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Friday, May 30, 2014

Memories of a piano technician (5): Searching for Rachmaninoff

The composer at his desk ca1941

How does one search for the dead? Sometimes a trip to the cemetery, a hunt for a headstone,  plodding through census records. I took a different path and arrived at a more fulfilling destination.

My search for Rachmaninoff began when my sister acquired the Concerto for Piano in C minor featuring Van Cliburn on piano and the Chicago Symphony under Fritz Reiner. It was 1961. And I was hopelessly hooked.  My parents had rented an old stencil upright from the local Steinway dealer and I was taking piano lessons everyday at elementary school. For our graduation recital  I was tasked with learning and memorizing the composer’s Prelude in C sharp minor. It took most of the school year devoted to one piece. My hands were small, and so I had to improvise a bit, but for the most part the recital went fine.

My love of Rachmaninoff’s music never diminished. I added his third concerto and the second symphony to my list of favorites.  Other works too.  I also wanted to know more about the man. Eventually I read two good biographies and gained much insight thereby.  I was especially moved by the events that led the composing of his second piano concerto. 

A midlife career change placed me at the piano - not performing, but tuning, regulating and repairing. After tuning I often tested my work by playing a few bars of the Prelude as well as other pieces. It was during one of these little exercises at a Little Rock client’s home that an elderly relative in town for a visit asked me if I could play the entire Prelude or just snatches of  it. She went on to tell me about attending a performance of Rachmaninoff's in Chicago.  My appreciation for the composer being quite high, I really wanted to know more. However, I had a packed schedule that day and after exchanging a few words, I left for the next appointment.

I regretted not taking the time to learn more of the composer through her eyes. Eventually I shared my feelings with a client-piano teacher.  With a rather puzzled expression she asked: “What could she have told you?”  “That’s just the point,” I replied. “I’ll never know.” But all was not lost. Little did I realize that a better day was coming.  And this time I would seize the opportunity.

A few years passed. Late one afternoon before tuning for a regular client we engaged in a little chat about art and memorabilia.  I sat down to tune and he left the room. When finished he reappeared in the doorway with an old scrapbook in hand.  “I have something to show you,” he said.  Inside the book was an original hand signed 1932 program along with a review from the local newspaper.  It was all about Rachmaninoff’s recital at a high school in a little swampy Arkansas town across the river called North Little Rock. The autograph was his. The event was sponsored by the Little Rock Musical Coterie. I asked to hold the book. I wanted to read and to touch both program and signature. It was a wonderful experience. But the best was yet to come.

I wanted to know more about the recital. I had no idea that the composer once performed in the area, but maybe others might.  One-by-one I asked coterie members if they had knowledge of Mr. Rachmaninoff's performance.  It was news to them - even among the oldest members.  But I had one last client to visit with.  Pat was a piano teacher - quite elderly  - just old enough to remember.  My appointment to tune her two Steinway pianos was a month or two  away.

The day arrived. After tuning both pianos I asked her about the coterie event.  “I’m sorry,” she said. “We were living in California.”  No doubt she saw my disappointment.  But it was soon allayed and for good reason.  “But I did know Mr. Rachmaninoff.”  Talk about unexpected. My jaw dropped to the floor.  She then shared her story -  at least some of it.

Going back to the days of her youth in California, walking through the neighborhood, strolling up one street and down another,  she often saw an elderly man through a window either seated at a desk or standing.  (I do not recall which.) As she walked by he would wave to her, and she to him.  This went on for some time when her interest piqued and she asked her mother about the gentleman.  “Who is the man down the street who always waves when I walk by?”  Her mother replied, “That’s Mr. Rachmaninoff.”

At this point, Pat’s husband interjected. “I can’t believe Rachmaninoff came to North Little Rock.  Back then it was mostly woods and swamp." The conversation moved to the less interesting.  And then it was over. Was there more to the story? I do not know. She passed away shortly thereafter.  However, for me it was enough.  My search was complete.


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Memories of a piano technician (4): Lee Luvisi and David Itkin

From the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra program. Lee Luvisi and David Itkin.

Review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Note to Piano Technician (me).

I do have a story to accompany this, but I haven't written the piece for number 3 yet. Meanwhile, there is a thread about Mr. Luvisi here: Piano World Forum: Lee Luvisi

Can tuning neglect damage a piano? Quotables.

"When tuning has been neglected for an extended period of time, the strings in the tenor, mid-range and extreme treble have often dropped in pitch much more, in comparison with the bass strings which have also dropped in pitch. The string tension has decreased so much and unevenly, that the soundboard and bridges have warped out of shape, placing tremendous strain on wood and glue joints, risking severe damage." 
  - Guus van den Braak, Registered Piano Technician (Australasian).

“…pianos are designed to be at a specific tension. When the tension is allowed to go flat the soundboard may flatten resulting in less downbearing on the strings and an increase in the chance of wild strings, cracks in the soundboard and case and frame parts separating."
 -  Cited from the Randy Potter School of Piano Technology, Inc. by  Randy Potter, Registered Piano Technician,  chapter 1.8 pg.16.   

"If the piano has fallen substantially below pitch (i.e. from not having been tuned frequently enough), the process of pulling the strings back up to pitch often brings these little bends out into the speaking segment of the string without having had the opportunity to straighten out gradually. A competent tuner can usually remove these unwanted bends in the string, but it's additional work, and you may get charged more. Some tuners who are not so competent just leave them and hope they'll straighten out over time. And sometimes, no matter how good the tuner is or how hard he tries to remove a false beat, you're stuck with it.
- Piano Finders®

"Can the Piano Be Damaged by Not Having it Tuned?

"To keep a piano untuned for many years could do permanent damage to the piano. The strings are under a great deal of tension and tend to loose their tension over time. If the piano is kept untuned for too long you run the risk of the total pitch of the piano dropping. To bring the piano back to standard pitch may cause, at best, the necessity for several tunings over several weeks (at a higher cost) or, at worst, string breakage, and split bridges. Not only that, but playing on a poorly tuned piano can cause a potential musician to subconsciously not enjoy playing and hence, not wish to play."

  - Carl Radford, RPT

"Distortion in sound. In rare cases major tuning work can bring bends into the speaking length of the string causing distortion in the sound. Restringing is the only solution in this case." - Daniel Berg, RPT  excerpt from  Results from years of neglect.

"Take care of your piano by not neglecting it for extended periods of time.  Piano strings stretch over time, and if left untuned for long enough, a piano will require a major pitch raising when it is tuned again.  A major pitch raising is not good for the health of your piano; it increases the possibility of breaking some strings and/or may introduce a permanent out-of-tune sound known as 'false beating.' "Gooch Piano Service

"The false beat is one of the tuner's worst enemies. This is a beat within a single string
that you can't eliminate by tuning. A string with a false beat sounds like two
strings that are out of tune with each other. False beats occur most commonly in the
upper middle register of the piano, from the treble break up to the middle of the top

"Other causes of false beats include rusty strings, kinked or twisted treble strings, and
strings that were stretched too much during stringing, pitch raising, or tuning. If you see
a kink or bend in the speaking portion of a string, try to straighten it by burnishing with
a steel rod. If this doesn't work, loosen the string and straighten it carefully with smooth
pliers. If it still sounds bad, replace it."  

- Piano Servicing, Tuning, and Rebuilding, 
Arthur A, Reblitz, RPT

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Do you set the temperament using the 4ths/5ths sequence? If so, please pay attention!

The manual I first studied from, a correspondence course (whose name I will not write on here but which is still very commonly purchased), gives that same 4ths & 5ths sequence but provides NO information regarding Rapidly Beating Intervals (RBI). None of the checks that we all supposedly should know but instructions to "back up" when the sequence doesn't work out.

The most recent book on tuning does the same thing in its simple version of temperament. All the checks that should be known are much later in the book.

Quite often, I have seen technicians write that they had a problem discerning the RBI's but could easily hear 4ths & 5ths. A sequence that begins with a set of four Contiguous Major Thirds (CM3) seems so difficult to many but that 4ths & 5ths sequence seems easy, so that is what they use.

So, as hard as you may find it to believe, most (I would say 9 of 10) technicians who find the RBI's too difficult to discern, begin each time they tune a piano, to tune a Well Temperament (WT) exactly a** backwards. (The "a** backwards" title is what my father used to call what someone did who did not know what they were doing. Put the part on upside down or backwards and leave it that way and not ever know the difference and not even care that they didn't know the difference and would resent anyone who may point that out.)

Here is a link to a video (under 2 minutes) that shows exactly how it occurs. You will note that all of the 4ths & 5ths I tune sound apparently "good". The one and only check that I did (the only one some people may know, if they know any at all), shows the F3-A3 M3 beating very similarly to the F3-D4 M6. They are both too fast but if a technician had never learned all of the RBI checks, that check may have sounded just fine!

Bill Bremmer, RPT, on "Reverse Well."
From Piano World Forum

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

It pays to use a qualified professional (2): The Antique Dealer

Then, there is the prospect who purchased a used console. It looked great. The antique dealer thought it was a good piano as well. So the person laid out almost enough cash to buy a new one.

Later, when the piano tuner came by to service the instrument, he, too, couldn't believe how nice the piano looked. It was as if the thing had been in a time capsule. That is, until he looked inside.

Was something wrong? It would be easier to ask if anything was right. Nothing was right. Nothing. Yes, it looked like a piano. Sure enough, it even had 88 keys. But that was about it.

The cost to make the piano tunable exceeded the price of a similar new instrument. Add this to the money already invested, and there is only one word to describe the situation: Sad.

For this prospect the lesson was hard-learned. It doesn't have to be so for others.


Much more here: CLICK HERE

Monday, May 12, 2014

It pays to use a qualifed professional (1): Piano moving.

One case comes to mind where a pianist wanted to move his grand piano from the den to the living room. With an open floor plan it looked easy enough. He even called the piano store that sold him the instrument and asked if it could be done without having to pay piano movers. "Sure," the salesman said. "Just roll it in there."

And so, he did, leaving some 20 feet of ruts in his brand new hardwood floors.

If it pays to use a qualified professional, it doubly pays to first call the right one.


Much more on this topic: CLICK HERE