THE WINSTON CHURCHILL MEMORIAL TRUST OF AUSTRALIA
Report by – Brian V Wilson – 2012 Churchill Fellow
The Selection And Maintenance Of Concert Pianos
From Factory To Stage
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Brian V Wilson
Dated 31 August 2013
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS & THANKS 3
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY 5
FELLOWSHIP PROGRAM 7
MAIN BODY – FELLOWSHIP EXPERIENCES 8
STEINWAY AND SONS 1 STEINWAY PLACE LONG ISLAND CITY NY 8
MASON AND HAMLIN PIANOS, 35 DUNCAN STREET, HAVERHILL, MA 13
FAUST HARRISON PIANOS 14
STEINWAY HALL 15
ALLEGRO PIANOS 16
BEETHOVEN PIANOS 16
PIANO ROW – GENERAL OBSERVATIONS 16
WIGMORE HALL 17
STEINWAY HALL 17
STEINWAY AND SONS 20
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS 27
TRAINING OBSERVATIONS 27
SPARE PARTS OBSERVATIONS 27
REFLECTIONS ON OUR ROLE 28
KEY LESSONS & RECOMMENDATIONS FROM THIS FELLOWSHIP 29
INFORMATION DISSEMINATION 30
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS & THANKS
I have always been fascinated by the workings and maintenance of the piano and how pianists develop tone from these instruments. The selection and maintenance of the correct instrument to suit the pianist, repertoire and venue is paramount to a successful concert.
My interest in this subject led to me being awarding a Churchill Fellowship in 2012. In May 2013 I travelled to New York, Boston, London and Hamburg to research my subject, as well as to receive specialised training in some of the best piano factories in the world.
I wish to dedicate this report to one of my piano teachers, Mrs Marie Brewer, who passed away about the same time I commenced my first course in New York. Her love of the piano and its music rubbed off on an impressionable boy, and grew into the appreciation I have for the instrument today. She will be sorely missed.
I wish to express my sincere thanks to the following people and organisations, for without their help, my Fellowship experience would have not eventuated:
- The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust for the opportunity to travel overseas for training in my specific area of interest. I have developed deep professional networks as well as intense personal development which would not have occurred without this experience.
- To my referees, I thank you for your belief in me and your support in my subject. Without your recommendation, this Fellowship would not have been possible.
- Hartwig Kalb of Steinway and Sons Hamburg for helping co-ordinate my courses in New York and Hamburg.
- Kent Webb of Steinway and Sons New York for his instruction in the Voicing and Tone Production Seminar. Kent brought me back to basics and reminded me of the exact purpose of my work.
- Chris Blouin and Bruce Clark from Mason and Hamlin, Haverhill, MA for opening their factory and ideas to me. To tour a small-scale artisan factory after seeing the large piano factories was exciting and enlightening.
- The piano shops on West 58th Street, New York: including Sara Faust from Faust Harrison Pianos, Allegro Pianos. Although I had emailed all these companies prior to leaving, I did not receive a reply. However when I visited these shops, all were warmly accommodating with their time and experience. Sometimes it pays to just drop in!
- Steinway Hall London. Thank you for being so welcoming. Special thanks and mention needs to go to Ulrich Gerhartz for his wisdom and advice. My professional life has been transformed after our meeting and I will never approach a piano or my profession in the same way again.
- Steinway and Sons Hamburg. I would like to thank Hartwig Kalb and the Steinway Academy instructors Guenter Schmitt and Jan Hoeppner for their professionalism and their wish to impart as much knowledge as possible. I would also like to thank Steinway Klavierteckniker Jan Kittel for a great insight to our work, and to the factory workers who were always willing to answer my myriad of questions.
- Ara and Nyree Vartoukian of Theme and Variations Piano Services for opening the door to Steinway and Sons, and for giving me the opportunity to work on such great pianos.
- Lastly to my friends and family I thank you for your support over the years. To my wife Fiona my eternal gratitude for her love, unfailing support and sometimes much-needed reality checks. You are the music to my lyrics. And to my much-loved Fiona and Liam – thank you for letting me live this dream. I aspire to make you proud of what I have accomplished, and to help you to dare to dream your own dreams in the future.
Brian V Wilson
47 Shakespeare Parade
Strathpine Qld 4500
61 438 196 372
Project Description: Selection and maintenance of concert pianos from factory to stage
Steinway and Sons, Astoria, New York.
I attended a “Voicing and Tone Building” seminar at the C.F. Theodore Steinway Academy for Concert Technicians. Tours of the Steinway factory, especially in the hammer making and action part manufacture. Observation of Piano Technicians working in the selection room to maintain the instruments to a high standard as well as to customise voicing to suit the client’s needs. Visits to the selection room in the factory to listen to finished instruments and to discuss the selection process of choosing an instrument.
Mason and Hamlin piano factory, 35 Duncan Street, Haverhill, Massachusetts.
I was invited to tour the factory by the chief designer Bruce Clark.
Tours of piano retail shops in New York City
Known as “Piano Row” on West 58th Street – as well as visiting Steinway Hall in West 57th Street. Discussions with sales staff, owners and pianists in choosing an instrument, understanding the tastes of pianists and how to work with pianists to select the best piano for their approach and style.
Steinway Hall, London.
A visit to Steinway Hall to inspect the concert hire fleet, and to watch the head technician prepare pianos for the BBC Proms festival, and a piano to be used in recording in Berlin. Discussions in setting up the instruments so that the instrument speaks for itself and the tonality is not forced out it. The opportunity to inspect seven concert grands in the basement and compare instruments. Inspection of rebuilt pianos and new pianos in the showroom.
Wigmore Hall, London.
An opportunity to attend a recital by pianist Louis Lortie. A different brand of piano was brought in for this recital, and the piano was especially prepared for this artist. An opportunity to hear a brand of piano in a recital that I would not have heard in Australia.
Steinway and Sons Hamburg.
An intensive two week seminar to install and regulate a new set of dampers to the required standard, followed by fitting of a new hammer assembly, regulation of the piano mechanism, pre-voicing and re-shaping of the hammers, tuning and final voicing as per the requirements of Steinway Academy instructors and concert technicians.
Inspection of some of the hire concert pianos, including an interesting piano which was a New York manufactured concert grand, with the opportunity to use a New York or a Hamburg piano action. Discussions with the technician who prepares this piano, its uses and the pianists who select it.
Tours of the Hamburg piano factory and discussions with factory workers and concert technicians.
20 – 24 MAY 2013 STEINWAY AND SONS NEW YORK
QUEENS, NEW YORK
27-28 MAY 2013 MASON AND HAMLIN
30 MAY 2013 STEINWAY HALL W57TH STREET
MANHATTAN, NEW YORK
30 MAY 2013 FAUST HARRISON PIANOS
W58TH STREET, MANHATTAN
31 MAY 2013 ALLEGRO PIANOS
W58TH STREET, MANHATTAN
31 MAY 2013 KLAVIERHAUS
W58TH STREET, MANHATTAN
31 MAY 2013 BEETHOVEN PIANOS
W58TH STREET MANHATTAN
5 JUNE 2013 STEINWAY HALL LONDON
6 JUNE 2013 STEINWAY HALL LONDON
10-24 JUNE 2013 STEINWAY AND SONS
RONDENBARG 10 HAMBURG, GERMANY
CF THEODORE STEINWAY ACADEMY
MAIN BODY – FELLOWSHIP EXPERIENCES
STEINWAY AND SONS 1 STEINWAY PLACE LONG ISLAND CITY NY
- C.F Theodore Steinway Academy for Concert Technicians
- Voicing and Tone Production Seminar
- Kent E Webb – Manager Technical Services and Support
I attended a five day course in “Voicing and Tone Production”. This was based around a B-211 new concert size piano that had been taken off the production line for the seminar. During the course the playing mechanism (action) was adjusted (regulated) to the required standard and the hammer heads were shaped, aligned and fitted to the strings before voicing of the hammer heads to achieve the required sound.
The seminar attendees were required to prepare the hammers to factory standards, so that after the seminar the piano could be placed back in the production line to be finished for sale. Correct tone production is vital as technicians set up the piano’s initial voice that is there for its life, or until a new set of hammers are fitted. Ruining an expensive set of hammers sets the piano behind in its production schedule, as it essentially goes back to square one.
We started the week by discussing what the role of a piano technician was. Kent challenged us to go back to the basic facts. Why do we tune and service pianos? What is our role as a concert technician? Who do we work for? How do we work for our clients? Do we know if the piano is to be played by an individual so we can customise the settings for this client, or if the piano lives in a venue where there are a number of pianists with different tastes and repertoire?
Kent brought me back to the essentials of my trade and reminded me that we work on pianos to provide a vehicle for the pianist to create the music. However, the piano must also inspire the pianist to create this music. “The pianist plays music and not the piano,” was his advice that is now embedded into my mind.
We then followed the breadcrumb trail – analysing the action regulation and refining the regulation to make sure that the basic principles of the action were functioning to standard. If these standards were not adhered to, voicing and tone production would be compromised. Kent Webb was the type of mentor who quietly watches and only offers advice when it was important, so you knew to listen carefully when he spoke.
Kent reminded me of a statement from my past: “Touch equals tone”. Regulation of the action enables the pianist to have complete control over the playing mechanism and to play as softly as possible. Voicing of the hammer heads creates the dynamic range and colour of the sound.
We were reminded that the piano must be set up in touch and tone for the following:
Consistency – The action must have a uniform feel from one note to another. If the pianist has to remember that he has to play one note a little differently than the one beside it, this will compromise the performance. The touch must be friendly and without surprises.
The tone must also be consistent in the same way as the touch. Having “peaks or troughs” in the sound also compromises the performance as the pianist has to concentrate on these problems instead of the performance as a whole.
Dynamic – The instrument must have a large dynamic range. From the softest pianissimo to the grandest fortissimo and all the shades of volume in between, the piano must respond to the pianist’s wishes. Changing the approach of the touch changes the colour of the sound, so the piano must be capable of responding to the pianist’s touch.
Control – The playing mechanism must be regulated so the pianist has complete control. In checking the regulation, checking the weight resistance as well as the friction resistance has an effect on the sound. The hammers must be well prepared and matched to the strings to have complete control over the sound.
Transparency – The piano is the vehicle for the performer to express his/her musical thoughts as well as to inspire the musician to create this music. It also needs the performer to keep wanting to play the instrument. If the piano does not respond to the musician’s thoughts, the performance is compromised.
The piano is what links the musician to the audience. It is the piano technician’s responsibility to ensure all four points (consistency, dynamic, control and transparency) link up, as the technician is the link between the piano and the performer.
Different scenarios were discussed where changes are made to the standard regulation of the action and how these affect the overall sound of the instrument. For example, the regulation of the action and the voicing of the instrument are dependent on each other. If the hammer preparation is of the highest quality but the regulation of the action is not correct, the piano will not sound correctly. This also can happen in reverse with high-quality regulation and the hammers not being prepared well.
After refining the regulation of the action, the hammer assembly was finally addressed. The hammers were checked for the correct shape and they were aligned and fitted to the strings.
A Comment About the Steinway New York hammer – Creator of the New York Sound.
There is a distinct New York sound as well as a Hamburg sound to Steinway pianos. The sound of New York Steinways reflects the culture of the US. It is bright, outgoing and more powerful. The sound of Hamburg Steinways have more fundamental sound, a little more reserved, but capable of more colours, but a little more conservative in personality.
New York pianos generally are sold to North and South America, and Hamburg pianos are made for the rest of the world. However, there are many New York Steinway pianos here in Australia and the rest of the world.
Carnegie Hall in New York offers the pianist a choice of New York or Hamburg made instruments. In Hamburg there is a hire concert piano that was made in New York. However this piano has been customised with the option of using a New York or a Hamburg action.
Part of the secret to the different sounds comes from the different manufacturing processes used for the hammers. New York Steinway hammers and other action parts are made in the factory in Queens (Hamburg uses parts and hammer supplied by Renner in Stuggart).
We were taken through the action part manufacturing section of the factory, and we watched hammers being made from the original sheet of felt, through to being glued to a long piece of wood, to then watching this come out of the press to be cut into 88 hammers and then shaped and filed.
The New York hammer is a soft hammer and requires hardening to achieve the required sound. The hammers have a hardening solution applied to make the hammer denser. This particular method of hammer-hardening and voicing is suited for the many different climates that these pianos reside.
The Hamburg hammer starts hard and then is softened by repeated needling to achieve the Hamburg Steinway sound.
Chemical Hammer Hardening & Tuning
After the tour of the factory, we were placed in sound-proof rooms to tune our instruments, and this gave us an opportunity to get an overall opinion of the sound of our instruments. I was working on a Model B-211 which is known as a semi-concert piano and is Steinway’s most popular model.
I thought the sound of my piano was lacking in power and made notes where I thought the sound needed improving. We discussed tone as having two parts – the attack of the sound and the body of the sound. The attack is the very first sound you hear and can often be described as bright or mellow. The body of the sound is described as the overall sound with descriptions as full or thin being common.
After assessing my piano, I was trained to apply a hammer hardening solution to certain areas of the hammers to change the attack or body of the sound.
This type of voicing was completely new to me as I have never been taught this system. The type of voicing we use in Australia comes from the European method of needling to soften hard felt.
The New York style of voicing was music to my ears. It is a simple approach in theory – however it gives the technician so many options in tone development. The hardener in the hammers stiffens the felt to firstly create a complex spring which is stiff internally and in the shoulders – but also has some resilience that changes the apparent hardness depending on the energy used in the playing. This is done to achieve the desired tone and also creates a barrier or a sealer from humidity and other climate related problems.
The New York voicing system has direct relevance and application to hammers affected by the Queensland climate, where humidity makes the hammers softer. I look forward to experimenting with these techniques on Queensland pianos to help solve some of the climate problems I encounter.
Soft pedal, or shift voicing was also quite different to what I had experienced before. The New York soft pedal voicing was about creating soft and sweet, in comparison to other voicing methods which create a change in character due to only two strings being hit by the hammer instead of the usual three.
Using the new knowledge and techniques I had been taught, I created a piano sound that responded to subtle changes in the playing touch – a sound that was soft and sweet at a pianissimo level building to a powerful fortissimo that would carry through any small concert hall.
The seminar was extremely worthwhile as it has supplied me with knowledge that I can apply directly to the New York Steinways that I service. I can also apply the knowledge when offering part replacements to owners of New York pianos, or on a wider scale, owners of pianos with chemically hardened hammers.
I also had the opportunity to inspect the pianos in the selection room at the factory. This is where clients come to select a piano for their home, studio, school or concert venue.
Six of each model were presented and all of these pianos had different sound personalities due to the different timbers in the soundboards or slightly different voicing.
As an experiment in piano selection, I was required to choose a new Model D-274 and a B-211, with the emphasis on finding a piano for a concert hall. I selected the pianos that gave me the largest dynamic range, and discovered that I had selected the same pianos as the instructor.
Whilst in the selection room, I watched a technician performing maintenance tunings on an instrument. He was evening out the voicing and found that one string was slightly softer in sound than the two others.
In my previous training, I would have slightly sandpapered the hammer, and then fitted the hammer to the strings, listen to all three strings and then evened out the sound. This technician used one drop of hammer hardener from a syringe onto the hammer directly under that string. The technician then moved on to other notes that were to be addressed. This method was fast and showed excellent results.
This technician also asked me to try out two different pianos of the same model. A client was in the selection room earlier and had purchased one of these pianos. Both were nice instruments, with one having a larger sounding bass that the other. The client had purchased the instrument with the lesser bass. She thought the treble was more powerful in the instrument she chose, but this was due to the bass being stronger and the pianist not having the physical ability to play the treble to balance the sound. Both instruments were fantastic instruments, but it showed that not all instruments suit every person, and that sometimes you have to make changes to the instrument sound to please the client.
The seminar was an excellent training opportunity that provided me with many new techniques. However, it also reminded me that the basics must be continuously checked before attempting anything that could be described as artistic.
The week also highlighted that the piano is a living instrument that is constantly changing, and it must be continuously refined to be kept at a high standard. The piano is in the now, and you prepare a piano for a performance in the now and not for the future.
MASON AND HAMLIN PIANOS, 35 DUNCAN STREET, HAVERHILL, MA
- Bruce Clarke, Lead Design Engineer
I was invited to the Mason and Hamlin piano factory by Bruce Clark when I attended a seminar on the Gold Coast in February on Mason and Hamlin and the WNG piano actions.
Mason and Hamlin started out in 1854 and has always been regarded as a quality American piano brand. It first started by building organs and commenced building pianos in 1881.
Mason and Hamlin produced pianos in Boston until 1932 when they moved to East Rochester, New York as part of the Aeolian American Piano Company. Between 1983 and 1995, Mason and Hamlin changed ownership several times. In 1995 the company that owned Mason and Hamlin was forced to file for bankruptcy and closed.
In 1996, Gary and Kirk Burgett (the owners of Piano Disc) bought the company and since then have built a factory in Haverhill, MA. They are dedicated to producing Mason and Hamlin pianos to their own original designs with modern precision.
I was greeted at the train station near the Mason and Hamlin factory by the company Plant Manager Chris Blouin, and led to a building with old wooden floors, wooden posts and of course those iconic New York red bricks. The aroma of timber was in the air. The factory seems to be quiet however it is due to a small workforce that are very skilled in their abilities and focussed on their work.
We went up to the sixth floor in the piano lift, where I met up with Bruce Clark who is the Lead Design Engineer. Bruce Clark is a man with lots of knowledge about design and manufacture. He is also one of the rare refreshing people in my industry that does not believe in keeping trade secrets, believing that we can all learn from each other. I thought I would be in the factory for approximately 2-3 hours however after 6 hours, I thought I had better leave and return to New York.
These pianos are very close to being what I call handmade. The processes they use are designed, tested and made in a factory that is not equipped with the latest CNC machines, yet delivers the precision that many other manufacturers would envy.
The owners of Mason and Hamlin found many of the original tooling and designs for their pianos. They then found techniques and developed processes that enable the builders to build these pianos from these procedures. They constantly refer back to the in-house build guides and checking procedures to ensure consistency of quality. I found it fascinating that a quality piano could be built with such precision and not be surrounded by the latest CNC machines and manufacturing machines.
Bruce showed me their methods for placement of all the parts in the exact place. He also demonstrated the jigs that the company has designed and built in-house for the manufacturing process to streamline the process and ensure a high quality result.
He showed me how the rims are produced. The moulds that produce these rims are either the original rim presses that the Burgett brothers sourced to create the originals, or modern duplicates of these presses. Many of the original rim presses were extremely old and needed repairing. Exact duplicates have been manufactured – but with modern adaptions that improve the original presses.
The methods they use to choose the correct timber and the timber drying techniques create brilliant results. The quality of the veneer work is beyond belief. Where other factories have large sections and dedicated staff to complete this work, Mason and Hamlin perform this all in one small section in the factory. The case finishes in either polyester gloss or satin lacquer are of an extremely high standard. They are finished well and credit must be given to these dedicated craftsmen.
The Mason and Hamlin piano uses a piano action that is built from carbon fibre. They understand that timber is a limited resource and that timber, no matter how well it is seasoned, can still warp and flex in different ways. The carbon fibre actions are designed so there is limited flex and warping of the parts, but will withstand climatic changes so the parts have less chance of failing due to excessive moisture in the moving parts.
Even in today’s modern world, the piano industry is one of tradition rather than modern technology. Mason and Hamlin constantly invests significant time and resources in the research of designs and manufacturing methods to improve their product. Without sounding critical of the designs, these pianos are almost over-engineered. After having toured other piano factories, it was a great experience to tour a small scale factory that builds pianos in the traditional way without today’s modern computer machinery.
The company has built a very strong reputation in a short space of time and it will be a company to watch due to their traditional building techniques and their composite parts. They are not aiming to build modern pianos – but to build traditional pianos using old techniques but using cutting-edge materials.
FAUST HARRISON PIANOS
- W58th Street New York
- Sara Faust, President
I first learned about this piano retailer from the movie “Music and Lyrics,” and since then I often look at their website. Faust Harrison Pianos is one of the shops on West 58th Street that is affectionately known as Piano Row. Faust Harrison is known as a supplier of quality pianos – both new and used, as well as for their hire of concert instruments.
I met the President of the company, Sara Faust, who has a background as a performing classical pianist and is passionate about pianos and the music they produce.
Sara introduced me to all the pianos in the showroom. The first piano demonstrated was the new Yamaha CFX concert grand for which I had heard many good reports. Sara demonstrated its abilities, and I was impressed with its qualities. More pianos, including a Bechstein concert grand, new Yamaha C6X and C3X and rebuilt Steinways were demonstrated.
Sara informed me the company has a large rebuilding facility where a large number of pianos are rebuilt. Their company takes great pride in their work for both performance and aesthetics. The factory designs new soundboards from high quality stock and with no compromise in standards. There is a selection of action parts available to achieve the correct action ratios and for the touch of the instrument.
Different voicing or tone regulation is offered for the location of the instrument, for example a warmer voicing for pianos for the home, through to a more powerful and brighter sound for concert instruments. Regulation of the action is also customised for the end user with concert instruments being slightly lighter, faster and super-responsive.
We then discussed how a pianist chooses their piano for either their home studio or a performance instrument. I asked Sara what type of instrument performers prefer. Her answer was similar to that given by other pianists and technicians. “The piano must be super responsive. Capable of expressing all musical ideas with ease and control. A huge dynamic range but capable of producing the softest sounds with no surprises in touch or sound. The pianist wants to “play – not work.”
- West 57th Street Manhattan
This is the retail home of Steinway and Sons in New York and is just down the road from Carnegie Hall. I inspected factory rebuilt Steinways, and new Steinway grands that had not long arrived from the factory as well as a Model D concert grand.
The Model D concert grand just begged to be played. It was one of the most amazing pianos I have encountered. This piano was a monster with a huge rich bass and a bright powerful treble that was asking for Brahms and Rachmaninoff.
All the pianos in Steinway Hall were beautifully prepared, a joy to play and were capable of a large dynamic range as well as producing a soft clear sound when required.
- West 58th Street Manhattan
- Klavierhaus Recital Hall and Recording Studio 211 W 58th Street New York NY
Nicholas F. Russotto is the Director of Events and Recital Hall Manager in this interesting shop. The shop is filled to the brim with second-hand Steinway grands (rebuilt by the company), as well as some interesting old design pianos.
Two interesting pianos on display were a very old Pleyell from France and a unique design custom-case Steinway which was built for the Vanderbilt family.
The company is also the representative for the Fazioli piano from Italy.
Nicholas F. Russotto also showed me the Klavierhaus Recital Hall and Recording Studio, which has superb acoustics. Two pianists were rehearsing the Lutoslawski Variations for two pianos, and the quality of the piano preparation was of a very high standard.
- West 58th Street Manhattan
In this store I met Elena Alberts who introduced me to the Estonia grand piano which I do not believe is sold in Australia; as well as a Steingraeber upright from Bayreuth, Germany, Bluthner from Leipzig, Bosendorfer from Vienna, and a brand new model from Kawai in Japan.
The Estonia grand is a mid-price grand which is a little more expensive than the same size Japanese equivalent, and which was well tuned, regulated and voiced.
The Steingraeber upright was a fantastic instrument, and I wished there was a grand on display that day. I believe this grand would be an exciting instrument.
I have seen the Bluthner and Bosendorfer pianos in Australia. These were prepared to a high standard in the Allegro store.
- 232 W 58th Street New York NY
In this store I discovered the Sauter piano from Spaichingen, Germany. These pianos are well built using Renner parts from Germany. They reminded me of the Schimmel pianos from Braunschweig in Germany.
PIANO ROW – GENERAL OBSERVATIONS
After touring the famous Piano Row I noticed how all retailers prepared their pianos to a high standard. There were no compromises in the presentation of the shops and of the instruments that were on display. My personal belief is that a well-prepared piano will almost sell itself and will present less service problems to the buyer. Customer satisfaction was the key for all of these retailers.
- 36 Wigmore Street London W1U 2BP, United Kingdom
It was difficult to fit in attending concerts during my Fellowship. I had several attempts at attending concerts at Carnegie Hall in New York, but all were sold out. I finally attended a recital at Wigmore Hall in London.
The performer was French-Canadian pianist Louis Lortie who was performing an all Chopin recital. From my research I knew that Steinway and Sons pianos were housed at this hall, so I was surprised to see the Italian Fazioli piano on stage. I later found out that Mr Lortie was a Fazioli artist, and this piano was brought to Wigmore Hall for this recital.
The Fazioli was a stunning instrument that had been very well prepared. The technician checked the tuning at interval, and he had little work to perform which is a sign of a well prepared instrument.
The audience was captivated by this recitalist for two hours, and reminded me that it is all about the performer when choosing instruments for concerts. It is the performer’s reputation that is on the stage and it is paramount that they are familiar and suited with an instrument.
Although I would have preferred an instrument that was less powerful in the bass, the performer was completely at ease with this piano. I may have an opinion about the instrument of choice, but in the end it is the performer’s vehicle for his expression.
- 44 Marylebone Ln, London W1U 2DB United Kingdom
Visiting Steinway Hall in London was the highlight of my overseas travels. I have always wanted to inspect the hire fleet that I have heard so much about, as well as meet the head technician, Ulrich Gerhartz.
Trying to arrange an appointment with Ulrich was difficult as even though he is based in London he was only in London for one day during my week in London. The pianists he worked for during that week was definitely the Who’s Who of the piano world.
I visited Steinway Hall twice during my stay. The first was to tour the showroom and to meet some of the pianos on sale there. In my first visit, I met Craig Terry, who is the Managing Director. Craig is an American from Los Angeles, and he had a wicked sense of humour about the English and especially the roads of London.
Craig introduced me to the pianos in the showroom and it was good to be able to inspect second-hand grands that were rebuilt in Hamburg given my recent memory of the rebuilt pianos in New York.
The average person would say that these rebuilds had exactly the same quality in sound. The idea of rebuilding remains the same and that is to rebuild without compromise to standards. However, with my memory of the sound from New York, I could compare the sounds and identify the unique differences.
Both sounds are good, but match slightly different musical tastes, and it is entirely up to the individual which sound is preferred. I believe it would be ideal that each customer has the opportunity to try both the New York and Hamburg Steinway before purchasing, to find the sound that they prefer. This may challenge the sales representatives from Steinway, however I think choice would be good for the consumer.
The Steinway Hire Stock & Ulrich Gerhartz
The second visit was with Ulrich Gerhartz, Director Concert & Artist Services. Ulrich is in charge of the service department, and he maintains the Steinway hire fleet in the basement. The hire stock is approximately 20 grand pianos – 12 of them concert grands. Each piano is an individual instrument in their own right. Ulrich is in charge of the maintenance of the hire fleet; traveling with these pianos for recording sessions and concerts, as well as helping pianists choose pianos for their concerts.
At the time of my appointment, Ulrich met me in the showroom and took me downstairs to the basement which also holds practice rooms and a workshop. Ulrich had been preparing pianos that were going out on hire. Ulrich discussed the importance of preparing each piano to its potential as well as the challenges of matching pianos to different artists and venues.
The first piano he showed me was to be used during the upcoming BBC Proms Festival, and he had just completed tuning the instrument. The second instrument was to travel to Berlin for a recording session with a Steinway artist who had selected this instrument for the recording.
He also showed me another instrument for the Proms – the favoured instrument for Mitsuko Uchida, who was also performing during the Proms Festival. The piano preferred by Uchida was very responsive and had a completely different feel to the other pianos. This piano was not set up differently than the others – it was just the personality of the instrument’s action.
Whilst Ulrich showed me these instruments, the removalists set up a grand that had just come back from a music festival and another which had just arrived from Hamburg and had been bought by one of the major concert halls.
Ulrich knew all the pianos by serial number and also described their individual personalities to me. Ulrich works on these instruments and develops the touch and sound according to the feel and sound best for that particular instrument.
Ulrich allowed me to observe him work. We returned to the piano for the Proms where he played chromatic scales and he commenced voicing. I heard six or seven notes that I would like to change, yet he went further – with different chalk marks for the type of voicing he wanted to perform.
After this voicing he sandpapered the hammers with extremely fine sandpaper and used a soldering iron with a hammer attachment to erase any sign of his work. I quickly learned that he sees presentation as vitally important in our work – with each instrument left as if no work had ever been done on it.
I finally was permitted to try the instrument. He had chosen this piano because it had a large sound that was required to fill the Royal Albert Hall, which is a large auditorium that seats over 5000 patrons. The round shape of the auditorium adds difficulty to the sound projection.
The sound and touch of this instrument inspired me to want to play the instrument. This instrument kept calling me back – which is the ultimate aim of our work.
I tried other instruments in the room, and I noticed the different personalities of each instrument. There was one instrument that I couldn’t control. The action was not friendly and tended towards being bombastic. It constantly wanted to be played loud and fast and needed a powerful pianist that could control its moods. It wasn’t suited for me but it is a favourite of a particular famous pianist.
Ulrich and I discussed our profession. His view is that the job of the technician is to constantly improve the instrument. The piano is an instrument that gradually wears out due to use. So to keep these instruments at a high standard, these instruments need to be constantly refined; hammers reshaped or replaced; strings replaced and their regulation and voicing attended to. We are to present pianos that are constantly adjusted and which are refined to the pianists who play them.
Presentation of the instruments was also important to him. So the casework needs to be attended to whenever it gets damaged – with buffing of the case and replacing of brass work when it gets damaged. These instruments are the silent face of the company, so they must speak well of the company in their own way.
Ulrich works with the management of concert halls during their planning for concerts, discussing a pianists needs or whether the hall needs to select another instrument for these pianists.
Pianists come to Steinway Hall to choose an instrument to tour with, or to discuss a piano at a hall and decide whether they should use the house piano or bring in an instrument especially for the concert. Whilst I was there, a pianist came in to do some recording and discussed the choice of two pianos.
I learnt much from meeting Ulrich. Not to put too fine a point on it – his approach, philosophy and overall attitude was life-changing for me. His genuine interest in meeting other technicians, offering advice and support, and his technical excellence was something I had never encountered previously.
His view is that our business is all about the presentation of yourself and the piano. He has a philosophy of constantly improving the instrument. His underpinning approach to the profession is one where you never compromise on your standards, always meet deadlines, communicate with and support your team, communicate with your clients, and let your work speak for you.
I wish there were more technicians like Ulrich Gerhartz. He is simply the best technician I have ever met, and his pianos do speak for themselves – they are amazing.
STEINWAY AND SONS
- C.F Theodore Steinway Academy for Concert Technicians
- Rondenbarg 10 Hamburg Germany
- Academy Instructors:
- Guenter Schmitt – Damper installation and regulation
- Jan Hoeppner: Hammer assembly replacement, action regulation, voicing & tuning
This was a two week course in the installation and regulation of new grand piano damper; as well as the fitting, pre-regulation, pre-voicing and reshaping of hammer assemblies as well as final regulation, tuning and final voicing of hammers to Steinway factory standards.
The course was run inside the Steinway and Sons factory by Guenter Schmitt, the head of the Damper Fitting Department and Training, and by Jan Hoeppner, a piano builder/technician who services instruments throughout the world.
Hartwig Kalb, is a piano builder by trade and is Steinway’s Manager of Product Services. Hartwig outlined the course content, and explained that the course was introduced after pianists complained to Steinway that their pianos were not up to standard.
Up until that point there had been limited training for piano technicians to service these instruments. Steinway introduced the course to bridge the gap and train local technicians in Steinway methods. Steinway is highly supportive of local technicians working on local pianos. As local technicians see these pianos frequently, it is beneficial to the piano that the technician is trained with Steinway methods.
The course started with a grand piano that was missing dampers. The dampers in grand pianos are the parts that technicians are most frightened of. They rarely get opportunities to work on them and when they do, it is just to fix a problem.
Replacing a set of dampers is not common, however it must be performed correctly or otherwise it affects the performance of the instrument. I have seen many instruments with replaced dampers in Australia, and generally the result is ordinary.
Unfortunately there are few training opportunities in this subject in Australia. I attended damper training with Guenter Schmitt in 2009 and have taken a strong interest in correct damper installation since then.
Guenter Schmitt started working in the Steinway and Sons factory over 30 years ago and after working in different work areas, he decided to give dampers a try.
Guenter is an inspiring teacher, who willingly discusses the different methods in correct damper fitting. Students are required to perform exactly the same methods he demonstrates. Doing it “your way” is not an option as you are there to learn the methods Steinway recommend to perform the work.
He speaks of the dampers as a challenge, or a war, and you have to get all the individual components working well both individually and as a happy family. Technicians use different words to describe the incorrect movements of dampers however “tilt”, “jumping” and “driving” were the words he used. They are the easiest definitions I have heard and will always remember.
Guenter used different scenarios to describe the problems I encountered in fitting the dampers, and he made a physically and mentally demanding task a great learning experience as well as a highly enjoyable one.
It is with great pride that I now know I can fit and regulate dampers to the standard expected by Steinway and Sons. I look at new pianos and see the dampers and smile because I now know exactly how these parts are fitted … and know that my friend Guenter calls me a Damper Installer and Regulator (high praise indeed).
A tour of the Hamburg factory was given by Hartwig Kalb, Manager of Product Services. I was also permitted to inspect the Hamburg concert hire pianos as well as interview Technician Jan Kittel.
Hammer Replacement, Regulation & Voicing
The second part of the course was run by Jan Hoeppner. Jan started at the factory with an apprenticeship in piano building. After completion, Jan decided he wanted to be a piano technician. This is a separate apprenticeship in the German system – so his business card should read Piano Builder/ Piano Technician.
In the German system the Piano Tuner (Klavierstimmer) is the first qualification in the industry, followed by Piano Technician (Klavierteckniker). There is a third qualification recognised by the German Government – Klavierbauer or Piano Builder.
The second part of the course covered common scenarios that technicians encounter in the field: The replacement of the hammer assembly and the regulation of the action and voicing of the hammer heads in accordance with the standards recommended by Steinway and Sons.
The course started with the scenario that the hammers in a piano were worn and unusable, and therefore needed replacing. A box with the hammer assembly was then handed out and you assumed the role that you had just received these parts from the factory.
Piano hammers are not just screwed off and a new set screwed on. The action rails have to be checked and all parts of the action and keys examined to ensure that they are in good condition. The hammers are then screwed on and spaced to the strings – as well as the angles and vertical plane of the hammers checked. The action is then regulated to a high standard. Once that is completed the instrument is played to check its movement and to get an overall picture of the tone.
Voicing is the artistic part of the work of a piano technician. We work with the resilience or elasticity of the hammers to achieve a good tone. In the Hamburg hammer, this voicing is performed by punching needles into the hammer felt.
Needling different areas of the hammers achieves different results. A new hammer that is too hard produces a reasonable sound when played softly, but the tone deteriorates when playing louder. The tone is often described as “closed” and lacking in projection.
The technique of the voicer, the speed of how the needles are punched into the felt and the musical ideas of the technician all have a role in how the piano will sound. Each technician creates their own sound with this voicing, and this first voicing is the most important as it sets up the character of the instrument.
After attending a course at Steinway in 2009, I had an idea of how the pre-voicing should be performed. Sample hammers were needled to find a suitable gauge of how many needles would be needed to be inserted in the hammer felts.
Jan challenged me and suggested I experiment with these hammers to see what could be achieved in the needling process. Steinway has a recommended number of needles that the hammers should receive, however Jan suggested I double the number of needles to experiment with the sound. We decided that it would be a great learning experiment that would either end with good results or ruin an expensive set of hammers.
I took Jan up on his challenge. I ended up voicing the hammers by feel instead of counting punches and I found I could adapt from one hammer to another as each piece of hammer felt had a slightly different feel.
I decided to punch my 7mm needles into the hammers at double the conservative number that Steinway says is the minimum – and in the process I inserted over 40 000 needles into the hammers. My shoulders ached for days after this process. But the results were amazing!
Needling the hammers changes the shape of the hammers, so the hammers are then reshaped with 3 different gauges of sandpaper. After all this needling and reshaping, the piano action is placed back into the piano and each note is listened to both individually as well as part of an overall picture of the sound of the instrument.
More needling and reshaping is performed until the tone is consistent throughout the instrument and meets the standards required of a sweet sound at a soft level responding to the needs of the musician, as well as producing a powerful sound that is not harsh when played loudly.
After the pre-voicing, the piano is generally taken up to the factory to the “playing-in machine”. This machine is located in a sound-proof room, and plays each note over 10 000 times to season the hammer in readiness for the next stage of voicing of the instrument.
As the factory was operating at capacity, my piano could not find a time slot to be taken to the playing-in room, so my instrument was just as it is in the real world. After regulation of the playing mechanism (which requires approximately 25 adjustments per note) and my work being constantly checked by Jan, it was time to tune the instrument before the final voicing.
Steinway prefers aural tuning in the factory and in the field, instead of the new trend of tuning by computer. They believe this helps the technician get an overall view of the tone of the instrument.
Final voicing of the instrument is a continuation of the pre-voicing process, however it requires a further refining of the technician’s methods and being more discriminate with their opinions.
For the pianist, the key is pushed down and the hammer raises and strikes the strings and produces the required tone. The regulation of the piano action can affect the tone, as well as how the hammer strikes the strings. The hammer must touch the three strings at the same moment, and this is where the refinement starts through the detailed work of the voicing technician.
Each string must be horizontally level. In voicing, there may be some instances identified where the strings may not be fully horizontal, so the hammers have to be fitted to the strings. This is performed by removing small amounts of felt on the hammer.
Hammers change shape from playing, which may require adjustments to the felt. In addition, felt is a material that can change as a result of humidity changes, so the adjustment work can be a constant process until the technician is satisfied with the sound. Each string can produce a different sound, so strings are listened to individually and the hammer needled to even out the tone.
I discussed parts of the course I had experienced in 2009 and highlighted that Steinway had slightly changed the voicing technique from the previous course. We experimented with some hammers using the previous method compared to the latest approach and found there was a slight but distinct change in the sound.
This course was the most challenging course that I have attended in all my years of training. The challenge came from the dual requirement to perform at a significantly higher technical standard, as well as to trust my instincts for piano preparation rather than simply perform by rote or numbers. It was time to take the leap from technical excellence to mastery.
Through this course I reached a point where I could say “I get this now” in every fibre of my being, and know that all of my decades of lessons and experiences finally made sense.
Jan pushed my comprehension of the subject to a new level as well as gave me the skills and confidence to work at the higher level.
The New York Sound Revisited
One of the other significant learnings I had from this Fellowship was the realisation that I have the ability to remember sounds with great clarity – even if the sounds were decades apart or geographically dispersed.
During the course, I inspected the Hamburg hire fleet. These instruments are prepared exceptionally well, and like London, they are constantly being refined to be kept at the highest performance level.
One instrument was particularly interesting, a concert piano that is referred as K262. The list of pianists who have played this instrument is impressive.
It is an instrument that was built in New York, and has the option of a New York action or a Hamburg action fitted to it. The technician responsible for this instrument, Jan Kittel, was sent to New York to learn the voicing of the New York hammers.
The hirer can ask for the piano with either the New York or the Hamburg action – so there are two different sounds with this instrument. As I listened to the sound of the piano, I commented that the piano sounded like a New York piano that was made slightly European. Herr Kittel was amused, as many pianists had mentioned the same characteristics.
The conclusion reached was that it must be the voicers concept of sound that ultimately affects the overall instrument. It is empowering to know that when a technician has the opportunity to replace a hammer assembly, that his/her technique in the voicing process has an important part in the musicality of the instrument. That aspect was not taught to me in my apprenticeship and it is one of my lasting lessons from this Fellowship.
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
The opportunity to travel overseas as part of this Fellowship and learn piano service techniques from the world’s best piano technicians has been the highlight of my career.
The piano tuning industry in Australia is very small and there is little opportunity for ongoing training. Australian piano technicians have to look to their colleagues to further their skills or to travel overseas to further their knowledge.
The piano tuning industry within Australia needs to consider support for ongoing educational development and pathways for learning. Our industry is no different to any other industry, in that technicians need regular ongoing learning and development to keep our skills and techniques current – in as much the same way that the pianos we work on need regular and ongoing work to be able to perform at their best. New piano technicians need exposure to the full suite of instruments they could potentially be called upon to work with.
The level of training I was looking for is non-existent in Australia – with the only high level training options available being through piano factories overseas. A relationship with a piano brand is required as one of the key factors in obtaining training at these factories. If that relationship does not exist, then gaining the higher level skills needed is nearly impossible. This limits the developmental success of non-aligned or independent piano technicians.
SPARE PARTS OBSERVATIONS
One of the ongoing frustrations for piano technicians in Australia, is the time that it takes for genuine spare parts to reach our shores. It is not unheard of for a replacement part to take 3-4 months from time of order to time of arrival in Australia. This leaves the instrument out of action for significant periods of time, and encourages piano technicians to fit non-genuine parts merely to get the instrument operational again.
One of the observations I made with each piano factory I visited was the stock of spare parts held on hand. Each location held replacement parts based on the instruments in their geographic area. If a University or performing orchestra was within an area – additional parts were held in stock. This reduced the delay between a part being needed and the part being fitted.
I also observed a strong connection between the retail side of selling a concert piano and the servicing side. Pianos were not sold as a single commodity item. Purchasers were made aware that owning a concert piano also came with the requirement of regular servicing.
Where multiple pianos were sold to a purchaser, they were strongly advised of the recommended spare parts for them to hold in stock – just in case of emergency. Universities, Music Schools and Professional Music Associations who held a large inventory of pianos, were encouraged to hold spare parts for these instruments. These parts included spare strings, case parts especially hinges and other hardware, hammer assemblies and other action parts.
Australian piano retailers have not generally adopted these approaches. They stop at the point of sale, which means that often the purchasers are not aware of the significant ongoing budget costs for maintenance and repairs.
It is akin to the motor industry of 15 years ago within Australia – where sales stopped at the door of the showroom. The motor industry underwent a shake-up, realising that help consumers maintain their vehicles, was in everyone’s best interest. Car companies built in-house service centres and stocked spare parts in-house. This allowed a streamlining of service times, reduced cost and better maintained vehicles.
Concert pianos are no different to high-performance cars. You cannot drive a high-performance car off the showroom floor, drive it hard for a year and not expect ongoing maintenance and adjustments.
As an industry, we need to rethink our service and spare-parts models. Concert pianos are a significant investment for any purchaser. We need to help them understand and budget for the true ongoing costs of ownership.
We also need to help purchasers to have genuine spare parts fitted, through more streamlined supply chains. It has happened with other industries – it is time for our industry to follow suit.
REFLECTIONS ON OUR ROLE
The role of the piano technician is to allow the piano artist to play the music not the piano.
Mastery as a piano technician comes from knowing the core techniques to a high degree of expertise – combined with trusting intuition and feel. It is not something that can be taught – but has to be experienced.
Mastery also comes from self-mastery in terms of professional approach, demeanour, ability to form relationships and attitude. Many piano technicians adopt a prima-donna approach to their work, whereas the true maestro is the one that is confident in their abilities, friendly and approachable and truly professional in everything they do. They never cut corners. Are always striving to learn more and are generous in sharing their wisdom and insight.
Piano technicians need to be able to balance twin relationships: to have a relationship and understanding of the particular piano being working on, as well as having a relationship with the pianist so that they can achieve a good performance.
Our role is to do whatever it takes to allow the instrument to present its best light. Each instrument is a constant work in progress. There is always more that can be refined and improved with each instrument – in as much the same way as each athlete works with high performance coaches to make continuous micro improvements to their technique and approach.
The ultimate result of an instrument that has been well tuned, voiced and repaired is that the work completed is invisible to the naked eye, and the instrument left in mint showroom condition.
The local industry has less confidence in our local piano tuners that have been trained overseas than Steinway and Sons has in the students that they train. This could be partially due to the “outside expert” syndrome, or it could be that many of our technicians still operate by rote and not mastery.
I am not ashamed to admit that until this Fellowship, although I had technical excellence and decades of experience I had not fully stepped up to the highest standards possible and into mastery as a piano technician. I did not know what I did not know, and genuinely believed that I was as skilled as I could get.
This Fellowship has taken me to a level of excellence that I had not known was within me and I look forward to letting my results speak for themselves in the pianos that I now prepare.
KEY LESSONS & RECOMMENDATIONS FROM THIS FELLOWSHIP
- That piano technicians need to respect the recommended service approaches of each individual piano manufacturer. Each recommended approach is founded on delivering and maintaining a particular sound that is founded in history and the culture of the country of origin of an instrument. Non-genuine service approaches are similar to non-genuine parts in cars. They may be appropriate for everyday cars, but are not appropriate for high-performance vehicles. Concert pianos are the high performance vehicles of the piano world and need to be treated with respect and care.
- There is distinct difference between New York Steinways and Hamburg Steinways. Each requires their own unique form of preparation to ensure the best possible results. You can’t prepare a New York Steinway with the same approach as a Hamburg Steinway. It is akin to asking a left-handed person to only write with their right hand. It is possible, but does not deliver results without a lot of pain and heartache to the person/instrument being changed and reduces their natural potential.
- I would like to see more New York Steinways in Australia. I suspect the sounds of these instruments are more culturally aligned with the musical preferences emerging from the Australian culture. It would be ideal to have pianists test and select from both New York and Hamburg Steinways – to find the sound that best fits their personal musical approach and cultural heritage.
- The New York method of hardening the felt on hammers with chemical hardeners has strong potential application in Queensland where felt is often softened by humidity. This needs to be tested in our local conditions on general pianos (although concert Hamburg Steinway pianos need to retain their traditional felt treatment approaches).
- Piano manufacturers need to either invest in spare-parts warehousing within Australia of key parts, or invest in improved supply chains to reduce waiting times for genuine parts. One option is for an enterprising business to become the spare-parts on-seller within Australia for all major brands. Another option includes simple product order fulfilment through one of the myriad 3PL order fulfilment companies within Australia if the factory does not wish a standalone presence within Australia.
- The industry needs to consider forming alliances with all major piano factories, to enable access to training for independent or non-aligned piano tuners. If we can’t supply the training within our industry within Australia, we need to be able to facilitate access to training wherever it is located within the world.
I look forward to sharing the knowledge gained from this Fellowship through a keynote address at Australasian Piano Tuners & Technicians Association (APTTA) biennial convention in Sydney in October, as well as offering lectures within the Member States of this Association.
I also am more than happy to share advice and my experiences directly with people with an interest in concert pianos – whether that is trainee piano technicians, members of the public or music professionals seeking the correct way to maintain their instruments.
Ulrich Gerhatz taught me that information is to be shared – not squirrelled away. That by sharing our knowledge – everyone benefits.