WARNING: This post is appx. 2,300 words long, a typically chatty "Samuel Pepys" report from me...
(As I recall one of my English professors say in a lecture, "Literature has a dual purpose: to entertain and educate," I make no apologies... ...Yet. Even so, I hope I have provided some of each for disparate readers--entertainment for the well informed, education, perhaps, for others who wonder how much 8 hours of work can improve a piano...)
Over the past year, I've been getting to know a solid Steinway L at a Senior Assisted Living Center where I play atmosphere music twice a month over lunch time on a Sunday (light classical, light jazz, and vintage American pop--you know my schtick). As I got to know the piano, I started noticing things. First, I noticed the amount of work it took to play the piano, which I just chalked up to it being a Steinway. (I've never been a fan of "The Steinway." As a pianist, I've always considered them to be a bit hard to work with in terms of touch--somewhat miserly on the cooperation side of things. That is, I've never played a Steinway that completely cooperated with my keyboard expectation and desires. On the other hand, I've "become one" with a few Yamahas here and there that drew me into the mind meld and fulfilled my every desire. Know what I mean?) Next, I noticed 1/4" of dust on the soundboard, paper crumbs and dust in between the tuning pins, and some rather dirty keys. Then, at some point in time, between the Sundays that I played, two bass notes went way, way out of tune. I noticed two exceptionally loose tuning pins in the bass that, when I got permission to check them, did what I came to find out is called, in the biz, "power steering." Then, when I got permission to tune the whole piano, discovered an overall mis-alignment of the hammers, which were shifted too far to the left, making the soft pedal ineffective for anything except tuning tri-chord unisons. I also noticed a few other hammer misalignments of the skewed variety.
During this time of discovery, I also met the owner of the piano--one of the residents, a Grande Dame if ever there was one (and a delightful one at that)--and, Wonder of Wonders, in a serendipitous meeting on the day that I was tuning, the recipient of the piano in due time--her granddaughter--who was there from WAY out of town for a short visit. It occured to me that, since this piano was in use for the enjoyment of the residents of the senior center at present, and, since this piano had a known future home of one who would want to play it for sentimental and pianistic reasons, that it would be a good thing to end the obvious neglect and bring this piano up to some kind of snuff.
I suggested some work.
Told the staff-in-charge about my mentor, Bill Bremmer. Fixed the loose tuning pins with CA glue upon Bill's instruction. Identified the root of the hammer alignment/soft pedal problem by talking with Bill. Offered to clean the piano for free (which I did on a rainy day--that's just me being me--sorry fellas (btw, thanks Ron Koval for posting the YouTube vid with piano cleaning tricks)). And explained the problems of this fine instrument to staff-in-charge (eventually by expository e-mail essay, which related the problems caused by the soft pedal mis-alignment, necessitating hammer re-shaping, and let-off and drop adjustments), who communicated my concerns to the family, who went on to hire Bill for a day's worth of work to bring the piano up to some kind of snuff.
So, this is a report about what we did, what Bill called, "a rough regulation," and my impressions (as somewhat of a pianist/performer) about the difference that it made.
Bill's immediate assesment was that this piano had not been played very much in its 50 years, (corroborated later that day by the piano's owner) and that, besides the soft pedal alignment problem, it was not in too bad of shape.
The first thing was to fix the gross hammer mis-alignment, which was accomplished by shimming that block on the left of the piano that you can see when the action is pulled out, the one with the two screws holding it in place, the one that the action rests against that has the white felt glued to it (don't know the name of it, and can't find it in Reblitz). It looked like it had been shimmed before with a piece of "tortoise shell" formica (unless Steinway used formica in the 60s, in which case it wasn't a shim, but something prescient...) We shimmed further using a few thick cardboard front rail punchings that Bill determined would be about the exact right dimension (it was), applied with a thin coat of Elmer's, along with two and a half turns in
(I think it was) of the adjustment screw on the opposite side of the piano (the one that mashes into the buckskin dot). That did the trick of putting the hammers where they needed to be under the strings. Then, Bill went about using the flange spacer and the Bic lighter to align the hammers that needed it a little more attention: Bill aligning hammers
At this point, we also checked the keys for leveling. A small handfull needed very thin punchings, which we placed on top of the keys at the keypins to put on the balance rail later. After all of that, Bill went on to re-shape the hammers.
After turning the action around and using the piano as a table, Bill put the key slip along the backchecks, and then lined the action with newspaper.
Then, he went about the work of filing with a coarse Perma-Grit tungsten carbide flat file, sanding from the grooves down, and from the shoulder to the grooves.
It took a few swipes to follow the contours, one section at a time...
Then, Bill used a piece of 120 grit sandpaper to "shoe shine" the hammers he had just filed:
A thing of beauty is a joy to behold:
All of that shaping took Bill about an hour.
While we still had the newspapers in, we rubbed teflon powder on the jack knuckles. After that, Bill aligned the wippen assembly to the hammers (with a story about why wippen is spelled without an "h"). At this point, Bill determined that the jacks were in good position in the repetition lever, the repetition springs were fairly well tensioned, and the backchecks were catching the hammers appropriately. We then adjusted the capstans to put the hammer shanks about 1/8" from the hammer rest rail. Then, Bill turned each let-off screw about one full crank. After that, Bill adjusted the drop screws. Then, he had me finesse the hammer line while he adjusted the damper guide rail. It think it was about at this point when we removed the stack and put the balance rail punchings into place, and at some point, Bill also adjusted the key frame glides, but because I am a bad student, I don't remember exactly when.
We put the action into the piano, and Bill asked me to play a bit at tell him my impression. It was a lot better, but "tight." So, we took the action out, and Bill adjusted the damper guide rail. I was astounded at the difference that that made. Bill put a tuning on the beast, and at that point, we called it a day (9 a.m. to 4 p.m.).
I stayed to play over the dinner hour, because after all of that activity in the dining hall all day long, with the commensurate questions and gossip among the residents about what was going on with the piano, there was no way I was going to get out of there without playing a few tunes.
While I put the piano through some relative paces, I noticed three significant things: 1) Improved tone. (Actually, I noticed this as soon as Bill started tuning, even with the temperament strips in.) 2) Improved predictablity of touch. 3) Improved dynamic control.
The improved dynamic control is very important at this place. The first time I played atmosphere music at this senior center, I put the piano at the small-stick, and started out very gently with Bach's French Suite No. 5. I had not even got through the first repeat of the first movement's second section when one of the wait staff approached the piano and said, "Some of the residents are complaining that it's too loud. Can you please turn it down?" I did *NOT* say, "Yes, let me just find the volume knob. I know it's here, somewhere." LOL!
But I *did* smile and say, "Sure!," closed the lid and played as quietly as I could. It occurred to me later that, in putting the lid at small-stick, I was reflecting sound waves in the bright key of G maj. into the dining hall at ear level, right into hearing aids attenuated to accentuate the mid-range. Ouch. Since then, I have scaled the dynamics to never go above mezzo forte
. What I noticed after our rough regulation was an ability to finesse the scaling of the dynamics, with mezzo piano
as the default starting point--and this without the use of the soft pedal. In fact, I am such a dunce that I did not even think about trying the soft pedal while I was playing that afternoon. I think that is testament to what a difference was made by the hammer re-shaping and the rough regulation.
I did notice some weirdness up and down the keyboard in places, but especially in the baritone section. From about A2 to A3, there was some degree of unpredictability. I wondered at the amazing difference the damper guide rail adjustment had made in "tightness" vs. "looseness," and thought whether or not there was a happy middle to be found. But because I am a rather poor pianist, I was not sure if it was the piano, or, if my technique was at fault. I slept on it, and went back the next morning before going to work to check my senses. I played for about a half hour, and got the same feeling. I was still not sure if it was bad technique or recalcitrant piano, so, I e-mailed Bill about it, who replied with some ideas about what might be going on, especially regarding the damper guide rail. He said he'd be in town today doing some other tunings, so we met today for about an hour and a half, and finessed the rough regulation a little bit.
Now, just so you know that I am extra picky where others might not be, as I arrived at the Senior Center today, someone was just getting up from the piano. I introduced myself and told her I'd been working on the piano with my teacher, and asked her what she thought of the piano--did she notice any improvements? Turns out, she was not a resident (sorry! It was hard to tell... I don't know everyone there, yet...), rather, a teacher who was bringing her students in for a recital a few weeks from now. She had just come to the Senior Center to see if the piano was suitable for her students' recital. She said that she had just run a chromatic scale up the keyboard and it seemed fine and very much like her Steinway D at home. (She said "Steinway D" with a great deal of pride, and even thrust her chest out a bit when she said it. LOL!) Then, she sat down and played a Chopin nocturne, beautifully, and as she was playing, said, "It's lovely! It's very even." We exchanged some pleasantries, and as she was leaving, Bill arrived.
Sure enough, the damper guide rail was the culprit. There is a notch in the rail at about that point (somewhere around B2, I think?), just enough to cause the rail to bow. Bill had me put it in place, and showed me some details about damper "hop." What a difference 1/16" makes!!! Bill also checked some individual spring tensions, and lowered the hammer line a scoatch while I adjusted the drop by a similar scoatch. One key required a slight let-off adjustment.
Bill had me put the action back in, and then play it. WHOA!!! O.k.--it was not the Yamaha I've been pining for, but, WHOA!!!
, it was N i i i i i i i i i i ce!!!
I mean, really niiiiice!!!
Fast and crisp!!!
I played over the dinner hour, again, which was a blast, and this time had no impression that there was any slight weirdness in the responsiveness. Got lots of compliments about the sound of the piano and the playing. Shared lots of laughs with the residents, and strengthened more relationships through the music and the memories it elicited.
Before the dining room filled up with people, I managed to make a recording with my little Tascam DP-004. I wanted to record the Chopin Etude Nouvelle No. 2, but that one wasn't happenin' today. So, I fell back to Scriabin--a simple prelude that you've heard from me before. Sorry for the re-run, even though this is a new iteration. This is played with the soft pedal engaged, lid fully open, digital recorder on the treble side of the music desk. Scriabin, Prelude Op. 13, No. 3 on a Steinway L
That's my story, and I'm sticking with it. If any of you made it through this whole post, thank you for reading and congratulations for your tenacity and perserverance. Thanks also to Bill for being an excellent teacher, and who, if he has anything to add to this account, I hope he does.