Choosing your first instrument

This is the first of two articles that are designed to help  beginners to choose an instrument that suits their needs. Given the frequency with which I hear these questions, I thought I would do something helpful in preparing a short text that addresses the basic issues. In addition, I dedicated one to the clavichord in particular, being this instrument still too little known.

I do not claim to exhaust the subject here, but I hope I could answer at least the most common questions and give whomever is interested the opportunity to ask for advice on more specific and interesting questions.

First of all, I begin by clarifying to everyone that something like the universal instrument does not exist: your task will simply be to choose the most suitable for you. Since no one knows your needs better than you do, you have excellent premises, but to remain satisfied on the long run, it is better to start by considering the repertoire you play: with choices made mainly according to other criteria, (such as space and price…) you risk getting something that is less suited to your needs and to your musical growth.

Since there are essentially three kinds of keyboard instruments studied today, I will look at three distinct cases for simplicity: that of a pianist, a harpsichordist and an organist. Clearly even so it is difficult to give directions that can fit well for everyone; but I will at least cover the most common needs.

If your main instrument is the modern piano and for personal taste you are particularly interested in the repertoire from the mid- and late eighteenth centuries, the only instrument besides the fortepiano that lends itself idiomatically to this type of music is the clavichord. It can certainly be objected that the harpsichord remained in use for a long time, but it is also true that its field of use was narrowed and that after a certain point it became clear that keyboard literature was taking another path.

Do not consider just any clavichord: the instruments most suitable for the classical repertoire are those of the late eighteenth century, roughly from 1775 onward. Even if there are 5 octave instruments from the period 1740-1760, towards the end of the 18th century the clavichord got more and more adapted to the new repertoire. Surely in the compass, but also at the mechanical and acoustical level: all of this can only be an advantage for you.

Although an unfretted clavichord actually offers some advantages for the late repertoire, there are also double (diatonically) fretted clavichords, such as those of Hubert (ca. 1780), which suit this music really well (better so than many older unfretted ones) as long as the compass is wide enough.

The main advantage that you can expect from any clavichord as compared to the piano …is that you’re going to do a lot more work yourself! There is no filter due to the mechanics: through the keys your fingers will be in direct contact with the strings and you will have to learn to control the sound from its start to the end. The right fingering in each passage becomes fundamental and it does not allow much tricking. If at the beginning you might be a little annoyed by having to strive so much to get so little sound volume, with time and a little perseverance it will be very clear that the control and cleanliness that this little instrument will have imposed on you, are also valuable for your performances at the piano.

If you mainly play the harpsichord and are looking for an instrument to practice on, you basically have 3 different possibilities: harpsichord, virginal/spinet or clavichord. Each of these has quite different characteristics, which make them more suitable for some uses than others.

First of all, it is natural that every type of harpsichord is well suited for the repertoire written for him: a French harpsichords lends itself well to Couperin and an Italian to Pasquini; but it is equally obvious that not every musician can have 5 different harpsichords in his house and a bit of elasticity is needed. In fact, we know that harpsichords in historical times were often imported, as is normally the case for luxury goods; Moreover, musicians themselves traveled even more than instruments. That’s why I see no reason to be really puristic about the building style. Quality is a much more important parameter: in my experience, the better the instrument, the more music you’ll discover you can play on it with satisfaction.

The first very practical suggestion is to avoid two-manual harpsichords, unless you really have the resources to buy good quality: since these instruments naturally require a fair amount of work and material, mistrust cheap “doubles”, because saving could have happened exactly where you didn’t want it. Also maintenance isn’t that simple if you have little experience.  You better orient yourself on a simpler instrument if you lack resources and experience: a single manual harpsichord with an adequate extension still allow you to play most of the repertoire, with a few exceptions; in addition you can transport it more easily for concerts.

Among the simplest and most versatile harpsichords Italians have undoubtedly a special place. The fact that their basic construction changed relatively little between 1500 and 1800 suggests that they can play reasonably well a large repertoire. They are also relatively affordable, stable and lightweight instruments, which can hold their place both as “continuo” or as “obbligato” instruments. The same instrument can be built “inner-outer” that is with thin walls (and possible need for an external case) or “false inner-outer”, which have thicker outer walls. The former are of sublime elegance, but delicate; seconds are less enchanting, but more practical. The repertoire until about 1650, including continuo, goes well even with a single 8′; but for later music, two 8′ should be regarded as the basic disposition.

If you don’t have room for a harpsichord, you might want to consider a virginal or a spinett. The important thing is that you know what to expect from these instruments that, as I explain in another article, are not just simply small harpsichords .
The virginal, for example, is a great choice for anyone who is a true lover of 16th and 17th century music. The sound is round and warm, not at all inferior to the harpsichords: it lends itself well to both the repertoire and the continuo as the volume doesn’t lack. On the other side, it requires a little more maintenance, especially if you carry it often around. But what you need to know is that it doesn’t fit too well to later repertoire, both in terms of sound and mechanic (key size and balance). Don’t think it’s enough to have a full chromatic octave in the bass: Bach at the virginal lets himself play only with effort.

The classic 18th-century wing shaped spinet, on the other hand, is mechanically more similar to a harpsichord; Unfortunately, however, the sound can be even more distant from it than that of a virginal. Often some areas of the instrument tend to have an excessive resonance or a cavernous sound, but much depends on the model (particularly on the plucking point). Ultimately it is also a matter of taste if you like the sound or not, so my advice is to listen and try some virginal and spinets before deciding if it really does for you: considering that the costs are similar, in some cases a small harpsichord could be a more versatile choice.

The third option is to consider a clavichord. The first basic clarification to be made is that the clavichord is totally a different instrument from the harpsichord. So don’t hope to master it the first time you sit at the keyboard: it will take some time to learn the weigth technique that is most congenial to him. But that’s the also good news: what you learn at the clavichord will make you a better performer even at the cembalo. This is why the treatises of the past considered it fundamental in the education of a keyboardist.

The clavichord for the cembalist has only one major disadvantage: it is not suitable for large executions. You can play in an environment not too big in front of a small audience and accompany at most a flute or a violin with sordino. But  you can’t expect more than that, because the volume is limited. Apart from this one limitation, however, the clavichord has so many advantages that it could well be the right instrument for you: it allows to play at night without disturbing; maintenance is almost non-existent; it is enough to tune it 3 or 4 times a year; it is more robust, affordable and requires less space than a harpsichord; it’s easy to transport and doesn’t suffer from it.
From a musical point of view it is an instrument that requires extreme cleanliness and even more attention to fingering than the harpsichord. Being a refined and expressive instrument it will encourage you to make your performances more musical. Basically a good double fretted clavichord with a bit more than 4 octaves will allow you to practice much of the harpsichord repertoire with good success.

If, on the other hand, your place is, as in my case, on the organ bench, the situation is, in my opinion, very clear. Apart from the Italian and French organs, the great historical instruments most appreciated, including Schnitger, Silbermann or Trost, among many differences, have one thing in common: keyboards are hard. Finding them pleasantly harsh or anguishedly harsh is a matter of habit and taste, but from the point of view of a career, I advise you to learn to appreciate them. For me the main discriminating of a mechanic is the control over the instrument and a certain natural relationship between touch and sound. I have always been surprised to see that the ancient mechanics are often right for both criteria: basically there is no reason to expect a large 16′ Hauptwerk to sound as light as an octave thorn, but in any case must return the feeling of controlling the wind with your own fingers. On closer inspection, the way of playing would gain from a greater mechanical lightness, because the large sound mass, combined with the acoustics, does not lend itself to speed slew. When the organists break this rule, the execution gradually loses clarity and an escape soon turns into an impressionist work.

In any case, the mechanics of a historical organ are far removed from the feeling of a digital instrument, but also from those of a small study organ or a cembalo. The only keyboard tool that really teaches you to use the weight of your body, which is the key to controlling the mechanics of these wonderful instruments, is the clavichord. At the cost of going against the current, I will therefore say that the cembalo is not the best instrument on which to study the great Nordic organ literature and that the study organ, although very expensive, does not guarantee better results to a good clavichord. Although this may seem like a strange theory to some, if we look in museums, from the regions of origin of these fabulous organs, in the face of a few dozen cembali, several hundred clavicids have come to us. If we also consider the testimonies of the treaties, we must conclude that most German organists were mainly studying clavichords. I invite you to read my teacher Joel Speerstra’s beautiful book about it.

In practice the organ repertoire prefers simpler tones and does not require a very wide extension: an instrument tied diatonically with about 4 octaves is all you need. But the peculiarity of organ music lies in the use of the pedal. If you do not have great pretensions, you can connect a pedalboard even to any clavicordo, but in the long run the best choice for an organist is also to consider buying an independent clavicordo for the pedal. The effect of playing more clavicordi together with hands and feet is really pleasant and reminds a bit of the different organ bodies; In addition, you can choose between playing with your feet only 8′ strings or adding the 16′. A pedal clavicordo will allow you to study a huge amount of organ literature, from Scheidemann to Mendelssohn, comfortably at home and with dynamics. Musically, you’ll also gain a whole new perspective on some of the great organ works you know best.

I hope I have given you a general overview of the various possibilities and together I have aroused interest in delving into some more specific issues. I, as I said at the beginning, I considered only the most typical cases and you may have different needs.

The last piece of advice is about quality: regardless of the type and contrary to the opinions circulating around, only really good or very good tools are suitable for study. The reason lies in the mechanisms of our attention: if our little speaker perceives the sound as uninteresting or boring (“monotonous” literally means precisely that “it always sounds the same”), our brain ssoon disconnects and we always do more difficult to focus. The most damaging aspect, however, lies not in the energy and time wasted, but above all in the fact that this type of study, which is independent of sound, rather than educating to a musically satisfying performance, is instead accustomed to students to what is in fact a highly specialized typing.