Posts tagged Grand
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.
Recently i’ve had the opportunity to work on a church piano – an older Chickering. But i must say, this piano was an interesting one to tame. I use the word tame because it was out of control. The touch was not only uneven but INCREDIBLY difficult to play. Most fine pianos have a touch weight of about 50-55ish grams of weight at the key. This one was a whopping 80+ !!! First things first… chase down the friction. That blog will be for another day though. After friction was in the ballpark, i was still faced with a piano that had a touch of 65ish grams. Time to consider putting this piano on a diet. Yep. You heard me. This piano was overweight and i was about to transform the touch.
So where does weight come from? Many months ago i wrote a blog on piano weights. It can simply (and yet so difficult at the same time) be measured in 2 forms – static weight where we are doing a dead lift – the hammer has yet to move. The other is created by rotational inertia. The hammer has started to move… how much effort is required to continue to move the mass of the hammer. The former mainly deals with soft playing… we’re not concerned about velocity but simply getting the hammer in motion. The latter however deals with everything above soft playing and truly is the more important factor. Static weight can be counterbalanced in the key like a see-saw. Rotational inertia however can really only be changed through the mass of the hammer itself. Because static weight again really only affects soft playing, when i sat and just played the piano (after friction was removed), it still felt heavy and burdensome. So it was time to trim the fat – reduce what i could on the hammer without compromising either structural integrity or tone. How does one leave the strike point of a hammer the same and yet reduce dead weight? Take a look at the pics. The one on the left is the original. Square and bulky. The one on the right – the more parabolic shaped one is one i adjusted. The tapered ‘shoulders’ of the hammer offer insignificant contribution to tone… if any. And so i spent the next 3 hours shaping hammers. Take a look at the two ‘tails’ – the end parts of the hammer. On the left – one that is tapered while the right, original. The net result? Reduction in about 1.3-1.5 grams of fat. One point three??? Perspective here… a nickel weighs 5 grams. You ask “How does anyone get excited about 1.3 grams of weight?” Ahhh therein lies the magic. Every piano has an ‘action ratio’ meaning one gram at the hammer accounts for usually around 5 grams at the keyboard. OK so do the math… this piano has a 5.5 action ration. 1.3 gram reduction x 5.5 action = 7.1 gram reduction of touch weight – the exact amount i needed to make this piano feel dynamic and alive. I’m so happy! 😀
A friend of mine (who will remain nameless) is a bit of a legend in the piano industry. One day we started talking Steinway and he asked if he ever told me about “Twelve Twenty-Five”. “1225? What’s that?” He proceeded to tell me about this piano that is the oldest known “Art Case” Steinway ever found. He and a business partner bought it! (before it entered into Steinway museum). Here it is if you want to take a look. So art case refers to anything aside from standard traditional looking grand piano. “Traditional” means straight legs, no frills cabinet in either black, walnut or mahogany. “Art case” refers to paintings, carvings, fancy legs, scroll work, inlays, exotic woods and recognized designers.
But let me first continue with the 1225 story. So… apparently (as legends take on a life of their own…) this piano was part of an estate. But here is where it gets tricky because the piano didn’t say STEINWAY anywhere on it. Well… how do you know if you have a Steinway if it doesn’t have those letters anywhere on the cabinet? There were only 2 clues: One was that the music rack was carved with the same pattern as Steinway. The second clue was that the designer was definitively the same designer Steinway had used in later projects. On a gamble, these two men bought the Steinway… or what they THOUGHT was a Steinway. Some time later an entourage came from the factory to authenticate the piano and… sure enough it is the oldest art case piano presently in existence from Steinway & Sons. By the way… 1225 is the serial number of the piano dating it to 1856.
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…
HOPEFULLY you don’t have a rattle like this snake inside your piano! But you have to admit… it DID grab your attention right? Well… needless to say, sourcing out rattles in pianos are tough tough tough… Yep… A rattle in a piano is a difficult thing to find the source of. Why? Because the piano emits vibrations and the vibrations usually excite some part on the piano unrelated to the string that is loose. Generally there are 4 main areas that cause rattles in pianos:
- Something loose on the soundboard (especially on grands) – a pencil, paperclip, ummm (don’t laugh) rat poop (ewww i know…), marbles, combs, pieces of paper
- Loose hinge pins are HUGE on the list – the centre pin of the hinge is sitting too loosely in it’s frame and rattles sympathetically with the string
- Loose pedal rods or trapwork
- Buzzing unseated string – where an individual string is not snug against the bridge or capo
- The solution? I start by removing any extraneous things (like pictures or ornaments from the area). Next, try to localize the source. Move your ears around as you play the note and try and find out the general vicinity where the noise is coming from. If you see any loose item, now’s the time to grab the tweezers and pull it out. It may be something simple like that. Then start holding things – start touching all the hinges or piano parts until the noise stops. When all else fails, try touching individual strings that are being struck by the hammer. If for example there are 3 strings being struck at once, place your finger on each one and then strike the key again. You may find that one of them is creating noise. Now when it comes to loose parts, you MAY be able to tighten a screw down and stop the noise. But if you feel like you’re over your head, simply ask a technician about it next time he/she comes to tune.
So… over the years there have been many terms bantered about with regards to pianos – terms like “upright grand” or “baby grand”. In this blog we’re going to discuss what a “full size” grand is. First of all, i would just like to point out that there is no official guide to piano sizes. These names have evolved and so their usage is also vague at best. For what it’s worth, however i’ll give you the ‘insider scoop’ on how retail stores and piano dealers categorize grands.
First of all, let’s set a few ground rules shall we? Full size seems to imply that smaller grands are somehow missing something – as if there is such a thing as a half size or 3/4 size piano… not so. All pianos have the same amount of keys. All pianos have roughly the same amount of strings. So what exactly is changing then from one size to another? It’s the length. The term ‘baby grand’ in my mind is anything 5’5″ and under. Today we see modern manufacturers producing really small pianos at 4’9″, 4’11″… 5’0″, 5’1″ etc. In the olden golden days Steinway (among others) consolidated sizes to 5’2″, 5’7″, 6’1″, 6’10”, 7’4″ and 9′. Yamaha has had huge success with a 6’6″ piano as opposed to Steinway’s 6’10”. Regardless, pianos under the 5’7″ mark have usually been considered baby. Full size refers more than anything to string length. Once you surpass the baby grand size in strings, the piano blossoms. More so even on the 6’1″ grand. Now at the extreme other end, the term ‘concert grand’ has been reserved for 9′ pianos while semi-concert is the 7’4″ – 7’6″ range. So if a baby grand goes up to 5’5″ and the semi-concert is at 7’4″, then the term ‘full size’ would fit in the middle there. So the way i define full size is a piano between 5’7″ and 7′ in length. Hope this gives you an idea about what we’re talking about. Just FYI, you won’t magically step over the threshold from one piano size to another, you’ll just hear the difference that length makes when you gradually increase the size. Take a look at the pics below and see how the rim (the curved end part on the piano) is quite different. Pictured: Yamaha A1 (4’11”), Yamaha C5 (6’7″), and Yamaha CF (9′).
Go ahead… ask me. Ask how many different products i’ve used over the years trying to find the best polish and cleaner for pianos. Well the answer would be about 15. Generally there are 2 types of finishes on pianos – lacquer and polyester. Polyester is usually the mirror finish on grands and uprights. Although lacquer can achieve the sheen, polyester resin is by far the product of choice to obtain that look due to its intrinsic properties. While lacquer is somewhat hard, it also is thin and brittle. Poly (as they say in the biz) is thick and durable. I usually tell people that is has similar properties to glass – looks beautiful for a very long time. Chip it and it doesn’t really repair well. Lacquer however can be easily touched up but doesn’t have the same long term durability. I’ve seen 20 and 30 year old poly pianos that look showroom condition but i can’t honestly say that about lacquer. Regardless, the do-all product that seems to work well for both is Cory Polish. It cleans, it polishes and most important, it doesn’t leave a greasy residual film. Keep rubbing with a soft cloth and it can even burnish the top layer to rub out superficial scratches. To boot, it smells nice. Now if you have a satin piano… Cory also makes a polish for that as well. Give it a go… it’s the best i’ve found over the last 14 years.
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.
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!