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Well for those of you who have read pseudo regularly on this site, come and follow the blog on my new website Piano Price Point.
What is Piano Price Point? In a few words, it’s a visual and informational piano guide containing prices, specs, history and pictures for all modern pianos made in the world today. This book has taken just over 3 years to complete… and now… the big launch.
So i invite you to take a browse. Simply click on the picture to redirect to the site.
Taking apart high quality pianos fascinates me. This last month i had the opportunity to work on a German Rönisch piano. Rönisch still exists today and has a long heritage of high quality piano manufacturing. Established in Germany in 1845, their website and info can be found here: Rönisch
So after 119 years, the keys on this older Rönisch were feeling warbly… yes that is a technical term… combining… wobbly… and… warble… hahaaa. Anywhooo… what i found interesting was that the key bushings were made from EXTREMELY thin leather. In fact, when i approached my piano technician friend to find out if he had any such leather he said that he only had one 4″ strip that was about 18″ long… should be enough for key bushings i thought.
I began cutting strips of leather to replace the old bushings and i thought to myself… why don’t we use extremely thin material today? I mean… the thicker the bushing cloth, the more it’s going to wear down into cloth ‘ruts’ where the steel guide pins rub against them constantly. And so i thought about the purpose of bushing cloth (or leather). It accomplishes 2 purposes – one is to cut down the noise of 2 hard materials. Wooden keys with a steel guide pin will knock against each other. The second purpose is to softly yet gently hold the key in place and take up excess slack space between the wood and steel. My question though is… why not have extremely THIN key bushings? I mean… maybe Rönisch was on to something way back then. Because if you make a space only large enough to have this thin bushing cloth or leather, the two firm substances will still glide perfectly without excess material getting in the way. Hmmmm… this is hard to articulate. I guess i’ve seen SOOOO many pianos where they have sub-standard thick bushing cloth, it really made me think why it needs to be that way. My guess is that it’s just easier to implement. Even finding this leather was a bit of a challenge. BUT… proof is in the pudding – when i finished the key bushings, i had almost NO adjustments to make. That makes me smile. Lean key bushings make for less chance of something going sideways… literally. lol… Anyway… i just found it interesting that a piano designed 120 years ago may have had better engineering than what we have today.
- I employed a very crass Brit for a short period of time. He was well known in the antique part of town for hand rubbed french polished finishes. One day he was telling me of his experience working in an antique store. This lady comes in and remarks proudly “ALL of my furniture is SOLID WOOD”.
“I’m terr’bly sorry to ‘ear that, Madam” he replies in a cockney accent.
“Well why is that?” she asks – offended.
“Everyone knows that the real antiques are all veneered. Solid wood is all shite”. After she storms off, he gets this big grin on his face and laughs to himself. I started to realize why he didn’t last that long in the antique world.
Inexperienced at the time, I probed “Well why is that? Why is solid wood considered inferior?”
Slightly put off he replies “All great antiques have been veneered for decades… even centuries. The magnificent looking woods you find on the outsides of all antiques come from either knotty woods or from the trunk of a tree… things you would never construct a desk or a table out of. So you build the structure and THEN you veneer it, to make it look good. Veneers are thin pieces of wood cut to the thickness of cardboard. And besides…” he takes a moment to wipe the sweat off his brow as he runs figure 8’s from his french polishing pad, “solid wood warps. When you take a substrate, the core of the wood and glue another piece to it, it tends not to warp. Great furniture and pianos have all been veneered. In the 1800’s it was an art form.”
That was the start to my education… an education of finishing, sanding and staining – one that you don’t go to school for, one that comes from experience in handling the wood of a piano. Despite your thoughts regarding the intricate details of veneers inlaid into the piano, one this is for sure, you MUST appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into such a project. BTW… i’ve only stumbled upon 2 pianos in my life that were actually solid wood. So next time someone says that they have a “solid wood” piano… chances are, it’s veneered. Pictured below is a Schulze Pollmann Italian piano. They’ve made the veneers fan out from the centre – an absolutely stunning piece they call “The Peacock”. Enjoy!
Blah! The title of this sounds to most as exciting as watching paint dry. Operative words being “to most”… to me however this is one of the more interesting charts i’ve seen in a long time. Back in 2005, published by Europiano, Juan Más Cabré wrote this article showing the differing string tensions over the last few hundred years. Everything i know about string tension i learned as a child with a bread pan and rubberbands. Hahaaa… i used to make musical instruments when i was a kid. What fascinated me though was the thickness of the rubber band and the sound that would happen at a certain pitch. This is exactly what’s going on in pianos. The graph shows the earliest of pianos from Cristofori (in 1726). That string tension is little more than that of a harpsichord. It became evident that a stronger frame would be neccessary to implement higher tension. With higher tension comes more singing tone. Next on the list is Silbermann who asked Bach for some input. Silbermann contributed the damper device (similar to a damper pedal) to the piano. Shortly thereafter in the Classical era (Beethoven’s time) more and more iron was added to the wooden frame so as to boost the string tension – again with more singing, sustaining sound and also more resonance and power. Enter the famed Steinway and Bosendorfer. Interesting to note is that “more is not always better”. There have been pianos that have had higher string tensions (as in Ibach) but manufacturers decide what sound is pleasing. This is part of the backbone of ‘scale’ – the trade secrets of piano makers. Length of string, thickness of wire and tension of string all add to the sound. To get a mini idea of this, play around with a bread pan. It really is a fascinating exercise in string tension. And after that… just make some fresh bread. Nothing beats music and food together
Two old guys come into the church hall where i’m tuning up some old and forgotten piano. The one says to me “You can’t honestly like doing that all day?” The other says “How do you stand that incessant banging??”
I simply replied, “I dunno… i guess i just
(wait for it)
TUNE it out”
We had a good laugh.
There hardly is a day that goes by when people don’t ask “How often should i tune my piano?” To understand this question, there are a few variables you need to be aware of. Firstly, there are roughly 18 tonnes of string tension pulling on most pianos at any given time. To say to me “We hardly ever play it” in some ways is irrelevant because the strings are still under tension regardless of whether your hand touches the keys. That said, pianos that get play a LOT will go out slightly if the tuning pins have not been properly set when tuning and i have noticed that more frequently used teaching pianos require more attention. Second, humidity change plays a large part in tuning stability. The strings are not just stretched from one end to the other. They go over a bridge (much like you would see on a guitar). That bridge is attached to the soundboard and depending on seasonal changes in humidity, the piano will fluctuate in pitch as the wood expands and contracts.
Now then, once you understand all of that, my usual response when asked how often pianos should be tuned is this: Depends how particular you are in having it in tune. Recording studios and concert halls have it tuned every time it’s used. Some churches even locally have it tuned once a month to quarterly depending on budget. Most teaching studios tune twice a year. Most families tunes yearly.
“But my piano doesn’t go out of tune that often”… hahaaaa. I’ve encountered VERY few pianos in my lifetime and i’ve played over a thousand that rarely go out of tune. My guess is that the piano is just gently creeping out of tune in such small increments that you don’t realise it’s gone out a few degrees. My rule of thumb is that most people can’t hear when a piano is out of tune up to 6 degrees! A degree in tuning is called a cent. A semi-tone is 50 cents. Full tone 100. When pianos are out by about 3 or 4 degrees, the piano has still dropped in pitch but may not have been noticed. Well… wait another year and then it’s out another 3 or 4. Sooner than you know it, the piano has sunken 12-15 degrees over 3 or 4 years and instead of simply correcting a few degrees, you’re pulling strings. My advice? Whether you hear it or not, do yourself a favor and keep it in regular maintenance. And besides, like freshly squeezed orange juice, nothing beats a freshly tuned piano.
I retract! I repent in dust and ashes. Ok wait a minute… forget the dust part. I’ve seen too much of it lately. Awhile ago i wrote about the fact that dust is not the enemy to pianos. Rather, it is humidity fluctuation. Well… i’m going to modify my statement. I’ll retract a portion of that. GENERALLY… dust is not an issue. EXCEPT when it blocks the keys. “Dust blocks the keys?” you ask. Yep… seen it… photographed it. I was asked to work on an older grand piano. And well… these were not only dust BUNNIES… they were dust… mmmm LLAMAS! Big whopping pieces of dust laminated by years of uncleanliness. (Ewwww right?) Anywhooo… the problem comes under the keys where there are felt punchings. Y’see it’s the felt underneath that stops the key from travelling. Each key is set to a certain depth. Now what happens when you place a dust…mmmm Llama on top of that felt piece? Exackly… you have a shallow key dip. Such was the case with the piano photographed. A couple of swipes with the vacuum and VOILA! At least that portion of piano irregularities was taken care of. Good as new? Not quite… it was still 100 year old piano… more like… on to the next challenge.
The other day i was pulling apart an old Heintzman grand piano – arguably the best make of piano ever built in Canada. Rarely do the strings come off on an old piano. In fact, there was evidence that this one had never had new strings since new. I’m the first person to touch the strings in almost 90 years. I find that fascinating – not that the strings haven’t been changed but that this piano has not been touched since new. On the back of one of the understringing slats however i didn’t expect to find the signatures that you see in the pics. There were initials were MCR and he dated one of them August 27, 1923. As well, it reads “R. Sill” or “R.Gill” and the production number 394. I find it not only interesting but also humbling to be part of the life of a piano. I remember lifting the cast iron plate with a large engine hoist out of a piano and underneath it had a signature. What fascinates me is that we touch history, it comes to life. We get transported back in time to when piano makers were building these one at a time and some technician in the factory signed his name on a piece of a piano that will never see the light of day. It’s just interesting to me… it’s a piece of history that we get to see for a brief moment. But not only that, to make this piano function again, I need to re-install these same wooden slats back into the piano. That means then, that this signature was buried for 90 years, i’m potentially the only one to view it and then it gets concealed possibly for either another 100 years… or possibly never if the piano doesn’t get rebuilt again. Just thot i’d share someone’s work from nearly a century ago and bring to light that which was in the darkness. Below is a picture of piano keys, each one signed by the technician who tuned it… check out the dates.
I was asked to tune a piano recently that i had restored about 10 years ago. What struck me as i sat there tuning was the quality of this instrument from yesteryear. More than that, from turn of the century… ok i guess we need to qualify that right? hahaaa… from the turn of the 20th century, great piano design was well under way. In fact, some of these piano designs are still revered and respected and are from a time known to many as the ‘golden era’. Although i agree with many that there are SOME pianos from 100 years ago that were brilliant, there were many many more that were just coming of age. The highest level of pianos however – the Bechsteins, the Bluthners, the Steinways, Bosendorfers… the list goes on where pianos were made to such a high degree of craftsmanship that they became manufacturers by royal appointment… I find those pianos are very musical indeed.
The problem i have though is that many say “Oh nothing beats my grandmother’s old piano”… did they just refer to this old beat up, worn out piano as the apex, the very pinnacle of piano design? I must go on record by relating a saying that a wise old piano technician once told me when i first entered the business. He said:
“Glen, there are two myths in the piano world: Older is good. And newer is better”. Sounds paradoxical but it’s true… i’ve played old pianos most of which are just mediocre. I’ve also played brand new pianos that you would think are brilliant and are sub-standard. The moral of the story: quality in manufacturing and design still create beautiful music but you need to wade through the myriads of pianos to search for the gems. If you had the chance to play this old C. Bechstein, it would without a doubt confirm that some will remain memorable.
This summer I had the opportunity to play a piano in a museum. My home town of Winnipeg, Manitoba has an old fort from the 1850’s where all the workers dress in period clothing. It was owned and operated by the Hudson’s Bay Company and was functioning a decade and a half before the country was even established. Inside the walls of this stone fort are a fur trading post, a general store (where they sold Lea and Perrin’s Worchestershire sauce – established in 1837!) and the governor’s house (among other buildings).
The governor’s house is more opulent. It has fine furniture and lo and behold, a piano! It was a Broadwood (which was the piano maker for royalty by appointment). The details were incredible! Gold gilding, pin striping of inlaid brass and various kinds of woods (mainly mahogany). It was only 5 octaves and had no cast iron. The piano was brought over by boat and ox cart – an incredible feat in the 1850’s.
After taking many pictures, the governor’s wife asked if i know anything about pianos and a long conversation ensued about Broadwood and the construction of this particular instrument. She then said “Would you like to play it?” Apparently few people get to play this piano. What a privilege! Because there is no cast iron to create tuning stability, the piano was pretty out of tune and the pitch was about 4 keys down but was still interesting. It sounded more like a clavichord or harpsichord than what we know as a modern piano. The hammers are TINY! Made out of various layers of what looked like felt and leather. The action was direct blow without any real sort of repetition mechanism and so the key weight was feather light. Also worth noting is that there is no pedals of any kind. They were implemented shortly after this time period.
Beethoven received a gift of a Broadwood piano only 8 years after this one. It’s incredible to hear instruments as they would have sounded in the early 1800’s. Beethoven wrote back with this statement after receiving his piano “I shall regard it as an altar upon which I will place the choicest offerings of my mind to the Divine Apollo.” Such fun to see and hear the earliest predecessors of the piano. Enjoy the pics. BTW, the coolest part on this piano were the built in drawers that hold sheet music. Why don’t we have those today??? Click on the photos for larger images.