• 1.  Sometimes, it can take a crisis to get things done

    Registered Piano Technician
    Posted 01-26-2023 08:59

    Greetings Lists,




    A client of several years has a high quality although somewhat aged grand piano. Not too long ago, it was restrung and had new hammers, shanks and flanges installed.

    When I first encountered this instrument, pre-pandemic, I let him know that while the action had had some critical parts replaced, there was definitely room for improvement in terms of its mechanical function. He thanked me for the information but expressed no interest in pursuing the matter further at that time.

    We technicians all have our own styles of handling situations like this. Mine is to simply state what can be done to improve the piano. The rest, as far as I am concerned, is up to the client. I never hard-sell what they may perceive to be "extra work," but feel I would be remiss if I did not share my professional observations with them.

    That self-same piano was recently moved to a performance venue for a piano recital. The pianist in question had played this piano on previous visits to my client's home and in fact practiced on it the morning of the concert, before it was moved.

    During her rehearsal in the concert venue, she was under the impression that the action had somehow become harder to play since earlier that day, before the move, particularly in the lower half of the scale. I could not find anything that looked like it had been altered by the move--or was otherwise different from what I remembered--and could only offer the speculation that the different acoustical environment made the action seem different. (After all, at the end of the day, tone and touch are inextricably linked, each affecting pianists' perception of the other.)

    Reflecting back on the experience, I wondered about what made the action seem heavier. My best guess is that being in a much larger space was one aspect. In addition, there is a fair chance that once on a stage, where this superb young artist is quite at home, the very high standards she routinely applies to the instruments on which she is accustomed to performing kicked in. No more, "Just dealing with it," so as not to offend a piano owner in their home (particularly while she was a guest there!).

    I had met her before but had never worked with her until that moment. My remark about the different acoustic contributing to the difference between what she heard and felt that morning compared to that afternoon was met with skepticism.

    She wondered what could have changed between the morning and the afternoon, possibly as result of the move. I thought about that for a moment, and then decided to leave that matter for Detective Columbo to contemplate--a luxury that I could ill afford-- while I concentrated on making things better before the concert. My mission was to figure out how to make the piano more to her liking, and to accomplish it in the very limited time available. I assured her that I would do everything humanly possible (at least, by this human) in the precious short time we had. (She asked if I would be present for the concert and was visibly reassured when I told her that I would be.)

    Sparing you the gory details, as she practiced, I noticed that her fingers and forearms were not free. I began running in my mind what things could be addressed right then and there that might make her life easier and the piano a more transparent vehicle of her music making. When the time came, I leapt into action, tools in hand (and pun intended!). Told the stage manager that it was critical that she try the piano again before the performance began that evening. After all, if that did not happen, this episode would be in violation of The Gospel According to Norman As Preached to His Disciple Rick, commandment number 1 "Do not make any major changes to the piano without the artist agreeing to try it before the concert."

    Yes, it occurred to me that if, for any reason, she did not like what I had done to the action, there would in fact not be enough time for me to do much if anything about it. I crossed my fingers, hoping for the best, and preparing for the worst (Standard Operating Procedure). She sat down at the piano, played some of the most demanding passages from her program for that evening, and let me know the good news: the piano was far more playable now than it had been just a few hours earlier.

    Now, the concert producer (who was also the piano owner) had not authorized any further work, and was not available for consultation as the situation unfolded. I accepted the risk of deciding to go ahead with it, hoping that the work would be to the artist's satisfaction, and that the producer would pay for it, even though he had not pre-approved it.

    By the time the dust had settled, the artist was happy, and the producer paid my bill. When I explained why it was about twice as large as we had originally anticipated, he exclaimed that after the piano returned to his home, he could "actually play it now." (This was the first I ever heard that he was previously experiencing difficulties!) Moreover, he urged me that if there were any more improvements we could make to its playability (and of course, there were), we should schedule that work at my earliest convenience.

    The performance that evening was truly breathtaking. I could see from my seat in the front row that her hands and arms were relaxed, that she was now free to do things on that instrument that she couldn't do just a few hours earlier, and that her playing had become more about expression than mechanics.

    So, one of the many takeaways from this story is:

    Sometimes, it can take a crisis to get things done!



    Alan Eder, RPT
    Herb Alpert School of Music
    California Institute of the Arts
    Valencia, CA

  • 2.  RE: Sometimes, it can take a crisis to get things done

    Registered Piano Technician
    Posted 01-26-2023 10:07
    Hi Alan

    You said you did something to the action, but did not explain what. Could you elaborately, please? And what else does the piano need?


    Sent from my iPhone

  • 3.  RE: Sometimes, it can take a crisis to get things done

    Registered Piano Technician
    Posted 01-26-2023 11:45
    I have been in similar situations a few times. I’m so glad your experience turned out positively.
    I deal mostly with small venues with limited budgets, so they hesitate spending extra money on their instruments. Over the years I have been working hard to educate these locations about what are and are not acceptable performance pianos. I let them know that I may not be available for last minute requests after the artist arrives, and if I can be, it will cost more.
    I take the risk of alienating them, but I sleep well knowing that I did my best to explain what they need. Most situations have worked out well and my information has been appreciated.
    If we don’t help educate our clients, who will?

    ~ jeannie

    Jeannie Grassi
    PTG Registered Piano Technician
    Bainbridge Island, WA

  • 4.  RE: Sometimes, it can take a crisis to get things done

    Registered Piano Technician
    Posted 01-27-2023 01:01
    A clever seduction; taunting us with your subtle caress but failing to reveal what the cause of your exquisite sensation was.....

    Blaine Hebert RPT
    Duarte CA
    (626) 795-5170

  • 5.  RE: Sometimes, it can take a crisis to get things done

    Registered Piano Technician
    Posted 01-27-2023 04:03
    Wim & Blaine,

    The point of my post had to do with seizing upon opportunity, afforded by crisis, to get some things done that needed doing anyway.

    What I did to the piano was basic stuff that either of you would have done, addressing the aspects of regulation that were furthest off that could lead to the kind of comments the artist made.

    1) brushed and lubricated the knuckles

    2) evened out the back checking (which was quite inconsistent)

    3) upon realizing that I had the time, I raised back checking height several millimeters

    4) hammer pinning, balance holes ad balance bushings were all free (too free for my taste, but that was an issue for another day), but none of the front rail bushings exhibited the "slight but positive knock" that I want to feel when holding down the front of the key and moving it side to side.

    Given more time, I would have dismantled the action, applied VS Profelt to the bushings and inserted appropriate sized cauls over night. There was no way that could happen, given the logistics of the situation.

    There may have been enough time to use common key easing piers, or a key-easing iron, but both of those approached would have also required dismantling the action, which takes time (and how much time I had was not certain), and could result in the A/V crew telling people, "There must really be something wrong, because he's got the whole thing apart right before the concert."

    So I used the kind of key easing pliers that enable you to ease the front bushings without removing the keys (just the key stop or shipping rail). These pliers were very expensive when I bought them (from Renner and Jahn) decades ago, and I use them only rarely, but they pay for themselves each time they are pressed into service. Early in my career, key easing pliers would have been my go-to in a situation like this. Nowadays, they are a last resort.

    Couldn't get the bushings as free as I like, but it must have made enough of an improvement, along with the higher and far more consistent back checking, and the slight friction reduction at the knuckle.

    Like I said, nothing fancy, all basic stuff.


    Alan Eder, RPT
    Herb Alpert School of Music
    California Institute of the Arts
    Valencia, CA

  • 6.  RE: Sometimes, it can take a crisis to get things done

    Registered Piano Technician
    Posted 01-27-2023 06:07
    Thank you Alan. I suspected that's what you did, but just wondered. In similar situations, just adjusting the rep springs made a HUGE difference in the way the action responses.