In more than thirty years of service I have interacted with tens of thousands of pianos.
The relationships that a dedicated technician develops with these remarkably complex instruments, through repeated contact, can become almost as personal as those we have with individuals of our own species.
Pianos have a lot more in common with us than you might think. Like people, each piano has specific traits and qualities that imbue it with a distinct character and personality.
Obviously, all pianos have some things in common (ie. their basic shape, be it Grand or Upright, and internal structure of rigid wooden frame, cast iron plate, bridges and soundboard, pin block, steel strings and tuning pins), however they are not created equally and, just like people, each one is unique; from the PSO (piano shaped object) to the finely crafted Concert Grands that fill auditoriums with soul altering sonic landscapes. Each has its own voice, personality and idiosyncrasies which are the result of choices in design, materials, manufacturing techniques and craftsmanship. Pianos are easily the most complex musical instruments on the planet, with most grands having more than 12,000 parts. Considering the enormous number of variables in the equation, it’s easy to understand why they all turn out so differently from one another, even those constructed in the same factory. Although pianos may appear solid and sturdy, they are very sensitive to environmental changes. They are made mostly of wood which expands and contracts in response to changes in temperature and humidity. No matter how well constructed and what materials are used, they ALL need regular care to compensate for these changes. Left unattended and neglected any piano can quickly become unplayable. Properly cared for, however, they can live long, productive lives and become cherished members of our families.
The basic design of the modern piano has not changed significantly in over a hundred years. Over the years, however, there have been countless innovations and improvements to almost every aspect of the instrument. Manufacturers continue to adapt new technologies and methods that transform the processes and properties of their products. The piano, as we know it today, has evolved into an instrument with almost magical properties. The voice and responsiveness of a well crafted and cared for concert grand piano can transform even the simplest music into a mystical vapor of undefinable beauty.
I think of new pianos as babies. Just like a human child they require more care and attention to insure their health and development. Careful and continual adjustments must be made to their environment and every element of their structure must be monitored for anomalies that could become problematic in later years.
While pianos mature more rapidly than humans, they exhibit similar stages of development. After a few years of careful “babying”, their unique qualities will become more or less obvious even to the untrained casual observer. The youthful vigor of the individual parts and conglomerate whole of a young piano are, like those of a teenager, prone to agile and resilient athleticism. For some, this is the period of blossoming individuality and burgeoning potential that portends a great future. If recognized and nourished, the prospects of successfully developing an exceptional individual are manifold. It is our responsibility to our young instruments to actively participate in the process of their development. For even the most pampered child, if left unmonitored at this stage, can become ill-behaved and resistant to positive forces. However, if we’ve been responsible and nurturing to this point, we’ve made a considerable investment in the future of this individual and it makes no sense to abandon them now. We want them to flourish and excel, to maximize their full potential
One of the most remarkable changes that I’ve observed in my long relationships with quality pianos is the development of tonal character. The wood of the soundboard, after years under compression by the downward force of the strings and continued flexing in response to their vibrations, becomes more resonant and resilient. A well seasoned soundboard is capable of projecting more powerful tone with more complex harmonic content. The easiest human analog for this is with that of a well trained mind and its ability to extrapolate and express integrated thoughts.
The fitness and fortitude of a mature musical instrument is, as with people, dependent on maintaining good health. So what does that mean for a piano? Just like us it requires a regimen of vigorous exercise (playing) and regular check-ups (tuning and regulation). The effects of a sedentary lifestyle, although more obvious in people, can be just as debilitating for a piano. Equally dangerous are the long term effects of undiagnosed and untreated ailments. Waiting until the symptoms have become intolerable can necessitate expensive corrective procedures. The old adage “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is relevant and applicable to this discussion. You visit your Dentist every six months to insure the health of your teeth and gums. Right? Your piano, if you want it to prosper, deserves the same consideration.
I like to think of my services as a kind of physical therapy for the piano, akin to those of a masseuse or chiropractor; Keeping everything flexible and properly aligned facilitates better function and freedom from pain. This might seem a bit of a stretch (and I appologize for the pun) but I think it adequately illustrates my point; that if we care for our pianos like we do our bodies, they will live longer and more productive lives.
My father was a surgeon and the house I grew up in had a wall of shelves filled with medical books. The subject which fascinated me the most was Gerontology. I was amazed at the ability of doctors to prolong life by repairing and/or replacing deteriorated and defective body parts (not enough, apparently, to follow in his footsteps). Now, you might not think this has anything to do with pianos but if you’ll bare with me, I’ll try to explain.
Geriatric pianos usually present with a multitude of dysfunctions and are challenging for even the most seasoned technician. Often, the most difficult thing for me and their owners is making the decision of whether to prolong its life or let it go. Most often the owner will elect to keep it on life support and do whatever we can to make it comfortable. This can be quite frustrating for a technician. Old wood becomes dry and brittle and so parts break very easily. Great care must be taken to avoid collateral damage when attempting to remove and replace disabled components. The slightest pressure in the wrong direction and a part will crumble in your hands. This gets very tedious, especially working with instruments that were built with oddly designed, non-standard parts. Eventually, it becomes apparent that resuscitation is not an option and we are forced to pull the proverbial plug.
Unlike human beings, pianos can be given a new life. However, the decision to rebuild a piano requires careful consideration. Poorly designed and cheaply built instruments (what we derisively refer to as Piano Shaped Objects) are, generally speaking, not worth the effort because the end result will invariably be a lost cause both financially and aesthetically. On the other hand, a well designed piano made with good materials can have enormous potential for reincarnation and be worth much more than the cost of labor and materials required for the procedure. In such cases, I energetically promote that prospect to its owner. Should they decide not to go through with it, I will offer to purchase the instrument – knowing that I will end up with a great instrument that combines the characteristic tonal properties of a seasoned soundboard and the athletic agility of a new piano (the best of both worlds so to speak).