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?
Outdoor pianos are certainly popular these days. This trend is largely thanks to Luke Jerram, a British artist who created the project, Play Me, I’m Yours. Since 2008, Play Me, I'm Yours has installed over 1500 pianos in more than fifty cities around the world. Jerram says of his project, "Questioning the rules and ownership of public space Play Me, I'm Yours is a provocation, inviting the public to engage with, activate and take ownership of their urban environment."
It certainly transforms a space. Thisshort film reveals what happens to a particular space with the introduction of the “People’s Piano.” What I find most moving in this film is the smiles that Giles describes, the introduction of unexpected, magical moments into everyday life, in a setting like this – a subway entrance – where the magical and musical doesn’t typically occur.
This magical quality is one of the reasons sound designer and vocalist Viviane Houle chose to incorporate outdoor pianos into the upcoming Only Animal Theatre production of Tinkers in Roberts Creek, BC.
From their website:
Tinkers is an adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Paul Harding. This new transcendentalist work features an intimate and dazzling relationship with the natural world, woven into a story of family karma. Through an intergenerational story we meet a young boy and his search for his long-lost father Howard, the epileptic peddler with donkey and wagon, estranged from his family, and ever-ecstatic in his relationship with nature. Tinkers asks us how we collect together all the pieces of a relationship that has come apart, and tinker, tinker to bring it together again.
With a growing set crafted by German environmental art star, Cornelia Konrads, an off-grid sound score and puppets made from found materials, Tinkers looks at how people creating in nature exemplify the transcendent possibilities of Human Nature.
Literally set in the woods, this “roving forest immersion” features a completely off-the-grid sound design. This is no easy task. Without the use of any recorded sound, amplification, electricity or batteries, how would you create the sound of car tires on a gravel road? How about the sound of the motor?
One of my challenges in connection with the show is going to be tuning the piano later this week. In an outdoor environment, it’s not possible for a piano to stay in tune very long – consider the humidity during an afternoon rainshower compared to that during a cool, clear summer night. My goal will be the same as always: make the piano sound the best it can.
The People’s Piano had the good fortune of being on one piano technician’s route to work. This guy couldn’t help but stop and offer it a little TLC now and then. But despite how out of tune it may be, people are compelled to play or drawn to listen. For many, an out of tune piano simply sounds like an old piano, and this is evocative – haunting, even magical.
Regardless of your sound associations, I’m certain Tinkers will be a magical theatre experience!
Tinkers runs from July 25 to August 7, 2016. Learn more by visiting http://www.theonlyanimal.com/show/tinkers.
And to see more super-cool outdoor pianos, courtesy of Play Me, I'm Yours, check out this list!
In a recent article in the New York Times, "The Only Piano I Could Afford," Micah Dean Hicks tells the sad, funny little story of trying to give a piano to his wife. Neither had a enough money to buy a new piano, and even many of the used ones available in music stores were far outside their price range. He searched on Craiglist and at flea markets, and soon found a piano for cheap. According to its owner, some of the keys were stuck but the "wood looked fine." Hicks did a little research and quickly discovered that stuck keys are not a big problem for a piano technician to repair. He rented a vehicle and went to retrieve the beast.
Can you guess what happens next? After the cost of the piano, the cost of the vehicle rental, which was higher than anticipated, and the time and effort to move the piano in, his wife discovered it was unplayable with all those sticky keys. No problem. They call a piano technician to come fix it. He opens his tool case. He opens the piano up. He closes his tool case. Sorry folks. Rusted, corroded pins and strings, water damaged pinblock, an untuneable waste of money and effort.
It's a sad little story and not a unique occurrence. There are sometimes pianos available for free on Craigslist -- I peruse the ads, myself, hoping to find a worthwhile fixer-upper. I've checked out some of these free pianos, and if it's tuneable and the sound is decent, then you've got yourself a workable instrument, regardless of how fine the "wood" looks. Beauty is on the inside, after all, so forget the finish -- how do the pins feel? How do the hammers look? What shape are those dampers in? Is the soundboard cracked?
Not sure how to assess those things? Before committing the time and expense to moving a piano, feel free to ask me to check it out first! I could confirm you've got a gem, or advise you to keep looking and save you a lot of hassle and heartbreak. Or, if you've got a piano to give away, avoid bad karma by making sure you've got a workable instrument.
Hicks pushed the piano out into the parking lot, alongside the garbage. For Hicks, the experience meant much more than a bad piano: "In our relationship it seemed as if we never were able to give each other the things we needed, and a few years later I filed for divorce, throwing our marriage out too." In this situation, I might have recommended an upcycling project. Who knows. Maybe a piano-desk might have saved the marriage?
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.
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?
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?
On Sunday, March 13, the Pender Harbour Music Society presented a concert with Musica Intima, an a capella group with a reputation as Canada's most exciting vocal ensemble. As a singer, I'm a little biased, but there is something special about the sound of the human voice -- its incredible versatility and the variety of sound produced. After all, no two voices are exactly alike because no two people are exactly alike. For a singer, their whole body is the instrument. Not only vocal chords but the bone structure of a singer's face factor into the character of sound. I've explored classical singing as well as jazz, pop, weird improvised layered things I made with GarageBand, which I, mercifully, no longer have access to. I've tried overtone singing, been to plenty of workshops with singers flailing arms or rolling around the floor and vocalizing to match our movements. I've been told to "sing from my vagina," and have also basically passed on that same advice to a student or two.
Musica Intima did not disappoint. Their sets ranged in style from 16th century French song to contemporary Canadian soundscapes evoking cellphones and automated messages. Sometimes playful (as when imitating bird song, one of the sopranos comically tilting her head like a bird who's just had his morning coffee), and sometimes heart-wrenching. I went to the concert with Ken who, I learned, is that person in the audience that can't help saying "Wow" when moved at the end of a piece. I had to second that emotion, and by the end of the concert, was wiping some tears away, feeling a little too emotional to schmooze, something I'm not very good at anyway. I did manage to speak briefly with tenor Taka Shimojima. I wanted to tell him how much I appreciated his voice, and how I would have loved to hear him sing the lead on all of "Con Toda Palabra," by Lhasa. If you're not familiar with the late, great Canadian vocalist and songwriter Lhasa de Sela, I'd recommend tracking down some albums. She sings with a fado style, mixed with a sensual latin sensibility. Her voice is low, perpetually in mourning -- or more like devastated. Shimojima's voice, on the other hand, has a gentle, feminine quality -- something I really love in a male voice, and find it so fantastic to hear male voices singing songs we typically hear female voices do. And vice versa for that matter.
But my favourite piece was "Ecce Homo," by Jeffrey Ryan. This piece reminds me of the work of one of my all time favourite composers, Arvo Part. Musica Intima performed this piece in a circle, their backs to the outside of the ring. The sopranos had their backs directly to the audience, and something magical happened to the sound of their voices when singing to the back of the room -- to me, they transformed into Chinese violins (Er Hu), which are two-stringed violins. Rather than explain the composition, I'll just recommend Jeffrey Ryan's website, where he has a sample track: http://jeffreyryan.com/works/choral/ecce-homo-choral-version/
You can learn more about the Pender Harbour Music Society's fantastic series online.
Well, this wasn't really a "review." This really was a rambling blog post, something I'm not used to doing ...
And now, just so my rank in search engines benefits from this post, I should probably say thanks for reading, people on the Sunshine Coast of BC. And if you need your piano tuned, drop me a line! (Search engines like key phrases like "Sunshine Coast BC piano tuning." That should do it!)