A new approach to the piano

Chad Lawson on why he believes modern technology can inspire new audiences to engage with the piano

The piano. A beloved staple in the world of music. From the concert stage before thousands to the family living room, the piano has played its way into our hearts for over 300 years. And while the instrument went through several early modifications, its architecture has remained much the same for the last 100 years.

Yet, what about the piano as of late? Around 105,000 new pianos were sold in the US  in 2000. Fast-forward almost 20 years and that number drops to roughly 19,000 new pianos sold last year. What happened? Is the piano dead? With modern technology creating everything faster, newer, better – and in every colour – has the piano been left behind?

While some may attribute its demise to anything with an “i” in front of it, iPads, iPhones and iBook’s aren’t necessarily to blame. Maybe it’s not the piano that needs the adjustment; maybe it’s us.

I tour the world as a concert pianist and play at festivals where numerous genres are represented. Recently, I’ve noticed a common pattern: there are now more iPads than pianos on stage. Most of these iPad artists are in their 20s or 30s, and create work solely from an iPad or similar device. Albums have been released, successfully I might add, recorded entirely on an iPhone.

So perhaps it’s not lack of interest, but lack of exposure. We’re a product of our environment and for many the landscape is surrounded by smartphones, not stringed instruments.

Instead of reminiscing about the old days and how things have changed for the worse, I decided to change my approach. How could I connect with an audience who viewed a piano as antiquated but an iPad as second nature?

I decided to record an album, pairing the traditional (piano) with the modern (iPad). I used the piano as my instrument and the iPad to create loops, effects and layers. Doing this turned my entire process upside down.

Up until now I had recorded every album within one to two days. Yet, with re:piano, there was no such speed. Striking the final note five days later, I emerged from my studio drained yet with a feeling of excitement. My previous habit of writing down a few chords then crafting a melody no longer applied.


For example, I often said “I have to hear this differently”. I’d then setup a simple pattern soaked in a ping-pong delay, which would serve as the bedding for the next looped phrase. And while I had an overabundant reservoir of delays, distortions and colours at my disposal, I had to remain judicious in my selection. Too much was overkill, not enough meant just another piano album. Restraint was key, giving space to each new element.

As with the studio, so to the stage. This generation knows an iPad inside out. My 4 year old effortlessly commands coding games on his iPad while I sit in awe, wondering how to even begin. Again, it’s all about exposure.

So, with my upcoming European tour, I’ve decided to take something young people are completely comfortable with (technology) and present it alongside something unfamiliar (the piano).

The iPad offers not only a new sonic world, but also a strong visual statement. In an age of ‘saw it all on YouTube’ there’s not much of a wow factor when someone walks on stage, sits down and plays the piano. Yes, they may have mastered a Rachmaninoff concerto, but that seems so unobtainable – foreign almost.

However, seeing someone walk on stage with an iPad and use it to turn the piece of furniture grandma has into an exciting world of sounds – that could have them hooked. Visually they are witnessing a creative process right before their eyes. “I can do that”, they imagine.

This triggers curiosity, and I hope my audience members will be asking their grandmothers if they can have the piano no-one plays anymore. Am I dreaming? I’m a blue-sky kind of guy but, as a pianist, we have to start somewhere. Why not here?

This is not the first such experiment I’ve conducted. In 2014 I took a similar risk by introducing the Spotify generation to Chopin through new arrangements. Rearranging the poet of the piano was no simple task and guaranteed criticism from traditionalists. But I felt this was an angle that hadn’t been explored, and could introduce classical music to an audience that had never heard a concerto.

The results were impressive: The Chopin Variations reached number one on iTunes classical chart, number one on Billboard Classical and number one on Amazon across all genres. The album was created because I was curious about whether a modern non-classical audience would appreciate the music of the great Polish composer. It worked – it truly worked.

Better yet, not only did the album garner strong sales but I was also flooded with emails from fans saying how they had never listened to Chopin before and were now interested in his original works. I also heard from parents who were inspired to enrol their children in music lessons because the album reminded them of their youth and the joy playing an instrument brought.

The reoccurring message of all this is exposure. This generation and the ones to follow, through no fault of their own, simply aren’t aware of classical piano music. We don’t know what we don’t know. The surge in vinyl record sales, for instance, hasn’t been a comeback: it’s new to them.

My hope is to inspire this generation, the one where 70% of their music is listened to on a mobile device, into realising how interesting the piano can be.

I’ve been invited to participate in Piano Day 2018 (29 March) and on 26 March I head to out for a three-week tour. And while the traditionalist in me would prefer to remain ‘un-plugged’, the optimist in me believes that inspiring the next generation is only a touchscreen away.