A couple of months ago I attended the Piano Technicians Guild convention in Seattle. Technicians from all over western USA and Canada gathered at a hotel not far from the airport to attend classes for four days, shop for new tools, eat flour-tortilla lunch-meat wraps, and drink a lot of Starbucks coffee.
On the first day, I attended an all-day class on grand action regulating. Rather than simply lecture on how to regulate a piano to a certain set of specs, the instructor, Steve Brady, aimed to connect the work of regulating to its practical implications for a player. Judith Cohen, a Steinway artist and also his wife, played excerpts from a variety of pieces after single adjustments were made to the action -- an unacceptable increase in the let-off, for example, or bending the backchecks too far back, or adjusting the key dip. Judith would play and then tell us how the piano felt after such an adjustment. Sometimes the action felt harder to play, harder to get volume, or too responsive to the point that it felt more difficult to control. The convention was one fantastic class after the other, from learning about how piano hammers are made to new temperament sequences for aural piano tuning, and revealed the broad scope of piano technology and the many challenges that lay ahead.
Then there was the dinner. Who are these piano technicians?, you ask. Do you imagine some nerdy guy in khakis who flosses his teeth with a chargeable air-flosser? Well, there are those, but one thing I learned at this PTG convention is that there is no such thing as your typical piano technician. Ages ranged from mid-twenties to seventies, men and women, from the gregarious outgoing types to the quiet types who seem a little wary of interacting (possible germ-a-phobe?). There were partiers who were first in line when the bar opened, and the all-business types who want to talk damper-spoon bending at one in the morning. There were people who were born into the business, who learned the trade from their fathers, usually, and then there were others who didn't get into piano technology until after retiring. One woman I met had a degree in psychology and had worked in psychiatric care before entering the trade. I have a degree in writing and worked in publishing. And there were many other unlikely starting points. One thing they all have in common, of course, is the piano -- as players or fans of the instrument. A funny thing I noticed is that for all the pianos on display in that hotel -- Steinways, Kawais, Hailuns, Yamahas -- there weren't many people playing them! (Perhaps we're all a bit self-conscious -- do we think we should be better players?)
One of the things I really love about working on pianos on the Sunshine Coast -- something I never got while working in publishing doing marketing and promotions -- is a sense of accomplishment. With pianos, you identify a problem and then you find a solution for that problem. And when you're done, there is no more problem. Who could ask for more?
(If you're interested, this never happens in marketing because there is always something more you could do and you never know what is really making a difference in terms of sales.)
This weekend, I'll be attending another convention, this time in Vancouver, the annual Canadian Association of Piano Technicians convention. Three days of classes, including a trip to one of the best piano rebuilding shops in Canada. And then there is the BBQ. Who will I meet this time?
A couple of weeks ago I made a trip to a giant music store in Vancouver. I made my way upstairs to the piano floor where I proceeded to play almost every piano in the place.
Most of one room was made up of Yamaha grands, with a couple of Schimmels in there, too, ranging in price from a modest $12,000 to around $70,000. The Yamahas all have that distinct Yamaha sound, a kind of cheery purity to it. If a Yamaha grand were a person, she would be a hopeless optimist, would shrug off any disaster -- house flooded? An indoor pool! -- something like that. This is not very technical.
After my trip around the Yamaha room, I made my way to the Steinway room. If you don't know anything about classical music and are asked who your favourite classical musician is, you're safe saying Mozart. Of course, Mozart. Why not? I think it's the same with Steinway. Do you have trouble hearing the difference between a hundred-year-old upright and a brand new grand, but want to sound like you are a discerning and cultured music patron? Just say Mozart. (Although I don't recommend putting on airs. Life is just more interesting when we're honest.)
Of course, Steinway isn't everyone's favourite, and the quality of sound, I discovered, can really vary from one instrument to the next. In that Steinway room, there were definitely some instruments that had a bite to them, a substantial sound but one articulated with a chomp, while others were really mellow. I found my favourite, a Steinway D, a nearly nine-foot concert grand (with a price tag of $220,000!).
Now if Steinway were a person, he would be an older brother, maybe by about five years, who thinks that he's had to shoulder the job of parenting you, even though he's mostly been something of a bully/nag, and always gets what he wants because he's really smart and skipped a grade and your parents sort of tip-toe around him like he's some kind of genius, and he IS really talented, but still. Please note: I do not have a brother, so this really is about the Steinway.
I played a Petrof recently, a Czech piano that had been purchased in Canada not long after the iron curtain finally lifted. It has a dark, mellow tone, and is more percussive than some pianos -- the sound of the action parts contributing to the quality of sound. It was a serious piano. There is no joking around with this piano. If it were a person, he would insist on being addressed by his full name, probably two or three middle names to boot, and would scorn happy endings. Again, not very technical.
Who is your piano?