Saturday, April 14, 2012
Behind The Scenes with Elton's 4 Touring Pianos
It's "Piano A," the first and favorite of Elton's four 9-foot Yamaha Disklavier® DCFIII Concert Grands.
"It's probably the most played, most traveled piano on the planet," says Keith Bradley, Elton's tour director. "Actually, Elton has four touring piano systems, which are represented by the letters A through D. Each system involves a Yamaha Disklavier piano and a rack of gear. There's also Piano E, a 7'6" Yamaha Grand in London that's used for most of the studio work. But Elton's deepest emotional attachment is to Piano A."
"Piano A was the instrument that made Elton switch to Yamaha from the brand he'd used before," says Dale Sticha, Elton's piano technician for the last decade. "That piano has seen so many things: the Princess Diana memorial, the Academy Awards. I really believe there's some magic there. Elton has become very attached to it, and now it's a part of him. I don't want to call it a 'marriage,' but it's definitely a musical partnership."
Bradley recounts how the partnership came to pass: "At one point about twelve years ago, before Elton played Yamahas, he suddenly decided that the piano he'd been playing was too muddy. He simply walked offstage one night and told me he couldn't play it anymore! I immediately called Yamaha and asked if there was a piano in New Orleans, where we were. They told us there was one at the university, which was apparently being used for orchestral concerts. We went and picked it up, and it never went back. I think several factors won Elton over: the weighting of the keys, the faster response time, the brighter tone. At any rate, it instantly became the A piano and has been ever since."
But are audiences actually hearing Piano A at Elton's concerts? Absolutely, says Sticha. "Everything you hear really comes from him. There's no sequencing or tapes or anything like that. The piano is miked, but it's also a MIDI controller that triggers other sounds such as strings and the electric piano on 'Daniel.' So instead of Elton having to switch instruments, we make the piano become those instruments. Also, the piano triggers external piano modules that reinforce the acoustic sound. The audience usually hears a layered mix of acoustic and electronic pianos, which all run through the Yamaha 01V mixer in Elton's rack."
Elton has long relied on Yamaha P300s for his supplemental piano sounds, but he's currently switching over to the Yamaha Motif. "All the Motif sounds are fantastic, and Elton is very happy with them." And Elton, of course, pilots everything from the Piano A keyboard.
But are Piano A's days numbered? "Maybe," sighs Sticha, "Elton has played it so long and so hard that it's showing signs of wear, though Yamaha's technicians work hard to keep it going. Maybe it is time to be thinking about a new piano."
Actually, Elton and his team have already done more than just think about A's successor. "Our problem," says Bradley, "is that A has been the one used for the nightly, three-hour touring shows, while the others tend to be flown around for, say, special one-hour performances or a single-song television appearance. Because they've been played so much less, they inevitably feel stiff by comparison. But we recently managed to get pianos B, C, and D into one place at the same time for rehearsal, and the boys from Yamaha came out for a little conference. They looked at the pianos' action and everything else, and now I feel we have three excellent pianos that are very similar to A."
Does Elton agree? "Well," says Bradley "Piano A is in for service right now, so Piano C is going up onstage for tonight's concert, and Elton is very, very happy with it. In fact, he says he's over the moon with how his pianos are performing right now, and he couldn't be happier regarding the service he gets from Yamaha."
- England Piano