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Archive for September, 2017

Who is Grotrian?

Piano Price Point.com ~ September 2017
Chapter Index

Who is Grotrian?

grotrian-piano-factoryThe World Fair became The World Exposition which became Expo as we know it. I stumbled upon a book about the musical instruments from the world fair in the late 1800’s. It was said of Grotrian “There is no effort to produce them in great numbers, but rather to create in every one, as it passes through the factory, an instrument fit for the inspiration of great artists who have long accorded to its makers the highest place.” Of their experience, “It is said that nowhere in the world are there more veteran employees than in the factory of Grotrian.” Grotrian has been, and continues to be a piano manufacturer where 80 percent of the manufacturing is still hand made. (Grotrian Website FAQ)

bvk_d_signet-246x300Who is Grotrian? Grotrian has always been a luxury piano manufacturer based in Braunschweig/Germany. Founded in 1835, Grotrian bought in with Theodor Steinweg (Son of Heinrich Steinweg, Americanized Henry Steinway). The company was then known as Grotrian-Steinweg. Less than a decade later, Theodor was called to help with operations at Steinway, New York. In 1865 Grotrian eventually acquired all remaining shares and the company has continued building high quality pianos to this day. They are part of BVK (Bundesverband Klavier = German Association of Piano Manufacturers).
Fast forward to this century, I have had the delight to sit down and play these pianos at the NAMM show and speak personally with Burkhard Stein (former CEO and now Senior Associate). I’m always curious to know what’s happening behind the scenes in companies. Recently, the Grotrian Company was sold out of family hands to Parsons in China. And while many could view this as detrimental, I see this as an opportunity to secure the future for this German company.


Grotrian-Cast-IronWhat does Parsons have to offer? Parsons is a piano manufacturer and retail giant in China. They have 100 of their own stores and partner with over 500 more retailers of pianos in mainland China. They employ over 5000 people and export to over 24 countries of the world. I recently found out that they own their own soundboard forest of Alaskan spruce in northern Canada, they own their own sawmills and cast iron foundries for building pianos. With a dozen manufacturing facilities, Parsons Music has been propelled to the world stage. They manufacture pianos and piano parts for many companies globally. But their interest isn’t simply in manufacturing. Believe it or not, Parsons had humble beginnings as a piano teaching studio that soon became a piano retailer and eventually a manufacturer. Those roots in music subsequently have led to annual education of 35,000 students, master classes, multiple music festivals and even the Hong Kong Music Teachers Union. They have established a music foundation and scholarships for musical education. They are substantially invested in the advancement of music.

Grotrian-Factory-Pianos
Friedrich-Grotrian-FG275And so what does this acquisition mean for Grotrian? Firstly, they are committed to continuing with German manufacturing. So often people believe that if a piano company gets sold, it is in name only. Not so with Grotrian. They are continuing to blossom with this new-found partner. Parsons also connects maker to market – having a direct audience and buyers in China, who, I might add appreciate the fine craftsmanship of German piano making, Grotrian is a perfect fit for their retail outlets. Like most piano companies today, they also have started releasing sub-lines of pianos that are more cost effective. In the 21st century, there is a theme: fill in all of the price points and provide something for everyone. At the NAMM show in 2017, they released the Friedrich Grotrian piano and coming this fall will be the Wilhelm Grotrian (named after the first two generations of Grotrians). Pianos designs are fully Grotrian with sub lines made more cost effective in the areas listed below.

Grotrian: 100% Made in Germany. Renner action parts, Renner or Abel hammers, Roslau wire, Kluge or Laukhuff keys

Friedrich Grotrian: Rim, cast iron plate and Alaskan spruce soundboard made in China. Assembly, action and finishing are in Germany. Still meets requirements for Made in Germany because so much of the piano is manufactured in Braunschweig.

Wilhelm Grotrian: Completely made in China with Renner hammers, Roslau strings

Grotrian-Damper-InstallIn 1954, Grotrian established a piano competition in Germany to foster piano performance and excellence. Now over 60 years later, this competition is still thriving. Perhaps it was this love of music that was a common thread to their new found partner, Parsons. Regardless, it is good to know that strategic alliances like Parsons with Grotrian will solidify the future for such a high end niche company. If you can spend a few moments, watch their company video below and you will be able to more closely see and hear what goes into making a Grotrian piano.

The Una Corda Pedal – The Soft Pedal

Piano Price Point.com ~ August 2017
Chapter Index

The Una Corda Pedal and How It Works

A few months ago we examined the mechanical and musical basics of the damper pedal. This month we’re going to look at how the una corda, also known as the soft pedal, works.

Manual-typesettingI was speaking with an older gentleman recently who used to be a typesetter for a newspaper, meaning that he would manually place letters in rows each day for the daily newspaper (pre-computer and pre-typewriter). Each of the letters in the alphabet was grouped together and were called “sorts”.

As the day progressed, depending on what the typesetting would require, you might run out of a certain letter, like a letter E or letter A, for example. And so if you were “out of sorts”, meaning that you had run out of that particular letter, you would go into the storage room of letters and get more sorts, another container of that character. The insinuation is that if you’re “out of sorts”, all production stops until you remove yourself from your work, restock and regroup and then continue on. I love these kinds of stories that reveal the story behind the phrase.

The soft pedal on the piano also has not-so-quaint a story but interesting nonetheless. Cristofori, credited with the invention of the earliest pianos in the 1700’s also installed the “una corda” pedal into his pianos. Being Italian, the phrase “una corda” can be translated “one string”. How does “one string” translate into a pedal we also know as the soft pedal? We’ll look at that in just a moment but first, let’s take a look at the structure of the left pedal on the piano called the soft pedal or una corda.

First of all, grand pianos and upright pianos have very different functioning soft pedals. The grand piano shifts all of the keys from left to right slightly. As you can see in the top picture, the keys move away from the rim at the left. This, in turn makes the hammers off center from the strings they are striking. What’s happening below the surface is that the soft pedal (the left pedal on any piano) is connected to a rod which eventually joins to a lever that swivels. This swivel piece sits under the entire keyboard frame and moves all of the keys from left to right. Why shift all of the keys? On the majority of the keys on the piano there are 3 strings. When you shift the keys using the soft pedal, the piano hammers strike only 2 strings (pictured in the second frame) instead of 3 and thus, the piano becomes softer. But what is also simultaneously happening is that the hammers, being shifted out of their usual strike pattern, are also hitting on fresh felt. When the hammers are aligned to strike at the normal position, they will, over time, have small grooves in the felt. When the soft pedal is engaged, shifting from left to right, the hammer is no longer striking those same grooves. The effect then is that the tone is usually quieter but also softer and warmer in timbre.

Mechanically, upright pianos operate very differently and the soft pedal on any upright is not really any kind of “una corda” since it does not shift the keys. Rather, it pushes the hammers on a single rail forward towards the strings (pictured below). How do closer hammers make the piano softer? It simply gives you a bit more control bridging the smaller gap between the hammers and strings. Hammers on an upright piano travel the full distance to the strings under normal conditions. When they are moved closer, the idea is that with less distance to travel, it will be easier to control. Try this as an example: if you wanted to clap your hands loudly, it is our natural inclination to first separate our hands a fair distance to make the impact greater.

What happens if you move your hands only a foot apart and aren’t allowed to move back before you clap? The result is that the lower distance only allows for lower impact and thus lower volume. Upright pianos work the same way. When the pedal is depressed, a rod simply engages a rail that moves all of the hammers closer to the strings in hopes of limiting the loud playing and making a closer strike distance. The result is quite often negligible and the tone, unaffected compared to a grand piano moving the hammers onto fresh felt.

So where does the term “una corda” come from? Back in the day of Cristofori (early 1700’s), each note on this primitive piano had only 2 strings. Using the “una corda” shifted the keys so that they would only strike 1 string. How different the piano would sound if you would only strike one string at a time. It would sound not only quieter but also thinner. Our ears are so accustomed to hearing 3 strings simultaneously, it would actually be odd to hear a single string resonate at a time. It would be more akin to a guitar. Over the years, however, the term “una corda” has become an anachronism. Although it’s outdated, the term implies quiet and more intimate playing. I guess we could start a quiet revolution and call it Due Corde (2 strings)… but then again, the initials DC are already taken meaning Da Cappo. Piano nerd humour. Hahaa.
Una-Corda-Soft-Pedal
As an aside, if you ever get a chance to visit the keyboard museum in Vienna, Austria (Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien), the instruments dating from the 1700’s are completely fascinating and being able to see the historical developments up close is incredible. I highly recommend it!

Music-Museum-Vienna

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