Back in June of 2004, I moved 2,782 miles from Ithaca, NY to the Portland, OR area to attend School of Piano Technology for the Blind (formerly the Emil Fries School of Piano Tuning and Technology), colloquially known as the Piano Hospital, in Vancouver, WA.
A year later in 2005, in what is to this day one of the wackiest coincidences of my life, Casey Harris made the same journey from Ithaca, NY and joined me as a fellow piano tech student.
Andante Piano Works is now on Instagram! Check us out and follow @andantepianoworks to stay up to date on my never boring, sometimes downright zany adventures as a piano technician throughout the Portland, OR area.
So named for its unorthodox winged-top lid that resembles a set of butterfly wings, this vintage Wurlitzer grand piano was built in c. 1937. Of the three butterfly models produced, this particular instrument is a petite 3’9” in length, while the keyboard spans 73 notes (the other models span 44 and the standard 88).
While the keyboard length makes the instrument impractical for modern classical works, it is still effective as a beginner’s piano, as well as appropriate for pieces from the Baroque and early Classical periods that were written for harpsichords and forte-pianos with a 4-5 octave range.
Designed to fit into apartments and smaller homes without losing the touch and response of a grand action, Wurlitzer also took great care with the cabinet, utilizing the highly popular Art Deco aesthetic (my favorite design style) of the era as an influence in the case design.
Now, if only tuning this rare instrument didn’t require removing more than 20 screws…
Built in 1921, this Yamaha upright somehow made the journey from Japan to the United States, despite having been manufactured 40 years before Yamaha began exporting pianos across the Pacific Ocean.
The influence on today’s U-series, perennial favorites of Yamaha keyboard line, is clear in the basic design, from the height to the empire lid that folds back. Today’s upright models are more streamlined, with straight legs and a flat front panel, both free of embellishments. Additionally, while much of the playing mechanism inside resembles today’s pianos, the action is secured with hooks on each end rather than today’s modern system of bolts.
In a time when arts education is being affected by budget cuts in schools nationwide, the Snowman Foundation is dedicated to bringing access to music education to the Portland, OR community and beyond. As someone greatly shaped by having had ample access to music education, via private lessons in piano, voice, clarinet, as well as summer music camp attendance and participation in school choirs, I am a firm believer in the value of learning music and the Snowman Foundation’s mission.
Therefore, I could not have been more excited and enthusiastic about being the designated piano tuner for the foundation’s annual preeminent event, in which ten gorgeous Steinway grand pianos are situated on one stage for a concert featuring a variety of local artists, ranging from ridiculously talented middle-school guitarists to renowned recording artists such as Tom Grant.
As a piano technician, my concerns and expertise regarding the instrument are primarily focused on how they feel and how they sound. However, as an instrument that is also considered furniture and tends to draw the eye wherever it is placed, the condition of the case also tends to be a priority.
To address such concerns, similar to how a mechanic would refer auto body work to a separate technician, the expertise of a master finish and/or touch-up specialist is required.
In Portland, OR, the go-to person for any of the cosmetic needs of a piano, whether they be small repairs to fix chips and scratches or complete refinishing jobs, is Arno Arrak.
Because I am the ultimate piano nerd, one of my goals in life is to have a home full of decor made from pianos.
For a variety of reasons, there eventually comes an unfortunate time (hopefully after a century or so of love, care, and musical joy) when a piano is no longer able to serve its original purpose as a musical instrument. Perhaps it barely plays, or no longer holds a tune, or both. Regardless, while the choice to rebuild or restore the instrument is occasionally made, the more common choice exercised these days is to have the piano unceremoniously hauled off the the dump. But a third option, to salvage and repurpose as much of a piano’s parts for furniture, functional decor, and art, has emerged as an increasingly popular choice. Because although some pianos can no longer help us make music, that’s not to say that everything about them has lost their value or splendor.
Take the square grand, for instance. By and large, due to improvements in piano technology, these rectangular (hey, no one ever said piano designers had to describe piano shapes with geometric accuracy) models are by an largely obsolete. But their frames are ideal for repurposing into desks or dining tables, while their innards make for cool, unique decor.
My favorite jazz pianist of all time, the legendary Dave Brubeck, passed away yesterday at the age of 91, one day shy of his birthday.
(I must thank my sister here for introducing me to Dave’s music by pushing upon me a box set of his music from BMG’s now-defunct mail order service waaaaaaaay back when I was in high school.)
For those of you unfamiliar with Brubeck’s life and pioneering style of composition, here’s a sampling from the outpouring of remembrances published throughout the world as news of his passing spread yesterday (these writers sum up Dave much more eloquently than I ever could.)
Built especially for Joe Onofrio III of the Onofrio Piano Company of Denver, CO in 1999, this Baldwin grand is truly one-of-a-kind.
The design of the piano was inspired by the local scenery of the stunning Rocky Mountains, which can be seen from the window of the main showroom of the store. The rich browns and reds of the regional landscape are reflected in the unique pommele finish, while the colossal scope of the mountain range is echoed by the broad legs and arches of the pedal lyre. Last, but not least, the mountain vistas are rendered in the beautiful, detailed inlay on the music desk.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but this Baldwin grand totally has me thinking that the old saying should be changed to,
If the piano won’t go to the mountain, the mountain must go to the piano.
Around the same time I inadvertently went on a blog posting hiatus in September, I had the opportunity to go to Denver, CO, both for work and to visit family. I didn’t plan for extracurriculars beyond said work and family, so it was a pleasant surprise when my co-worker called with the following invite:
Him: Hey, whatcha doing tomorrow night?
Me: Uh. Hanging out with my family? I think? Why?
Him: Well, we have 4 tickets to go see Peter Gabriel at the Red Rocks tomorrow, but there’s only 3 of us. Would you like to come and be our fourth?
(I must be honest here, I am not terribly familiar with Peter Gabriel’s ouevre because his dancing claymation chicken video freaked me out in the ’80s and I never bothered to pay a whole lot of attention to him beyond that. Anyways.)
Make and Model: Shoninger Upright Serial Number: 3079
Founded in New Haven, Connecticut in 1850, the B. Shoninger Co. (later the Shoninger Piano Co.) produced this beautiful rosewood upright in 1885 — the year the Statue of Liberty arrived in New York Harbor.
Built during the era when pianos were the centerpiece of home entertainment, this full-size upright — a height no longer in production by piano manufacturers — epitomizes craftsmanship. The case is full of intricate, decorative woodwork, especially in the cutout-laden front and lower panels. Conveniently, each leg contains a music storage cupboard (hey, it’s easier than standing up and getting it out of the bench, right?). Also distinctive is the sizeable lid ornament containing a carving of German philosopher Johann Wolfgang van Goethe’s face.
Note: Piano Adventures is a regular feature highlighting the quirky aspects of my daily life as a piano technician, from the paradoxical challenges of working with inanimate objects to the characters I meet.
A couple of weeks ago, I was tasked with teaching someone how to replace a broken piano string.
Piano wire is quite stretchy, a fact a lot of people are not aware of because most people never have a reason to experiment with stretching steel. When a piano is at its designated tension, a piano wire is generally at 60% of its tensile strength. So, theoretically, if a piano is well-maintained at the proper pitch, a string should never reach the 100% point at which it will break. However, “should not break” and “will not break” are not the same thing.
A common thread between the two posts seems to be a pervading sense of alarm that pianos will soon be obsolete due to our wired society in which these hulking acoustic instruments no longer seem to fit.
There is no question that advances in technology, especially devices that allow us to enjoy music in a passive (listening-only as opposed to actively playing) way, have drastically changed the position of pianos in the average American household.
Through the 19th and into the 20th centuries, prior to the advent of the phonograph, the piano was the main source of entertainment in people’s homes. After all, the piano, the most versatile of instruments except for its lack of portability, provided recreation in the form of listening to, playing, and singing along with music. A piano could be the melody, the harmony, the accompaniment, or all of the above all at once. The popularity of pianos was reflected by the number of piano manufacturers that existed in the United States, which numbered well into the hundreds into the early 1900s, then plummeted due to the quadruple-whammy effect of the record player, the radio, the Great Depression, and World War II. Today, the number of piano manufacturers in the US can be counted on less than one hand.
Can’t get enough of pianos and piano technology? Check out these books and DVDs!
Temperament: How Music Became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilization by Stuart Isacoff
Did you know that equal temperament, now the standard system of tuning for pianos, was once thought to be an affront to all that is good and holy? Neither did I, until I read this fascinating book that covers the journey and riddle of equal temperament, tackled by religious leaders, Greek mathematicians, Isaac Newton, and a brilliant Chinese scholar.
While I haven’t yet had the opportunity to read this book, I have read numerous reviews that describe it as an engaging declaration as to why the piano is the greatest of all instruments ever. That is all I needed to hear to recommend it to you, my fellow piano nerds.
Note: Piano Profiles is a regular feature highlighting unusual models of pianos that I encounter in my work as a technician. All piano ages and manufacturer details come courtesy of the Pierce Piano Atlas.
Make & Model: Muzelle DW-7
Serial Number: 119904
Built by the now-defunct Sojin Piano Co., a division of Daewoo Inc. of South Korea in 1988*, this Muzelle Studio upright is chock-full of unusual features. The piano has a player system, but one that doesn’t just make the keys of the piano move up and down. It also contains a full percussion system inside for accompaniment, complete with a xylophone, mallets, and a tambourine. The colored glass panels are a pretty addition not usually incorporated into modern piano cases that allow people to see the player and percussion systems. To top it all off, instead of the traditional system of foot pumps or a good ol’ power switch to operate the player system, there is a coin slot.
That’s right. This piano will play for money.
on 2013-02-23 01:05 by Laura Walker
Based on the website search records, I have been made aware that a number of you are quite curious to know a few more details about this piano, especially
Whether a “player piano with percussion and coin slot” has a special term all its own and
What the value of such a working instrument is.
After numerous inquiries of people in the know, aka player piano experts and piano retailers, I have since learned that a piano with a coin slot is known as a “Nickelodeon” piano, named after an early form of the jukebox.
Used models, such as this one currently on display at Classic Pianos in Portland, OR, in good working condition retail for ~$20,000.
Classic Pianos also has another Nickelodeon acquired from the estate of Ruth Disney (sister of Walt Disney) currently undergoing repairs:
If anyone is interested in purchasing either of these unique Nickelodeon pianos, please contact me for more information.
Thank you, googlers and fellow piano enthusiasts, for piquing my curiosity and nudging me into learning something new!
My Google Alert for “piano” exploded as a multitude of other news sources provided their own commentary on the issue, along with the reactions of the general public as they started discussion boards and wrote letters to the editor with their own opinions on how pianos that have reached the end of their life spans should be treated. Weeks later, follow-up articles, blog posts, and published letters to the editor on the issue still pop up on my Google Alert with regularity.
The prevailing responses have been of horror, blaming adults for quitting the piano lessons of their youth, decrying the barbarism of shoving pianos backwards into a dump, lamenting our fast-paced society that throws anything away at the drop of a hat, and filled with plaintive wails of,
“WHY CAN’T THEY BE DONATED TO [insert worthy non-profit organization here]?!?!?!”
I have witnessed said horrified reactions numerous times, most recently when a person banged on the door of the piano shop where I work and wanted to know if he could have the piano sitting outside by the back dumpster.