Why I built an inside-out, swinging piano

Topsy-turvy, inside-out. © Sarah Nicholls, Author provided

The inside of a piano is a remarkable thing. A feat of engineering, the string frame holds 30 tonnes of tension, created by around 230 strings making up 88 pitches. These strings are normally hidden and struck only by the hammers. But for some musicians, past and present, the inside of the piano is as important and as playable as the keys. The only problem is how to reach it.

The first composer to write music featuring the inside of the piano was Percy Grainger, who’s In a Nutshell suite (1916) demands the strings to be struck with a mallet at points. Henry Cowell soon followed up with Aeolian Harp (1923) and The Banshee (1925), pieces exclusively for the inside of the piano. The idea was passed from teacher to pupil, George Crumb embedding it in his Makrokosmos I and II (1972-74).

These days, “inside piano” playing is used by many proponents in concerts of contemporary classical or improvised music. Magda Mayas performs exclusively on the inside of the piano, showing inquisitive creativity in her search for objects to “sound” the instrument, such as slate, skewers and magnets. Leon Michener creates electronic sounding music while Andrea Neumann has a portable “inside piano”.

Hampering dampers

As a contemporary pianist, I was being regularly asked to use inside techniques. But it’s incredibly uncomfortable reaching inside for long periods. A rudimentary explanation of how pianos work will explain why this is. The key of a piano is a lever. When the pianist plays, the back of each key moves the “action” (several moving parts) which results in a hammer hitting the correct string, which sounds. When the key is released, the hammer falls back to rest and a damper stops the sound by landing back against the string.

Inside-piano playing can be obstructed by some of these things. On a grand piano, the dampers (which stop the sound when a key is released) are above the strings, and so get in between the performer and the strings.

I decided to address this. I wanted a piano that allowed the performer to pluck the piano strings with ease. And to do this, I would have to turn the piano inside-out.

Some historical pianos provided inspiration: cabinet pianos – effectively vertical grand pianos, where the strings went up from the keyboard – were built briefly around 1800 as elegant pieces of furniture. You’d think this would make the strings more available, but on upright pianos such as these, the action is in front of the strings.

I went to Finchcocks and the Royal Academy of Music’s Piano Gallery to discuss what merits different historical instruments had – for example, the rather over-engineered Euphonicon, which uses sounding boxes rather than a single board. This offers the possibility of folding a piano. Then I asked Pierre Malbos, a Parisian piano innovator, to help me build a new piano.

The Euphonicon, 1843. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Greenfield Sluder, 1944

Inside-out

As we could only budget to restructure an existing grand piano, we chose an old Erard grand piano, where the dampers are under the strings, and where the strings don’t cross under each other (this is called a straight-strung piano).

I wanted to have vertical strings, so I would easily reach all of them from the piano stool. Then our main innovation was to design and build a brand new action, which could strike from behind the string and therefore would be completely out of the way.

The second innovation came with the frame. Early cabinet pianos were rather dangerous, toppling over on their spindly legs when moved. I wanted to be able to move my piano myself – and to get it horizontal onto a trolley. So Pierre enlisted Yann Davidal, who designed a ratchet system, with piano and frame attached at a pivotal point, so I could gradually rotate and lower the piano. The incredible side effect of this was that in its vertical position, the piano could freely swing from side to side. I’ve named the resulting instrument the Inside-Out Piano II.

The Inside-Out Piano II. © Sarah Nicholls

The next step is to tackle the weight and portability. My aim for years has to been to build a piano using carbon fibre, removing logistical problems so people and institutions can freely move their own instruments around. Touring for the innovative pianist would become much easier, avoiding £600 piano-return trips and nagging messages: “will you actually be touching the strings?”. But this is another complex engineering problem.

There are various examples of lightweight pianos: the Lindtner (made 1961-71), which used steel tubing and plastic keys; and David Klavins’s pioneering Una Corda (2014). And oddly, various car manufacturers have teamed up in the past to make pianos with carbon fibre bodies: Peugeot, Ferrari, and Adelina Borruto has developed a fibre string frame, for example. The only all-carbon-fibre piano that I know of is by Simpact.

The piano has a strong place at the heart of music still. Out of the 6.7m children and 17.2m adults in the UK currently playing an instrument, 60% play piano or keyboard. Pianos were the centre of music making before recorded music but now they are often discarded for being too big and heavy. To create a lightweight vertical grand piano, as space-saving as a flat screen TV but with the richness of a string instrument, would ensure the piano’s future evolution.

Sarah Nicolls is currently touring with her Inside-Out Piano II in the theatrical show Moments of Weightlessness.