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Home > Blog > Articles > “Perception Gaps Between Modern and Historical Piano— A Way Towards Emancipation” by Hui Han Lui (Maynooth University, Ireland)

“Perception Gaps Between Modern and Historical Piano— A Way Towards Emancipation” by Hui Han Lui (Maynooth University, Ireland)

At first glance, a modern piano does not appear to be very different from a historical piano. The resemblance is strong even when there are substantial differences in design or size. If a pianist is asked to sit in front of a historical piano, they would be able to make the instrument work, although performing on it with mastery would be a completely different story.

Supported by a Short-Term Scientific Mission (STSM) Grant by COST Action, I was able to participate in the Third Historical Piano Summer Academy hosted by the Orpheus Institute in Ghent as a participant-observer with the aim of exploring the ways in which performance and research are being linked creatively. At the same time, the STSM afforded the opportunity to conduct semi-structured interviews with other participants to understand their viewpoints in approaching early music, discussing what this means.


A clavichord built by Joris Potvlieghe in 1987, owned by Benjamin Steens (a tutor of the Historical Piano Summer Academy).

Strong links between performance and scholarly work could be seen during the Academy. For instance, primary sources such as CPE Bach’s Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen, which provides crucial input for performing ornaments, or texts left behind by famous pedagogues or composers were taken into consideration when preparing a performance. Through the interviews with the participants, it was clear that that beneficial links were largely recognized by all participants, even if levels of research engagement varied. Thus, the connections between performance practice and research knowledge in early music is one of foundational mutual benefit.

However, a recurring theme that may directly affect the link between research and performance in early music emerged during the interviews. This related to the different playing techniques required for modern and historical pianos when engaging in historically-informed performance practice. While insights on playing techniques and relevant input could be obtained through both primary and secondary sources, the physical embodiment of historical instruments plays an equally important role, a point recognised by David Breitman in his recent book Piano-Playing Revisited: What Modern Players Can Learn from Period Instruments (Rochester, 2021). Breitman notes ‘Hands-on experience with historical instruments is equally indispensable—our only window into the physical reality, both tactile and auditory, of the musical past’ (xx). He also observes that, ‘We ask things of our instruments, and they respond—but not always in the way we expect. Their effect on us is immediate, and they begin teaching us the moment we touch them’ (9). Thus, direct contact with historical instruments, and the tactile experience that comes with it, are of utmost importance to the performer.

While the participants came from different parts of the world, most originate from a background of modern piano, but with varying prior experiences on historical keyboards and in different stages in their academic and performing career. These three statements below were given by participants who have a background in modern piano, where one participant said:

While the Stein fortepiano is closer to the modern piano than the clavichord, the action is totally different. The sensation, the feeling when playing the Stein, is that the key dip is very short, and the action is so sensitive. You really have to relax and play less in-depth than on the modern piano. There is also not so much attack using the arm—less physical implication. I mean, there is, of course, but it is absolutely not the same as the falling of arm, or grabbing the key, like we usually do (on a modern piano). It is more focused, more concentrated in the centre (of the hand), and very gravity-related.

 Another participant noted:

I think the biggest obstacle is just sort of breaking your old habits that work for the piano much easier than it does for the fortepiano and clavichord. I think especially controlling your weight, being so much more mindful of every single movement that you do and simplifying everything down to the amount of weight that you put, and then the speed of the attack.

He further described it by saying:

It is not just doing anything by reflex anymore but having to overthink a little bit. And I think for me, that’s sort of an obstacle that I’m still trying to figure out.

A third participant described his encounter with a modern piano when he was a few days away from performing in a concert using historical instruments. He said:

I’m afraid that if I touch it (modern piano), my very strong, well-established habits in modern piano playing will come back and ruin my already elegant clavichord playing. Or at least trying to be elegant.

These accounts reflect the difference in techniques required when approaching historical instruments and provide us with an overview of the two comparable yet distinct realms despite the modern piano’s connections from its historical predecessors. Yet, the prospects of new possibilities remain open with further experimentation on these instruments.

In the initial stages, musicians who wish to attempt historical instruments, especially those from a modern piano background, would be easily startled by the difference in the touch of the historical piano keyboard, and those who wish to delve further would need to get used to the required adjustments no matter in techniques or performance practice. This further experimentation with research acting as a foundation also encourages new ways of thinking and performing on historical instruments, challenging one’s existing notions and hopefully help modern musicians liberate themselves from the current practices, finding new directions in performing early music. Just as a participant who had more experience on historical instruments mentioned when discussing performance practice and his performance decisions said:

I would start with the scholarly text, [and] not inventing something from scratch. I think you need to kind of learn the basics of a language […] then I (you) can invent (develop) based on this.

Unfortunately, it is not unusual to see antipathy or even rejection towards historically informed approaches to piano pedagogy in conservatoires across continents, and having access to historical keyboards or expertise can be considered a luxury that not all pianists are provided with, as one participant pointed out. While this may not represent every individual, increasing access to not only instruments but also repertoire and experienced scholar-performers may perhaps help narrow the gap between modern pianists and historical instruments—as another participant mentioned, ‘if [historical keyboard playing] was introduced earlier, some things would naturally be easier to apprehend’.

Direct engagement with historical instruments offers numerous exciting possibilities to capitalise on significant expertise, academic research, and explore new insights for performance. While we look forward to exploring new developments and discoveries through scholarly discourse, as well as engaging the wider community in conversations and practices of early music performance, the very act of experimenting and one’s endeavour on historical instruments is what allows this relationship to blossom in the first place. Without this, mutually beneficial links cannot grow. By creating new opportunities for pianists or keyboardists to access historical instruments and expertise from early music experts, it may lead to significant growth in the field that brings revelations or even breakthroughs that could restore, reignite, or redefine meanings that were lost, or at the very least, performances that are better informed by historical contexts and instruments.