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Reinventing the Piano

course notes – Reinventing the Piano (Dr. Dan Trueman, Princeton) on Kadenze: Session 1

Reinventing the PianoReinventing the Piano is a course available through Kadenze which put the first session up on September 13. The subject is of course the piano, and the course goes through how it is built, why it is built the way it is, and what would happen if it were deconstructed and rebuilt in new ways. I haven’t had music theory since college, and haven’t played much since I broke my right pinkie finger more than a decade ago, but the first session, though it rehashes some information I’ve heard before, is an excellent outline of the instrument itself.

The course is taught by Dr. Dan Trueman of Princeton (bio here).

The course can be audited for free, or can be taken with a $10/month premium membership which gives the student the ability to submit course work, get a certificate of completion, keep a portfolio online and other perks. Students can participate in the forums as either free or premium users.

These are my course notes so I can refer back to them from future sessions and note the books mentioned.

Session 1.1 – Course Intro

Session 1.2 – Musical Scales and the Keyboard

  • quotes from Piano Notes by Charles Rosen that keyboard layout has a huge influence on western music. I think this book is in a box in the storage unit!
  • diatonic keyboard layout (traditional keyboard layout) favors octaves (of course). Keyboard as a rule. Black keys are pentatonic scale
  • chromatic keyboard layout (all white keys) makes for a crappy ruler (all the same)
  • wholetone keyboard layout (alternating white and black keys)
  • octatonic/diminished keyboard layout (two white keys, then a black key). black keys are a 7th chord
  • hexatonic or augmented keyboard layout (two white keys, then two black keys with a blank space between the two black keys).
  • Messiaen’s Sixth Mode of Limited Transposition (standard three white keys with two black keys beween them, separated by one single white key)
  • reviews a couple more: one built around Harmonic Minor, one for Harmonic Major, one for Acoustic/Lydian Dominant
  • Books mentioned:

Session 1.3 – The Action

Session 1.4 – The Harpsichord Action

  • Discussion by Dr. Gavin Black (this one and the Clavichord one)
  • Harpsichord always gets my vote for one of the coolest sounding instruments
  • The action plucks the string like a lute is plucked, not hammered like a modern piano

Session 1.5 – The Clavichord Action

  • Can’t play two notes right next to each other as they are actually hammering on the same string
  • Should play on the ends of the keys, mostly without thumbs, to get the most action (the far end of the lever)

Session 1.6 – The Organ

Session 1.7 – The Piano Action

  • I want one of those Kawai Action cut away models!

Session 1.8 – The Sound: Strings, Soundboard and Timbre

  • Some keys have one string (lower notes), others have two or three. Provides for better loudness, timbre and sustain
  • Interesting program Dr. Trueman uses called SPEAR. He was right, couldn’t hear the notes on my MAC without headphones
  • Sympathetic resonance is a cool idea and a good rock band name. The demonstration of partials at the piano is particularly enlightening.
  • The closing bit on how we hear and the graphs on audible range are more familiar now that I’ve had some hearing tests due to tinitus in one ear. The JND (Just Noticable Difference) is, of course, subjective, and an average of many test subjects, so every listener will, no doubt, be different.

Session 1.9 - Pedals

  • Review of the three pedals: una corda, sostenudo, sustain. And demonstration of how they work.
  • Half-pedaling (used when no sustain, usually?) as a pump or a half-press of the pedal

Session 1.10 - For Coders

  • I was hoping there would be some code….do have an idea for a musical app, but it will have to get in-line behind other work products.

Session 1.11 – Closing

Coursework – there is a Spotify Playlist with the same piece (C.P.E. Bach’s Moderato from Sonata in B-minor, Wq.49/6) played on clavichord, harpsichord, fortepiano and modern piano). Before I played the songs, I noticed that they were very different lengths. Then I went and read the assignment (yes, when I was a student, I often jumped too far ahead!) and the first question is…why are they different lengths.

  • Miklos Spanyi (on clavichord) 12:27. My assumption is that the clavichord recording is longer because of the playing style required that was demonstrated in the video, i.e., playing at the end of the keys and particularly not using the thumbs.
  •  Bruno Procopio (on harpsichord) 9:59. Similarly, the playing style of the harpsichord, with the need (or capability) to play an upper and lower keyboard, which takes time to move from one to the other, 
  • Sharona Joshua (on fortepiano) 6:14. I have no clue hear, other than assuming the fortepiano does not have pedals, and perhaps Mr. Colombo did use pedals on the modern piano one (need to listen through it again.
  • Claudio Colombo (on modern piano) 8:14. Used this one as the benchmark since it is the only instrument I have played.

The assignment also suggested taking a phrase and comparing it from piece to piece, picking a favorite performance and explaining why, and discussing why the harpsichord version’s lack of dynamics affects the piece.

The other suggested piece was Schubert’s Sonata in Bb-Major, D.960. I found a version of it on Spotify here. I much prefer the Andante Sostenuto movement over the Molto Moderato movement.

There is also a quiz and other coursework for those who are not taking the course in audit/free mode.

Session 2 is scheduled to be online September 27.

McKinney Falls

McKinney Falls State Park

Above Lower Falls McKinney Falls State ParkMcKinney Falls State Park is about 6 miles from downtown Austin and 3 miles from my son’s apartment. We hiked there on a sunny September Sunday. (For links to our other State Park hikes, see Brazos Bend and Huntsville).

Like many of the State Parks in Texas, McKinney Falls has a long history. Thomas F. McKinney was one of Stephen F. Austin’s original colonists, and the remains of his house are still in the park. There is an excellent book from the Texas State Historical Association on McKinney Falls (link here) that gives a great view of its history.

It is $6 per person to get into the park. We hiked the Homestead Trail (the longest listed trail in the park at 3.1 miles) and portions of Rock Shelter Trail (to the point where it was blocked) and Picnic Trail, and spent time around both the Upper and Lower Falls.

After entering the park and taking the first right, there are three parking lots at the trailhead to Homestead Trail. It is a short walk over part trail, part rock formation to get to the Lower Falls. Though there at not been much rain lately (as usual) the falls was still flowing and there were quite a few swimmers at the lower falls.

Lower Falls McKinney Falls StatePark


Just past the waterfall (either a short rock to rock jump or a wade through the water) the trail continues. We found a sign that pointed toward the Homestead one way and the Gristmill the other; we chose to head toward the Homestead.

The Homestead is from the late 1840s and was (according the the sign) occupied by the McKinney’s until Thomas McKinney’s death in the house in 1873. Several families lived in it until it burned in the 1940s.

McKinney Homestead McK
Homestead Trail is pretty overgrown; I do not know if this is normal or just from the time of year when we were there. The ground was pretty dry and cracked in places, so given the dry conditions it wasn’t recent rains that had it overgrown. There were certain places where we had to duck under the overhanging brush.

McKinney Falls State Park

There were some open parts and a little bit of elevation change, but not much. And there were places where you would walk out of the brush and see office buildings or a golf course – one of the “features” of being in a state park this close to a major city.

McKinney Falls State Park
There were a lot of dogs in the park. Some, like this one, seemed to know the trail quite well, as he was taking his owners on a walk.
Dog at McKinney Falls
There were a couple of places where we could have taken additional trails (Flint Rock Loop Trail, which intersects with Williamson Creek Overlook trail – combining these would provide for an almost six mile hike), but we stayed on Homestead Trail. We finally got back around the the remains of Thomas McKinney’s grist mill, which was interesting (there must have been more water there at that time, but it was bone dry there now) but there wasn’t much left of it.
Gristmill McKinney Falls
And then we came back to the lower falls from the other side.
Lower Falls McKinney Falls
As we walked back toward the trailhead, you can see the large limestone covering that you walk over to get to the falls. It was still before noon but it was already getting warm on those rocks. I’d imagine in the hot Texas summer afternoon sun it would not be a place to be…unless you were heading for a dip in the water.
McKinney Falls State Park
We then intended to hike along Picnic Trail (the picnic tables gave the name away) and Rock Shelter Trail to get to the Upper Falls. We made it to the Rock Shelter, which we read had been in use as a shelter by people for nearly 4,000 years. There were also some trails that you could scramble down to get a look at Onion Creek.
Rock Shelter McKinney Falls
But the trail was closed right where “Old Baldy” (a large tree) was. We weren’t informed of this at the ranger station, but it wasn’t a long trail so turning around was not difficult. In the picture below you can see “Old Baldy” in the middle. It looks like the rails on the wooden walkway were down and the bridge had other damage.
Trail Closed
With no hiking options, we drove to Upper Falls, which had more swimmers and divers that the Lower Falls did.
Upper Falls
Here’s a short video to show the extent of Upper Falls.

Overall, it was a very convenient park with some short trails and a couple of really nice waterfall swimming holes.

Upper Falls

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