Harpsichordist ≠ Pianist



I get into conversations about my choice of instrument more often than not. I’m not sure why, but I do appreciate people asking about the harpsichord even if they have little or no idea about the instrument. As I’ve come to understand it, there are (generally) three types of people.

Those who:

  1. have never seen/heard a harpsichord.
  2. have heard one (can’t remember where), but haven’t seen one up-close.
  3. have heard and seen the instrument (and like it!), yet don’t know there are differences between it and the piano.

As for the final category, they follow with, “do you also play the piano?” To which I answer, “no, I’m a specialist.” The usual response is some form of “what’s the difference?”

I then haul out my sports analogy.

Tennis vs. Table Tennis (a.k.a. Ping-Pong)

Imagine a tennis player in the middle of a match. Then imagine a ping-pong player at a tournament.

We’ve seen them in games on television at the international level and many of us have taken part in both as recreational sports. (We can relate to the differences on a visual and tactile level.)

Now think about the physical requirements (strength, agility, coordination) of playing tennis. Do the same for ping-pong.

Think about the tennis racket and what it takes to control. And now the ping-pong paddle.

At the very highest level (think, Olympics), both types of athletes are ferocious during play and a wonder to behold (not unlike virtuoso pianists and harpsichordists).

Now ask the ping-pong player to pick up a tennis racket and play at the same competitive level he normally does. Or vice versa.

Imagine the tennis player is like a pianist and the ping-pong player, a harpsichordist.

With very few exceptions, the finest harpsichordists only play the harpsichord.

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  • Charles Fischer

    Or the organ!

  • Jjgregory

    I’m delighted to read your article, and to have found this blog! I’m a card-carrying “early” music lover who remembers the days when a great stride forward (or backward–in time) was hearing recorders played in Brandenburgs II and IV, even though all of the other instruments were modern. We suffered through every advance, in those days. Modern instruments were the norm in baroque music, with the St Martin in the Fields band representing the “avant” garde, their harpsichord and wooden recorders made them the “authentic” group of their day. True, David Munrow used period intruments for the repertoire he championed–really early music–crummhorns, sackbutts, others–but it wasn’t until Trevor Pinnock began his English Concert in 1972, quickly followed by Christopher Hogwood’s Academy of Ancient Music in 1973, that baroque orchestral music was played with period instruments. Those were amazing bands! We were hearing music for the first time in our era as it may have sounded to the original audiences! This is what we had all been waiting for–we lovers of Bach, Handel, Purcell, Corelli, Rameau, and the other composers of  the so-called baroque period. This is why I turn off the radio in Boston when Bach, Scarlatti and others from those times is played on the piano. I made a decision for myself a long time ago to try to experience music as closely as possible to the sound the composer had in his mind when he wrote it.  This means, for a start, Bach and Handel keyboard music on harpsichord or organ only.

  • Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your perspective!