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:

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Is It Worth Rebuilding?

What appears to be a beached piano is in fact a giant wooden sculpture, one of three created by Florentijn Hofman of the Netherlands, and titled Paal 5.  The work was commissioned for the fifth anniversary of the Schiermonnikoog International Chamber Music Festival in 2006, which takes place on the Frisian island of Schiermonnikoog, in the northern Netherlands.  I wonder if anything is left of the pianos. Here are a couple more shots:

Related website (with more photos):
Florentijn Hofman

The Investment

When I posted the poem "To His Piano", I came across a collection of poems that it was in called The Music Lover's Poetry Anthology.  This is a wonderful collection of poems about music and musical instruments.  It was edited by Helen Handley Houghton and Maureen McCarthy Draper, and published by Persea Books in 2007.  Here's another entry, "The Investment" by Robert Frost.

Over back where they speak of life as staying
("You couldn't call it living, for it ain't"),
There was an old, old house renewed with paint,
And in it a piano loudly playing.

Out in the plowed ground in the cold a digger,
Among unearthed potatoes standing still,
Was counting winter dinners, one a hill,
With half an ear to the piano's vigor.

All that piano and new paint back there,
Was it some money suddenly come into?
Or some extravagance young love had been to?
Or old love on an impulse not to care -

Not to sink under being man and wife,
But get some color and music out of life?

- Robert Frost

Related website:
The Music Lovers Poetry Anthology