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Monday, 30 December 2013

A Good Piano

A good piano seems to invite a passing pianist to sit and play. Piano manufacturers like a Steinway, Bluthner, Bechstein, Fazioli, Bosendorfer etc. all have established reputations to maintain, and they continue to produce highly respected pianos which are greatly treasured by their owners! 

The search for a good piano usually eliminates the lesser-known, relatively inexpensive pianos. But many very fine pianos have faithfully served their owners and given hours and hours of music-making pleasure to all who appreciate piano music even though the name on the front may not be widely known.   

It is a mistake for pianists with more modest means, to think that buying a really good piano has to cost a fortune. For the more fortunate, no price is too much to pay for a particular piano. For most, the best piano available for a given cost will have to do. Interestingly, expensive does not guarantee 'good' and a low price does not always mean wasted money. There are so many variables with pianos that dogmatic generalisations are unhelpful. Seek advice where possible.

Popular opinion seems to prefer a grand piano over an upright piano. As a general rule however, a good upright piano is better than an average grand piano. A baby grand piano is chosen as much for its elegant looks as for its value as a piano. If you are wanting to spend a fixed amount of money on a baby grand OR an upright piano, almost certainly, the upright will be a better piano than the grand.

In days of old, to categorise grand pianos, odd names were used e.g. boudoir grands, semi-grands, cottage grands and mini grands. All had clear meanings when these pianos were sold originally, but today manufacturers generally distinguish their grand pianos by giving their size. The exceptions might be the terms Baby Grand and Concert Grand.

The very best pianos will always be expensive to buy. Most people manage to come to terms with the best piano they can afford. Dreams of one day buying a Steinway or something similar is not so out of place. Some dreams come true!  

How a Piano Works

The piano perfectly pairs mechanical movement with an infinite range of dynamics of sound. This pairing is made possible by the precision engineering of the piano action and keys, and the wonderful rich tones of vibrating strings. At the heart of the piano, the sound-board projects the sound of vibrating strings after they have been struck by the hammers of the action.

 Wood is meticulously chosen for its acoustic properties and harvested only when a tree is ‘ready’. Foresters are specially trained to know the 'signs' that indicate when a tree is ready! For uninitiated observers, one tree will look pretty much the same as any other, but an expert knows the appropriate time to fell the tree.

Manufacturers like to keep their methods to themselves. Some believe their specifications and particular methods give their pianos a unique sound and tone, and so they are keen to protect their ideas from being copied. 

Glued to the sound-board is a wooden ‘bridge’ linking the strings to the soundboard. Every string passes over the bridge and is kept firmly in position by locating 'bridge-pins' which define one end of the ‘speaking-length’ of the string. The metal frame is fitted - attached around the edges of the soundboard, leaving the soundboard to vibrate freely. 

The frame provides the anchor-points for the strings which travel from the tuning-pin, through an agraffe or over what defines the beginning of the speaking length of the string, across the central part of the soundboard, to the 'bridge' (the end of the speaking length) and finally to the hitch-pin. 

The soundboard is slightly convex in shape. This and the tension of the strings when tuned, produces a sensitive and highly charged unit at the core of the piano. 

The action and the keyboard - dealt with in another post here, are the mechanical link between the pianist and the sounds created by the vibrating strings. 

'How a piano works' is too complicated an issue to cover in a few paragraphs. This post is a general overview and I hope will help give the beginning of a clear understanding of the workings of a piano.

The Piano World

© Steve Burden  

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Erard Pianos

Born at Strasbourg in 1752, Sebastian Erard showed a remarkable capacity for learning. Even when he was just 8 years old, he was studying architecture and geometry. In 1768, his father died. At only 16 years of age, Sebastian took upon himself the responsibility to provide for his mother and 3 siblings. 
He travelled on foot to Paris, looking for work that would pay enough to support his mother back home in Strasbourg. He found work with a harpsichord maker who could not have known that he would be introducing an extraordinarily talented young man to his destiny. Sebastian quickly became passionate about the harpsichord, and, equipped with his natural curiosity, began probing the theories of harpsichord design. In a very short time his shrewd questions required far more sophisticated answers than his employer could supply.
The Duchess of Villeroy had engaged him to build a harpsichord, giving him the use of a well equipped workshop in her palace. It was here, in 1777,  he built his first piano. With growing confidence and with his ambitions taking shape, he opened premises in his own name in the ‘Rue de Bourbon’ Paris. 
Soon, an order was sent for Erard to make a piano for Versailles. Erard’s flourishing connections with the upper ranks of the French aristocracy securely established his reputation. With his natural abilities, his astute business brain and his connexions, he had become a formidable figure in Paris. 
At this time, the theories determining an efficient piano mechanism were not clearly understood, the current examples were still very primitive. It was Sebastian Erard with his meticulous attention to detail who formulated the principles of the modern grand piano action.
In 1786, he decided to move to London where he opened a shop at 18 Great Marlborough Street. Setting up a business in London was a golden opportunity to conquer a fresh market. Erard studied the English methods of piano manufacture, and was eager to adapt what he felt were the best methods and practices. He began producing his own pianos in 1792. 

The principles he laid down for the design of the piano mechanism, remain the basis for all modern grand piano actions. Despite the huge advances of technology over the 19th & 20th centuries, his work still stands as steadfast as ever. 

Universal approval of his work took some time to establish. Differing opinions are always interesting to read as they give some context to the debates of the time. Quoted here is an opinion that seems to have been judged more on issues of patriotism than on the objective merits of the case. 
Thirty-six years after Erard had died, a Heinrich Welcker, who did not like French pianos, wrote of the Erard action: “Generally speaking, the action manufactured by Sebastian Erard figures as the oldest and most highly praised sort. Indeed, it is difficult to understand how such a put-up job, combining neither durability nor precision, could possibly have been copied by others, show that Mr. Erard did not have much of a head for mechanical things, but perhaps a great deal of money for people to sing his praises”.
Sebastian Erard died in 1831. His legacy to the piano world was his work with the piano action. To this day, his action is used as the basic template for the modern day piano actions! Erard Pianos are sadly, no longer made.

Directory of Piano Makers

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Grotrian Pianos - A short History

Grotrian Pianos are among the very best piano makers in the world. Since 1866, with a simple 'love of music' as their guiding principle, the family-owned Grotrian piano company has navigated the stormy seas of history and, with a dogged commitment to sheer craftsmanship, they have faced and overcome the challenges of industrial and economic change.

Fredrich Grotrian was born in Braunschweig in 1803 and in 1830 left Germany to establish a music business in Moscow. Maintaining close relationships with many pianists, he sought to understand what pianists look for in a piano. This knowledge was invaluable when he came to be building his own pianos. On his return to Germany1858, Fredrich became partner of a piano factory. 

In 1866, Wilhelm Grotrian became the sole proprietor of the factory and was able to develop his pianos with no outside or conflicting interests. In 1895, his sons Willi and Kurt became partners. To impart his straightforward purpose in making pianos, Wilhem said to his sons, "Lads, build good pianos and the rest will take care of itself." 

Willi and Kurt were sent on an international journey to gain experience in piano building, learning as they went what it meant to 'build good pianos!' They combined the best of their newly acquired knowledge with the craftsmanship inherent in Germany and soon established a golden reputation for quality and tone. 

The Grotrian piano factory was completely destroyed in the Second World War, but thanks to the perseverance and courage of Helmut and Erwin Grotrian, the sons of Kurt Grotrian, production was restored very soon after the war.

In 1974, a new factory was built iin 'Grotrian Street' in Braunschweig - where all Grotrian pianos are manufactured today.

Personal note: from a tuner/technicians viewpoint, I have always found these pianos a delight to work on. Invariably, the build quality and tone is superb and, most important of all, they are a pleasure to play

Directory of Piano Makers



Sunday, 22 December 2013

Looking for A Suitable Piano?

It might be unreasonable to upgrade your piano every year or so, but if a young student shows promise at playing the piano, ensuring the talent always has room to grow will involve discussions about suitable pianos. A starter piano is just that: it will get a young player started. A keen and talented student who has to work with a 'starter piano' will constantly be fighting frustration and discouragement.

Piano Exams mark the student's progress through to competent musicianship. The higher grades, obviously demand greater ability than the lower grades but there is a corresponding suitability gap between a piano that is just good enough for the elementary grades and one that is fully adequate for the more advanced grades.

The world of pianos is thick with variations of good and bad: good tone, bad action; good action, bad tone; light touch; heavy touch; responsive; unresponsive; bright tone; mellow tone; brand new; worn out; playable; unplayable! The list is endless. No sane person would ever try literally to document every aspect of every piano ever made. However, in a subtle and informal way, the pianos we encounter help us to make judgements and form preferences that reflect our tastes and style of playing.

There is no list of pianos that could be universally held to be the definitive guide to suitable pianos. Guidelines and statistics are all a list can offer. Due to the nature of pianos no two of them are alike. Even statistical facts are no proof or guarantee of satisfaction or suitability.

Choosing a suitable piano will always come down to the best value-for-money piano on offer. Get as much advice as you can find. Talk to your tuner. Pin-point as clearly as you can what you are looking for in a piano, e.g. tone, responsiveness of action, casework etc. Happy hunting!

The Piano World


Thursday, 19 December 2013

After the Tuning...

When tuning is finished, a tuner likes to be able to play the piano - after all those octaves, chords and repetitions, it is a relief to hear it sounding so much more like a real piano! Different tuners use different pieces for this kind of mini 'encore' at the end of the 'main program'.

At the moment, for my 'encore' I have been working on my own versions of Danny Boy and Waltz for Debbie. Both these pieces open themselves up to endless improvisation and encourage constant rethinking - fresh approaches seem to queue up for recognition.

Today, I noticed something I was not previously conscious of: The subtle changes from my more usual rendition were shaped by the piano I was playing!

The particular piano was an old Bluthner upright. Any tuner will tell you that these old pianos have a remarkably good tone. This one was no exception but although some neat action-work had been done, the action response was less than good.

I do not pretend, even to myself, that my technique is so very good - a better player than myself could easily make this old bird sing with its intrinsic beauty. My point today is that for most average players, if they are working on a piano in similar condition, fatigue will very quickly discourage persistence.

Today, after my 2 party pieces, I was done. The piano was tuned, my pieces were played and I'd had enough. By contrast, The other day I tuned a Knight K10. After tuning, and my little 'encore' was duly played, I was just warming up! I continued playing until I had to pack up my kit to get to my next call. When I stopped to put the piano back together, there was a little applause from upstairs - and an invitation to stay, and play all day! The difference was that the Knight was in excellent playing order, the Bluthner was not. 

If we want young players to know the spark of inspiration, to feel the rush of piano-creativity running through their fingers, we ought to provide the kinds of pianos that have the 'keys' to the kingdom of piano-playing!

Tuner's Journal


Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Dear Tuner's Blog… #1 (Tuning Stability)

If you have a question for The Tuner's Blog, please leave a question here.

Dear Tuner's Blog, 
Our School Piano never stays in tune for very long. It was bought brand new about 10 years ago, and has never settled down. Buying a new piano, we expected it would at least hold its tuning, but we have been disappointed and find it hard to understand. Could you please explain what is going on here. Thanks,

Tuner's Blog replies

There are many reasons why a piano will not hold its tune. A piano could be affected by one or by the whole list of these reasons. The number of possible combinations and variations of these problems, while not infinite, is very large, so reducing a reply to a universally applied single reason is impossible.

Tuning stability will depend on:
  1. The condition of the piano strings 
  2. The piano being kept in a piano-friendly environment
  3. The piano being in good mechanical condition.

With a new piano, (10 years old makes this still a very young piano!) one can expect the strings NOT to be a problem.  

Pianos are not generally moved about, they are almost considered a fixture. In a School, the hall often becomes a thoroughfare. A piano will not take kindly to coping with all the temperature fluctuations that even humans would find uncomfortable. This is bound to affect tuning stability.

The mechanical condition of the piano is probably where most tuning stability mischief has its source. Every moving part of the piano action, directly or indirectly, has an impact on tuning stability. Poor alignment of parts, sluggish centres, even dried-out grease where springs are in contact with action parts, all affect how the hammer strikes the string and consequently, on the tone and tuning. 

With a newish piano, there will be nothing wrong with the design of the action, there will be little or nothing that can visibly be pointed at and accused of being the root of the problem. Getting what is a very sophisticated piece of engineering to work flawlessly takes many hours of skilled labour at the piano factory. If this close-up attention to detail is not done - despite whatever quality controls there may be - in the end, the poor customer has to deal with the upshot.

Very few modern pianos with tuning stability issues cannot be vastly improved by going the 'extra mile' in getting the basics right. It is frustrating that manufacturers and retailers can be so focused on pushing pianos through their doors that they seem to care very little about whether or not the piano is really ready to go.

For the end users: private owners, schools etc. a bad taste is left in the mouth! They ought not to be spending more money before they can properly enjoy the piano they bought!•

© Steve Burden

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Straight Talk to Piano Owners

Piano owners are often left confused if their tuner or technician tells them their piano - a loved and valued heirloom - is worthless. Explaining all the unhappy truths of the piano world is not going to happen today, but let's make a start! The piano industry has made its fair share of mistakes. These blunders make it difficult for the piano-owning public to know what is good or bad advice.

Many piano owners hope that an old piano can be made good for as little as £50. This, very definitely, is a false hope. A piano that has been neglected for 10 years or so and brought into the house from the garage with the expectation that after a tune, all will be well, is a piano that will provide only frustration.

Frequently asked questions about the potential of a given piano, will quite understandably, raise the issue of cost. One piano was described as having been attacked by moth! How much to fix this? Another has a number of notes that stick - making the piano virtually unplayable! How much to fix this? An old piano has a number of broken strings! How much to fix these?

The grim reality with all these problems is that none of them are properly sorted without spending what can easily stack up to a considerable amount of money. It is not easy, without the risk of upsetting someone, to communicate that their piano is beyond viable hope.

Then, there are pianos that look fine but are not! The development of the piano was largely complete by 1900. Since then, focus of further development has been more on materials and methods of construction. The use of plastic in the action and keys became quite widespread in the UK during the 1970s, though, thankfully, most of the better quality pianos stuck to more traditional materials.

As a result, here in the UK, even pianos that date from 1970s - and so cannot be described as being old - have serious problems that puts them in need of serious and expensive work, while some others are simply beyond sensible repair.

This makes it very difficult for the piano owner to understand why their beautiful little 'modern' piano should be written off so glibly, or given a value so low that they have to give it away.

The piano world is a confusing and unforgiving place. Buyer, beware! Before being persuaded to part with lots of money for a purchase or a repair, try to get quality, informed and impartial help. 

Pianos are to be cherished and enjoyed, they are not supposed to be a source of regret and dissatisfaction.  

The Piano World 


Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Collard & Collard

The history of Collard & Collard begins around 1760. The story starts with a Music Publishing Company called Longmann & Broderip who dabbled in making pianos. Muzio Clementi, whose many compositions were published by Longmann & Broderip was interested in having a piano-making facility and, being wealthy, he invested in the piano factory and broughtt in his associates F.W. & W.P Collard to manage it.

Clementi traveled widely and sold Pianos along with his compositions. Orders were sent back to London from wherever Clementi visited - he was a very shrewd businessman. At this time, the company was called Clementi & Company. 

F.W. Collard introduced improvements to their pianos, on the strength of which, they took a significant share of the market. When Clementi died in 1832, the firm became known as Collard & Collard. By this time the pianos were solidly built by craftsmen had a proven reliability.

The Diary of a Nobody  was published in 1892, written by George & Weeden Grossmith. (We may be forgiven for thinking nobody ever did anything on their own back then!) The Diary of a Nobody is a classic of English literature, telling the story of a Mr. Charles Pooter and describes mundane life in late Victorian England. One anecdote involves a new cottage piano - bought on the three years' system, manufactured by W. Bilkson (in small letters) from Collard & Collard (in very large letters). Collards were by this time at least a well-known household name.

Collard & Collard had established themselves as makers of good quality and reliable pianos. They continued to be popular well into the early 20th century. In the late 1920s the piano trade was having to adjust to the harsh realities of very poor sales. Many long-established makers had to close, those whose 'names' were deemed to have value were bought by the stronger of the surviving companies.

Collard & Collard was eventually bought by Chappells.

Directory of Piano Makers

© Steve Burden

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

An Artist with a Pencil & Paper

While tuning pianos, automatically, you meet with artistic people. Recently, while finishing a repair job for an 'artist' customer, she asked if, as part of her daily drawing regime, she could sketch me working on the piano. As I was moving all the time - lifting out the keys one by one during the regulating process of the repair - I thought I'd make a poor subject but was surprised this did not seem to matter!

She kindly sent me a copy when she was done and I publish it below. Incredible that a few minutes work with just a pencil and paper can capture the moment with such atmosphere and charm! Thank you Karen...

Drawn by Karen Wallis
Karen is an established artist and involved with the local artist scene here in Bath. Watch: What's the Point of Drawing? This is a discussion of the role and relevance of drawing - an event recorded at Bath in October 2012

P.S. A few days later: Piano back together

The Piano World

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Piano Tuning as a Career

Piano Tuning is unlikely to be top of the list of potential careers for a school leaver. The promise of great wealth just isn't there, a commanding status among your peers is not included in the package either. So what is it that makes people go into this strange and, slightly cranky profession?

Piano Tuning - for those seeking adventure!

Of course, piano tuning is not a job that would suit everyone: fussing over whether a C# is a tiny bit flat or not, will not trouble most of the piano-playing public, but if you relish the thought of getting a standard piano as close to perfectly in tune as is possible while using little more than your ears, then Piano Tuning could be for you.

Life never throws the great treasures of experience at the feet of new-comers to the trade. Indeed it is during the early years of a career that the heavy and difficult building blocks of the job as a whole, are put into place. Persevere through these tough times with a growing focus on the prize, and you are the road to success.

Piano Tuning is one of those jobs in which one never stops learning. There are always better ways of doing things. There are greater depths of understanding how the piano action works, so that just by playing a chord, you can know how a given piano is going to respond to tuning. Further improvement of skills and understanding follows every stride forward. 

Just now, it is unclear how the Piano Trade is going to deal with the challenges of the next few decades. Sadly, a poorly-trained workforce will only accelerate an overall decline. Somehow, we in the trade have to look ahead, plan and work hard to save our crucial part of piano culture and our unique set of skills and abilities.

Tuners Journal