In this episode, we investigate the truth about the biggest instrument in the orchestra: the piano. Our guest, Mark Irchai, not only tells us about the piano, but he plays some fantastic music for us as well!
As a first-generation-American pianist and conductor, Mark Irchai is uniquely positioned to foster connections through music. As both artist and entrepreneur, he seeks to not only build these connections through his own performances across the globe, but also to empower others to do so as well.
Mark’s musicality and approach to his artistry and programming have earned him numerous accolades, including 1st prizes from the XIV International Orfeo Music Competition, the Golden Classical Music Awards, and the IMKA International Internet Music Competition. He has been heard in numerous concert halls around the world, including Carnegie Hall, the Musikschule Sterzing, and the Embassy of Turkey to the United States. And, Mark regularly performs with prominent artists from institutions such as the National Symphony Orchestra, the National Philharmonic, Peabody Institute, and the US Army Orchestra.
As an entrepreneur, Mark first founded his own concert series, Mark Irchai presents, where he performs solo, as well as collaborates both as pianist and conductor with over a hundred musicians, in skill levels ranging from student and amateur to professional. Bringing musicians to packed houses across the DC Metro area, he observed the possibilities of community building around connections in music. This idea eventually developed, with the help of many friends and colleagues, into the Odyssey Arts Initiative, or Odyssey – an initiative founded for the advancement of art through the open inclusion of diverse identities, perspectives, and backgrounds.
Mark is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Piano Performance at the Mannes School of Music, studying with Simone Dinnerstein. He previously studied piano at George Mason University with Anna Balakerskaia, and studied conducting both at George Mason and at the International Institute for Advanced Conducting after Ilya Musin.
For more information, please visit markirchai.com.
[excerpt from Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata]
ABBY: That was beautiful! What was that??
MAGGIE: A piano—it was a piano sonata!
ABBY: Oh, excellent—the piano is our topic for today’s episode of
ABBY & MAGGIE: BIG IF TRUE,
MAGGIE: where I, Maggie,
ABBY: and I, Abby,
MAGGIE: investigate the truth about big things.
MAGGIE: On today’s show, we’re talking about the truth about a really big instrument—the piano.
ABBY: The piece you just heard is a pretty famous sonata.
So today’s quiz is:
ABBY: Who wrote the piano sonata you just heard an excerpt from?
MAGGIE: A. Sergei Rachmaninoff, B. Johann Sebastian Bach, C. Amy Beach, or D. Ludwig van Beethoven.
ABBY: We’ll tell you the answer near the end of the episode! Today we have an expert with us to tell us about the piano—and he’s the pianist who played the piece we started off with. But you also know him in a different way.
MAGGIE: Yes, he was my piano teacher a few years ago before he went off to get more schooling at the Mannes School in New York City.
ABBY: So we’re so happy to be talking to Mark Irchai.
IRCHAI: I’m a pianist, conductor, and musician. I love making music. I’ve been doing it for about 18 years. And I’m happy to be here. Thanks for having me, Maggie.
MAGGIE: Hi Mark! What’s your favorite piano piece?
IRCHAI: You know, that’s a great question. It’s a difficult one to come up with, because there’s so much great music for the piano. However, if I had to think of one that I’ve, uh, I love to play, that would be the the Goldberg Variations by J.S. Bach. The opening of it is absolute magic. It’s a It’s a song at the beginning. And it it’s really beautiful. And a lot of people know it. And sometimes I’d love to just sit down and play the opening.
[Opening of the Goldberg Variations]
MAGGIE: What is a piano?
IRCHAI: Well, a piano is a very large wooden instrument. It produces sound with keys that you press, so when you push down the key, it’s connected to a lever that goes inside of the piano. And on the other end of that lever is a big hammer with some felt on it to make soften the blow a little bit, but it goes up and it hits a big metal string.
IRCHAI: And actually, with some of the notes that even can hit multiple strings, sometimes three at a time. And that makes a huge amount of sound.
IRCHAI: So that hammer strike, we can control how soft or how loud that strike is. And that’s how we make sound at the piano.
ABBY: Pianos can make really big sounds—which makes it great for playing music for a lot of people.
IRCHAI: it has to make enough sound to fill a concert hall. So a concert hall can seat up to over 2000 people at a time. Or some concert halls, even like Royal Albert Hall, which is in London, can seat up to 6000. So the piano has to make enough sound for everybody to hear it. So a piano can be a grand piano can be as large as nine or even 10 feet long. That way, it makes enough sound. But also, if you’re playing it at home, it has to have enough sound for everybody to listen to it.
MAGGIE: You said the piano can be as large as nine or ten feet—but how long are the strings inside?
IRCHAI: Usually, the piano strings, the length of them depends on the length of the piano itself. So for example, if you took a standard concert, grand piano, so like, if you went to a concert hall, like Carnegie Hall, you would see a nine foot piano, meaning that the length from the keys to the end of the piano is about nine feet. So the strings are going to be just slightly shorter than that, because some of the piano is taken up by the keys themselves. So I would say a little bit over seven feet. The reason why they’re not longer than that is because in order to make the pitch lower, what piano technicians do is they make the string thicker. And that way, when you play those strings, you don’t have to make them longer to make them lower in sound, you just make it a really thick string. So you remove the length of the keyboard. And that’s how you get the length of the string.
MAGGIE: It seems like lots of people play the piano, and lots of people write music for the piano.
ABBY: And in lots of different styles: classical, jazz, rock, pop, pretty much any kind of music might have a piano.
MAGGIE: So what makes a piano so versatile?
IRCHAI: The piano is versatile, partially because it’s so large, and partially because it can make so many sounds. It can do what some orchestras dream of, and actually a lot of composers will write orchestra music in another version, specifically for piano. Because it can do so many different things. It can play so many notes in so many different volumes, right, it can be really loud, or actually really, really soft. And there’s some special ways the piano can get even softer. And then, in modern music, actually, you don’t even have to play the keys necessarily, you can strum the strings, or scratch them, or you can drum on the piano. And because of that the piano just can do so many things that could become a percussion instrument could become like a drum, you know? So I love it.
[excerpt from Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata]
ABBY: We asked Mark if he’d play us a few things that show how versatile the piano is. We’ve actually already been playing some of those excerpts for you—and they’re all from the same piece of music! We’re going to play you one more.
MAGGIE: What are you going to play for us?
IRCHAI: This is a recording of my performance of Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata. This is one of his most famous sonatas. It’s in F minor. And it’s famous because it shows a huge range of what’s possible at the piano. It goes all over the piano, it goes really loud, it goes really soft, sometimes within seconds of each other. It has a lot of drama. And because of that, it’s a really popular piece, and people love to hear it.
IRCHAI: Well, so the the piece has a lot of runs that go from all the way to the top and all the way to the bottom and back up. So it shows how many notes the piano can play. But because it also has these big shifts in volume, it shows you the amount of power that’s possible at the piano when you play it with a lot of gusto, right? But it also shows you how quiet the piano can be. Which is a really incredible thing. Sometimes the piano can be almost like a gentle giant, but sometimes it can be roar like a big growling beast and it’s really neat to see all of those shifts in the same place.
[excerpt from Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata]
MAGGIE: Wow. That’s amazing. Thanks for telling us all about the piano today, Mark! And did you catch that? It’s the answer to our quiz question: Ludwig van Beethoven wrote this piece, the Appassionata Sonata. (Whew, that’s hard to say.)
ABBY: Do you play the piano? We’d love to hear about your favorite piano piece on Instagram or on our website, and maybe you (or your parents) could even post a recording of yourself and tag us! And if you don’t play the piano, maybe take a few minutes on your favorite music app to listen to some piano music and hear all the amazing ways the piano can show off how big it is. Then tell us what you listened to!
MAGGIE: That’s all for this episode; join us in two weeks for another episode of Big If True!
Tell us what you think!
If you want to hear more of Mark’s music or find out more about him, you can check out his website at markirchai.com. This episode was hosted and produced by me, Abby Mullen, and Maggie. Our theme music was composed by Andrew Cote. Thanks for listening!
Of course we love to listen to Mark play, but we also have a few other favorite pianists and piano studios in a lot of different styles.