The band shows up for the gig and starts unpacking gear. The drummer drags in countless numbers of large and small cases and assembles their acoustic, real, drum kit. The guitarist hauls in their amp, effects, and real guitars (with real strings), as does the bassist. The horn players take out their real horns and blow real air through them, as the vocalist tests out their mic using their natural singing voice.
Last, but not least, the pianist shows up and sets up their electronic, sampled/simulated/mock piano, and tests out a few sampled/simulated/mock chords and runs. The downbeat hits and the keyboardist imposes their sampled/simulated/mock contribution upon everyone else’s real, acoustic, naturally produced offering.
Why the injustice? Just like everyone else, we pianists would like the equivalent of placing fingers on actual strings, or holding real sticks, or manipulating real horn keys, as well. We, too, would like to play something … real!
However, we have to keep reminding ourselves a few things. One: no one forced us to make piano a primary instrument. Two: it wasn’t long ago that bringing your “portable” piano rightly entailed a winch and a hernia … and that was just the piano; what about the amp? What about that staircase!? And, three: “portable” once also meant a total compromise in sound. Either you were completely stuck with a non-traditional timbre (i.e., “Rhodes”), or the board of choice just failed miserably at trying to mimic a real piano and was an embarrassment.
By comparison, today's electronic keyboards are nowhere near as cumbersome as they were some 35+ years ago, so they certainly have become portable. Not to mention, the latest technology allows these wonders to sound and feel really good and provide for a pleasant playing experience. So, enough with the bellyaching. Right? Tell the keyboardist to shut up already and just be thankful!
Yeah … but, let’s get “real.”
The pianist wants to get real, too, and it’s a drag. What is the foreseeable solution here? Virtual modeling still holds promise, and as the technology continues to improve, the results continue to become more and more impressive, for sure. I am very thankful for that. But at the end of the day, no matter how much closer virtual gets to “real,” it remains, and continues to be, virtual; not real.
Everyone else gets to vibrate airwaves directly from their instrument naturally and within the room, allowing resonances to mix organically. Other performers can wield their instruments and manipulate their sound. They can modulate a string or embouchure for a natural vibrato. They can breathe life into their instrument; slap it, bend it, crash it, all to unlimited physical degrees that are not artificially predetermined. Keyboardists lack such subtleties.
If you ask a guitarist to use a virtual guitar, most would say, “Uh, no thanks.” Ask a saxophonist to ditch their real sax for a sampled/simulated/mock alternative and see what response you get. Most drummers don’t care much for electronic drums. Ask them. Are all acoustic drums the same? Of course not. How about all guitars, and basses, and horns? How about all acoustic pianos. No, they are not all the same. Each constructed iteration has its own depth of character, and personality, and intricacies that make them infinitely unique and beautiful.
Electronic keyboards are literally stamped out. Literally. Carbon copies.
There was also a time when I would click my tongue at the artist who insisted on a real piano to perform on and who refused to use any electronic equivalent. I would think, “how demanding” or “how presumptuous.” Well, I’m not sure I feel that way anymore. It’s not that I’m too snobby or technophobic to use something virtual if there were no other means currently available. It’s not just the prospect that it’s electronic, or that samples are utilized, or that it’s amplified. It’s not about what it is … it’s about what it’s not. Unlike what the other musicians enjoy and expect, it’s not real.
The elephant in the room is that real acoustic pianos are the elephant. They’re too big, and no one wants to carry them around!! There, I said it.
And … there exists another side to the plight called, “being a pianist.” Back in the days when it was customary to expect a piano already at each venue, even then the sad reality was, it still wasn’t your piano. As in, the guitarist, and the bassist, and the drummer, and horn players, and EVERYONE, gets to bring and play their own real instruments when they arrive. Or at least they have that option at their disposal. You know, the beloved instrument you get to know really, really well and developed an intimate playing relationship with. Drummers swear by their favorite kit, guitarist and bassists their trusty axe, horns players their irreplaceable “baby,” and vocalists, well, their own voices!
The same reality for pianists? Sadly, no.
If one is already at the gig, we play someone else’s take on what we like to call “a piano” without the luxury of becoming familiar with it. It’s a stranger we meet at the gig; there’s no established relationship. The alternative? We bring our own keyboard that we have become familiar with, which is great except that … wait for it … it’s not real.
What’s worse, we cry about these things to other instrumentalists who can’t relate because they never had to confront such dilemmas. “Oh, really sorry. Such a shame. Oh, well.” Or more commonly, “Sorry bro, there’s no piano at the space, and, the band platform is only 3x3 foot wide,“ - translated - No one gave any thought to the piano (why is now any different?) … figure it out. See you, wouldn’t want to be you …
Our screams go unheard, and our tears, unnoticed.
So, for now, that’s the “real deal” for keyboardists, and we smile (though our hearts are breaking). We likely wait in vain to be freed from the chains of virtual reality, and ultimately I’m just venting all this with a chuckle. Not everyone can have or expect their very own premier acoustic piano available at all their gigs, served up and freshly tuned each time. We agreed to accept that when we took up the instrument. When I must, I continue to make use of the fantastic virtual technology we’re afforded and grateful every day for it.
Just do me a favor the next time your keyboardist arrives with all their gear - put your arm around them in support and whisper, “I understand,” (and mean it).
Marc J Stasio is an east-coast based composer/arranger, pianist, educator, and author who actively lives out his calling producing scores for hire, serving as collegiate jazz faculty and performing abroad for nearly 40 years. His work is heard on recordings by today's top artists in jazz and contemporary music, and within various film and television productions. As professor of jazz studies, he specializes in teaching composition and arranging based on “the Hidden Score,” with a dedicated blog by that title. Marc holds a B.M. in Arranging and a Masters degree in Jazz Studies. Visit http://marcstasio.com.
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