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.
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.