Friday, 30 March 2012

Is it Safe?

My old school had a Bechstein Grand in the hall. From time to time, the piano had to be moved from one end of the hall to the other. But there was a slight problem: the piano suffered from a couple of weak legs. A whole class of boys were stationed around the piano, and as a group, lifted it and carefully carried it across the hall. Health & Safety would have something to say about this now, but back in the 'dark ages', nobody bothered about such things!

Although I did not play the piano at the time, I was always fascinated by the piano and loved to look inside at the strings and at the dampers moving up and down as the piano was played. I little knew that one day I'd be sent to work on this very piano!

A few years after leaving the school, and as a newly qualified piano tuner, I was called in to sort out a problem with the piano legs. The school was concerned that from time to time, the piano had to be moved from one end of the hall to the other. For some reason, now was the time to sort it out! Life in the provinces always moves at a sensible pace - after all, what's the hurry?

So I walked into my old school, feeling quite the expert. Marched up to the very same piano I had heard being played just about every day of my school life, the very same piano I had actually helped to move across the hall a few times. Sure enough, the problem with the legs had not gone away: the piano was as unsafe as ever. 

Bechstein Grands of this age have legs that simply screw into the underside of the piano. The screw is part of the hardwood core of the leg and is about 6 cms. in diameter. I tightened up all three legs and the piano was as safe as it could ever be! The job was done in under 5 minutes!

I am sure the piano had been 'weak on the legs' for at least 6 years. Remarkable - miraculous that nobody, to my knowledge, had ever been injured by this unsafe piano!

Many years later, I was helping moving pianos around a warehouse. Piano warehouses often get so clogged up with pianos that invariably, the one you need to work on, is over in the far corner 'buried' behind 4 or 5 others. 

We came to move an old Broadwood Grand. There was a problem with one of the legs - but I didn't know it at the time! The pedals had not yet been fitted either - perhaps there was a problem with them as well! Of course, as luck would have it, when we tried to move the piano, the leg that gave out was the one nearest me. 

When piano legs break, there is no cartoon-like pause before the inevitable crash, no luxury of any thinking time. I looked down at the treble end of the piano, now resting heavily on the concrete floor and noticed - with relief, that my foot was about an inch from where the brute had hit the ground!

When pianos have to be moved, there is very good reason to be aware of Health & Safety!

The Piano World

© Steve Burden 

Monday, 26 March 2012


In days of old, tuners used to sign their name and write the tuning dates inside the piano, usually on the back of the keys where it was unseen by the owner. Occasionally, there might be the added comment, "Raised pitch." or "C = 522", or even, "C = 517"!

These notes, written in classic piano tuner's scribble, can take some deciphering but they are a reliable record of the piano's service history. Early in my career I used to tune a piano that had a complete list of tuning dates since the piano was new in about 1912, up until the 1930s. The tuning interval was generally every four months - with a few six-month gaps here and there. There was writing on nearly every key!

By way of contrast, a particular customer prepared for my arrival by taking the parts off the piano himself, and, just for my benefit, had written an A4 size sign which read: "NOTICE TO THE PIANO TUNER, DO NOT WRITE ON MY PIANO". A previous tuner had signed his name in it and was never asked to tune it again! The customer was a fascinating character - a very good pianist, full of amazing stories from the 1940s and 50s. He bought his piano in Bristol during the war, the day after an air raid!

Anyway, he was both proud and very fond of his piano, and wanted to keep it in as immaculate a condition as possible. There was no need for him to worry about my signing his piano - I have signed or initialled only about 5 pianos during my entire career - his, was not one of them!

While repairing a George Rogers piano a year or so ago, I found, on the underside of one of the keys, the hand-written words 'Glazebrook Pianos'. Now, I don't know if there is a family link, but there were Glazebrooks involved at Steinways! Whoever wrote on the underside of the key was very coy about what he was writing - only a tuner with reason to lift out that particular key would ever see it. Why bother?

The writing in some of these old pianos, does give them a social setting and a hint of the community history that goes with it. These scribbles on the inside of a piano, are authentic written records of the relationships built up between tuners, their clients and their pianos.

© Steve Burden