processes as this one…

If Kemal Gekic, one of the top virutosi in the world today, can feel moved to rebuild his technique from the ground up on the basis of just a few precious hours on this piano, don’t you think that maybe you too could benefit, if you give yourself the chance?

The Horowitz Steinway demands: orchestration, orchestration, orchestration

So, in preparation: demand more from yourself in terms of orchestration. Don’t be satisfied just to learn the text. When you can perform the piece at tempo from memory, look upon that as the starting point, not the end point, and start looking for colours. And start finding new ways to produce them – force yourself on purpose into unusual pianistic situations, things that throw you out of your usual habits. Throw yourself into the deep end and then learn to swim!

When you finally sit at this instrument, you will see the reason for this unusual preparation – all will be clear.


This post concludes the last chapter of Alan Fraser’s Honing the Pianistic Self-Image.