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The Piano as a Broadcasting Instrument

The Piano as a Broadcasting Instrument

Mr. Harvey Gaul, noted American organist and composer, is a native of New York City. After studies abroad he was active in New York and Cleveland; after which in 1910 he moved to Pittsburgh where he became identified with America’s first radio station, KDKA, at the very beginning of the marvelous broadcasting development which has amazed the entire world. Thus his comments upon the subject become very significant—EDITORIAL NOTE.
RADIO IS our national epidemic.

There are just two kinds of people: those who twiddle dials and those who don’t.

Three years ago it was claimed that the saturation point had been reached, that the peak-selling had been passed, but due to better programs and better artists, there seems to be really no such thing as saturation.
Conditions for broadcasting have improved, though they are nowhere near being perfect. Projection has been bettered and reception has become more sensitive.

Time was, not so many years ago, when few great virtuosi would be found playing before a microphone; and while they have not all succumbed to “mike fever,” still there are but a very few who will not today, when asked.
One can recall when radio was in infancy, little more than a decade ago, when Westinghouse and General Electric were in a perfect frenzy trying to solve the problems of audition. The writer was the first program arranger and manager at KDKA, and things were chaotic. We never knew just how to create effects, and life was one long series of experiments. We never knew what instruments would register well, and we tried everything from an ocarina to Hawaiian guitars. We were unable to regulate reception; there was constant “blasting”; and almost every fortissimo top-note was a shriek. We had no such thing as a regulating switch-board; and timbre and flavor were lost in dynamics.
That Much-Abused Piano
OF THE MANY instruments we tried the piano was the worst. It sounded a glorified harpsichord. Do you remember the early phonograph recordings of the piano, how thin they were, how “yellow”? Well, the radio was the same, even worse. In those days there was no magna vox, no controlled loud speaker to aid tone, and everything sounded like a miserable dance hall piano.

This has been all changed, and today the piano “receives” excellently. Of course there still are certain sections of its compass that do not receive well, more especially the extremes in pitch. The upper register is usually biting and shrill, while the lower end of the piano, particularly when forced or rushed, is inaudible through mumbling and grumbling. The middle registers, say from G below low C to G above high C, receive admirably, and at any tempo or any volume. Overtones, half-tones, all are caught and all are controlled.
The Labors of Excellence
RADIO ENGINEERS have labored hard to perfect this reception, and mechanical devices have aided immeasurably. This had to be, as the piano is the backbone of the studio. It might not be the outstanding instrument in the orchestra, but it certainly is the feature in every duo, trio, and ensemble. The radio piano has not changed a whit; it is still the same Steinway, Mason & Hamlin, Baldwin or other standard make that it was the day the studio was set up; but the adjustment, arrangement and reception have altered. In the old days we used to place a microphone right along side of the piano, thus beautifully catching every bit of vibration and jangle; and you know what amazing effects are produced when the strings are whirring fortissimo. Today, the microphones are placed at the farther end of the studio, from five to ten feet away from the piano and the result is complete, well-rounded tone, not merely over-emphasized accents. Then there is a man at the regulation board, looking down through a glass window; and he controls the reception. No longer does one hear nothing but stressed um-pa; there is a perfect tonal blending.

Is it any wonder that virtuosi no longer look askance at radio performance? Is it any wonder that they are willing to think of their unlimited and unseen audience and to play their best programs? As time goes on we shall hear Ernest Hutcheson, Horowitz, Gieseking and all the hierarchy of great names, and we will get their “New York programs,” not the “road programs,” or “commercial programs,” so often relayed over the chain stations.

The Radio Début
A WHOLE new generation has sprung up since the dawn of radio, and quite naturally every good player wishes to be heard “over the air.” While commercial hours have pretty well filled the schedule, still there are fragments left open, fifteen minute and thirty minute stretches that have to be filled in. Those fifteen minute periods offer opportunity to the aspiring player. If one has anything to say, it can be said in a quarter of an hour; and it is surprising how much ground can be covered in such a period.

For the new player making his radio debut, a word of advice may not be out of order. Be sure of your program, because you are sure to get “buck fever” or “mike nerves,” as they are sometimes called. It is absolutely impossible to be nonchalant at a premiere, and that innocent looking little tin can suddenly seems like the muzzle of a cannon.

You sit there strumming at the piano, looking at the “mike,” and you are aware that within two or three minutes it will pick up every sound and send it out to the far corners of the earth. The more you think of it, the more fidgety you get. Studio heebie-jeebies is no new thing, as every radio manager and announcer can tell you.

Of course, after once you have done the trick, you are more or less immune to “mike fright,” but we have never yet seen a radio performer who was not conscious and fidgety when the announcer starts, “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen of our radio audience, we now have the pleasure of listening to John Smith in a half hour of piano music,” and that half second intervening between his announcement and the first note seems like eternity.
Be Prepared!
BE SURE of your program, know what you are going to do. If possible go down to the studio ahead of time and try out the piano. The action may be stiffer than that to which you are accustomed; the tone may not be as sonorous. Try it out.
Another reason you should try out the studio piano is the studio. Perhaps you are accustomed to playing in a live hall, a resonant chamber; but, once you get within a radio studio, all is different. Here is an absolutely dead room, a lethal chamber hung with absorbing drapes. There is no life; acoustically all is changed; and nothing is picked up by the microphone but the instrument itself. You will be surprised how this will work on the nerves; no tone bounding back, no resilience, nothing but the click of the keys (sometimes the squeak of the pedal) and the sound of the strings.

Speaking of the pedal, be sure to know how you are going to manipulate the damper pedal. The effect which pleased at home may be quite wasted in the studio. Use the sustaining pedal, but do not abuse it; because if this is done there will be only blurred tone, and repeated “fade-ins” are tiresome.
Staccato is to be desired, but sforzando staccato is to be abjured at any great length, and for the simple season (sic) that it “barks.” Color the tone as much as possible; shade your scales and arpeggi. If there are left hand octave passages, do not try to thunder them all. Keep a tonal balance, build logically; and that means with both hands, not a sudden thump in the left and a neglected right hand.
Pleasing the Audience
YOUNG PLAYERS fancy that a slow legato does not register well. That is where they are mistaken. Andante movements, with a singing tone, carry very well. Of course if it is a grave, or an adagio, and continues for any length of time, then there is apt to be—oh, well, a lessening of fan mail.

Speed? All you wish of it. Digital virtuosity is well received; but be sure it is clean. Remember that sloppy execution is picked up in precisely the same manner as clear cut playing. If you are mussy and uncertain, some one up in the wilds of Canada is hearing you, just as surely as your mother in the next room or your teacher in the next state.
Every advanced pupil should play over the radio, precisely as he should make some of these aluminum recordings. He should have the experience and reaction. Above all he should be able to listen to himself and to diagnose his own interpretations—and there is nothing like derogatory fan mail to help him in that diagnosis.
What to Play
MANY YOUNG PLAYERS write in to ask, “What is suitable for radio?“ The answer might be, “Anything that is well played.” Yet that is not quite the case. For instance, any composition requiring fifteen minutes never should be permitted. Five minutes per work is sufficient. Remember you are not a visible personality, only an audible one; and there is nothing for your unseen audience to witness.

There are certain types of composition that do not register any too well through the microphone; the Bach suites, the Bach fugue transcriptions, or the “Well Tempered Clavichord.” They are not at all thrilling over the air. Complete Beethoven sonatas, even the most singing, fail to sustain interest. One reason is that they are too long; and another, they are too repetitive. Allegros and Rondos are just so many fast irritations. If you must play Beethoven on your program, include the andantes, the cantabiles, the scherzos, but omit the finales.

Mozart comes more or less in the same category, too many da capos, too many returns; and very often marvelous Wolfgang Amadeus sounds only like an etude when “put on the ether.” Chopin is invariably good. He is colorful, rich in dynamics, singing in tone; and from nocturne to polonaise he registers well. Particularly effective are the preludes and the mazurkas. Much the same is true of the rest of the romantic school. Starting with Schubert and on through Mendelssohn and Schumann, one finds much in their works that makes for radio playing.

Perhaps the most popular composer after Chopin, is Liszt; and from the “Liebestraum” to the rhapsodies he is a welcomed writer. One reason for this is the gamut of color in which fortissimi grow and grow and are offset with haunting cantabile. Bravura passages hold interest where there is an unseen performer, and Liszt is nothing if not bravura. Brahms comes off a poor second, and chiefly because he is sec. Only occasionally do his ballades and Hungarian Dances find favor. Then again Brahms is slightly attenuated for radio work.

The Russian school finds immediate attention, particularly Rachmaninoff, Tschaikowsky, Rimsky-Korsakoff, César Cui, Borodin, and the golden galaxy of newer Muscovites—Stravinsky, Rebikoff, Gretchaninoff, Glière, Vassilenko, Medtner and Scriabin. Scriabin reminds us that the modernists, aye, and the so called futurists, all are having their little day in the radio sun. It is surprising how well Prokofieff is received—and he does not sound like a mistake either, that is, if he is well played.
As for the older modernists (silly term), Schönberg is sure fire, Erik Satie scores; and, as for Maurice Ravel and Claude Achilles Debussy, they are almost conventional in acceptability. We have helped to arrange whole programs of Debussy for radio, and they have never failed to elicit response. That is particularly true of such ineffable bits as The Garden in the Rain, The Sunken Cathedral and the numerous short morceaux such as The Maid With The Flaxen Hair. When preparing a program for radio and it needs brightening up, by all means consider Debussy. You will find his Arabesque will act like a tonic in any group and will touch up a whole program.
And There Are Others
IN THIS RESPECT Cyril Scott is to be considered. He, too, comes off very well over the air. His piquant harmonies, luxurant melodic lines, extravagant dynamic surges, glissandi and the like, never fail to prove acceptable. With Cyril Scott is his energetic Australian cousin, Percy Grainger, and Molly on the Shore and Handel on the Strand are both healthy streaks to put in a program. As for Country Gardens and the County Derry Tune, they are almost studio standbys.
Other contemporary composers, who are instantaneous hits, are Ibert with his pitter-pattering Little White Donkey and Dohnanyi with his Magyar melodies. If you wish to make a hit and touch unexplored radio territory, may we suggest the Spanish school—the pulsating Granados, the singing-dancing Albeniz, and lastly the thrilling De Falla with his roaring studies, particularly such scenas as the Ritual Fire Dance.
There is much to be said for the colorful Spanish school, and life is not all a Peanut Vendor with them. If you wish to do the greatest service (without being Boy Scoutish), look through the American catalogue, not of Tin-pan Alley, but of our serious composers, our Guion, Griffe, and writers of that ilk. Take a fling at Emerson Whithorne (you may pass by George Antheil), Leo Ornstein, Louis Gruenberg, Bainbridge Crist, Thurlow Lieurance and John Alden Carpenter. You will find much in the American list to merit attention, and you will be doing a creditable work to stress native compositions.

Your Microphone an Audience
IN CONCLUSION, one should build a program for radio precisely as it is constructed for straight concert use, namely, to hold interest. Choose works that contrast in school, idiom and treatment; and, whether it is a half hour period or a fifteen minute fragment, never grow tedious.
In the beginning, is now and ever shall be Tone; and on “the ether,” as in the studio, tone is everything. Never force your instrument so that it becomes unmusical (and the piano can be most unmusical at times) ; and never push it beyond its physical limitations. It is not an orchestra but a solo instrument, and therein lies its glory. Try for singing tone precisely as does a vocalist; and he is a poor vocalist who discloses the fact that he has no “plush” on his voice. Keep away from the extreme right-hand squeaky notes; forget the soggy, lower, left hand registers; but otherwise play as you would in recital.

If you wish to do octaves in bravura fashion, go right ahead. The “mike” is sensitive enough to pick up your octaves; only be sure that they are clean. Use your fastest allegros; they will carry; and do not be afraid of good rousing chords, but resist that impulse to smash and smash again, as therein lies muddiness.
Radio stations are growing more numerous; and, while a few years ago only cities of the first and second class had sending studios, now you will find them in such small centers as Wheeling, West Virginia; Washington, Pennsylvania, and countless other places from Maine to Missouri. These stations all need both sustaining features and fill-ins, and a good pianist is always in demand. There is opportunity for a soloist and always a need for a professional accompanist (the writer knows one station employing three hostesses who are really accompanists and “pinch-hitters”), and the better the musician the more there is demand.
Know your program; forget about your unseen audience; pay slight attention to your announcer; and play within the limits of the microphone. The night you make your radio debut, pray what gods there be that there may be no static, and you will have an exciting premiere. As for fan mail, well, you will be surprised.

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