Sunday, 17 June 2012

Prestige, Priorities and Pianos.

Imagine: a posh, exclusive hotel - the perfect setting for just about any kind of event - with extensive and flawlessly kept grounds, an award winning restaurant, golf courses, conference facilities... and a piano! 

In a corner of the dining room is a double-overstrung Ibach baby grand piano. It is not ancient, but if there were an 'MOT' Test for pianos, this one would fail. It needs re-stringing and a lot of careful rebuilding work before it could once again give worthy credit to the Ibach name.

In spite of its condition the piano plays fairly well, and though tuned rather infrequently, when it is tuned the tone proves the old rule that a 'quality' piano can sound good and play acceptably, even when it is in a bad state of repair. 

I was told that, at quite a considerable cost, the lid had recently been re-polished! Sure enough, the lid was beautifully French polished and looked as good as new. But am I alone in thinking the money was spent on the wrong part of the piano?

The guests pay good money to sit and eat in the 'award-winning' restaurant. Whether the top of the piano looks nice, is of no consequence to someone who cringes at the unharmonious sounds coming from the piano! I know I fuss about these things but a top restaurant is about good food - the clean plates and cutlery are taken for granted. Pianos made to look nice without a thought of what they sound like, is the same as serving poor food on clean plates.  

In such an exclusive hotel, where the best of everything is on offer, it is sad that a tired, old piano is considered good enough to entertain the guests as they enjoy award-winning food in such prestigious surroundings. 

Ah well, they might have got the piano wrong but at least they got the super-luxurious paper towels in the toilets right! 

To achieve an air of real class and prestige, surely the choice of piano ought to be a  little higher on the priority list!
© Steve Burden

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Piano Actions

The piano action is made up of thousands of components but its one single purpose is to present the pianist with an even and responsive touch. The repertoire of piano music can be played with so much more confidence and freedom when the pianist knows the full range of dynamic expression is at his fingertips. 

In the early days of piano history, fierce competition fuelled efforts to develop a strong, reliable piano action and to do it with efficient and economic methods of manufacture. The basic design of the piano action today is not significantly different from what it was 120 years ago. For a hundred years, generations of piano makers have been entrusted with a perfect working template.

Action makers in the early 1900s achieved an impressive degree of perfection - all  without the aid of computer technology. Even now, only minor variations in the comparative geometry of actions from different makers distinguish one from the other. Changes now, are restricted mostly to materials and glues. The use of carbon fibre is a most interesting development - clearly, the material's strength, coupled with its weight (or lack of it) opens exciting possibilities for its wider use in the construction of both piano and actions. 

The drawings of some of the early actions by the likes of Schroter (1717), Christofori (1707), and Stein (1780) are only primitive sketches. Very different from what the piano action has become. No doubt, these brave pioneers spent many tense hours thinking up new ideas and alternative ways to transfer the simple movement of the piano key through to the hammer and thus, to the string.

By 1850, Sebastian Erard had developed the piano action to the point of being recognised as more or less, the design used today. Further 'variations on the same theme' were tried, some proved useful, but many came to nothing. Herburger, Schwander, Langer, and Renner were among the best of the many action 'houses'. Actions made by these makers are found in many of the better quality pianos around today.

The recent rise of piano-making in China and the far east, has meant that the Piano Trade is now a truly global affair. It is sad for we nostalgic types in the west, where local piano-building traditions have all but died out, to accept that piano production has shifted almost entirely from the West to the East. This is the stark reality of our contemporary world. Materials are sourced from anywhere on the globe to make the piano a truly multi-national product. Perhaps it is too much to hope that peace and 'harmony' in the world might yet be a happy by-product from the manufacture of pianos!

The Piano World

© Steve Burden

Friday, 8 June 2012

Schiedmayer Pianos

The first Schiedmayer Piano was built around 1735 - still early days in the history of the piano. It is not known how Balthasar Schiedmayer, who was born in 1711, came to be building pianos but his name would be associated with piano-making of distinction and excellence long into the 21st century.

By 1845, the business was based in Stuttgart and headed by Johann Lorenz Schiedmayer who brought his sons into the business and changed the name to Schiedmayer and Soehne. 

The younger sons of Johann Lorenz, Julius and Paul, spent some time in London and Paris and eventually established themselves in Stuttgart around 1853 building harmoniums under the name of J & P Schiedmayer.

In 1860, when the harmonium market was saturated, the shrewd business decision was taken to concentrate solely on building pianos and thus the business name was changed to Schiedmayer Pianofabrik. 

A while back, I worked on a Schiedmayer Grand. It was very old - I reckon it was made about 1895. I have commented elsewhere that I do not think anyone should spend serious money on pianos of this age. For this piano, a day spent regulating the action so as to make the best of its existing state was as far as I was prepared to go.

I was impressed that though so old, this piano still has all the qualities of a respectable and durable piano. Reassuring to know that a quality instrument such as this Schiedmayer, used daily, continues to sing out its piano music with a good deal of finesse even after more than 100 years.

Directory of Piano Makers


Sunday, 3 June 2012

Piano Brochures

Brochures about New Pianos are littered with adjectives that imply a superiority of tone, craftsmanship, build quality, choice of materials, the range of models... on and on!

The unfortunate would-be buyer, has to learn a sort of code before coming close to making a decision. Then, when the piano is delivered, the tuner often has to 'iron out' the niggles and tweak the odd misbehaving notes before the customer feels he has made the right choice.

The most difficult part about using words and pictures to describe a piano, is that every piano is so different. Tastes are different. The process of choosing a particular piano is a deeply personal thing. Any attempt to narrow the decision down to a particular piano by simply reading a brochure, is doomed to meet with disappointment.

In a glossy brochure, references made to the piano maker's art, is little more than part of the overall intention to impress the reader. What does it really mean? Great skill and patience are essential to build a piano but building a piano is also an art. Craft, experience and a profound love of the work are the special ingredients needed to produce that spark of inspiration for the piano buyer. 

What buyers really need to know is that their choice will match their expectations.

As a tuner, I come across many new pianos. Sadly only a few of them get my 'thumbs-up' vote. This is not because I do not like new pianos, but because I am often disappointed myself with the condition of the piano when I get to tune it in the customer's house.

If I were spending serious money on a piano, I would feel justified in having high expectations - Isn't that what the brochures are trying inspire in the buyer? 

A while ago, a customer who bought a top name 'silent' piano, to replace a piano that was rather old and definitely inferior, said she regretted ever buying the new one! Why? Because it was not what she led to believe it was. This is not a customer who will go about saying she was 'completely satisfied' with the piano. 

Another customer bought a high-end and expensive piano. After the free tuning, she was less than overwhelmed with it - only to be told by the tuner/technician that she was being too fussy! 

Piano makers seem not to care about their pianos once in the hands of the retailer. Pianists are the buyers and users of pianos - if the goods supplied are poor, the demand will soon drain away. In the Piano Trade, we have a lot of work to do!  

The Piano World

© Steve Burden