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  Festival Network had lost a ton of money, the State of Rhode Island had not been paid, and permits had been revoked.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.