Monday, December 21, 2009


I don't get to see very many of these - a Grotrian-Steinweg upright, built in Braunschweig, Germany, in 1927.  This upright came here not too long ago from England.  It is in very good condition, beautiful ivories on the keys, a nice mahogany veneer with a quite dark red stain - it is almost black, like a really dark rosewood.  It has 85 notes.

The tone of this upright is distinct.  It has a nasal quality, but little of the higher frequencies associated with American pianos.  The soundboard has flattened, so there is little power, and the tone tends toward dark and lush. 

If the name after Grotrian seems familiar, that's no coincidence.  Heinrich Steinweg, a German piano maker, came to New York and established a company under his Americanized name, Henry Steinway.  With him were three sons, hence Steinway and Sons.  But another son named Theodore stayed in Germany and continued making pianos there under the original name Steinweg (pronounced "SHTINE-vaygh"), in partnership with Friedrich Grotrian.

Two of Henry's sons died in 1865, so Theodore came to New York to help his father.  Theodore was an amazing piano designer, and he ended up being responsible for many of the Steinway patents that helped the company become what it is today.  Theodore sold his company in Germany to three of his employees, including Wilhelm Grotrian, son of the late Friedrich.  They were allowed to continue using Theodore's name for ten years.  After that, the company started using the brand name Grotrian-Steinweg, and that's when the trouble started.  The lawsuits began in Germany, and ended up in the United States, and were fought off and on for a century.

It was eventually decided by the US courts in 1975 that Grotrian's use of the Steinweg name was a trademark violation, so now Grotrian makes pianos for export to the United States under the single name Grotrian.  They are quite lovely pianos, and are still being made in Braunschweig (which is sometimes rendered in English as Brunswick).

For more on the century of litigation, see Grotrian vs.  Steinway.
By the way, Grotrian has a cute musical game on their website called the Pianolina.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Bachmann, Berlin

This beautiful Bachmann upright was built in Berlin, Germany.  I can't seem to find any reference to this company anywhere, so I can't say for sure when it was built, even though I know the serial number.  It was probably built in the very early 20th century.

I looked all over the piano for a date.  Sometimes whoever worked on the keyboard will sign their names with a date on the first few keys.  I've even seen the signature of a manufacturer and a date proudly written on the inside of the case.  A hammerhead might carry a date, or the plate might have a date cast into it.  If the piano has been worked on by someone who knows when it was built, he might pencil the date on the plate, or on the keyframe behind the keyslip, or stamp it into some wooden case part.  In addition to serial numbers, there are also case numbers, used as reference in the factory before the serial number has been assigned.  If the action was made by a separate action maker, it could have its own serial number, or a date stamp.  Rebuilders sometimes switch parts from different pianos, creating great uncertainty about when a piano was actually built.  On this piano I found various numbers, but no date, alas.

Bachmann's name is carved into the veneer of the fallboard, something I'd never seen done before.  Usually the maker's name is attached as a decal, or sometimes inlaid.  Another name is carved into the keystop rail, beneath Bachmann's name; Rosen's, apparently a piano dealer in Cape Town, South Africa.

It is a typical German upright with a bird-cage action (like the Berlin-made Waldmann I posted about earlier, also from South Africa), and an over-strung bass section.  The keytops were probably originally ivory, but they have been replaced with ivorine.  The gorgeous veneer is book-matched walnut, with burled walnut panels.  There used to be candelabra attached to the two side panels in front.  The turned balls and collars on the legs are a nice touch.

Bird-cage action!

Friday, August 28, 2009

August Pitch Report

The middle-of-August heat wave finally convinced us swamp Yankees to turn on our air conditioners.  For our pianos, it was too little too late.  The heat wave was humid, but not as bad as in June and July.*  The difference was that June and July were cool, so no one turned on the AC.  Now the pitch on most pianos, even those with humidity control, is quite high, but not evenly so across the keyboard.  Most pianos right now are almost comically out of tune.  If you can wait, they'll actually sound better later in the season (if it's not too wet an autumn).  If you can't wait, and you certainly cannot if you're gearing up for the return to school, your tuner will have a lot of work ahead of him or her.

Expect the pitch to be 15 cents or more high right in the temperament octave.  I'd recommend dropping the pitch to about 6 cents high (A441.5).  If you have to go to A440, plan on a pitch-lowering before tuning.  The pitch might not be quite so high below the temperament octave.  The top of the bass section will be about 5 cents high, rising to maybe 10 cents high around C2, then dropping back down, possibly to zero, at C1.

On the treble end, the pitch will actually drop as you approach the tenor/treble break.  C5 will be about 5 cents or so high.  But don't be fooled, right after the break, you'll be back at 15 cents high.  Then the pitch will quickly drop to about 10 cents high or less around C6, where it might stay, or might drop slowly to zero by C8.

You'll have to keep alert about octave 4 and the part of octave 5 above the break - the pitch is going to want to drift up as you're working.  Keep your wits about you if you want to be done in a reasonable amount of time.  Every piano I've tuned recently has been a struggle.  Good luck.

*A quick example:  today is a comfortable 70 degrees F with about a 60 degree dewpoint, cloudy with rain approaching.  This translates into a relative humidity of 70 percent, which is quite high in spite of how comfortable it feels.  If the temperature hit 90, even with a higher dewpoint of 70 (which would feel pretty muggy), that would only be a relative humidity of 50 percent.

Click here for an explanation of humidity (from my website).
Click here for weather calculators at the National Weather Service website.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Cool Console #2 - Kawai

I love this little Kawai console, with its vertical plain-stripe walnut veneer.  The furniture style, called "continental," features no front legs, flat sides, a large, broad bottom board, and a plain front board that angles back to a narrow top.  The lid is hinged in back.  It would be more traditional to have only two pedals, but the American market demands three.  It was built by Kawai in Japan in 1983.  This console model was a very successful model for Kawai, and it is a lovely little instrument.

I had never seen one of these with this kind of veneer before.  Usually vertical stripe veneer is used as an accent on small horizontal elements, not across the entire piano.  It is not everyone's cup of tea, but I think it works adorably with the style.  The stripes come from how the wood is cut to make the veneer.  The cut is called a quarter cut (or the wood is said to be quarter-sawn), which means that the cut is 90 degrees to the grain, along or parallel to the tree's radius.  You can see that it takes five pieces to cover the width of the piano.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Free-Ranging Pianos

There is a lovely, romantic fantasy everyone seems to have about playing the piano outdoors.  The power of this fantasy may lie in the near impossibility of achieving it, given the half-ton-or-so weight of a piano.  Or perhaps the Romantic-era piano music we are all so familiar with inspires visions of mountains, forests, and seas.  Countless CD covers and posters have featured grand pianos on the beach, in the woods, on mountaintops.  Good luck bringing this fantasy to life, though - nature is not kind to pianos.

One common approach is to have a room especially dedicated as a piano room, with big picture windows facing out onto your favorite natural vista.  If this is your dream, I have a couple of suggestions.  It is pretty important to have both the room's temperature and humidity controlled so the piano is not destroyed.  You will want to play in your shirtsleeves in the middle of a moonlit snowfall, for instance, or play to the setting sun with a cool sea-breeze blowing through.  You will be ecstatic, but your piano will be unhappy.  Direct sunlight is particularly bad.  If you can't bear to have curtains and shades blocking the sun, then you need to treat the windows to lower the amount of radiation coming in and baking your piano.  Your soundboard will crack within a few years no matter what you do, and the piano will never stay in tune.  It may be worth it to you, though.

Another approach is to have a small, nearly portable piano that you can carry around with you.  I knew of a guy who had one of those 69-note minipianos that he kept in a van.  If he were camping at a music festival, he could wheel the piano down a ramp and join in on a jam session out in the woods or on the beach.  Portable electronic keyboards present a similar, though much less romantic, possibility; you can get a small solid-state generator to provide the electricity (or bring a really long extension cord).

I have seen old upright pianos living on porches, somewhat protected from the elements, slowly rotting and falling apart, but available for outdoor playing until it's no longer possible.

Here is one of my favorite news stories, from CNN in November of 2008.  Someone apparently left a piano in the woods of Cape Cod, in the middle of conservation land in Harwich MA, just before Thanksgiving.  It had not been there long, so it had suffered no ill effects, but no one knows where it came from or how it got there.  The police were called, and they rescued it, you might say, but no one claimed it.  I hope somebody besides the squirrels got to enjoy playing it under the trees.

Here's another approach:  this pianist, named Yosuke Yamashita, has performed a couple of times on a grand piano outdoors, but with a twist.  The piano is set on fire first before he plays it, and then he plays for as long as he can.  Here's one video.  I don't know if he lets the tide take the carcass out to sea, like a dead whale, but that would seem appropriate.

Now to the actual point of this post, which is the work of an English artist named Luke Jerram.  Among his installations is a project he calls Play Me, I'm Yours.  For a limited time, he places pianos in public outdoor spaces in a city, and passersby are encouraged to tickle those ivories.  The pianos are later donated to organizations in the city.  He has done this in Sydney, Australia, São Paolo, Brazil, and most recently, London, England, where thirty uprights, decorated by artists, were placed.

I love the idea of the outdoor urban piano.  It is much more social than the idyllic, solitary reverie with nature most people imagine with outdoor pianos.  Jerram outfitted each piano in London with a book of music, the pages laminated, so people could gather around the piano and sing along.  Quite often crowds would gather when the pianos were played.  Two or three people might share a piano.  Other musicians would appear with their instruments.  Jerram noted that he was surprised by how many people knew how to play at least a little bit, and felt free to do so in public.

Jerram doesn't say much about how the project is put together.  Judging from the photos, some of the pianos look pretty old - they're apparently donations and cast-offs.  The website for the London show credits a piano-moving company, but I wondered if the pianos get repaired and tuned.  Then I read a NYT article, which said a "piano tuner who travels around on a bicycle, providing on-the-spot help, has had to bring in reinforcements to deal with all the wear and tear."  Aw, brings a tear to my eye!  You can see that the pianos and benches are secured and locked in place.  One picture shows a plastic sheet pushed aside, so I guess they get protected this way from the rain.  I also read about pianos in parks getting locked up at closing time, so maybe there's a group of volunteers who tend to the pianos each day.  Here is the New York Times article about the London event.  Here are a few more photos from the artist.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Wm Knabe & Co

This lovely grand was built in Baltimore, Maryland, in about 1890.  Knabe (pronounced "k-NAH-bay") was one of America's premier makers, and after the Civil War was considered on a par with Steinway, Chickering, Mason & Hamlin, and Weber.  This piano was made when the company was still run by a Knabe; Ernest, the son of the founder William.

Knabe figured prominently in the formation of the American Piano Company in 1908.  George Foster, a business school grad, had started out as a reed organ salesman, and by 1894, the year Ernest Knabe died, had formed a partnership with William Armstrong to manufacture pianos in Rochester NY.  Their first major acquisition was the Marshall & Wendell Co of Albany in 1898.  Finally, a decade later, after acquiring a number of other companies, they incorporated as American Piano Co.  Knabe was one of the cornerstones of the company; Chickering & Sons, bought in the same year, was the other.

But long before those events, this 7½ foot walnut-veneered grand rolled out of the factory in Baltimore, as would many more until about 1930, when Knabe was moved to the American Piano Company's factory campus in East Rochester.  Pianos with the Knabe name continued to be made in East Rochester for another 50 years.  After a hiatus of passing through various owners, a Knabe line was developed and manufactured in Korea in the late 90's, and finally bought by the Korean maker Samick in 2001.  Samick continues to manufacture pianos with the Knabe name.

A few details about the instrument:  it has 88 notes, two bridges, a pieced (rather than molded) case, and a sloped pinblock not covered by the plate.  The action has wooden brackets, and uses a wooden rocker mechanism rather than the modern threaded brass capstan to regulate the connection between the keys and the wippens.  It has a surprisingly modern tone for a 120-year-old piano.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Cool Consoles - Introduction

Every piano manufacturer has been proud of its big pianos - the cabinet grands, the parlor and concert grands, even the square grands back in the day.  But the piano-makers' bread and butter since the 1920's has been the small pianos - the baby grands, and especially the consoles and spinets.  It was in the 20's, as smaller homes and apartments were being built, that the American consumer, especially the American housewife, began to turn away from the big pianos, particularly the tall, boxy upright player pianos that had been so popular.  The newfangled radio, for example, was smaller, and prettier besides.

In response, manufacturers tried to make their uprights less imposing by scaling down and simplifying the design.  But it was still a big brown ugly box.  Even when they started making smaller uprights, about 48" tall, they were nothing more than miniaturized versions of the big uprights.  Fortunately, as upright sales plummeted in the 30's, the baby grands had become very popular, and kept the industry from collapsing altogether during the Depression.

In 1934, the Swedish piano company Lundholm designed a small upright piano that was completely different from the regular uprights.  It was very short, the cabinetry was attractive and not boxy, and the action was redesigned to fit the smaller space.  The Associated Piano Co of London immediately bought the rights to the design and began manufacturing them as Minipianos.  In 1935, the Minipiano was licensed to Hardman, Peck & Co in the United States.  At the same time, both Haddorff and Winter & Co introduced their console pianos, and within months the industry had completely changed.  Baldwin and Wurlitzer introduced their console designs, and every manufacturer joined the race to create as many different furniture styles as possible with the new design.  These minipianos were an instant hit with consumers in spite of their failings as instruments.

The small pianos came to be called spinets.  Historically, spinet was the name for a particular kind of small harpsichord (possibly, but not definitely, after Spinetti, the name of an Italian maker).  It now means a small upright with a drop, or indirect-blow, action.  What this means is that the action is below the level of the keys, and the keys pull up on the wippens to move the hammers.  This is different than a direct-blow action, which sits above the keys, and the keys push the wippens up.

The name console was coined by the French maker Henri Pape in the 1820's to describe his design of a small upright.  This was at a time when uprights were seven or eight feet tall.  So any small upright is a console upright, and spinets can be said to be a kind of console upright.  After the introduction of the spinet in 1935, manufacturers also began making small direct-blow actions in decorative consoles slightly taller than the spinets.  The larger of these console uprights came to be called studio uprights, and the smaller, which employ a compressed version of the action, are now simply called consoles, in a way meant to distinguish them from spinets and studios.  For this series of postings, however, I will use the word console to mean any small console upright, including spinets.

The furniture styles of consoles range from the sublime to the ridiculous, from elaborate reproductions of historic styles to space-age modernism.  I really love them, the more outlandish the better.  As instruments, however, they leave much to be desired.  Studios eventually became serious instruments, but the consoles are really too small to have high-quality sound, especially in the bass.  The bridge design and placement sometimes results in poor tuning stability and sound quality.  The compressed direct-blow actions are not very responsive, and the drop actions require short keys whose leverage is all wrong.  When manufacturers began cutting corners to cut costs, especially in the late 60's and 70's, the consoles with their inherent design compromises and flaws suffered tremendously.  Still, at their best, some of these consoles wound up sounding pretty good, and playing quite adequately.

Wurlitzer, under the Baldwin name, was the last US manufacturer to make spinets, in the mid 1990's.  Consoles, however, are still quite popular, and are actually better made now than they were 20 years ago.  Sadly, the furniture styles have boiled down to a handful of not very inspiring quasi-historical designs.  When I do encounter a cool console, though, I will document it in a posting here.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Cool Console #1 - Krakauer

This lovely spinet is a Krakauer made in 1946.  Krakauer Brothers of New York City was one of the few mid-sized piano companies to avoid being swallowed up by one of the large piano conglomerates in the 1920's and 30's.  It wasn't until 1980 that Kimball took control of the name.

This piano was designed to look less like an upright and more like a small square grand, a common design approach for the time.  The ribbed bowed sides are meant to disrupt the necessary vertical box holding the plate and strings, and draw attention to the flat horizontal box holding the keyboard and action.  The veneer is a lovely walnut, with vertically oriented grain on the keyslip, the stretcher above the fallboard, and the pedal stretcher.  The bottom board has a fake lyre above the pedals.  The medallion above the fallboard has the name Krakauer stamped into ivory-colored celluloid.  The inlaid daggers above the legs are an especially nice touch.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Piano Lessons

I am learning to play
"It Might As Well Be Spring"
but my left hand would rather be jingling
the change in the darkness of my pocket
or taking a nap on an armrest.
I have to drag him into the music
like a difficult and neglected child.
This is the revenge of the one who never gets
to hold the pen or wave good-bye,
and now, who never gets to play the melody.

- Billy Collins, from the poem Piano Lessons

Related website:
The Music Lovers Poetry Anthology

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Plastic Piano #1 - PVC

I went to my customer's house prepared to tune her piano.  She had warned me that some notes weren't working, usually not a big deal.  As soon as I opened the piano and looked inside, I could see the problem.  There were shards of a yellowish white plastic all over the place.  Oh no, plastic action parts!

To be fair, there's nothing wrong with plastic action parts if they're made correctly - the same can be said of wooden parts.  This piano, a beautiful console made in 1957, had action parts made of PVC, and I'm sure the parts worked well for a time.  Now the plastic had begun to disintegrate, and the parts would have to be replaced.

PVC, polyvinyl chloride, is usually referred to simply as vinyl.  It is one of the most widely used plastics.  It can be molded into things like pipes, it can be made into shiny cloth, and it can be bonded to fabric for use in upholstery, mimicking leather.  The properties of vinyl chloride had been investigated as early as the late 19th century, but it wasn't until the 1930's that a commercially viable plastic was developed.  PVC is quite rigid and brittle, and requires the addition of various plasticizers and stabilizers.  Vinyl combined with cellulose acetate (another plastic) as a plasticizer is what replaced lacquer for making phonograph records, starting in the 40's.  Vinyl without plasticizers is what is molded into rigid shapes, like pipes for plumbing, and siding and flooring for houses.

Rigid PVC should have been perfect for replacing wooden parts in a piano action.  The plastic parts were molded in the same shape as the wooden ones, and installed the same way.  The most common plastic parts were flanges, which are the hinged ends of many action parts and are attached with screws to various rails.  In some actions, backchecks, jacks, and damper levers were also made of PVC.  The only parts that were not made of plastic were the parts that are glued to each other.  PVC parts can be bonded together (using the solvent methylethylketone, or MEK, often called PVC glue), but I guess this was not viable for the action manufacturers.  I did see a Lindner piano, made in Ireland, probably in the 60's, whose action was entirely of plastic.  Even the keys were plastic, made of sheets of PVC glued into long hollow rectangles.

The problem with PVC, as with many other plastics, is outgassing.  The various additives that give vinyl its different characteristics slowly evaporate out of the plastic.  Over time, some plastic becomes more brittle, or shrinks, or becomes discolored, or, in the case of PVC, spontaneously disintegrates.  The technology behind the additives is almost more important than the technology behind the plastic resin itself.  When PVC was used for piano actions, the technology for stabilizing rigid PVC must have been in its infancy.  It was not foreseen that the outgassing would proceed so quickly, that the actions would start to fall apart in a couple of decades.  Modern PVC could be used with no problem, but now the piano industry won't go anywhere near it, and modern plastic action parts are made of other plastics.

The solution is simple, but costly.  The parts must be replaced.  PVC spinet elbows are replaced with acrylic ones, but other parts are replaced with wooden ones.  The parts are readily available because of the demand.  Sometimes not all of the PVC is falling apart, so apparently the outgassing varies from batch to batch.  For instance, in the case of the console I'm working on, the jacks and backchecks are completely shot, they crumble at a touch, but the hammer flanges and damper levers are fine.  They're not the least bit brittle.  I won't replace them for now, but I have warned the owner about the possible need for replacement in the future.

There has been one other use of vinyl in pianos.  Some of the more crazy and delightful console and spinet case designs from the 40's and 50's used vinyl upholstery fabric in addition to the more traditional wooden veneer.  It's found on the sides and top, and Wurlitzer was the main culprit.  The vinyl is usually embossed with the classic leather grain, and my favorite example used a white-with-brown-spots cowhide pattern.

Vinyl imitation leather has also been used to replace the leather on the ends of bridle straps, the straps that connect upright hammers to the wippens.  Over time, the leather disintegrates (not to mention the strap itself), but the vinyl holds up for much longer.  The only disadvantage is that it stiffens up over time and can rattle against the bridle wire.  It also becomes harder to remove from the wire.  I'll have more to say about the use of artificial leather and suede in pianos in a later post.

Related website:
The Plastics Historical Society

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Plastic Piano - Introduction

The piano manufacturing industry is quite progressive, eager to embrace any new material or manufacturing process.  The goal is usually to save money, to keep the price of a new piano down, but sometimes an innovation can add value to a piano, improve it in some way that can be reflected in a higher price or a more competitive product.

Plastic has always been one of those new materials, ever since the industry started using celluloid in the 1870's.  The chemistry behind various plastics was not well understood then, and innovation relied on experimentation, sometimes with terrible results.  There were three prominent plastics disasters in piano manufacturing history.  The first was with PVC, used in the 1940's and 50's to make action parts.  Molded PVC parts were successful at first, but as the plastic aged, it tended to spontaneously disintegrate.  This effect would take several decades to manifest, so that left a lot of time to build plenty of pianos with PVC action parts, all falling apart now.

The second was with Steinway's Teflon action center bushings.  These were tiny inserts made of Teflon, hundreds per piano, that Steinway used in the 70's.  They worked well at first, but after a few years they became quite noisy and needed replacing.  Steinway tried again with a different size insert, and they did work better, but Steinway eventually abandoned the effort and went back to felt bushings.

The third was less disastrous, but still annoying, and it involved Yamaha's Ivorite, a plastic for keytops developed in the 80's.  This plastic is porous, and thus does not feel as slick and slippery as other plastic keytops.  It soon became evident that it was a bit too porous.  As the plastic soaked up finger oils, it stained in a way that looked, frankly, disgusting.  Yamaha reformulated the plastic, and offered to replace all the unsightly keyboards.  Now the Ivorite works fine.

These negative experiences with plastic has made the industry wary of introducing more plastic into pianos.  Pianos are sold, after all, on their 19th century charm, and nothing screams "modern" (not to mention "cheap") like plastic.  The word itself is avoided like the plague, and replaced with phrases like "thermoset composite material," or trademarks like "Ivorite."  Often plastic is introduced in small ways, in parts of the piano not visible, or crucial to its function as an instrument.  When plastic is obviously employed in a significant way, a whole public-relations blitz is rolled out to carefully explain how the new plastic parts are a huge improvement over the old parts, whether or not that is true.  When Kawai used its first plastic action part in the 90's, a plastic jack, I was asked by the local dealer to sign a statement in support that would be used for advertising.  I was more than happy to help until I read the statement.  It was asking me to agree that the new plastic part was superior to the old wooden part, which was ridiculous, and not true in this case.  I refused, much to the dealer's anger.

Nothing has changed the piano in the 20th century as much as plastic has, and I am going to post a number of articles about the plastics used in pianos, all under this heading of The Plastic Piano.  I'll keep the series as a permanent link in the sidebar.  Glues and wood finishes are forms of plastic, and I will include them.

Modern plastics, and modern chemistry, is a whole different world from eighty years ago, and I am glad to report that current uses of plastic are much better engineered.  Some of these parts are not only cheaper, but they really are an improvement over the old parts, taking advantage of the qualities of different plastics as materials.  Manufacturers are beginning to be less furtive, less scared of the older disasters.  Having tiptoed through the plastics revolution of the late 20th century, maybe the industry can enter the 21st more boldly.

Related website:
The Plastics Historical Society

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Steinway Square Grand

Grand pianos come in two shapes:  the familiar wing shape, and a rectangular shape referred to as square.  Square grands are no longer made, which is why you don't see them often, but they were made as often as their wing-shaped cousins for more than half of the piano's 300 years of existence.  If you do see a square grand, it is likely to be pretty old.

This is one of many squares that I have maintained over the years.  It was made by Steinway in 1864, and it is in splendid condition.  It is not quite seven feet across, with a rosewood case, 88 keys, and two pedals.  The left pedal is a moderator pedal; it moves a rail with a thick strip of felt between the hammers and the strings to soften the sound.  It has two bass bridges, a tenor bridge, and a long, tightly curved treble bridge.  The tuning pins have oblong rather than square ends.

The regular wing-shaped grand has its strings more or less parallel with the keys, running from the keyboard back to the tail.  The square grand has its strings more or less transverse to the keys, running from left to right.  The wing shape evolved from the harpsichord.  There were also square harpsichords (called virginals), but the square grand evolved from the rectangular clavichord.  Wing grands stand on three legs, square grands on four.  The lid of a wing grand is hinged on the straight left side, and on a square is hinged along the back.

As did the wing grands, square grands became bigger and bigger over time.  Unlike the wing grands, square grands did not scale up well.  The transverse string pattern had to be fanned out such that the bass strings run left to right, but the extreme treble strings run parallel to the keys.  This requires a similar fanning of the hammerhead angles, key length, and damper felts, making regulation a nightmare.  More and more of the tuning pins were placed at the far back side of the piano, making tuning a nightmare.  Three or more bridges were needed to accomodate the stringing pattern, and the treble bridge developed a tight curve just at the point where the fanned strings all come together, creating a deadly weakness in the bridge.

What people liked about the square grand was that it was less expensive, and fit more easily in a small space - you could tuck it right into a corner.  When upright pianos finally became serious instruments, they took this advantage away from square grands, and by the late 19th century, manufacturers stopped making squares.  Or they wished they could stop making squares, because uprights were more profitable, yet demand for squares lingered.  The manufacturers made a statement:  in 1904, at a professional meeting in Atlantic City, they built a giant bonfire of square grands.  Even at that, I have come across a 1930's square grand made by Mathushek, an attempt at modernizing the square.

Square grands are not common, but they are not rare, either.  Many were made, and there is nothing particularly valuable about them.  You can get them easily for free, so don't get suckered by an antiques dealer.  They do not and will never feel or sound like modern pianos.  It can cost a fortune to fix or rebuild them because nothing about them is standard, everything has to be custom made or jury-rigged, the work is very labor-intensive, and therefore expensive.  Many technicians refuse to go near them.  There will be no return on your investment.

They are sometimes very pretty, always awesome, and make great conversation pieces.  They are often turned into desks and tables.  I've seen the legs turned into pedestals or small side tables.  If a square grand is in good condition, and you can find a willing technician, and can afford the repair, it can be a lovely and satisfying instrument.

Technician tips, click here . . .

Friday, May 8, 2009

Chickering & Sons

Ah, Chickering - at turns eccentric, maddening, brilliant, heart-breaking!  Being a Boston Chickering fan is a lot like being a Boston Red Sox fan.  There's even the rivalry with a New York team named Steinway.  In the great Paris Exhibition of 1867, both Chickering and Steinway claimed top prizes (and fought over who had "won"), but even then, Steinway was in the lead technologically, and never looked back.

It wasn't that Chickering was not innovative.  Their penchant for tinkering was such that it is said that no two Chickerings were made alike.  Their innovations, however, did not often lead to an actual evolution of piano design and manufacture.  When the last Chickering brother passed away, in 1896, their pianos were charming, but obsolete by the time they rolled out the factory door.

The administration of George Chickering had been a disaster for the company, which had had to wait until he died to begin modernizing their designs.  Until the company was finally bought by the American Piano Company, twelve years later, it produced a run of more modern grand pianos.  Some of these "transitional" pianos are a nightmare, some are fantastic, and all are targets of eager rebuilders wanting to restore the glory and beauty of a Chickering grand.  This task has been the undoing of countless technicians who had no idea what they were getting into, and who did not have the skill to deal with the eccentricities and unconventionalities of these old Chickerings.  But the pianos sure are pretty refinished.

In Newport there is a lovely old bed & breakfast called Sanford-Covell Villa Marina.  The owner has her grandmother's and great-grandmother's 6'5" Chickering rosewood grands installed in the Victorian parlor.  The older one was built in 1892, and the other one is a transitional grand from 1903.  The description and close-up photos are of the older piano, on the left.

This grand, made in the waning years of George Chickering's tenure, has a pieced case of four parts:  the left straight side; a broad, curved tail; the curve of the right bent side; and the cheek, or straight portion, of the bent side.  Modern piano cases, in contrast, are made of a continous, molded rim.  The bass bridge is also pieced, in three parts, rather than shaped into a continuous curve (though the cap is continuous).  There is a separate bridge for the tenor section.  There are 88 notes, and all 88 are agraffed, an unusual feature.  Finally, the portion of the plate covering the slanted pinblock is a separate piece on top of which the rest of the plate is bolted.

It would take days to detail the arcana of the action.  It suffices to say that the function of the various parts resembles a modern action, but the specifics of their manufacture and assembly are entirely exotic.

Though apparently vexing for the countless technicians of the past century, this is a sweet, lovable, old-fashioned instrument, somewhat frail and rickety, but still pleasing to play.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Newport Jazz Festival

Every year I look forward to tuning pianos at the Newport Jazz Festival.  The folks who run it have had a tendency to keep the same staff year after year (unless the relationship doesn't work for some reason), so for years I've been seeing the same people, meeting their spouses, watching their kids grow up, seeing pictures of their grandchildren.  Working at the Festival feels like a big family reunion.

I got the gig right after piano tech school (at the New England Conservatory), 23 years ago.  I wrote them a letter out of the blue, and they called me and asked for a quote.  I've been with them ever since.

A few years ago the founder of the Newport Festivals, George Wein, sold his company, Festival Productions.  The company had grown over the years, earning George the invariable title impresario, and ran several festivals throughout the world.  Many of the jazz festivals were sponsored by JVC, the Japanese electronics company.  All of us working at Newport realized that things might change under the new company, Festival Network, and the familiar "See you next year" came to be followed by "with any luck."

Last year the production team was replaced, but the field and stage operations stayed mostly the same.  The Festival seemed to go well in spite of the sour economy, though I could see that nothing had been done to rein in costs.  This was not a good sign.  So I guess I wasn't entirely surprised to learn that there might not be a festival in Newport this year.  Festival Network had lost a ton of money, the State of Rhode Island had not been paid, and permits had been revoked.  Then, just to add to the uncertainty, JVC pulled its sponsorship of all festivals worldwide.

Not wanting to lose his first babies, the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals, George Wein has decided to disentangle himself from Festival Network and produce these two festivals himself.  This year will be the 50th anniversary of the Folk Festival, and the 55th anniversary of the Jazz Festival.  I'm assuming that George will keep most of the old staff in place, but one never knows, so cross your fingers for me!

You can check out the New Festival Productions website here.  While you do that, here are two of my favorite stories from the Newport Jazz Festival.

How I Met Herbie Hancock Underneath a Piano

The Festival hires me to come in very early in the morning to tune the pianos, which have been sitting on outdoor stages all night.  Then I remain in attendance all day, touching up the tunings amidst the chaos between sets.  There are two wings of the main stage; one wing is for the stage crew and all the musical equipment, the other wing is for the stage sound crew and their sound equipment.  I usually hang out in this wing and listen to what the sound engineer is listening to.

One year, during Herbie Hancock's performance, there was a terrific bang in the middle of a piece.  It sounded the way a significant electrical disconnection sounds, amplified through a gigantic sound system.  The music kept going, but the sound guys were wide-eyed, calling each other on walkie-talkies, checking the million dials and knobs.  Nobody could find the cause, everything seemed OK, shoulders were shrugged, and then Herbie ended his piece, got up off the piano bench, and climbed under the piano.

"Bill, Bill, get out there!" all the guys yelled, and I ran out onto the stage, as did Herbie's road manager from the other wing.  We had a breathless meeting under the piano.  "Are you the piano guy?" asked the manager.  I nodded.  "Good."  Then he pointed at Herbie; "Herbie, get out of here!"

The piano's lyre, which holds the pedals, had disconnected from the piano and dropped straight down onto the stage floor, with a bang, in the middle of Herbie's playing.  I guess Herbie was going to try to fix it himself.  The manager helped me put the lyre back on, and then we scurried to our respective wings, leaving Herbie to introduce his next piece.

I Tuned a Piano So a Guy Could Hit It With Sticks

When I touch up the tuning between sets, I have to be very focused.  It's loud on stage as the previous set is broken down and the new one wheeled in place, and the emcee makes announcements, and the sound crew checks things.  I stand and lean way down over the Steinway grand, straining to hear the unisons.  I stop to help with repositioning the piano, and then start in again, checking and retuning for as long as needed or as long as I can, until the stage manager calls everyone off stage.  Sometimes I have 30 or 40 minutes, sometimes ten.  I check the schedule ahead of time so I can mentally prepare.

One year, Bobby McFerrin was to perform.  The schedule said he was using a piano, which I thought was odd, so I consulted the tech rider and stage plot, and there it was - a grand piano tuned to A440.  All right, fine.  The piano was going to get heavy use in the prior set, and since there would be little to break down, and nothing but the piano to set up for Bobby, I was going to have ten minutes at the most to touch up the piano.  I was already sweating.

When my moment came, I ran out and got to work.  It was mercifully quiet, but much too soon the stage manager put his hand on my shoulder, and I put my tools away and walked to my wing.  Out came Bobby McFerrin, who greeted the cheering crowd, and then turned to introduce his accompanist, a big burly guy.  Bobby started singing, and I watched the big guy, who just stood there looking like he'd wandered, lost, onto the stage.  Then he pulled two mallets out of his pocket, and began drumming on the piano.  He drummed on the case, on the plate and the soundboard, and depressed the damper pedal and drummed on the strings.  He sometimes used the handle end of the mallet.  He moved all around the piano, drumming and tapping.  That was it.  I turned to a fellow crew member and said, "Wow, I just got paid to tune a piano so someone could hit it with sticks."

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Staying in Tune

Why does a piano go out of tune?  Here's one short answer:  a piano holds strings that are under tension, and any material under tension tends to react in a way to diminish that tension.

This is not to say that the strings are the only material in a piano reacting to tension.  Certainly when the strings are new they go through a period of "stretching out," but modern string manufacturing has ensured that this stretching comes almost to a halt within a couple of years.  The tension of the strings, however, is brought to bear on many different parts of the piano, and it is the reaction of all these parts to the tension that contributes to the instability of a tuning.

String tension is possible only if the strings are secured at each end, so these end points carry the brunt of the string tension.  One end is the hitchpin, which is usually a small steel pin driven into the cast-iron plate.  This end is pretty stable.  The other end is the tuning pin, which is a large steel pin driven into the wooden pinblock.  This end is much less stable because the wood reacts rather strongly to the tension.  The tension is enough to slowly pull the pin right out of the wood, a phenomenon seen on many smaller uprights.  Before that point is reached, though, the hole that the tuning pin sits in can become sufficiently distorted and enlarged that the pin can rotate, either slowly or suddenly, releasing the string tension.

The string also passes under, over, and around various bearing points, all of which react to the tension.  An important bearing point is the wooden bridge, which miraculously carries tension in three directions:  each string is bearing downward on the bridge, bearing to the right against one bridge pin, and bearing to the left against another bridge pin.  Bridges are known to crack, split, and otherwise fall apart as a result.  But even if a bridge doesn't fall apart, the pins still creep and the wood compresses, releasing some of the tension.

The bridge, in turn, bears down upon the soundboard, a giant raft of wood that must support all this tension.  This brings us to another short answer to why pianos go out of tune:  a piano is made mostly of wood, and wood expands and contracts with changes in humidity.  As the humidity changes, and the soundboard absorbs and releases moisture, the board flexes up and down, and the bridge and strings with it.  The bridge also rocks and tilts back and forth, and indeed all the wooden parts including the pinblock expand and contract.  All this movement changes the tension of the strings.

The soundboard is often constructed under its own tension, pushing upward against the bridge to forestall its eventual collapse.  When the humidity is high and the wood expands, it crushes itself against its joints and constraints, and then, when dry, it shrinks and cracks.  The glue lets go.  It is no surprise that almost all pianos have cracked soundboards.

Even the metal bearing points give way to the string tension.  If you examine the agraffes and pressure bars and duplex scales and aliquots and capos, you'll see where the strings have slowly and steadily pressed grooves into the brass and steel and iron.

So it is a wonder that a piano stays in tune at all.  Then comes the tuner, and another short answer to why pianos go out of tune:  the tuner has to temporarily destabilize the string to add or subtract tension, and may not be successful in restoring the string's stability.  The instability introduced by the tuner comes in two forms.  Theoretically, the tuning pin simply sits in its hole in the pinblock, but in reality the tuning pin floats in a bed of highly compressed wood, with the greatest compression where the string pulls against the pin.  The pin, the wood, and the string have arrived at a temporary stasis, which the tuner disrupts when he or she turns the pin.  The tuner must then try to set the pin back in a position where it won't wander under the new tension.  I can tell you that this is the trickiest part of tuning.

The second instability comes because of all the string bearing points.  Theoretically, any change made to the string's tension applies evenly to the entire string, but in reality the friction of the string against its bearings prevents the even distribution of the tension.  The tuner must ensure that there is no extra tension hidden in some section of the string that will suddenly release itself in a glorious detuning as soon as the string is hit with the hammer.  This is why tuners strike the notes so vigorously when they tune, to work out the uneven distribution of tension.  Some instability is inevitably left behind, to be eventually worked out to the player's dismay.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Damper Lift

Either you're good at adjusting dampers, or you're not.  The difficulty lies in the adjusting mechanism, which is, simply, a wire.  You bend it a little this way, a little that way, a little more over here, give it a twist, and the damper sits right.  Or it doesn't.  It's a puzzle in three dimensions, and you need to have good ear-eye-hand coordination along with the ability to imagine, in your mind's eye and ear, what will happen when you bend the wire.  I am good at adjusting dampers, I even enjoy it, and as a result I've been called in on occasion to help other technicians who are having difficulty.

Picture a grand piano.  The wooden damper head has felt (usually two pieces) glued to it, and the head sits on top of the string, felt side down, damping any vibration.  There needs to be a way to lift the damper head off the string, so a stiff wire is attached to the side of the head, and it drops down through a guide hole and inserts into a wooden piece called the damper lever.  When you press the key, or the damper pedal, it is this lever which is lifted, thus lifting the damper head.

The wire is held in place in the lever with a little screw that clamps down on it.  The distance from the damper head to the damper lever can be adjusted by sliding the lever up or down on the wire, and then tightening the screw.  This is called regulating the damper height, and it is the most common adjustment made, an easy adjustment that most technicians master.

Because there are two ways to lift the damper, using either the key or the pedal, the damper height has to be adjusted so the damper lifts correctly either way.  Sometimes getting this right involves making adjustments to the key or the pedal mechanism, but usually one adjusts the damper height so that each key lifts its damper at the same place in the keystroke, and all the dampers lift simultaneously with the pedal.  If a damper lifts too soon, it is said to be fast, or early - the damper may not quite fully sit on the string and damp the vibration.  If a damper is slow, or late, it may not lift enough to allow the string to vibrate.

When the back of the key picks up the damper lever, your finger can feel the weight of the damper.  If the dampers lift unevenly, you can feel this in the keys.  You can also hear it when you press down and let up on the damper pedal - on the way down, some notes will ring out before others, and on the way up some notes will damp sooner than others.  This was the complaint of one of my clients recently - he had noticed that the bass dampers were lifting before the treble dampers.  He has exquisite pedal technique, and this unevenness was driving him crazy.

The most common problem, aside from unevenness, is having the dampers in the middle lift sooner than the dampers at either end.  This usually indicates warping of the board that lifts all the dampers when you depress the pedal.  This board, called the damper lift tray, is lifted somewhere near the middle by a dowel pushed up by the pedal.  The ends of the tray, thus unsupported, can sag under the weight of all the dampers.  Over time, the sag can become permanent, and the damper heights (or the tray itself) will need to be adjusted.

It's also not unusual to have the bass or tenor dampers lift early because of how their felts settle and compress over time.  The dampers sit lower and lower, causing them to be lifted earlier and earlier.  The problem with my client's Steinway grand was a little different, though.  The treble dampers lifted pretty evenly, and the bass dampers did also, but the whole bass section lifted earlier than the treble section.

I have come across this problem before in older Steinways.  You set the damper height so that the dampers are lifted correctly by the keys, and then when you use the pedal the whole bass damper section lifts early.  It turns out that the thickness of the damper-lifting shelf at the back of the key is slightly greater in the bass section.  I don't know if this was deliberate on Steinway's part, a notion about damper lift they might have had for a while, or just a manufacturing irregularity.

One solution is to shim the tray - slip a strip of card under the tray felt in the treble section.  I took a gamble and decided to even out the damper lift in the usual way, by adjusting the damper height so that the pedal would lift the dampers simultaneously.  In particular, I dropped the height of the treble dampers so they would lift earlier (because the owner was also complaining about insufficient pedal throw).  This would mean, though, that the dampers in the treble would lift slightly sooner in the keystroke than would the dampers in the bass.  The gamble was that the difference would be unnoticeable to the player, and it worked.  Another happy customer!

A note about the diagram:  this is the arrangement in most makes of grands, but not Steinway.  The lift tray is different in a Steinway.  First, the levers are attached to the tray rather than to their own rail, which makes for some interesting geometry issues.  Second, Steinways do not have the little brass adjuster on the tray, underneath each lever, that you can see in the diagram.  That adjuster is wonderful - you can be really sloppy regulating the damper lift, and then just use the adjusters to even out your sloppiness.  The Steinway arrangement forces you to be much more careful, and irregularities in the tray (which should be minimal) can be worked out later by shimming.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Friedr. Ehrbar

This wonderful old grand piano was made in Vienna in about 1892.  It came to the United States not too long ago, and was just recently set up in its new location.

The case is pieced together on the bent side, but molded into its curve at the tail.  The music desk has two candle stands (what I jokingly call beer and sandwich boards) that can be rotated into position on either side of the music rack.  The two pedals, rather than pushing up at their back ends on pedal rods, instead pull down on pedal wires in front of the lyre.  The legs have giant wooden screw threads for attaching to the case body.  The key slip (in front of the keys) drops down for removal rather than lifting up!  There are only 85 notes (typical for the time), but there's an extra bass string at the very bass end, and an extra unison set of treble strings at the other end.

Other than the detailing, this piano seems quite modern in design, until you pull out the action.  The action is much more similar to that of a square grand.  The cheek blocks (on either side of the keyboard) are glued on, and come out with the keyframe.  The keys have a capstan, and there is a wippen, but the wippen and jack face backwards.  There is no repetition lever, and the hammer has a butt, as in a square grand.  The dampers are set up like modern ones.

A century before this piano was built, there was an active school of piano building in Vienna that used a kind of action that came to be called Viennese.  So there is some irony in a Viennese piano having an action much more akin to the English action.

The piano sounds great, not too old-fashioned, and as you can see, it's really beautiful, and beautifully made.  I'm glad I brought my camera!

Monday, March 23, 2009

This Old Piano

I've been trying to help a woman who inherited an old grand piano.  She has no place for it, and doesn't want to go through the trouble of selling it (it would not fetch much).  She has found someone to give the piano to, but he's very nervous about maintenance costs.

They each consulted local piano technicians.  Her technician worked for a piano dealer, so he pronounced the piano a piece of junk, and suggested they get rid of it and buy one of his.  All this did was make everyone paranoid about the piano's condition.

His technician was a full-time rebuilder.  He loved the piano, said it was wonderful, and suggested that $14,000 would be sufficient to bring it back to life.  All this did was make everyone paranoid about the cost of piano maintenance.

Neither of these technicians said anything wrong.  They were merely talking up their lines of business.  Dealers sell, rebuilders rebuild.  Ordinary piano owners, however, don't know about these distinctions among technicians.

The woman contacted me through a mutual friend, and I tried to help her over the phone.  Because my specialty is repair, I of course suggested repairing the piano.  I gave her an idea of what it might cost, based on her description of what the other technicians had said, but I cautioned that without inspecting the piano, I couldn't be sure.  The problem was that the piano was three hours away from me.

After a number of phone conversations, I thought what the hell, and arranged to go see the piano, giving the owner a break on the cost, friend to friend.  I was also thinking, though, that if there was enough work and the means to pay for it, and if I could be put up for a few nights, it could work for me.  I did this once for a family near New York City.  They had a spare apartment, and room in the basement for a makeshift shop, and I spent a week reconditioning their old Steinway upright.  They fed me dinner each night (with wine!)

The piano was exactly what I expected: about seventy years old, worn but not abused, no significant damage, playable.  It had been an upper quality piano out of the factory.  Someone had done a pretty good job of replacing the hammerheads at some point, and the bass strings and tuning pins were replacements, too.  The piano was even at concert pitch! I could have just tuned it, and it would have been fine for casual use or beginner's lessons.  I drew up a list of things worth doing, all those little maintenance things that had gotten overlooked over the years.  It was a great candidate for rebuilding, if anyone had the money.  Otherwise, it could be used for another decade, maybe two, but not for professional or heavy use.  I would have been happy to do the work.

The intended recipient has been speaking with me, still nervous about long-term maintenance costs, whether the piano is "worth it," wondering if I would do the work piecemeal.  I just wrote him a long email, and I thought I'd post some of it here.
The reason why you can find old pianos for free or cheap is because they all need work, and continue needing work.  In fact, new pianos need maintenance too, but it gets put off until finally the piano is unplayable and needs a lot of work all at once.  Things then just get worse as the maintenance is put off for decades.

An old piano is like an old car - you expect it to need repairs regularly.  It just gets worn down.  Things loosen or come unglued here and there, it starts making noises.  Some of this is easily corrected (depending on who you talk to), the rest you just let go.  The key is finding the person who will keep your piano going and not try to gouge money out of you.  Like finding the car mechanic who will keep your old clunker going enough to get to the grocery store on a regular basis.  The only time you run into trouble is with a piano tuner who doesn't want to do repairs, and who tries to sell you something else, like a new piano or a full rebuilding.  Those things are fine if that's what you want.  Otherwise, stick with the guy willing to do repairs and you'll be OK.

Here's my advice.  Take the piano, it's a pretty OK piano.  Find someone to come and tune it.  If he (or she) says it can't be tuned, or it needs to be rebuilt, throw him out and find someone else.  If he says there might be a little work needed with the tuning pins to hold the tension, then let him do a little work.  Only a little.  If he says your soundboard has cracks, say "Yes, I know," and leave it at that.

Then play it.  It's already playable, just needs the tuning.

Later, say a year or two or three from now, you'll have a better sense of what you'd like from the instrument.  Maybe some regulation, maybe some voicing, maybe the inevitable miscellaneous repairs.  But keep up with the maintenance.  It won't cost you much if you keep up with it.

Consider, after tuning, getting the soundboard fixed.  Not all tuners know how to fix an old soundboard without going through all kinds of craziness, so you might have to hunt around, but that would have great benefit for the piano.

Clean and lemon-oil the case, use a scratch cover for the dings, I'm sure you could do this yourself over a weekend.  Dust off the plate and strings, use a vacuum if needed, wipe the damper heads (in the direction of the strings).  Ask the tuner to run a cloth over the soundboard, under the strings.  We have little gizmos for doing that.  A clean piano will make you feel better.

If you do want to hire me a year or so from now, the reconditioning offer is still open.  I could take care of all those little things that need attention (like the soundboard, and tapping all the tuning pins in, and seating the strings on the bridge correctly, and correcting the voicing and the regulation, and leveling the keys and tidying up the keytops, cleaning up the dampers, etc.) Of course, if you find the guy up there willing to do all these things (and do them correctly), then you'll be all set.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

A. Waldmann, Berlin

The classic bird-cage action:

This little gem is an old German upright that lived most of its life in Johannesburg, South Africa.  It resembles several old (and not so old!) English uprights that I have seen over the years.  The top action has wooden brackets on either end, and the dampers are carried in a damper action called a bird-cage.  In a bird-cage action, the dampers are above the hammers rather than below, and the dampers are lifted by long wires that run down and attach to the fronts of the wippens.  It is these long parallel wires that give the action its name.  (In a modern upright action, the dampers are below the hammerheads and lifted by metal tabs, called spoons, attached to the backs of the wippens, out of sight.)

Unlike the English uprights, this upright has bass strings that cross over the treble strings, as in modern uprights.  (The English uprights are usually parallel-strung rather than cross-strung.)  As is typical with European pianos, there are only two pedals.  Equally typical is the bookmatched burled-walnut veneer.  Sadly missing from this piano are its original candelabra, which had been attached to the front panels above and on either side of the music desk.

The easiest way to tune a piano with a bird-cage action is to remove the bird-cage.  Take out the screws holding the cage down (usually one at each end) and lift the cage up and out.  Check first to make sure the lift wires are not attached to the wippens - usually they just slip out.  Of course now you have no dampers, and the strings all ring out.  I have found, though, that I get used to this quickly, and can tune without difficulty.  On the lower strings I will use my hand to stop the ringing when it gets excessive.

A full portrait of this pretty little piano: