Do you find it challenging to play those super-wide intervals in Chopin's music? Well, now you know he had a little help with that ... Let the brilliant Janina Fialkowska take you on a tour of an 1848 Pleyel grand piano. The piano in this clip is the same make and model as the one Chopin had in his apartment when he died.
Want more? Here is Idil Beret playing the piano that was literally Chopin's piano. How do you think it sounds? With a shallow key dip and narrow keys, it certainly would feel very different!
It's already December 10, but it's not too late to get your piano tuned before Christmas if you book soon. It may be raining slush here on the Sunshine Coast, but at least you can enjoy the sound of in-tune Christmas carols (or the grandchildren's version of "Heart and Soul" and other unavoidable classics).
I recently completed the Renner Academy's Grand Action Master Course. The course took place in Scotsdale, Arizona, and included a visited to the Renner USA headquarters.
"What is this course about?" you ask. You'd think I'd come away from a course called "Grand Action Master" with superior skills in kung fu for film and television, but this course was all about grand piano action regulation -- optimizing the touch (and subsequently tone) of a grand piano.
How many steps to regulation? Some say 37. Some say 100. (No, I'm not talking about the temperature of Scotsdale.) However you slice it, you gotta do all of it to make the piano the best it can be.
In this course, we started from scratch with new action parts. Before anything can be regulated, the parts much be prepared. This primarily involves measuring and adjusting the amount of friction at all the joints (flanges). In the top left photo, I'm "repinning" a repetition lever flange. Without the right friction here, it would be impossible to regulate the repetition properly, making it difficult to control how quickly you can repeat one note while playing. In the top right photo, I'm getting a demo on how to measure the friction by moving the spring out of the way by a super-famous piano technician named Rick Baldassin. He wrote the book on aural tuning (at least one of the best ones). At a convention earlier this year, I sort of jokingly asked for an autograph, and he said yes. I realized right away it was not such a funny request -- he gets this all the time. It only seemed funny to me because I used to work in publishing, editing a literary magazine and doing marketing and promotions for an independent press, and so I associate book autographs with literary who's-whos, not technical books. But that was silly of me. When you're the top of field, you're the top, whatever the field is! Not only that, but Rick has a beautiful, syrupy bass voice. Despite his talent and innovative thinking as a piano technician, he may have missed his calling as a news anchor or voice actor.
When replacing wippens (the thing I'm holding in the photos above), you can generally find a match for the piano you're working on from the various wippens manufactured by Renner (which are made in Germany) or other companies. But when it comes to hammers and shanks, there is a lot more to it. The action geometry and touchweight must be measured carefully to calculate the necessary weight of the hammers and other specifications to optimize leverage. The hammers must be bored at exact angles or the touch and tone will be compromised. We took all of this into consideration when preparing our hammers for boring, then piled into super classy SUVs to bore and shape our hammers at the Renner USA headquarters.
It was mercifully cool the morning of this activity and the doors were open, giving us respite from the dead quality of air conditioning. Instead, we got to breath in palm trees, desert breeze and the smell of oak and maple.
In the photo on the left, I'm boring the hammer, that is, using a drill press and a tool (the white plastic jig) to drill a hole at exactly the right angle for that hammer -- the angles change. In the centre photo, I'm shaping the hammer -- sanding it so it has that pretty curved (this is actually several steps, but I figure one picture of me sanding something is sufficient). The guy to the left of me is Michael Spreeman, who makes Ravenscroft pianos, which are complete works of art. I got to play one. "Like butter," was all I had to say about that. In the photo on the right, I'm drilling the side of my back action model. I won't describe all that stuff because the post would be so long, but mostly wanted to include a photo of me because I actually posed for this. Don Meyer, the brother of Lloyd Meyer, who owns Renner USA, was there all week taking pictures of everyone for use on our websites. (Thank you, Don!) He didn't get a chance to take my picture at this station, so we just re-enacted the compelling drama again.
In Part II, you will see how hammers are "hung," and "travelled." These hammers are endowed with a lot of personality, aren't they?
Now I'm off to tune a piano in beautiful Gibsons, BC. It's overcast today on the Sunshine Coast, but I'm hopeful the sun will peek out, giving me a nice view from the top of Soames Hill later on.
(If you're wondering what is up with my weather report, I like to mention that I tune pianos on the Sunshine Coast, BC, so that you can find me when Googling this. There's probably a more discreet way to do this ...)
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?
Compared to the mechanism that propels the hammer toward the string, the wool felt hammers themselves look like pretty simple parts, right?
But in order for that hammer to have the necessary resiliency, durability, uniformity and length of wool fibres to get volume and an orchestral range of tone out of your piano, there are many considerations. The first one is the raw material.
Only virgin wool will do, which means the sheep has never been sheared before. This virgin wool is longer and contains more lanolin, a kind of wax in wool, than non-virgin wool. With each shearing, the wool contains less lanolin, making it drier and more brittle. Lanolin is a key ingredient in the resiliency of the hammer, which plays a huge role in tone.
So the wool is top quality virgin wool, and where this comes from can change year to year, as well, depending on the weather -- a particularly rainy season can impact the quality of the wool, for example.
I recently attended the Canadian Association of Piano Technicians convention at UBC where Melanie Brooks of Brooks LTD., a long-established company selling piano hammers, took us on a virtual tour of a felt manufacturer in Europe. First the wool is cleaned. Cleaning wool traditionally was done through a process called carbonizing, using sulphuric acid. This washes away all the "dirt, sand, dust, mud, vegetarian parts," as Norbert Abel of Abel Hammers explains. Carbonizing can also remove lanolin, so new techniques are used by Abel, for example, to create a "Natural Felt" hammer in order to retain the lanolin. The resulting hammer is not as white, but who cares?
Once it's cleaned, the wool is willowed, carded, combed and then felted. Basically, you take a fluffy mountain of wool, turn it into a giant mattress-sized fluffy piece of wool and then compress it down to a slab of felt the size of an atlas (remember those? Pre-Google-map).
The piano is such an amazing instrument that involves so many different skilled craftspeople and materials, and beauty-queen sheep. "What I can't bring to you," Melanie said after the final photo of the factory tour, "is the smell." And what is that? "A wet, wool sweater times a million in a factory full of heat and steam, day after day, after day," she laughs.
Once the slabs of felt are made, they are cut into triangular prisms with gradually increasing mass from one end to the other. This prism is the material for one set of 88 hammers, the higher mass end destined to become the bass hammers, and the lower mass end for treble.
Then on to pressing the hammers! I'll do a post just about that next.
I'm working with Ken right now to rebuild the action on a 9-foot Baldwin concert grand here on the Sunshine Coast. To decide what hammers to put on this piano, Ken must consider the size of the piano (those long strings need bigger hammers to get volume), the geometry of the action (to ensure we maintain the action leverage -- or, if the leverage was too high or too low to begin with, what kind of hammer we need to improve the leverage), and the design of the other parts (the hammers and shanks need to fit the wippens we'll be using, for example). I'll be posting a story about that, too, so you can see the before and after.
I was telling a friend the other day about pianos made with glass soundboards, instead of the usual spruce. (Left: rear view of upright with glass soundboard.) Glass? If it's not wood, it's not a piano, he said. "We might as well just have digital pianos." Then he laughed, "Do I sound like an old fart?"
I'm not sure glass soundboards are the way of the future, but not all change is bad. In fact, the piano has gone through many changes over the years. The piano Mozart used had only five octaves (compared with the more than eight we have today) and no sustain pedals. Even poor Beethoven would only know 6 1/2 octaves on the piano (although he seemed to do okay with those).
As the range increased. the string tension increased. Piano makers also began to use triple stringing (three strings per note or unison in most of the piano), adding to this tension. This resulted in what was known as "cheek disease" -- the caving in of the treble end of the piano. Not to mention problems with tuning stability ...
How would they solve this? Metal braces and iron bars were tried, but it was the introduction of a one-piece cast-iron plate that would do the trick, and that we still use today. There was some grumbling. The plate caused "a decided injury to tone," said Thomas Loud Jr., a Philadelphia piano maker.
What would Tom Jr. say about the glass soundboard?
I watched some videos of people playing these glass soundboard pianos on Youtube, but I think I'd really have to hear it in person to come to any conclusions. It certainly has the benefit of being immune to changes in humidity -- this means it will last longer than wood, and will also allow for greater tuning stability. The maker, STEMCO, also claims it has a warm and more homogenous tone, among other things. What do you think?