Sixes and Sevens

Continuing in the vain of our current subject (my experience as a piano technician) I will not be applying the title phrase to the context of music theory – that will be the topic of another discussion.

I want to apologize in advance for the proclivity of technical jargon in this post, and I’ll happily explain any terms that you don’t understand (just ask me in a comment).

Even if you’re familiar with the phrase as commonly used, I’ve found a very succinct and thorough link to its etymology that will only take a minute to review and will undoubtedly aid in your understanding of how I’ll be applying it to the content that I’m about to present (

Basically, in contemporary usage, the term infers a state of confusion or befuddlement.

Although this often applies to my customers when I explain the problems that I’ve discovered while examining their pianos, I want to explore a couple of the many examples in which I have been equally perplexed by oddities that have confronted me while servicing some of the many thousands of instruments that I’ve encountered over the past three decades.

I was motivated to write this story after visiting one of my dearest customers today. I first met them after being assigned to perform their initial in-home tuning by the owner of a store that I was working for about eight years ago. And theirs is my first example.

Case Study #1:

The piano, an antique Mason & Hamlin grand, had been “rebuilt” by the store owners crew (this was before I got into the business of rebuilding – and one of the reasons why I did so).

I’d returned to the piano for many years afterward – to provide annual tuning service – and eventually was asked my opinion on what could be done to make it more responsive to the clients touch.

I had noticed discrepancies from day-one. However, being employed by the “re-builder”, I had reluctantly chosen to refrain from voicing my opinion to the customer so as not to jeopardize my position at the store.

To some, this might speak ill of my integrity as a professional, but keep in mind that I was dependent at the time on maintaining my employment at the store and the customer hadn’t complained about anything – they seemed to be very content with the instrument as it was.

By the time of the piano owners query the shop-keeper had gone out of business and, no longer bounded by the constraints of his employ, I was able to express my honest assessment of the instrument to them freely without fear of retribution (at least by the shop-keeper).

The piano was in desperate need of regulation and I had not yet taken advantage of the many opportunities I’d had for pulling the action and inspecting it more closely. To its owners I sincerely apologize for that lapse in judgment, although I doubt that it would have had any discernible impact on the outcome of their plight or this story.

After a protracted discussion of what I believed, at the time, was needed to improve the instrument’s playability, they agreed to proceed with my prescribed remedy.

The shock came, after several hours of work bringing the action back to proper working order and being satisfied with its function on the bench, when I attempted to reinstall it in the piano –

It wouldn’t go back in no matter how hard I pushed.

At first, I thought I’d done something stupid. I was frustrated and a little embarrassed, flustered, befuddled (as it were) until I discovered that the drop screws were hanging up on the pin block.

How, I asked myself, could that be happening? All of the adjustments were set to factory specifications.

I spent some time puzzling over this dilemma and finally figured out what was going on. The guys who had hung the new hammers had drilled the shank holes too low on the moldings. The only way to make the action playable and still get it back inside the piano was to set the let-off and repetition lever to activate a full quarter of an inch from the strings – the way it had originally been set and why it was so difficult for the owner to play with any control over dynamics (her primary complaint and the reason why we began the project).

The problem here was clearly the fault of inexperienced re-builders and had only two solutions: replacing the hammers or returning the action to its previous state of unplayability (done)!

We’re still in negotiations over the hammer replacement option.

Case Study #2:

On this piano I was presented with a similar problem but with the opposite cause; these guys had drilled the shank holes too high on the moldings.

This piano was also a “recent” rebuild that its owners had purchased some years before they were referred to me by one of my regular clients. They were preparing to have a party and wanted him to play for them at the event. He visited their home to test the instrument and, discovering that it was horribly out of tune, asked them to call me to rectify the situation before the party.

The piano had been in their home for over three years, not played and unserviced since they acquired it and was over 400 cents flat! Their party was scheduled for the following day.

More alarming was the fact that the hammers, at the bottom of the key stroke, only reached half way to the strings.

With the action still inside the piano I raised the hammers to a height which would allow them to actually strike the strings when I pressed the keys and thus allow me to tune the piano (which took four passes just to bring it to pitch and stabilized – Grrr!).

In an attempt to refine the regulation (so that my friend could play it with some dynamic control) I attempted to pull the action from the piano; only to find that by raising the hammers, as I had done to facilitate tuning, the hammers were blocking against the pin block – making it impossible to remove the action.

On my initial inspection I had thought that the regulation had just been poorly executed and so I made what seemed to be the most expeditious adjustments necessary to accomplish the task for which I had been hired. I was now faced with an impossible situation; There was absolutely no way to compensate for the gross errors made by the incompetent “re-builders” and make the piano reasonably playable.

Needless to say, (or perhaps not – considering their lack of knowledge and understanding of what I so diligently and fruitlessly attempted to explain to them) they objected aggressively about paying the bill that I presented to them for my four hours of service.

As callous as this may seem to many of you, I eventually settled for an absurdly low payment just to be rid of them.

The intractability of the ignorant is sometimes more than even the most patient and understanding man can tolerate. At some point you just have to let go and leave them to their fate.


I do what I can, whenever possible, to help anyone in need. But the unfortunate owners of these and other similarly maligned and incompetently “re-built” pianos are often left at Sixes and Sevens.



Sixes and Sevens — 2 Comments

  1. I’m guessing that many of you will be confused by the tech nomenclature in this post and I encourage you to pelt me with your questions and comments.

    I especially want to hear from anyone who thinks that I’m off my rocker or disagrees with my diagnosis of the situations described above. Please don’t hold back.

  2. Dreamers !! i have dealt with so many times , so many players , have a idea that is just completely crazy… been there ! dealt with it .. i have been pulled into recording sessions gigs rehearsals ect that there was nothing repeat NOTHING i could do to make it better,,, than smoke a joint and get the f&^$(&%)( out of there …

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