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Is there a noticeable difference when playing dynamics on an upright versus a grand?

I am currently practicing on a new (2019) Yamaha U1 upright, and I don't seem to be able to play quiet parts very well anymore - there doesn't seem to be enough of a range to play soft dynamics, and I have to really hammer down on the keys on louder parts to create any dynamic contrast.

Here's the problem: there's a pp passage where there's a sequence of held quavers as the top melody, over arpeggiated sixteenth notes, all played with the right hand (left hand doing something else far down so there's no way to redistribute these), and I can't get the top note to sound clearly without being drowned out by the arpeggios while also not being too loud.

I've been practicing semi-regularly for about three months now, so I don't think it's my playing anymore by this point, since familiar pieces normally come back more quickly than that (this is a new piece but the "getting used to the piano" thing should be long over). I used to not have access to a piano for four months at a time during the summer in previous years.

In those days, my practice pianos were a couple of 1930s Heintzman & Co. baby grands, and ​these were not well-maintained pianos. They were in student dorm common rooms, and they've visibly taken a lot of abuse (the one in the basement would sometimes slightly drag up adjacent hammers in hot weather!). Even then it still felt easy to play as softly and as delicately as I wanted to, although the keys were extremely light, only coming in at under 30 grams to press down. Which is strange since I've always heard that grands have heavier keys.

(Dug up an old recording - this seems pretty representative of what those old grands sounded like. Very bad playing though, not the piano's fault.)

I don't remember having the same issue with dynamics playing on a 1950s U3, though that was 8 years ago, and so whatever I was playing was nowhere near this level (nor apparently do I have any awareness of the badness of my playing...).

Might this be an upright or new piano issue in general, an issue specifically with my piano (hasn't been tuned again since its first tuning, thanks to the pandemic), or is it simply a playing issue and I'm overthinking it?

Last edited by Alberta01; 01/01/22 10:35 PM.
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Alberta, I would have thought others may have responded now, but as no one has, I’ll throw in my 2 cents.
I suspect that the problem has more to do with the challenge of the piece (and technique) rather than with the piano. It is not easy to voice a singing legato line above a busy middle voice, and it sounds like this is what the piece is requiring.
There is a Josh Wright video that touches on this, and you may find it useful as he gives a good practice tip for this kind of passage:
(discussed ~ minute 9 to 10:30).
It is also possible that your piano could benefit from regulation. It seems like it is more than overdue for a tuning; you should ask your technician whether the piano would benefit from regulation for better control of the pianissimos.

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There are many reasons why you may have difficulties playing softly on one piano compared to another, but it not an issue of grand vs. vertical.
1. problems with your technique
2. differences in the voicing of the two pianos
3. differences in the regulation of the two pianos
4. problems with the regulation or voicing of the two pianos
5. you need more time to adjust to the newer piano

Etc.

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At least from what I've seen, you can observe a marked difference in the action from an upright to a grand in most instances. I can't play with the same dynamic range as a grand on an upright, pianissimos are almost always quite a bit worse. You can play soft down to around 30-40 dB on a grand, on an upright you can go down to maybe 45-50 usually, and so it's hard to pay persistent very quiet passages. Don't worry too much about it, if you are playing with the same approach as your grand and are encountering a large difference in the sound, it is almost always the piano. You can get used to the piano in a while, but it won't give you the same response.

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Originally Posted by ranjit
At least from what I've seen, you can observe a marked difference in the action from an upright to a grand in most instances. I can't play with the same dynamic range as a grand on an upright, pianissimos are almost always quite a bit worse. You can play soft down to around 30-40 dB on a grand, on an upright you can go down to maybe 45-50 usually, and so it's hard to pay persistent very quiet passages. Don't worry too much about it, if you are playing with the same approach as your grand and are encountering a large difference in the sound, it is almost always the piano. You can get used to the piano in a while, but it won't give you the same response.

This has not been my experience, but I have been playing on uprights that are well voiced and regulated. If the uprights you have used are in a college practice room, you should not expect the best maintenance.

Last edited by dogperson; 01/02/22 12:51 PM.
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So a dormitory commons would be a large hall, compared to the room where your piano is right now. The acoustics of the room is also a factor. My grand piano is in what would be a master bedroom, and I always have the lid closed because otherwise the sound would be overpowering . Even when I open just the flap, passages that were supposed to be p become mp and I consciously have to dial down the touch.


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Having the strings on a horizontal plane vs a vertical one I find to makes a huge difference. Having owned a grand for some 6 months now I couldn't go back.


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My experience isn’t large just a few grands and a couple of uprights. I find playing softly on a grand far easier than on an upright, especially in the lower octaves than on an upright, but not just the lower octaves.

Bringing out the melody on a grand I have found far easier.

I guess to play softly on a upright requires far more skill than I have at present. This impacts significantly on my ability to bring out the melody when playing an upright.

But a grand is a very different experience.

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Yes, I think it is partly the instrument, but not an excuse for not getting your technique right first, of course or as well.

I've never understood what people have against using the una corda pedal on an upright. It does not destroy the action, it does not muffle the sound, you can still play forte while it is engaged, it does not destroy your technique and if used properly will give you the broader dynamic range you seek. On a grand though, from my experience, you wouldn't want to use it this way and would rarely use it all. So, all in the touch in that case.

I have always used this soft pedal from my earliest days of playing an upright to now and in nearly everything I play. Currently I use an older UX-1 but basically the same machine.

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Chopin used it a lot.


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Okay, so from what I'm getting here, there is a difference and it may be easier to play dynamics on a grand, but it's not so significant as to alter one's playing to that degree. So it's most likely my playing, which, fair, I didn't get very far with lessons. And yeah, if we're going by the "tune once a year" my piano is overdue for a tuning, although I don't hear it going out yet. I'll definitely ask the technician about regulation when the piano gets tuned, which may still be a while because the pandemic's bad here.

Probably a bit more "breaking-in" could be beneficial too? Those old grands had deep marks on their hammers, and they have a very nice brilliant kind of sound versus the slightly muffled sound of newer pianos.

My upright is in a common area at home, which has an open floor plan, so the size of the "room" is comparable to the dorm common rooms. Maybe a bit more furniture, and my upright's back is to a wall (indoor wall) instead of up and out, but that's about it. The basement room I recorded that piece linked above in is actually very small, no more than 3 x 3 m at most. So it's pretty tight in there with a baby grand.

I've never seen an upright with an una corda pedal before. If they're not bad for a grand's action, and people could also make transposing pianos back then, I don't see why they would be bad for an upright piano's action? Personally, I don't think the soft pedal on current uprights are useful - it's such a slight difference as the player I don't notice it...

This is the sheet music. I feel like I'm doing fine on the louder parts on bar 10 and 12 because I could build up enough of a volume difference so that the arpeggios aren't dominating. It's only that last pp on bars 14-15 that really sounds like I'm playing straight up arpeggios because there's nothing more to decrease. Don't think I can get away with playing the melody forte here, but go softer and it'll "run out" before the beat is over. I'll give that staccato method from the video a try and see where I can get with that.

I should try and get a proper recording of this too sometime. I don't have any recordings of my upright piano yet.

[Linked Image]

(I know I said in a previous thread that I'm dropping this piece, but the first page seems ok once I got used to it - playing it at about a third of the indicated tempo now. Will just play bits and pieces out of this and leave out what I can't do, like the sixths on the next page.)

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I have 2 antique uprights with a true una chorda pedal. (Chopin also had one). I believe there may be a modern make somewhere in Europe that has one.


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I think you can test this one out yourself. You just need to play a note as softly as you possibly can. Take your time, and try to play it very softly (independent of musical context). If it is still somewhat loud, then it's the piano. If it's quiet enough, it may be your technique which is lacking.

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Originally Posted by Alberta01
Okay, so from what I'm getting here, there is a difference and it may be easier to play dynamics on a grand, but it's not so significant as to alter one's playing to that degree.

The instruments function differently, and should be played differently. It is the source of your problem. Ignore it if you wish, but it is partially causing you this grief.

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On every upright I have ever played in my 50 or so years of playing, the una corda pedal moves the action (hammers) closer to the strings. That's all it does.

Personally, I don't think the soft pedal on current uprights are useful - it's such a slight difference as the player I don't notice it...

Piano is all about subtle differences. Why would you not want to capitalize on that ?

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Originally Posted by Greener
On every upright I have ever played in my 50 or so years of playing, the una corda pedal moves the action (hammers) closer to the strings. That's all it does.
That's not una corda, that's a soft pedal (which is not the same thing). Una corda by definition is a mechanism that shifts the hammers so they (in principle) hit only one string, hence the name.

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Originally Posted by Qazsedcft
That's not una corda

There's una corda and there's "una corda" 😅

On a related note, the Steingraeber E272 has something that they call the "Mozart rail", which reproduces the soft pedal mechanism in upright pianos, i.e. bringing the hammers closer to the strings. Now the "true una corda" in uprights would be the opposite of that, which is the first time I've heard of it.


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Originally Posted by Qazsedcft
Originally Posted by Greener
On every upright I have ever played in my 50 or so years of playing, the una corda pedal moves the action (hammers) closer to the strings. That's all it does.
That's not una corda, that's a soft pedal (which is not the same thing). Una corda by definition is a mechanism that shifts the hammers so they (in principle) hit only one string, hence the name.

Yes, that is how it works on a grand, and why you wouldn't use the pedal the same way on a grand. Call it what you want. On an upright it still makes a difference to your sound and if it allows you to play better, who cares what it is called?

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True una chorda is pretty rare on any piano. One of my old uprights is a bi chord. That means when the hammers move sideways they do in fact only hit one string. Chopin spent some time delighting in one whilst in London


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Originally Posted by Qazsedcft
Originally Posted by Greener
On every upright I have ever played in my 50 or so years of playing, the una corda pedal moves the action (hammers) closer to the strings. That's all it does.
That's not una corda, that's a soft pedal (which is not the same thing). Una corda by definition is a mechanism that shifts the hammers so they (in principle) hit only one string, hence the name.
The "soft pedal" of left pedal is often called the una corda even when it doesn't move the action to the right. On modern piano the shifted hammers hit two strings at least for the notes with three strings.

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