My Instrument

People often ask musicians why they chose their particular instrument, and those who play less familiar instruments such as harpsichord get asked it more often. All real musicians give the same answer, that they just "like the sound", and often find it difficult to say much more. I can say at least, that I love the clarity, completeness and power of the harpsichord, and strive to let the strings talk to each other so they sing. But, I can tell you, exactly, when I knew it was to be my instrument.

It was a damp, dank, even soggy, morning in November - as I was quickly to discover, a typical early winter day in London England. I had managed to get a fellowship to study in Cambridge, and had been told by the Professor of Music, Thurston Dart, to check out Fenton House, where the British National Trust kept their harpsichords. "Tell them I sent you" was all I had for introduction, but as I was equally quickly to discover, all I needed in musical England of the time. "You main't touch the Handel Ruckers on the second floor, but you may play anything else" was the response of the curator. I touched a few keys on an early Shudi in the main hall, and suddenly the Heinzman grand I had been brought up with began to sound a bit like a vat of molasses. There was room after room, instrument after instrument, glorious sound after even more glorious sound ... a typewriter-sized Italian octavina that lifted the roof an inch with every note, mile-long Broadwoods.... But, more and more I kept coming back to a little Hitchcock spinet, the rich clear sound of its single strings, the immediacy of its touch. Only a moment later, it seemed, the curator tapped me on the shoulder, to note that it was closing time. Closing time - nightfall in fact! And, I had to get back to Cambridge for a class the next morning!

Well, nothing in England is very far from any other place compared to Canada - I made it back before curfew, that time and several subsequent times. But, that first ride back, I knew that my whole musical mind was being rebuilt as I pedalled. The harpsichord was the instrument of my heart, as it has been ever since.

Harpsichord Playing

The following are the primary original texts on playing the harpsichord. I thank Tom Huygens for locating several of them.

The only newsgroup where harpsichord performance issues are discussed to any extent is A harpsichord builders list hpschd-l is maintained by If you want to buy a harpsichord, Hubbard Harpsichords makes as fine instruments as have ever been made. The Harpsichord Clearing House is the best source of used instruments I know of. A good source of strings and the like is The Instrument Workshop. I also have some notes on the physics of harpsichord sound.

Harpsichord Sound

MIDI is a system of recording the finger motions of a keyboard player, rather than recording the sound produced by the player's instrument. Serious classical-music recordings such as these are still, 4 decades after I started, beyond current MIDI practise. There is not yet a standard way of prescribing sound fonts to the required precision. Few MIDI players implement key release velocity (string damping), and none of which I am aware (still!) take account as every harpsichordist does of the effect that one string's sound has on other harmonically related undamped strings. But, pushing the limit of things is what artists have always done. Finger motions are pure information, the stuff of the modern age. It takes 10,000 times as many bits for an audio CD recording of my Scarlatti sonatas as it does for the MIDI version.

And, I am very grateful for the MIDI standard for another reason. Hundreds of musicians, many more skilled than I can ever be, have been able to play all of Scarlatti. But, solely one managed to assemble the immense financial commitment required to get a complete studio recording published in conventional form - Scott Ross. (Fernando Valenti almost completed the task, but Westminster records ran into financial problems, and only half of his recordings were released.) Yet, with only a basement room, a MIDI keyboard, an early (8088) PC, and the Internet, I was able to do it.

They can be played from Windows with the default Windows Media Player one at a time, or queued up with most MIDI player programs that come with soundcards. (If you download the zipped files, you will also need JustUnZipIt or equivalent.) On a Mac, get QuickTime 4.0. Open the MIDI file with the QuickTime Player component, and click play. (There seem to be a lot of Mac programs out there that don't work on many systems with MIDI files - I'm assured that this one does, but have found out the hard way that most later versions don't.)

If you have a sample-type sound card such as the SoundBlaster 32/64, you can hear my recordings approximately the way I do on my harpsichord (main 8') with my sound font. I originally made it in Creative's SBK format, but Jim McCord has kindly converted it to the more modern SF2 format. (I am told that this file contains a statement that the font is copyrighted by Creative Labs. This is incorrect. The font is 100% my production and copyright.) If your card uses another format, visit FMJ-Software and download their Awave Studio conversion program.

If you use Linux, you can produce .WAV files from my recordings, using tiMIDIty. I thank Garth Denley for the following:
To generate a .wav file to play elsewhere, use:
timidity -c ross.cfg --chorus=d songname.mid -Ow -o songname.wav
The "--chorus=d" option above disables chorus, which blurs harpsichord sound. With these commands you need a configuration file called ross.cfg and the soundfont file ross.sf2. In the ross.cfg file you need the text:
bank 0
6 %font ross.sf2 0 0
to remap program 6 in the MIDI to 0 in the soundfont in bank 0. Michael Hart has done this for all my recordings and has posted MP3 versions.

John Sankey
other notes on harpsichord playing