Archive for April, 2011

Piano Bridges

Bridges are beautiful aren’t they? And true to form, they serve the purpose of connecting – of filling the gap.  Many know what a bridge is on a guitar or violin but many do not know of piano bridges.  What is the purpose of the bridge anyway? Well simply put, the bridge transfers the vibration of the string to the soundboard where the tone is amplified.  So the EFFICIENCY of transfer is critical to retain the sound produced at the string.  Effectiveness comes from 5 elements and they are:

Position – if the bridge is positioned on the soundboard incorrectly, the tone will be compromised

Material – many are made from maple or mahogany

Downbearing – how much pressure is being placed on the bridge by the strings

Notching – cutaways leading up to the flat surface on top

Laminations – most bridges today have at least a “cap” which is a cross laminated piece to reinforce the bridge for structural integrity.

When bridges go terribly wrong… most people when purchasing a used piano don’t look for cracks in the bridge.  They ALWAYS look at the soundboard but quite often don’t consider the bridges.  If the bridge is cracked, the tone “bleeds” from one string to the next and will not have any substantial sound or sustain.  The other thing which i will point out is that inexpensive pianos have a gazillion laminations (it looks like plywood).  I swear there’s more glue on some of the cheap pianos than there is wood.  I’ve NEVER heard a GREAT piano with more than a few laminations.  If you see one with 10 ply or more… take note to the sound.  Chances are, the tone is also very comprimised. 

On a completely different note, at a recent trade show (NAMM 2011) Petrof introduced a redesign of their spectacular grands and interestingly the bridge at the very high notes on the piano is BLACK! That’s because it’s made out of ebony – which they claim makes excellent transference of high note tone. I have to confess… it was a favorite piano to play when i was there. Beautiful.

Practice Practicing the Piano

Without fail i’ve had this conversation at least ONCE with each of my students.  It pertains to HOW to practice.  It’s not enough to just start arbitrarily playing through a song, the student needs to be shown HOW to actually go about learning the nuts and bolts of practicing.  To do this, i usually find the closest book available and i say to the student, “Ok i’d like you to repeat word for word what i am about to tell you.  Ready?” (They ALWAYS nod their heads in agreement)… “Here goes”

In the fleeting seconds of final memory, the image that will become Burma is the sun and a woman’s parasol.  He has wondered which visions would remain – the Salween’s coursing coffee flow after a storm, the predawn palisades of fishing nets, the glow of ground trumeric, the weep of jungle vines.  For months the images trembled in the back of his eyes, at times flaming and fading away like candles, at times fighting to be seen, thrust forward like the goods of jostling bazaar merchants.” (1st paragraph from The Piano Tuner – EXCELLENT book BTW)

I then turn to the student and say “OK let’s hear it”.  100% of the time they give me a blank stare.  Some start to laugh, some start to look worried… and then i explain that human beings learn in bite sized pieces.  If i were to say the same quote “In the fleeting seconds” – have them repeat that and then move to “of final memory“, the student would remember the words right? Now join the two together.  Do you see where i’m going with this? Learn an entire song? Forget it.  Learn 2 bars at a time? Now we’re talking.  We need to teach students to be brilliant at the small stuff – the short sections.  I tell them “I’d rather have 4 bars done for next week – 4 bars you are completely genius at rather than slosh through the entire song”.  Time and again i remind them of this analogy and the ones who get it will grasp the art of practicing and excel.

PS – if you haven’t read the Piano Tuner, it’s a FABULOUS novel! Get it!

Songwriting… and what it’s NOT

In one of the songs i was asked to write, the lyrics were as follows: “I wanna go where the peaches hang low, the green grass grow and the sweet streams flow”.  Now lyrics evoke emotions correct?  So the starting point to songwriting is the emotional content.  What then are the feelings of the aforementioned lines?  Well… they speak of the country – peaches, grass and streams.  When you think back to the age of innocence, what does that sound like?  How does one put musical notes to feelings? Well you can eliminate what it WON’T sound like.  Almost like the sculpter with a block of marble, you chistle away the unwanted to retain the wanted.  So things it won’t be: fast, driving, electric.  The country sounds more simple, unhurried and uncomplicated.  Due to the nature of this show, the 3rd world countries are more organic, more home-grown.  And so to me, it expressed almost gospel-type choral parts.

So this musical clip is 1st rehearsal (in other words… don’t be critical hahaa) and it’s also a capella – so no instrumentation.  But it has that feel i heard in my head.  Enjoy!

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

The Other Side of The River

There’s a folder on my desktop entitled TOSOTR (The Other Side of The River) which contains page upon page of sheet music, soundtracks and lyrics.  Back in October a buddy of mine asked “Hey Glen do you want to take a shot at being a writer for a youth musicale?”  Fifteen years ago i used to write music for theatre but that was a lonnnnng time ago.  Being the “sure whatever” kind of guy we submitted our names for tender.  A few months passed and we compiled demo reels, sheet music and resumes.  After making the short list where 7 others were considered, we were asked to have a short interview.  Not long after we were awarded the contract. 

So the last few months have been reading scripts and writing music about this show.  What is it? In brief, World Vision has commissioned a theatrical show demonstrating the disparity between first and world nations.  The aim is to not only entertain but educate highschool students and bring an awareness of the world in which we live. The Other Side of the River is a highschool musical.  If you are a music director and have interest in the show, you should contact world vision Canada. 

And so how do you start writing music for a show like this? I’m going to discuss that in the next blog… the basics of writing… the way i see it.

The Broadwood Piano – remaking the silk purse

Recently i was hired to work on a Broadwood grand.  Now for those of you who don’t know, Broadwood has an illustrious place in the world of piano making.  Established (get this) in 1728 (yes you read correctly), this company made pianos for royalty (obtaining the Royal Warrant for manufacturing – see lower left photo) and had probably the most famous historical endorser Beethoven himself.  Upon gifting a grand piano from Broadwood, Beethoven wrote a thankyou letter back in February 1818: ” I shall regard it was an altar upon which I will place the choicest offerings of my mind to the Divine Apollo”.  Think about the fact that this company was established 125 YEARS before Steinway.  Now obviously in the early days they were manufacturing clavichords, harpsichords and square grand pianos.  The Broadwood company became known for their actions (internal mechanisms) and also is credited with the sustain pedal.

The piano i had the opportunity to work on was a “barless” grand meaning that it had no reinforcement bars or ‘struts’ to hold the tension of the almost 18 tonnes of string tension.  Instead, Broadwood made a full perimeter frame which appears to be almost double in thickness – making this an extremely heavy instrument.  (see photo of strings) The major problem with the piano i worked on was that it had a cracked action rail.  If you’ve ever seen the inside of a grand piano, you’ll know that all of the hammers are screwed in place to one long rail called the action rail.  If the action rail is cracked, many things happen – first, you don’t have a solid base to attach the hammers.  That creates ‘travel’ where the hammers will jostle about not hitting squarely the strings.  Second, believe it or not, if a screw is so much as even loose on an action rail, you’ll hear the subsequent ‘click’ of the hammer.  So there were a number of hammers clicking before i attended to it.  And finally, the regulation. Regulation is the process of fine adjustments to streamline the flow from key to hammer.  It’s what makes a piano feel ‘right’ or positive.  With a cracked action rail, the hammers wouldn’t stay in alignment.  After quoting on this job, it then struck me… “what have i got myself into?”  Action rails have nearly 200 screw holes, thickness requirements down to the thousandths and fore and aft placements that need tending to.  Well i’m always up for a challenge.  And so before ripping this piano apart, i went back to the calculations.  There’s a joint near the hammer called the flange.  And for those who are interested, mathematically, you should be able to compute flange height.  Simply, the string height inside the body of the piano minus the length of bore (LOB) – which is the centre of the shank to the tip of the hammer SHOULD equal the bird’s eye.  The what? The bird’s eye is the nickname given to the joint of the flange.  See? It looks like an eye… kinda… ok maybe not… but it’s a steel pin surrounded by cloth inserted into wood.  So after calculating the bird’s eye, i managed to then thickness sand the new rail just under 3 thousandths of an inch (about the thickness of a piece of paper).  So once everything was installed? The moment i had been waiting for… it WORKED! but it just needed a lot of adjustments refitting the old parts.  It was a fun experience and more than that, exciting to bring a tired Broadwood (the silk purse) back to life.

Piano voicing – what exactly are we talkin’ about?

You may have heard a piano technician talk about voicing saying “Well we can voice those hammers down for you if you’d like”.  First of all, most don’t know what voicing entails.  Second, manipulating the hammers ‘down’ (up or sideways for that matter) doesn’t exactly fit any kind of tonal response you would think of. But before we get carried away describing what is going on, let’s define voicing: Voicing is the manipulation of very hard pieces of felt called hammers which strike the strings on the piano. At that strike point (please refer to the blog called Bright and Brassy Sounding Pianos) the hammers can either create warm sound, brassy sound, nasal sound, thin sound, percussive sound – all from the strike point of the hammer. Voicing then changes or alters the support of that strike point to get the desired response out of the piano. Voicing ‘down’ means to make the piano mellow while voicing ‘up’ means to make the piano more strident.

So here’s the pseudo exhaustive (or exhausting… take yer pick) list of what goes on in the voicing world. 

  1. Needling
  2. Filing
  3. Hammer hardener
  4. Hammer softener
  5. Steam voicing
  6. Methyl hydrate/water mix

So i’m not going to pass judgement on what i think is correct voicing and/or techniques, but i WILL describe what’s going on in each of those methods.  Without further adieu, here’s the list on what technicians do to pianos. 

1. Needling… needling is by far the most common process in voicing.  Pictured to the right is a voicing tool that i own.  You will see that it has a needle in the tip.  When you poke holes in hammers, it releases some of the tension and almost… ‘fluffs’ up the hammer.  In doing so, the hammer can support the crown – the very tip to bring out the optimal sound of the piano.  Most often this is used in reducing ‘high’ points – where one note will stick out above it’s neighbours.

2. Filing… hammers over time with heavy use will eventually become grooved.  These grooves quite often make undesirable tones.  Filing the hammers reshapes the worn parts so that the grooves are minimized.  Please see the picture on the left for a hammer file voicing tool.

3&4 Hammer hardener and softener are both commercially available substances which drastically alter tone by use of chemicals.

5&6  Both steam voicing and methyl hydrate/water change the hammers by fluffing up the hammers much like a piece of paper when it gets wet.  When paper gets wet and then dries, it is no longer flat but ‘crinkled’.  In like manner, hammers ‘puff up’ with the addition of methyl hydrate and water mixed or steam voicing. 

So there you have it – the entire list (that i know of) to alter piano tone.

So you have an Upright Grand?

This is the most frequent misnomer in the piano biz.  True story.  On a daily basis people come into my shop and whisper to me “Do you know that i have an upright grand at home?”  I think they’re hoping my eyes will pop out of my head in amazement at such a rare and wonderful find – that we’ve truly discovered the queen’s jewels! Sadly… i’m a skeptic at heart…. possibly even cynical.  Y’see… the term “upright grand” was started in the 1920’s as a sales feature.  When you lifted the lid on some pianos there was this embossed slogan “Grand piano in upright form”.  This got bantered about so much so that it became a coined phrase – the “upright grand”.  And customers would then feel proud about their acquisition of a piano they thought was so much more grandiose than any other upright piano.  So what exactly were they referring to? Well… size is one thing.  Very tall old upright pianos (usually about 55 inches in height) have similar string length and soundboard area as about 5’8″ – 6’1″ grand pianos.   That said, a tall upright WILL  deliver similar depth of tone as some grand pianos, granted.  But the bigger difference that started all of this is a small little piece that was usually only found on grand pianos called an agraffe.  Agraffe is a french word that means ‘staple’.  In fact… check out the picture of my box of staples from my desk drawer.  See that? It says agrafes (missing an F for some reason…)  Agraffes on grand pianos ‘staple’ the exact position of the string to the cast iron in a piano.  It sets the left-right position spacing of the strings and also the ‘downbearing’ of the string (how much pressure the string is placing on the bridge).  Because agraffes are usually found on grands, some manufacturers who put them on upright pianos started calling their verticals upright grands.  Most don’t know of this crazy little factoid but that’s in my mind the true meaning of the term.  Ok wait… it gets better… recently someone came in and told me they had a “Concert Upright Baby Grand!”  Oh for heaven sakes… from the sublime to the ridiculous!

Go to Top