Piece of the Action: The crazy engineering of the piano key

Playing the piano is damnably hard. I have accepted that I will never practice consistently or wisely enough to reach my original wildly unrealistic goals of competence and am contenting myself with slow progress and occasional discoveries.   Coaxing a good sound requires talent, coordination, flexibility, and freedom of movement.  There’s nothing that can be done about the first item but occasionally something in the joints unsticks enabling a small improvement in the rest.   I feel kinship with weekend athletes who get that occasional moment of grace amid hours of futility.

One of the many frustrations is pressing a key in the same place with the same pressure five times in a row and hearing no sound two of those times.  The hammer misses the strings by a fraction of a millimeter and flops back with a click and a dull thud.  This makes any kind of phrasing next to impossible for the duffer.  He either settles for good enough or goes nuts trying to adapt as the instrument itself changes with the time of day and the weather.  It never bothers the professionals who figure it out on the fly.

The piano action itself is a bizarre marvel of wood, felt, physics, and prayer.  It is surprising that it works at all and there are eighty eight of the bloody things that have to work consistently.  It is a lot to ask, perhaps too much.  Robert Grijalva of the University of Michigan explains it in painstaking detail  using a model of his own invention.  For those with less time, a Dutch animator posting as Hoe Ishetmoegelijk (hoe is het moegelijk = how is it possible) has a concise summary.

Youtube Channel: Robert Grijalva

Youtube Channel: Hoe Ishetmoegelijk

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