Archive for August, 2011

Floating Piano Soundboards… What’s all the hype?

So the concept is not new… but rather new to ME. In January, i decided to interview all of the manufacturers at NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants). It took me 3 days to get through all of the pianos and speak to everyone at this large trade show. One of the companies that caught my attention due to design implementation was Young Chang. Speaking with designer Del Fandrich, we looked at “floating” soundboards. But before we get into floating soundboards, let’s first look at soundboards in general.
A soundboard appears to be a big flat sheet of wood (usually spruce) underneath the strings on the piano. The soundboard isn’t actually flat but slightly curved under compression. The purpose is that it acts like (what i would call) an amplifier… technically speaking my engineering friends would call it a transducer – transforming energy into sound. We hear the piano tone primarily because of the vibration of the soundboard.
So what’s a ‘floating’ soundboard then? Well pianos have two battling elements – string length vs. soundboard flex. What do i mean by that? The longer the strings are, the deeper the sound of the piano. That’s why 9′ long concert grands sound magnificent! They have lonnnnnnng strings. So if you were to stretch the strings in a short piano to the very edge of the rim, you would think that you would have this marvelous tone right? Wrong. See that’s where this battle goes on. Think about diving boards for a moment. The closer you are to the edge of the pool, the less the diving board will move. Why? Because it’s attached to the side of the pool (which is rigid). The farther out over the water, the more the diving board will flex. So back to pianos, the closer you get to the rim, the more the rim ‘stifles’ the sound vibration. Ideally the bridge of a piano should be some distance away from the rim. Enter the floating soundboard concept. So… what happens if you could have the best of both worlds? What happens if you have long strings AND flexibility? That’s what has happened with Young Chang’s latest design. If you look straight down in the bass section on their latest pianos, the soundboard is not attached to the outside rim for the entire bass section. The advantage then is that you can have longer strings and still have decent vibration of the soundboard in the bass because it is not attached. Kudos to Young Chang for being not necessarily the first to the finish line but being one of the largest piano companies in the world to embrace this advance in technology and build bigger sounding pianos.

Piano Practice – Positives Come First

We all know these teachers… they’re the top of their class, the ones that get results, the festival winning teachers, the ones who are usually quite difficult to get in with.  Well i had one of these teachers who was considered “the BEST”.  Sadly, music became a bit of a chore… it became snapping rulers of “an-i-ma-ted a-lli-ga-tor” 16th notes at 120 bpm.  If you study advanced music you know EXACTLY what i’m talkin’ about.  The general rule of thumb seemed to be, however “If it’s fixed, it doesn’t need mentioning”.  To-Do lists then became the focus of piano lessons… as it should be.  The work still needs to get done right? Well…needless to say – a dozen more years and a diploma and a degree later i started teaching on my own.  I was hired by a really small college to do part of the music program.  I distinctly remember one piano student… forever burned into my psyche.  I was 21 years of age. Who would’ve thought this one encounter would change my teaching for the next 20 years?  I remember her finishing a piece… some Chopin etude.  I started in “Right.  Ok well let’s get on to what needs fixing”.  She started to cry :(  Obviously something was wrong.  I am sensitive to student’s feelings and so i asked her what was wrong.  She turned to me with big tears and said “Is nothing right? Every time i play it’s just another list of fixes, of refinements”.  My heart sank.  Had i grown so calloused and inherently taken on the methods given to me? Had i missed the forest for the trees? The enjoyment of music and the positive reinforcements not mentioned and the ‘job’ of music was only in my crosshairs?

I sat for a moment.

I was taken back.

I decided to change my ways.  I apologised.  I promised myself that before any To-Do list came out of my mouth, positives would come first.  That day my teaching became “Ok first off, this is what i like about what you’re doing…” then i would start into heavies.  Whether teacher or parent, it’s a good reminder to offer LOTS of praise.  At the same time the words “critique” and “critical” have become smeared together in this present age.  I welcome critique.  Anything constructive to better my playing… i’m all ears.  The careful balance as i see it is to remain a critical thinker without becoming critical.  We need to grasp the enjoyment of music first… the enriching part of music to our souls above and beyond any task at hand.

With that in mind… check this out -> Protege of Oscar Peterson… a little bit of Tom and Jerry :) Just for fun…

Click on the picture for the youtube video. Cheers.

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Piano Practice… Until It’s Done

Vancouver Island, Canada

So… i’ve had many students… MANY who have asked… “Well, how long do you want me to practice this for?”  To which my usual answer is “I dunno… ’til it’s DONE!”  Self explanatory right? Or so you would think… Seguay

Recently i’ve taken up trail running.  When i first started running only about 5 years ago on a treadmill, i thought 15 minutes was a breakthrough for me.  No sooner had i been doing that when i realised that i should have a goal.  Victoria (located on Vancouver Island), the city where i’m located has a 10Km race every year where THOUSANDS of people… like 14,000 run.  I thought… hmmm this would be a decent goal.  Knowing that this was an outdoor race, i switched from treadmill to outdoor running.  After running outdoors, no one could PAY me to go back indoors to run.  Victoria is on an island where there are beautiful boardwalks with ocean and mountain scenes.  Why would i even consider doing anything different?  I then started mountain trail running.  Most recently i did a three hour run/hike with an ultra marathon runner.  “Ultra” runners run through forests, scale mountains etc.  I thought i knew the meaning of endurance until i did this.  At one hill, this lady running ahead of me just kept plodding.  I had this overwhelming feeling somewhere between exhaustion and vomitting that i thought… this is CRAZY!  Only problemo… we were halfway around the run.  So stopping wasn’t an option. 

Summit view

By the time we got back to the parking lot my thoughts had changed to… “Wow let’s do that again!” Funny though… you don’t often enjoy the fruits of the labour until you push through the difficulties.

Back to piano… i have this motto that i ALWAYS get raised eyebrows from.  I was recording in a studio this last week… a musical marathon of sorts writing and recording for World Vision.  At the end of one late session (until almost 1AM) i turned to the engineer on the project and said “Well… you can’t love it ’til you hate it”.  He laughed.  But the sentiment is true.  Until you knuckle down and learn how to press PAST the easy stuff… press PAST the fun… press PAST the feelings of “DANG IT! MY FINGERS DON’T WORK LIKE THAT” and continue on to strive to completion, you’ll never become proficient at the instrument.  Being a professional is one who puts aside feelings if not momentarily to accomplish the goal. 

There have been MANY times i’ve recorded under the gun, played in bands, finished scoring for some project… or even… for that matter, practiced as a kid some Rachmaninoff prelude for festival.  It’s all the same… endurance to the finish line.  And once completed, you can then enjoy the fruits of labour… you can love it after you “hate” it.

Piano Frames – Steel or Iron?

My gears about this post started in January of this year.  I briefly discussed the concept of steel frames in pianos with piano designer Del Fandrich at NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) in Anaheim, California.  Until recently steel hasn’t been really considered as an option for a frame in a piano.  It’s relative brother iron is just so much easier to work with and cost effective… and let’s face it, the development of the piano is shrouded in tradition.  “If it ain’t broke” some would argue, “don’t fix it”.  Well enter the age of the super-piano.  Pianos designed with extreme accuracy, pianos manufactured by computer assisted tools called CNC (Computer Numerically Controlled) – lathes that can cut out parts within thousandths of an inch.  We are also living in an era where there are giant piano manufacturers but also boutique makers who put out pianos in excess of $250,000.  With the holy grail of pianos much more in view than 100 years ago, mark my words that change is in the wind.  Seguay.

As a kid do you remember those REEEEEALLY bouncy small rubber balls? Do you? I grew up in a house that had a central hallway.  Well you can imagine what fun those balls were when you bounced one at any angle.  Our cat was wide-eyed and mystified at such a toy.  The success of those bouncy balls is due in part to the density of the ball but ALSO, equally important is the reflective surface.  Try bouncing it on a soft rug and all energy is lost.  So the guiding principle then is that the harder the reflective surface, the more the energy is transfered outward correct?

Pianos are no different.  Lately i’ve been working on a 1923 Steinway.  The action rail is a long rail which holds all of the hammer, shanks and flanges in place.  Interesting to note is the METAL rail.  While 98% of the companies in that day simply used wooden rails, Steinway was using cast rails.  Yamaha in about 1970 redesigned all of their pianos to have alluminum rails.  What does that mean? Well when the hammer strikes the string, it means that the harder surface (ie metal) is like the cement floor with the bouncy ball.  It pushes the energy outward.  Wood, though firm doesn’t hold a candle to metal of any kind.  With energy loss also comes sound projection loss.

Fast forward over one hundred years from Steinway’s action rail.  Now make no mistake that iron in pianos is the backbone and is the rigid frame in any piano.  But what happens if you use a substance whose strength is MINIMUM three TIMES greater than that of iron.  Back to the bouncy ball.  Firmer structures make for greater projection.  When i interviewed Petrof at NAMM, their new designs which can’t be seen are some of the more exciting changes i’ve seen in years.  One technician who was at the show told me all about the implementation of steel in their keybed.  Interesting.  The keybed is the framework around the keys.  Again… hate to sound like a broken record but… harder the surface, the greater the projection.  And now what have they gone and done? Check this out…. STEEL frame – not just iron.  Kudos to them.  Now this may not be news to some… but it’s news to me.  Change is in the wind… and we’re going to see it in our lifetime.

Oh and BTW, due to increased strength, somewhat less steel is used thus exposing more of the soundboard.  See how the frame is almost like a spider’s web? Brilliant.  The Petrof model is called the Monsoon.  When it rains it pours…

Piano Soundboard Tension???

It was a funny afternoon of visitors in my piano shop.  One such visitor was a friend of mine… another guy named Glenn (although i keep reminding him that 2 ‘n’s are redundant… but then again, i named my youngest son Quinn…)  ANYWHOOOO… he comes in, sits down and states “Glen… i have a REALLY hard time reading information from piano ‘authorities’ when in the first paragraph, there are GLARING errors. It’s rubbish”.  Now you have to bear in mind that most of my friends are critical thinkers.  Glenn is no exception – structural engineer by trade but also piano lover.  He continued “I was reading from a leading expert who was writing about piano soundboards being under tension”.  Me being the non-intellect of my friends… i get dragged by my collar into such discussions… i’m a little slow to the draw and reply… “Ya… uh huh and your point?”  (I’m surprised he didn’t have my head at that response.)  “Glen think about it!!!  Tension by definition means to pull apart.  Take a rubber band. Stretch it apart. THAT’s tension.  Compression means pushing together.  He held one of my business cards bending it slightly – THAT’s compression.  It’s ridiculous that a soundboard would be under tension… it would be KINDLING! Pull apart a soundboard??? Pianos aren’t under tension at all… they’re under compression.  The Roman arches were designed with compression – pushed together”.  After thinking about it for awhile i recognized how he was right.  Piano soundboards are compressed – slightly arced with a crown.  The more i think of that concept, the error in logic almost seems humourous.  We’ve somehow slipped into bantering terms about that incorrectly define the piano.  We then have a scenario of the blind leading the blind don’t we? When the so-called experts are educating their followers down a slippery slope.  Starts to make one wonder however as to the validity of other information given. Just sayin’.

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