Posted by: James Carney
The Levitan C-shaped "Professional" tuning lever - 09/28/13 02:55 PM
This past February, I was experiencing debilitating pain in my right hand; namely, the thumb tendon. Not good for anything I do all week long: playing, composing, teaching, performing, and working as a professional piano technician, tuning 16-20 instruments every week.
My doctor and I attributed this pain to repetitive motion, likely from my frequent use of a shorter traditional tuning lever, especially on pianos with ultra-tight pinblocks. I began using my left hand more (I can tune a grand piano with either hand) but it wasn't really helping as much, or as quickly, as I needed it to.
I remembered trying Dan Levitan's unusual C-shaped lever - called the Levitan
"Professional" - at a PTG meeting a few years back, and wondered if that might be a solution. Dan and I are friends, and he was gracious to loan me his second prototype C-lever that Pianotek eventually produced and currently offers for sale. http://www.pianoteksupply.com/products-new.aspx
(See also http://levitantuninglevers.com/professional.html)
There have been several threads in which this lever is mentioned, and in seemingly all of them there have been comments that are doubtful, negative, or even dismissive of the lever, sometimes coming from technicians who have never even tried it for themselves. I too thought the C-lever was very strange the first time I turned a pin with it, but decided I would actually take the time to become accustomed to it before making any judgments.
For the last several years I had been using a Charles Faulk 12" carbon fiber lever with a 1/2" extension and a 5º angle. It's a fantastic tool and probably one of the best out there that money can buy. And due to the short extension and shallow angle of my setup it will flagpole less than many other levers.
So in late April of this year I began using the C-lever for 95% of the pianos I
tuned, both grands and verticals. I've now tuned more than 300 pianos with it.
The result? It's worked out so well that I am now essentially pain-free and more productive than ever.
The Levitan Professional has clearly made me a better tuner while helping my hand heal almost completely. It has made my tunings more stable, more accurate, faster, and less fatiguing.
Like most pros, when I finish a normal full tuning, I go back over every unison to ensure they are all dead on. What I noticed about the Levitan Professional is that I don't have nearly as many corrections to make on the "cleanup" pass. It's truly astonishing. I started taking count of how many strings needed correction on the cleanup, and it is almost always less than 20. In quite a few cases it has been less than 10, with the average between 12-15. With the traditional lever, that number was much higher. And I'm talking about DOA unisons - the kind that get you called back by the recording studio and the demanding player time and again.
I don't know why this lever gives these superior results, but I'm personally not concerned with having to understand the scientific reasons. I suppose it could simply be the fact that the C lever is a couple of inches longer than most traditional levers, with no flex. And I suspect that due to its incredible stiffness it immediately removes or greatly attenuates the twist that often remains in a pin, especially in a tight block. And, you do have to make a real effort to get the C-lever to flagpole, so I also suspect that it's simply doing an incredibly efficient job of moving the pin - and setting it with conviction - inside the block. Dan Levitan offers his point of view on this thread here, agreeing with the discussion of the physics involved as was stated by forum member Tunewerk: http://www.pianoworld.com/forum/ubbthreads.php/topics/1931973/2.html
That said, I probably do know tight pinblocks in new and late model pianos as well as anyone out there. Estonia, for example, makes wonderful pianos at an amazing pricepoint, and the new model 210 is especially impressive. But with the Delignit blocks they use, and the drill bit size they use, it is not exactly a walk in the park for the technician when these pianos are brand new. I've tuned hundreds of Estonia pianos, new and old, so I know what to expect and what needs to be done. It used to be difficult with my other levers, but now, with the Levitan C, it's a breeze, and not only do I get the job done quickly, but accurately. Same goes for those classic Baldwin pinblocks that creak, snap, and crackle when the pins finally turn - the Levitan makes quick work of blocks like that, which in the past had been so frustrating for me. (Even a '64 F that I frequently tune in a recording studio still snaps in humid weather!)
And since I have a number of venues and studios I tune for on a frequent basis, I was able to see a definite improvement with my stability. In some cases the pianos are being played more than 50 hours a week - sometimes brutally - and I was delighted to return and usually find only several questionable unisons, with many still dead on. Even when the overall pitch had changed due to humidity fluctuations.
On technique: The weirdest thing about using the Levitan Pro at first is the fact that - when tuning a grand - you are essentially reversing your movements to go flat and sharp. You push to sharpen and pull to flatten. (On verticals the push/pull to flatten/sharpen will be the same as a trad lever.) This could be a reason why some techs scoff at the tool, or give up too easily. In his demo video, watch how Dan holds the lever - it is important to grasp the lever at the bottom; right on the black plastic sleeve, basically using just the index and middle fingers. The great thing about this hand position is that it is easy to do with the other hand too, so you can easily switch and tune any section of a piano with either hand.
I am both a smooth-pull and impact-style tuner; I just use my instincts to choose the technique that is more appropriate for the piano at hand. (Or the individual pin at hand, really) And I've found that the C-lever can be used effectively in either case. I think it's actually a far better tool for both techniques than a traditional is.
With verticals, I have found that I cannot easily hold the lever the way Dan demonstrates in his video, by resting one's elbow on the top of the case, using the elbow as a pivot point. I've tried but ergonomically it's too uncomfortable for me. So I simply grasp the lever with all four fingers and tune away. The extra leverage makes it so much easier to tune verticals (even with my "unorthodox" technique) and I was also able to quickly learn how to tune verticals left-handed with this lever - something I couldn't seem to do with the traditional lever. For those that have wondered how the C-lever is for verticals; I never use a traditional on them anymore, and have no plans to ever revert back. With a grand I will occasionally switch to a traditional lever, but since the Levitan C lever is so much easier to hold and manipulate on a vertical, I see no reason to use anything else.
I was especially interested to see how the Levitan would perform on the Steingraeber 138, which has the highest tuning pins of any vertical piano I've tuned. I've now used it on 4 different 138 models, and the results were amazing! However, this is a case where one would not be able to hold the lever the way that Dan demonstrates in his video. With a piano like the Steingraeber, that position would be tough if not impossible to achieve. In fact, in the high treble section of the 138, with the Levitan Pro at 12 o'clock on the bottom row of pins, there is only about 4 inches of clearance between the top of the lever and the top of the case. But the way I am holding the lever on verticals (like a motorcycle throttle) there is no problem at all.
I've also used the Levitan Pro on several spinets and many consoles, and
occasionally the tool felt like it had more potential to fall off the pins. And in a few cases I was tuning 60s Acrosonics with that huge deep lid that couldn't provide enough clearance to even use the lever at all, even with my Spurlock lid prop.
There were also a few pianos with pins that seemed a little too loose for the torque potential of the Levitan. I felt like it was almost too much power being applied to a pin that needed very little torque; with some of these pianos I reverted to the Faulk (or the Levitan classic, which I find myself using more and more of late) and was more comfortable. But this is the extent of my criticism of the tool, and since a working tech will always have a backup lever on hand, it's nothing to worry about.
I would say that from the day I began using the Levitan Professional, it wasn't all that difficult to become comfortable. I tuned four grands the first day, and yes, it was definitely much slower going than normal. I think the next 6 pianos each took an extra 20 minutes. Within a month I stopped thinking about it. Within six weeks my tuning time dropped significantly, becoming faster than ever before. Now, it almost feels strange to use my Faulk or the Classic, but I also enjoy switching up levers and think it's a good idea for ergonomic reasons to do so. Sometimes I will do the "cleanup" pass with a traditional lever, especially in the high treble, where I prefer to tune left-handed.
And although I did learn how to tune left-handed with the C lever, I haven't been doing that lately. I suppose I should, but since my pain is gone I don't feel compelled to.
It is imperative to remember that if you do tune with the Levitan Professional, you will need to also carry a traditional lever with you as well. There are many pianos where the Levitan Pro will not work on the lowest or highest pins. (There are also many where it will easily work on every pin.) Plus you will still need a traditional lever to turn glide bolts or for stringing work.
The Levitan "Classic" will work elegantly for these purposes, and his newest
"Utility" model is really perfect for its ultra light weight, compact size, and
price. Plus it has a very thin shaft, which makes it an excellent tool for stringing work.
I hope that many of you will give this tool a serious try. For me, it has been
beneficial to both my health and my tuning speed, the quality of my pin setting, and, of course, stability. Dan Levitan has created a wonderfully unique tuning lever - one that I predict will become widely recognized in the future as a brilliant invention within the piano technology trade.