Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Desert Island Luxury Item

The BBC Radio program ‘Desert Island Discs,’ created by Roy Plomley in 1941, has a very simple formula that works every time. A castaway is invited to share eight favourite records during what is usually, a relaxed discussion about the castaway’s life. At the end of the program, it is imagined that the castaway must choose one of the eight records to take to the island, and is also given the works of Shakespeare, a copy of the Bible, and (since 1951) one luxury item to make life on the island more bearable. Each of these choices reveal further layers of the cast-away’s personality.

The program has been going long enough to throw up some interesting statistics.

According to the  BBC’s website. From over 22,000 choices, the Castaways’ Top Tracks is
1. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor.
2. Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor. 

Notice that piano music ranked very highly! 

 The Castaways’ Top Composers
1. Mozart
2. Beethoven
3. Bach
4. Schubert
These guys are mostly associated with keyboard music!

According to the Telegraph, the top luxury item choice is a piano! What else would one choose?

This is music to the ears of all piano tuners. It shows that despite the convenience and ready availability of music these days, the piano holds a very special place in the lives of these castaways. The piano is the most interactive of musical instruments. The very principles that drove the piano’s development in the early 1700s, still attract the desire for self-expression.

It would be a good thing if it were made official: 
The Piano really is the top choice of luxury items!

The Piano World

© Steve Burden


Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Piano-making in UK.

Once again the less-than-perfect state of new pianos has been highlighted this week. This week, I have seen or worked on 4 pianos not yet 2 years old that have needed extra technical attention before they can be considered satisfactory. Nobody likes hearing the same old moan time and time again, but the customer has to live with the reality of their choice of piano. Most of these keen pianists are paying good money and are at a loss to understand why their pianos are not as good as was expected.

I have been reading Alastair Laurence's book Five London Piano Makers, and I am sure I have detected in the book, hints of a similar mood of disappointment. He says in his introduction, "The near total collapse of British piano making means that there seems to be little likelihood of those fascinating centres of musical workmanship - the small piano factories - ever being seen again on these shores."

Anyone who has worked in a piano workshop will know something of the atmosphere of constant and affectionate labour over the many apparently lifeless components of a piano. Workers feel a strange and invisible force urging them towards the later stages of repair work - that stage when the piano is touched with the magic of creativity and is now finished! Maybe in other professions, something of the same drive is at work, but wherever there are pianos and music, the mixture is intoxicating.

The fact that there are fewer 'centres of musical workmanship' in the UK is partly due to the poor standard of piano produced during the late 1970s. Piano makers were now competing with imported pianos from the far east which, frankly, were better. Cost cutting meant, the fine finishing of the pianos was cut to a minimum, thus bringing forward the eventual demise of the industry.

Alas, many of the cheaper imported pianos are as less-than-perfect as was the case in the UK in the late 1970s. The best we can do is to make good what we can and hope that one day finesse, better reliability and the positive feedback that should follow a piano purchase will be rather more common than it is today. Let us hope that the tide of piano-making doldrums might be on the turn! 

Whether what remains of the piano industry in the UK can get its act together strongly enough to meet the challenge remains to be seen. I share Alastair Laurence's finishing word of hope: "With luck, a new, younger generation of piano makers here will help to ensure the survival of piano-making skills in Britain throughout the twenty-first century." 

We have work to do!

The Piano World

© Steve Burden

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Welmar Pianos

The story of the Welmar piano begins at the end of the first world war. The hardships of the post-war economy gave the piano trade an uphill struggle as it sought to re-establish sales and profitability. Whelpdale and Maxwell began business in 1876 importing Bluthner pianos from Germany and until the war, they had built a strong business on the qualities of the Bluthner pianos. In 1919, the public were now unhappy about buying German pianos, and Whelpdale & Maxwell had to find an alternative source of income until the mood against German pianos had softened.

Cremona Ltd. of Camberwell, London, made pianos for the trade and used names like Squire & Longson, Ronson and Paul Newman. In 1919 Whelpdale & Maxwell commissioned Cremona Ltd to make pianos using the trade name Welmar.

The Cremona team continued to develop and improve their pianos - particularly the metal frame and the soundboard. But in 1929, disaster hit when the factory was burnt down. The company never recovered from the catastrophy and closed the business in 1934.

Whelpdale Maxwell & Codd (as it now was), managed to acquire the Cremona designs, jigs and templates and began making Cremona-designed pianos but using the Welmar name at a new factory at Clapham Park Road. 

Production continued at Clapham until 2001, when, at an extremely difficult time for the piano trade, all was moved for a short time, to Stroud in Gloucestershire.

The Welmar piano has always been appreciated by serious piano players and students. They were built with the Bluthner tone in mind, by craftsmen devoted to the art of piano-building. Welmar pianos are almost universally admired by piano tuners! And, as they are generally hard to please - this is no small achievement.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

The Early History of the Piano

The Piano was invented and developed to give keyboard instruments the ability to express a full range of dynamics. The harpsichords and spinets of the early 1700s could give out a big sound, but they lacked power of expression. The Clavichord was capable of expression but due to its small size, it was suited only for private playing.

Bartolomeo Cristofori was a maker of harpsichords and, aware musicians wanted a greater capacity to convey the full spectrum of passion and emotion - from the thunderous right through to the tender. With this in mind he set out to invent a mechanism that would produce this dynamic range for keyboard instruments. Taking the harpsichord as an experimental model, he replaced the plectra with a set of hammers. This was a radical shift away from the traditions of instrument makers and was a bold step into the unknown. Eventually his Piano e Forte was exhibited in 1711. 

By 1720, much less like an adapted harpsichord, the piano had become an instrument in a class of its own, it was a work of ingenious originality. Cristofori died in 1731. Leaving no pupils to continue its development along the lines he might have pursued himself, he
 entrusted his ‘piano e forte’ to the next generation of instrument builders to make of it, whatever they could.

During these early years, the piano was found only among the very rich and affluent. It was closely associated with culture and refinement, and its survival depended upon generous sponsorship from High Society and Royalty. For the piano to reach the greater part of society, it would have to be manufactured in large numbers and sold at affordable prices.
The piano quickly made its mark on the world of music and was fast becoming a very sought-after musical instrument. Inevitably it attracted the notice of enterprising businessmen who saw an opportunity to make healthy profits. 

Producing large numbers of pianos during the 19th century was no small achievement. In a few years differences of style developed in the piano-making countries. The Vienese School was initially very popular as their action was light and easy to play, but the English School produced a stronger, more sustained sound. The layout of the hammer action also differed - eventually what worked well, was adopted by all makers - even if some individualism of style and design was maintained.   

With a steady demand firmly established, the piano earned its permanent place in musical history. The world of music, without a piano, is impossible for us to imagine. Mankind would be so much the poorer if Bartolomeo Cristofori had not sought to satisfy the keyboard musician's craving for expression. 

The Piano World
© Steve Burden

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Replacing Hammer Heads

Replacing Piano hammers is not a quickly done job. It can appear easy and straightforward to take off the old hammers and and replace them with new ones, but like everything else to do with a piano action, unless the job is done neatly and evenly, the end result will be a poorly sounding piano and a miserable technician! Not what you want after an expensive and time-consuming project.

The cost of a set of piano hammers is more than most people would like to spend on an interesting experiment. If the experiment goes wrong, you will have to spend more money get someone to fix it. A set of new hammer heads must match the old ones. A 5mm difference here or a slight change of angle there, will only guarantee you yet more hassle and grief to get the piano to play properly when you've done all the work.

The first job is to dismantle the action. (The job is similar for a grand piano but for the sake of clarity, the instructions here are for an upright piano.) Disconnecting tapes and taking off the levers will give good access to the hammer flange screws. Take the hammers off, place them on a tray and number them – just in case they, for some reason, get mixed up. Most new hammer heads come already bored - if your set is not already bored, you have yet another 'mountain' to climb. The secret of success in action work is in the precision and care with which it is carried out.  
Removing the old hammer heads from the shanks is done one at a time, using a special tool called a shank extractor. Some technicians like to leave guide hammers on the action so that the new hammers can be lined up to keep the same line as the old ones. Other technicians prefer to take exact measurements from the each hammer as it is being dealt with. If guide hammers are used, it is important to fit the right hammer head to these guide hammers. 
With the old head removed, the shank cleaned of old glue, (any broken shanks replaced) it is quite simple to glue the new hammer head onto the shank. It helps if the fit is firm and snug without being too tight. If the fit is on the tight side, take care not to twist the shank when fitting the new hammer head. Brittle, old shanks break easily. 
When ready, refit the hammers back onto the action frame. The ‘noses’ of the new hammers heads should be in a nice straight line. There is a number of ways of replacing hammer heads, all of them are perfectly acceptable if done well. Fitting the hammer heads to new pianos is done in seconds, but away from the factory, dealing with replacement parts it is a much slower process. 

Putting the action back into the piano is the start of another set of very technical adjustments to ensure the proper working of the piano action.
Do not underestimate what is involved in getting a piano to work well. A change to any part in the fabric of the mechanism has a knock-on effect on the function of the action, how the piano plays, and how it sounds. 

If only replacing piano hammers were like replacing a failed light bulb! Then, any careful amateur could do it. But the reality is that replacing hammer heads is not really a job for the amateur - at least not without professional advice and help. 

At best, this article can only be an introduction to the very basics of the job. So please, be careful!

Technical File

© Steve Burden

Yamaha Pianos

The piano industry in Japan was slow to gather momentum during the later years of the 19th century. Early development of the piano was very much a European affair. At the Paris Exposition in 1878 a Japanese square piano (not a Yamaha) was exhibited. In 1880 Torakusu Yamaha began making Western musical instruments.

Beginning by building an organ, and confident enough of its qualities, he carried it over the mountains of Hakone to the Music Institute for their inspection and approval. Perhaps unkindly, the organ was harshly criticised for its poor tuning. This set-back only spurred Tarasuku on to further studies. Like any self-respecting musical instrument maker, he began studying music theory and tuning!

After much hard work, he mastered the basics and was able to apply his newly acquired knowledge and deeper understanding to making his western musical instruments.

Piano tuners are almost duty bound to approve of Yamaha's using tuning forks in their logo - after all, it emphasises the fundamental importance of tuning!

The 3 tuning forks of the Yamaha Logo represent the 3 pillars of the business - technology, production and sales. They also symbolise the essential elements of music: melody, harmony and rhythm.

He began production of pianos in 1900 and by 1910 he was making 600 pianos per year. The 20th century threw up many challenges for the piano industry - especially in Japan. Yamaha lost a factory to fire in 1922 and and office to an earthquake in 1923. The second world war was no less devastating. After the war, Yamaha restarted production with the benefit of casting their own metal frames.

The constant quest for product improvement has borne fruit in Yamaha's unquestionable reputation for consistency and a rugged reliability. Their pianos have become an industry bench-mark standard.

Directory of Piano Makers