Is the clavichord right for me?

In this article I will put myself in the shoes of a young student or an amateur, who decided to buy his first instrument. Sometimes this step is loaded by a certain amount of doubts and anxiety, partly because of the economic commitment, partly because of the risk of making a wrong choice. Fear is never good counselors and on the other hand, no one knows your needs better than you do, so if you consider them carefully, it is difficult to make a bad choice. Moreover, consider that an instrument, even the most expensive, is still a better investment than a new car or a mobile phone, which in the first 5 years loses most of their value, even if we’re now used to this. Should your needs change in the future, an instrument with a good sound and a good touch maintains an intrinsic value, which every good musician will acknowledge and it will be possible to resell it. The only really bad investment, regardless of the price, is a mediocre instrument, because it will teach you little, it will sadden more than delight you and, assuming it stays in one piece, when reselling, nobody will want to pay but a ridiculous price.

We now come to the clavichord, which unfortunately is rarely seriously considered, but which is in many cases happens to be more suitable for practice than harpsichords, spinets or digital organs. The main reason why it is often rebuffed is widely known: the clavichord has a too sweet sound to accompany and therefore, as you often hear, “it doesn’t repay itself with concerts”.

I have no objection to the fact that a clavichord does not fit well in an ensemble: you can accompany at most a flute or a violin with sordino, nothing more. On the other hand the idea of repaying an instrument by playing it, for a student, is quite a bit optimistic: unfortunately, not all you concerts will be at the harpsichord and not all will be at your harpsichord. Above all, as everyone should know, concerts are just the tip of the iceberg in a musician’s life. Every hour of performance corresponds to weeks or months of study, which are unlikely to be remunerated. Although this vision of the musician’s craft sounds a bit hard, there’s only one solution: trying to make the most out of our practicing time.

On this aspect, the clavichord has actually an extra edge: since to produce and hold the sound it requires constant pressure, while playing a note your hand will only have a limited possibility of movement. This forces you to choose the most appropriate fingers for each passage to get cleanliness and a good sound. Being forced to play with the correct fingering straightaway, however, helps you remember much faster than working less methodic. In my experience I have determined that 45 minutes of practice at the clavichord correspond to about one hour on organ. Especially when reading new pieces, the advantage is clear.

If my considerations on the relationship between practice and performance make sense and sound familiar, perhaps you will be interested in having a complete overview of the practical advantages that a clavichord has to offer over other instruments:

-Discreet: if it is not possible to play in the orchestra, the delicate sound turns into a blessing when you don’t want to disturb. If you live in a condominium, work until late or have small children, you will appreciate that, simply by closing the door you can play even late at night without disturbing anyone; this allows you to manage your practicing according to your own schedule.

-Compact: Although some of the most popular unfretted models are quite bulky, an excellent fretted clavichord of 4 and a half octaves only takes about 130 x 35 cm and weighs about 14 kg. It can be placed on any table of the right height. If you’ve spent quite some time lately trying to figure out where to place your instrument, this could be an interesting argument for you.

– Robust: we’re always talking about a musical instrument, which should not be intentionally mistreated; but a clavichord is undoubtedly much less delicate than a harpsichord. The bottom has a substantial thickness  and the case can be built in hardwood with a sturdy lid. You won’t have to worry every time someone approaches the instrument or wants to play a couple of notes. In addition, due to its compact size, it tends not to suffer as much under less than optimal humidity conditions.

-Portable: a compact, lightweight and robust instrument, naturally lends itself to transport. Standard E-keyboard bags on the market are large enough to accommodate a fretted clavichord of over 4 octaves: with a minimum of care, bringing the instrument with you will be really simple. You can take it also on a plane, train, ferry or bus (I did them all). In other words you can travel with your instrument when you go on vacation, tour or attend a masterclass.

-Stable: a consequence of small size, robust structure and its way of producing sound is that a good clavichord holds the tuning for several months; if environmental conditions are stable even for half a year or so. If you don’t take pleasure in wasting your time checking the tuning before you can start to practice, this is a great convenience.

-Reliable: the action is so fairly simple that anyone paying enough attention can resolve small malfunctions. This is, however, not normally necessary: after the instrument’s case has stabilized and the action has been adjusted, this doesn’t require maintenance for years. Also, even if a string breaks, you won’t have to wait to receive a new one: you can continue to play the instrument normally, because each key always plays two strings at once.

– Cheap: don’t be fooled by appearance: a clavichord is much more than a rectangular box with keys and strings. Although at first glance you won’t believe it, building a good clavichord is even more difficult than building a good harpsichord. Even the time taken is only marginally less, so there is no reason to expect ridiculous prices, as some people insist to believe. However the slightly less work combined with less material and less need for decoration realistically translates in a cost which is about 25-30% lower.

All of these are, however, only practical advantages. Here are those of musical nature:

The clavichord is the best instrument for learning the keyboard technique based on weight. Almost all the theorists of the German countries, from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, emphasize how easy it is to transfer to harpsichord, organ or piano what you learn at the clavichord; but not the other way around. The keyboard technique of J.S. Bach and his pupils has been described effectively in a series of writings, whose real importance has recently been reassessed. By reading C.P.E. Bach, Forkel and Griepenkerl while experimenting on a good clavichord, you can acquire this technique in the space of a few months. Its advantages are not limited to the sound production on the clavichord: it gives you great control on the attack of any keyboard instrument and allows you to play the typically heavy actions of historical organs effortless.

-The clavichordo is by far the most sensitive keyboard instrument, because the players’ fingers, through the key, are in contact with the strings themselves. It allows dynamics, vibrato and in general a range of nuances unthinkable on other keyboard instruments. A metronomic and flat performance is more unbearable than ever on the clavichord: the instrument will encourage you to emphasize and differentiate the various musical thoughts. When you come back to the harpsichord or organ again, you will hardly tolerate a static execution, but, instead, you will try to use all the nuances that these instruments are capable of. This is why C.P.E Bach said that the clavichordist is easy to recognize even at the harpsichord.

-The clavichord, as I mentioned before, is the only keyboard instrument without any kind of escapement: you need to hold down the key wit an adequate pressure from the beginning to the end of the sound. The difficulty lies precisely in this fact: every note must be intended, because a flaccid attack or insufficient pressure end up blocking the sound all together. A rational fingering becomes crucial for a clean execution, because the action does not hide imperfections.

This is at first also the most frustrating point for already experienced musicians: at the beginning, to whomever is not used, many notes get blocked and even by simply forcing the pressure, you don’t get a nice sound from the instrument. The immediate emotional reaction, dictated by our self-esteem, is often to hate the instrument, to question its importance and to avoid any contact in the future. It’s a humanly understandable reaction, but it doesn’t play well for the musician:
it is easy to understand that when no effort is required, we aren’t actually learning anything we don’t already know. We should therefore rejoice finding an instrument that allows us to make great progress.
Actually after the first impact, the learning process gives good results in only a few weeks and after a few months our playing will be totally changed.

This instrument allows to acquire full mastery on what we are doing; since every note must be planned, awareness and musical intention in our performances will be enhanced.