January, one of the rainiest, darkest months of winter, has never felt like the start of a new year to me. September, on the other hand, has meant beginnings since Kindergarten. Today really does feel like the end of summer. I’ve spent the past two weeks visiting with my sisters. My younger sister lives up in Atlin, BC, the northernmost town in the province, about a two-hour drive from Whitehorse. I brought my piano-tuning gear with me on the off-chance that she might happen to acquire a piano. No such luck (I wasn’t holding my breath). One of the first things I did when I returned to the Sunshine Coast after ten days was play my piano. I was surprised by just how much I missed that sound!
I started taking piano lessons when I was eight, probably in September. My first lessons focused on playing by ear, imitating my teacher who would arrange songs of my choice (my choices at the time included the theme from The Pink Panther). He also encouraged me to write my own music, which I did -- very simple little pieces about sixteen measures long and often played with the “flute” sound on my electric keyboard (which had no weighted keys). My next teacher followed the Royal Conservatory curriculum, and I studied with her through most of high school (when I also began classical voice lessons).
As an adult, I returned to piano lessons, studying with a fantastic teacher through the Victoria Conservatory of Music. Patrick Godfrey, a versatile pianist and composer, was an incredibly generous teacher who would often lose track of time and my hour-long lessons would turn into two-hour jams. I would bring a song I was writing or working on, and we would workshop it. He would show me new techniques to make the arrangement more interesting.
But this year, I became bored with my usual tricks. It was definitely time to learn something new. I have taken two jazz piano lessons so far with Anna Lumiere. The theory is dense and fleshing out the chords requires some analysis of interval relationships. When I practise, I spend some time just slowly constructing these chords and sequences in different keys; I practise scales in new modes; practise these scales over the chords, just getting used to the sound and seeing the relationships in new ways. But after that kind of intellectual work, I just play -- improvise, mess around, make mistakes, stumble onto something that sounds terrible and sometimes something that sounds beautiful. There’s a whole new world of sound to explore!
I’m guessing some of you are returning to piano lessons this fall, perhaps after a summer away, or maybe it’s been decades. Or maybe you’re considering piano lessons, but a little voice inside is stopping you? You’re too old, it says, or It's been too long. You haven’t even touched the piano in years — what makes you think you should take lessons?
To those first two — it is always a good time to learn something new, isn't it? And with all the accessible information on neuroplasticity, music is sounding more like good medicine than ever before. To that last one, even I found myself uninspired to play. We all need teachers at different times in our lives. Sometimes we find them, and sometimes they find us. There are many fantastic piano teachers here on the Sunshine Coast. You can find a list of them here on my website. And what better time to start than September, the unofficial start of the new year (official if you are Jewish — Shenah Tovah!).
Obligatory sales pitch: Also, if you haven’t even touched the piano in years, perhaps it needs to be tuned?
I asked Ken Dalgleish to recommend some jazz pianists. He directed me to Robert Glasper. So here is some jazz piano like you may have never heard before. Enjoy!
The piano is very modest in its attire. Unlike the harp, where you get to see every tuning peg and string, the piano hides these parts behind a heavy cabinet. Pianos really have no qualms about undressing, though. The cabinet is designed to be removed; the action to be lifted out. So here are some fun pictures of the inside of the piano. Do you know what part you are looking at?
Okay, this is a grand piano. The camera is pretty much on the keys looking into the action. At the bottom of the picture, you can see the tops of the keys. Those little cylinders at the top of the picture are the let-off buttons and the little grey feet beneath them are the jacks. You press the key, the back of the key goes up, lifts that jack, which lifts the hammer (not seen here), until the foot of the jack reaches the let-off button. Then the top of the jack slips out from the hammer knuckle and the hammer is propelled the rest of the way to the string by its own momentum (none of that excitement is in the picture).. I don't touch these suckers when tuning a piano, but if the "touch" of your piano is wrong, the let-off button is one of the things that may need adjusting. The process of making tiny adjustments to the action parts is called regulating.
Was this an easy one? These are dampers in a grand piano. We're looking down at the string. You can see the hammers below them. The dampers sit on top of the strings, preventing them from vibrating. The damper is connected to a lever down below by a metal rod. When you play a key, the very back of the key lifts the damper lever, causing the damper to lift off the string, allowing the string to vibrate. Stop playing the key and the damper returns. If you notice that some strings continue to sound even after you've released the key, you may have what we call "leaky dampers" -- the sound is leaking! Damper work can be fussy and a lot of technicians, I've learned, sort of dread it for this reason. Like everything on a piano, it seems relatively straightforward except that it's not. A brand new piano has shiny new parts that will behave the way they're supposed to, but the older the parts, the more idiosyncratic they are, with all their particular little deformities, requiring many compromises.
Shiny new parts! This is the action -- the "stack," specifically -- taken out of a Baldwin SD 10, a 9-foot concert grand. (This post is very grand-biased.) We've just given it brand new wippens, hammers and shanks. The let-off buttons in the first picture (from a different piano) are located on the opposite side of the stack. The wippens are the triangular contraptions. When you play a key, this thing lifts and the jack, which is one part of the wippen, lifts those hammer knuckles, which are the orange leather knobs on the underside of the hammer shanks (hammers in this picture are lifted up so you can see. Normally they lay on top of the wippens). The old wippens in this piano were damaged. One of the main concerns was a mysterious gunk that caused so much friction the piano was unplayable. After installing and "travelling" the new parts (making sure they move up and down without also going side to side, and shimming with tiny pieces of paper to correct the movement), we are ready to do a rough regulation. The final regulation will have to happen at the piano, not in the workshop.
When tuning pianos on the Sunshine Coast, I don't get this up-close and personal. But I do get to know the more than 200 tuning pins pretty intimately. Some pianos I feel a special bond with. Like the Doherty that is currently starring in Tinkers, an outdoor theatre production happening now in Roberts Creek. I tuned it a couple of weeks ago, and although it is certainly out of tune now (it is beside a pond in the forest, after all), I couldn't believe how good it sounded. I felt proud of that piano. Good for you, piano! What a hardy beast. We've been through some hard times, eh, piano?
I adjusted the pedal a couple of times, too, so the truth is, I've also looked under the skirt.
How many parts did you recognize?