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Blog Intro
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Welcome to the Piano Price Point Blog. For those unfamiliar with the term "blog", it is the shortened version of "web-log". Blogs are usually a series of informally written articles. The purpose of this blog is to outline news and events from piano companies. Pianos are constantly being redesigned and changed. The intent of this blog is to give the "reader's digest" version summarizing the highlights of new releases and information of new designs. In addition, I quite often stumble upon facts about pianos that I find interesting in piano design. The table of contents will direct you to the appropriate article. Simply click on the article title to be redirected. I hope you enjoy and if you have any suggestions, please don't hesitate to add send a quick email on our contact page.

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2014 December Hailun
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Hailun Piano Innovations

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Hailun Piano Innovations ~ Dec/14

Hailun Chen

Aluminum Key BedEarlier this year at NAMM I interacted with Mr. Hailun Chen – truly a privilege and honour to connect with such a humble visionary who has influenced and supplied more piano parts than we’re probably aware of. I greatly respect individuals who state "I have put my name on my pianos and on my company". Mr. Hailun Chen is the real McCoy where his name is his guarantee.

Working with a translator, he showed me different concepts in his pianos. What caught my eye was this silver looking gleam under the keys on one of their upright pianos. As seen in the picture, the key “bed” is the horizontal frame that the keys rest on. It’s imperative to have a solid key bed without which the piano touch would be compromised in evenness and functionality. Normally made out of wood, frames will sag or warp over time. It’s a common problem.

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Hailun Piano Innovation

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Upright Piano Side ProfileAluminum however, prevents this problem and ensures both structural integrity but also alignment for a life-time. It is completely warp resistant. So if the strings run vertically in an upright piano, the key bed is perpendicular to the frame. If there is any sagging or warping in a wooden key bed, even by a few millimetres (1/16th of an inch), the problem is compounded in the vertical alignment of the strings.

So what are the implications of integrating aluminum? (See? I knew you would be as excited about this innovation as I am. This innovation BTW is exclusive to Hailun pianos and is officially called PAS system - Permanency- Accuracy- Stability). Aluminum Key BedWell to keep any piano completely in ‘check’ and performing optimally, regulation (fine adjustments) are done. Quite often, as pianos age and get worn, piano technicians are making these adjustments to compensate for worn parts but also for a sagging key bed. What happens then if key bed issues were taken out of the equation? Indeed, the regulation would be a much easier task. Speaking with Basilios Strmec, CEO of Hailun Distribution for North America, it gets even better. Let’s say you are an avid pianist working hard on a performance degree and you used one of the Hailun pianos as a workhorse. You would expect to see substantial wear and tear, correct? Over years, when pianos start to feel and sound worn, if you had an aluminum key bed, you could simply swap actions and renew the instrument to its original condition.

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Hailun Piano Innovation

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Hailun FactoryThat means in essence you would have a mechanically NEW piano – with new joints, hammers and parts. It would feel new but also the fresh felt on the hammers would make it sound new. Historically during construction of a piano, one instrument’s parts were fitted to just one piano – meaning they’re not interchangeable. Hailun SignEven if it’s the same make, same model, same brand, same year, you would usually not be able to change out parts readily. With modern computer based CNC (Computer Numerically Controlled – in other words carving out parts by computer control), the precision is such that you could actually swap out the ‘engine’ of the piano with 4 bolts in a few minutes. In essence then, we’ve reached an age in manufacturing where not only are you investing in the present piano but saving on the rebuilding costs for years to come. That’s amazing! Kudos to Hailun for the innovation in the industry. Special thanks to Basilios Strmec for taking the time to discuss this with me and providing information.

Haven’t heard of Hailun? They have over 430,000 square feet of manufacturing space and employ over 1,100 people and one of only 2 Chinese made piano companies listed on the Shenzhen stock exchange.

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Hailun Piano Innovation

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Hailun Award

2014 November Current Market Piano Trends
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The Piano Industry

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Current Piano Market Trends ~ Nov/14

Piano Display

Have you walked into any piano store lately? It’s a sea of black and shiny? Why is that? Since the development of polyurethane resins (circa 1970), that mirror piano finish has become synonymous with ‘modern piano’ and has won out in popularity far above any other ‘look’. From a finishing perspective, making that incredible shine requires skill and knowledge and proper facilities. The only problem is... shiny doesn’t necessarily mean good. Consumers however seem to get those two points confused. If that type of finish has been around for almost 50 years, what has transpired in the world of piano making that we CAN’T see? The finishing techniques on the outside are obvious, but what are areas that have changed on the inside of the piano? How do we convince consumers that pianos from the 1980’s have been improved upon for the last 30 years?

I’m always fascinated by the business of piano manufacturing. I’ve witnessed and played so many different types of pianos that all have a similar look and yet are vastly different. Even consider the different prices of pianos today. A grand piano can sell for $10,000 and one right beside it can sell for $150,000! They look similar to the untrained eye but they sound and play really differently. So what has happened in the ‘modern age’ of piano making (1970-2014) if the pianos look almost the same?

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Current Piano Market Trends

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1980

Design has definitely changed. And by design I mean the internal workings of the piano and not so much the cabinetry. If we could paint broad brush strokes, I would venture to say that the 70’s and 80’s were marked by the advent of automation. Although boutique makers will always exist specializing in hand-crafted instruments, giants started to appear making tens of thousands of pianos annually. Productivity leads to efficiency and ultimately consistency. By the 1980’s, Japanese and Korean workforces dominated mass produced pianos. It was conceivable for MILLIONS of pianos to be made by a handful of companies. Like it or not, the word for that era is Consistency. Good design or bad, these pianos were consistent. Global marketing meant that many of these instruments became household names. With the exception of a few manufacturers in North America, piano makers all but closed their doors in the early 1980’s financial crash while mass produced pianos mainly from Asia were emerging.

1980Labour costs were up, profits were down and the diversification of labour, parts as well as cost cutting measures was initiated. The extreme growth of the 70’s and 80’s has declined (compare a high of 275,000 pianos sold in 1979 to 99,000 in 1995). Trying to fill gaps and stay competitive, many piano companies started developing multi-tiered levels of quality giving both choice and price considerations with A,B and often C lines of pianos.

1980China hit the ground running. While the rest of the world has experienced the piano for almost 200 years, the popularity of the piano has all of a sudden exploded in a country with more than a billion people. USA, Europe and Japan are almost deemed ‘mature’ markets and thus begins a decade of decline. However by the end of the decade, more than 180 piano companies emerged in China alone including many established companies opening up facilities within China.

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Current Piano Market Trends

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1980

The big have gotten bigger. There’s this trend where massive companies are establishing all price points and in order to do so, they have purchased many of the ‘godfathers’ as I refer to them… the upper end German boutique makers and conversely either contracting or setting up facilities in China for lower end production. China is now a decade into serious piano making and the game of ‘catch-up’ and consolidation has begun. Unprecedented is the aid of computer assisted design and reverse engineering has all but debunked many old piano making techniques.

1980And so I return to the question, “If all pianos are starting to look the same, where do we go from here?” Someone asked me recently, “Have inexpensive pianos all but caught up to more expensive ones?” In a word, no. Expensive makers were busy raising the bar at a time when low end makers were simply making pianos viable. In recent years, upper end makers have been pursuing excellence in tone: rather than simply making ‘soft’ hammers, they’re going after versatile hammers through the use of better felt (see interview with Jack Brand on Weickert) – ones that play soft and felty but also loud and percussively. Tonal aspects are also more advanced – with old growth timber gone, boutique makers are pursuing high elevation slow growth wood with tighter more resonant grain for soundboards. Strings and what is called scale is ever increasingly moving towards purer tones with focused harmonics. And actions are (as I like to describe them on high end pianos) like chocolate – rich and beautiful. In my estimation the whole world in piano making has just upped the ante in these last 5 years. But new pianos do come at a cost. Modestly priced piano models from the 70’s and 80’s are now unaffordable by many households. Like never before there are several piano companies that have broken the $100,000 mark for price point. It appears that with the emergence of the nouveau riche in many countries, the boutique makers are reaping the rewards. This has left the bottom arena rallying for market share. Kudos (where credit is due) to the improvements in fledgling companies who have grown from nothing to substantial instrument makers within the span of a decade. If you are in the camp that quickly dismisses Chinese made pianos, you’re in for a surprise – especially in the coming years. Regardless of your budget, however, there’s even more reason and more incentive to look at buying a new piano than ever before.

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Current Piano Market Trends

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Ebony High Polish
Market Highlights

  • China still tops the industry with an estimated 79.6% of sales worldwide. Domestic imports in China are up by 15%
  • Consolidation continues and productivity is between 40,000 - 130,000 pianos annually for many of these companies (doing the math, that means some manufacturers are making between 100-350 pianos PER DAY)
  • Luxury markets are up and German exports continue to rise
  • Viewing 10 year trends, North American sales of acoustic pianos has recovered from 2008 financial crunch and have remained relatively stable but numbers are still down by 42% in retail dollars and 61% lower in units since 2004
  • According to NAMM 2013 report, demand for larger grand pianos has increased in recent months to the 6’ size and there is a greater demand for higher quality upright pianos with average price point set at $16,425 and $4,834 respectively
  • Last year roughly 32,000 pianos (grands & uprights) were sold in the USA
2014 October Mason & Hamlin
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Mason & Hamlin ~ Composite Piano Shanks

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Mason & Hamlin ~ October 2014

Wooden Golf ClubsI was in the office of a metal fabricator recently and admired his collection of vintage wooden golf clubs. Not being a golfer I inquired “Are these rare?” He laughed and replied “Not really… titanium and other alloys have all but replaced traditional clubs like these. I just like the look of them.” Having been around pianos most of my life, I’ve often wondered about the traditional use of wooden parts in the mechanical action of the piano. We somehow have managed to romanticize every aspect of this instrument and when faced with the possibility of making more efficient, versatile, stronger and consistent parts out of composite materials like nylon or carbon fiber there are far too many competitive voices that ignorantly refer to these as ‘plastic’. Plastic has this connotation of cheap grocery bags and kid’s toys. If you’re in that camp, think again about how not only golf clubs have changed but how airplanes also used to be made out of wood. Historically, the first bicycle was made completely out of wood and yet the majority of Tour de France bikes are now made out of carbon fiber... and for the record, I won’t be taking my next flight on any wooden airliner. Why have we embraced certain areas of technology and accepted it as the norm and yet reject it in the piano?
“The piano is made for music. It’s not just a machine.” I agree whole-heartedly however, the moving parts of the action – do they create sound? The joints and levers called the whippen assembly – do they make noise? Are they tuned? Most of these parts are inert and inaudible. If you ever get to see a technician take an action piece out of the piano, flex the joint and listen for any kind of noise. They’re incredibly quiet.

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Mason & Hamlin ~ October 2014

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Mason & Hamlin Grand PianoSo if the joints (also known as the flanges) have a more tactile application, why not fit them with new composite materials? That’s what has happened with parts inside Mason & Hamlin pianos. Wessell, Nickel & Gross (WNG) is the parts company who manufacture such composite parts (same owners as Mason & Hamlin). Composite literally means ‘combined’. It's the joining of the aforementioned components - usually nylon, carbon fiber or epoxy materials.
When speaking earlier this year with Kirk Burgett, president of Mason & Hamlin and WNG, we touched on various aspects of their pianos that have been re-designed with ‘outside the box’ thinking. One such concept is hammer shanks. The hammer is the lever (that looks like an actual hammer) which strikes the strings with a felt head. To my knowledge, WNG is the only composite shank maker in the world. So what’s the big deal?Piano Hammer Shank Why change what already works well for hundreds of years? In this slow motion video provided by WNG, (which is very compelling I might add) it demonstrates how wooden shanks absorb energy like a spring instead of transferring energy to the string. Ideally in a piano action, you don’t want to lose energy from the moment you touch the key. Piano touch should be an extension of your fingers and ultimate transfer equals maximum output of the instrument. So even if you could get wood that was incredibly rigid to match the strength and resilience of composite shanks, getting 88 shanks to operate in the same manner is challenging.

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Mason & Hamlin ~ October 2014

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Mason & Hamlin Factory in the USAMason & Hamlin have all but eliminated that variable of inconsistency by implementing these shanks into their pianos. And I must say, their pianos are suitably impressive. Advantages of new composite materials:

1. Strength and rigidity
2. Consistency
3. Resilience to humidity fluctuation
4. Reduced mass

Take a moment to watch the video and if you have the opportunity, try a new Mason & Hamlin piano. If you need confirmation that they’re building quality, you’ll be convinced in short order. WNG also offer a wide variety of aftermarket parts for rebuilders of pianos as well.

A special thanks also to Kirk Burgett for his passion in piano design, creativity and innovation. Pictured below, a whippen assembly made out of composite material ~ welcome to the 21st century.
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Mason & Hamlin ~ October 2014

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Mason & Hamlin Factory in the USA

2014 September Piano Appearance
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Piano Polish ~ Keeping Up with Appearances

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Piano Appearance ~ September 2014

Cory ProductsPianos look great in showrooms don’t they? Why is it then that even the nicest pianos quite often look tired in private homes? The answer is not to play or touch the piano. Au contraire, pianos are made for music and to be played! Quite frankly, I believe it’s due to the fact that there aren’t parameters set around piano care. Having had a busy household with three of my own children growing up around pianos, I set up three simple rules to prevent piano damage:
1 No toys (I don’t care if it’s fluffy the teddy bear… he still has button eyes)
2 No food or drinks near the piano
3 No acts of aggression
My reasoning? I’ve seen way too many pianos destroyed by small cars (especially on the keytops). Anything that is hard (keys and purses are the worst!) will eventually lead to hairline scratches. Regarding food or drinks, I can’t count how many times people have said “oh I’ll just put that cup down at the end of the keyboard” (referring to the cheek blocks) or “up here on top”. And wouldn’t you know it, there’s an indelible circle left afterwards – usually on beautiful wood veneers such as mahogany or walnut.

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Piano Appearance ~ September 2014

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Finally, no acts of aggression; Despite the fact that pianos can take quite a beating when played at concert level doing avant garde or prepared piano music, it’s the intention and respect with which I’ve shown my own children to have for an instrument that’s important.

Grand Piano Shine

Beyond household rules that establish simple parameters for having an instrument in the home, how do you keep a piano looking new? Dusting with a swiffer or chamois on a regular basis is perfect. (Word to the wise though, don’t let the swiffer handle scratch the piano!) A simple light swipe to keep the dust off keeps it looking presentable. More than that, what’s the protocol for wiping fingerprints or simply cleaning a piano?

Let’s start with the DON’Ts
1. Don’t use standard furniture polish. They build up a sticky residue over time and depending on the piano, sometimes even soften the finish
2. Don’t use water. Although most modern finishes are impermeable to water (such as eurethanes), it will still streak and look terrible
3. Don’t use any type of paper product – not papertowel, no Kleenex or tissue because when you think about it, paper is derived from wood – wood is an abrasive – you’re actually scratching the finish
4. Don’t use harsh cleaners or solvents

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Piano Appearance ~ September 2014

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The DO’s:
1. Always use a soft cloth or chamois
2. Use a cleaner/spray that enhances depth, removes smudges, minor dirt and fingerprints that also doesn’t leave a greasy residue

One product family that I have used for many years is Cory Care Products. They understand pianos. Their products are simple, effective and you really can’t over do them. They make the blacks jet black and sheen incomparable.
One misunderstood finish is satin. By nature of the fact that you’re rubbing a piano to clean it, it becomes shiny – counterintuitive for satin. Cory has developed a ‘polish’ for satin pianos. It retains the satin look very effectively. I’ve kept a bottle of both for years now. So if you want to keep up with appearances, set up some basic house rules, dust regularly and clean occasionally using great products. It’ll keep the wow factor for any piano in your home.

Grand Piano Finish

2014 August Schimmel Staying Competitive
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Schimmel Piano ~ Staying Competitive

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Schimmel Stays Competitive ~ August 2014

Schimmel FactoryIt struck me recently that Schimmel, an almost 130 year old piano company is working at staying competitive. As I was updating and implementing new changes and models to the Schimmel line, it struck me that there is a movement to diversify – to stay competitive and at the same time push the upper limits of technology. The highest level of their pianos is called the Konzert series (in English where we obviously get the word Concert from). This new series includes a higher grade soundboard material (Bavarian high altitude AAA grade), re-scaling of the line (new and enhanced tone), a mass reduced bridge (allowing for better tone transference to the soundboard), new mineral keytops (instead of plastic) as well as new keys that are patterned after the K280 concert grand. In addition, Schimmel has begun a new department called “Tonmeisterei” (tone or sound master department) where the new K series undergoes more significant voicing (changes to tonal color).

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Schimmel Stays Competitive ~ August 2014

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Schimmel TriplexI must say that the new Konzert design is not something to be glossed over. These new changes are substantial. At NAMM in January, I had the opportunity to sit at the K280 on stage. The clarity and harmonicity are truly outstanding. This is in part due to the tunable triplexing. In short, the part of the string that produces the body of the tone is called the speaking length of the string. At the termination points of the string however, Schimmel has added harmonic value by adding tunable “aliquots” (translated means ‘a portion of the whole’). Schimmel FactoryWhile duplexing refers to having these aliquots at the farthest end of the string, triplexing has aliquots at both the tuning pin end as well as the hitch pin side of the string. Rather than simply terminating the vibration of the string past the speaking length, these metal aliquots keep the tone ‘live’ and add harmonics to the body of the note. Schimmel now has made these harmonic areas adjustable and subsequently tunable so they can resound in the same pitch as the note itself. It sounds complicated but when played, the practical output is that the tone is perceived clear as a bell.

Schimmel Made In GermanySchimmel still has its historically significant Concert line available but has added two other lines entitled Schimmel International and Wilhelm Schimmel. Schimmel International has outsourced some parts to become more cost effective, having the cabinets made in their European factory of Kalisz, Poland. There is enough labour and materials present from Braunschweig however to still be classified “Made in Germany”.

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Schimmel Stays Competitive ~ August 2014

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Wilhelm Schimmel is completely Schimmel designed but built mainly in the Kalisz plant. It offers a more cost effective alternative for a European piano. While Schimmel pushes the envelope on the extreme upper end, the company is keenly aware that there is demand for more cost based pianos for the lower end market. Undoubtedly, many competitive markets (especially China) are hungry for such instruments. Schimmel has not only shown its engineering and design prowess but diversification with the intention of reaching all market demands in today’s economy.

Schimmel Konzert K256

2014 July Bringing Your Piano Home
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Bringing Your Piano Home

Bringing Your New Piano Home ~ July 2014

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Piano PlacementSo you just purchased a piano. Now what? It’s kind of like bringing the baby home from the hospital; you need to give some thought as to the inclusion into your life. What about placement? Where do you put it? And how about maintenance? How much and how often does it need to be tuned? This month, we’re taking a brief look at piano follow up in your home.

Placement and Positioning

I’ve quite often said that pianos are like small elephants. As a piece of furniture, they can dominate a room. First off let’s debunk the old ‘outside wall’ business where many have been told pianos cannot sit on the outer wall of a house. Back in the 1920’s, old houses didn’t have sufficient insulation and in winter, outside walls had as much ice on the inside of the wall as the outside. Fluctuations in temperature were enormous and pianos weathered much better on inside walls. This is not really applicable today. General rule of thumb, if you can touch the wall and it feels like room temperature, you most likely don’t have an issue because modern construction and insulating have effectively buffered outside extremities. There are, however things to consider as danger zones: direct sunlight, baseboard heaters and fireplaces. Direct sunlight will not only create fluctuation in temperature and humidity and affect the inner workings of the piano but it will quite often fade and damage the outer finish.

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Bringing Your Piano Home ~ July 2014

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Baseboard heaters are a no-no for close proximity. They heat up and cool down constantly. Finally, being in a confined space with a fireplace or wood stove also dries out parts and the sound board of the piano. If you have an upright piano, don’t position it close to the wall and in doing so ‘cup’ the sound. General principle is to have the piano about a fist’s distance from the wall which ensures proper displacement of the sound. Do also consider acoustics of the sound as well. Hard wood floors will echo while carpet and drapes absorb sound. Plaster and glass contribute to the echo. Grand pianos sound great in corners as the tone reflected off of the lid will be heard as it reflects again in the corner.

Piano Preparation

Hammer Flange

What exactly is piano preparation? If all of the notes play and work properly, why do I need to put work into a new instrument? Let’s just say that manufacturing involves assembly and some levels of preparation. Final preparation is the last stage of adjusting a piano to its home environment. Having a piano moved half-way around the world, it has been bumped and jostled. The wood at the factory quite possibly has different humidity levels to your home and so out of the approximately 5000 intricate piano parts, some may be 90% tight but rarely are they 100%. Let me give you a small example: the hammer that strikes the string is attached to a round stick called a shank which rotates via a steel center pin on a small wooden piece called the flange. This flange is screwed into a common rail appropriately called the hammer rail. It’s my experience that if the flange screws are not completely tight, you lose transference of energy and will quite often result in audible clicks even if they are a quarter of a turn off of tight. “Well why would they become loose by simply moving the piano?” It’s not that the screws have undone, it’s that the wood has settled or cured, possibly absorbed or released humidity subsequently resulting in looser parts.

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Bringing Your Piano Home ~ July 2014

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Preparation involves double checks on these screws as well as plate and action screws and the alignment of action parts. Also significant is the ‘seating’ of strings – making sure they are tight against the bridge. Bringing pianos to proper pitch for the first time is also part of that process. Finally, voicing the piano – making it sound brighter or mellower – adjusting the tone so that it is suitable in your home environment is significant.

Piano Preservation

Piano Bass Strings

“So… how often should I have this done?” are usually the words clients say to tuners as they’re putting on their shoes and closing their toolkits. Great question. If you’re a new piano owner, there quite often is abundant stretch in the new steel strings. You wouldn’t think so, but new piano strings will stretch for quite some time. Subsequently, tuning new pianos more frequently in the first year is always beneficial. Usually your first tuning is included with a piano purchase from a retail store. My advice? Tune another 2 times your first year and you will have a very stable instrument long-term. So what happens to strings with stretch? It’s a little like a tug-of-war. You stretch the strings and the strings pull back but not as far (often by about 1/3). You tune again, and again the piano will pull back but not as far. By the third tuning, you should have more consistent pitch. After that how often should you tune the instrument? This varies considerably from location to location and piano to piano (and person to person…lol…some people are just really picky :D) In more drastic climates, where it gets really cold and then quite warm, pianos could be tuned twice a year just following the major changes of ‘freeze’ and ‘thaw’.

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Bringing Your Piano Home ~ July 2014

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In more gentle climates and if your piano just so happens to be well constructed, it may only require one tuning per year (which is average). I’ve heard this statement soooo many times “It hasn’t been played much so we haven’t tuned it”. Most pianos average 19 tons of string tension so whether you’re playing or not, the strings are still pulling. Leaving the piano for years simply means that your piano is usually dropping in pitch successively each year. And like the tug-of-war example, if you leave it too long, the strings are going to pull back.

These are the basics when you bring your piano home. Think about Positioning, sufficient Preparation and then Preservation by tuning and regulating. For a qualified piano technician in your area, please refer to our Find-a-Tuner chapter.

Piano Position

2014 June Bosendorfer
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Making Bosendorfer more Austrian

Making Bösendorfer More Austrian ~ June 2014

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Bösendorfer on stageBösendorfer on stageI have to admit, I let out a big sigh 6 years ago when I found out that Bösendorfer was purchased by Yamaha. Why? I have nothing against Yamaha. It’s because like many companies as of late, small piano makers are sold to larger ones and they’re dissolved into bigger corporations and it soon becomes merely a name on the front of a piano. The history, the heritage, the piano making expertise are lost and replaced as a name plate – simply selling credibility on the laurels of a former name.

Regarding Bösendorfer, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Fast forward to 2014: I caught up with Ed Bezursik (Yamaha Acoustic Piano Marketing Manager/ Bösendorfer North American Marketing Manager). We recently had a few brief minutes talking. We spoke of the new Yamaha CX line (see July 2013 blog) and then finally I asked him “So what’s the future for Bösendorfer? Is it going to get moved to Japan?”

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Making Bösendorfer more Austrian ~ June 2014

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Bösendorfer factory(I know… a brazen and bold question but… I was curious) “Nothing of the sort!” he replied emphatically. “We're keeping it where it is. In fact, we’re making Bösendorfer MORE Austrian”. When queried about this, he said that areas which had been outsourced are now being made in Austria. He referred me to the man who specializes in this at production level, Simon Oss (Premium Piano Market Development Manager for both Yamaha & Bösendorfer). “Yes”, Simon confirmed, “as Ed points out, the cast iron frame was previously made in the Czech Republic and is now a more expensive, higher quality frame made in Austria. Many people wonder how the product changed since Bösendorfer was purchased by Yamaha Corporation. The piano is constructed with exactly the same fundamental principles of Viennese piano making in Austria, since 1828. The production of the instruments is unchanged and we have Yamaha to thank for a much broader service and distribution network. The same Austrian craftsmen who built the pianos before Bösendorfer became part of Yamaha are still working today. Bösendorfer fallboardWith about 120 staff - out of these about 100 are craftsmen and technicians which are producing close to 300 exclusive instruments a year - a major contribution in today’s economy. In 2013 we celebrated our 185th anniversary at Bösendorfer, which makes us the oldest premium piano maker in the world. And we also completed our 50,000th instrument, a model 225 which you surely saw at NAMM". (see NAMM highlights blog).

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Making Bösendorfer more Austrian ~ June 2014

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Bösendorfer Serial 50000For those who have never heard the name, Bösendorfer can be found in many concert halls around the world. The company was started in 1828 by Ignaz Bösendorfer and by 1830 gained the status of official piano maker to the Emperor of Austria. The company has a star-studded cast of owners over the last 185 years from Classical greats like Paderewski to pop icons like Michael Jackson, jazz legends like Oscar Peterson to money moguls like Steve Jobs. If you’re looking for what is called a “Premier” piano, Bösendorfer is considered one of the most prominent, highest ranking, oldest companies in the world. Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Prices (MSRP) of these pianos start at a modest $105,000 and range up to $515,000. Whew!

Most times I don’t like being wrong but in the case of Bösendorfer, I’m glad I was and I’m happy to see that one of the oldest surviving piano companies gets to continue to build pianos as one of the godfathers of the industry. Kudos to Yamaha for having the foresight to secure this company and allow the heritage to live on.

For your viewing pleasure – A quick video about the making of serial # 50,000 from Bosendorfer. BTW, that’s 24 carat gold plated statues and frame.

And Bösendorfer has also started a publication recently which can be read online and found here

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Making Bösendorfer more Austrian ~ June 2014

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Bösendorfer Hummingbird Marketry

2014 Testing Pianos Like a Pro
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Kawai's Re-design of RX into GX grand pianos

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Testing Pianos Like a Pro ~ May 2014

Duck to water

I have to admit, I’m a duck to water when it comes to playing the piano. If I see a piano, I’m always curious as to how it sounds and plays. Recently someone said to me “y’know you really should do a blog about how to test pianos… I don’t have the slightest clue how to go about that”. It’s one thing I do instinctively and it made me stop and think about my procedure.

Going back just over 20 years, I was a new upstart that just got hired by the local piano store. With 2 Classical degrees behind me I felt confident I knew my way around the keyboard. Fortunately my boss at the time – now a designer and consultant for Samick Music Corporation put me in my place. I’ll never forget his words “Glen” he stated, “for years you’ve played the piano but don’t presume that you know how the piano works. You’re a race car driver but don’t make the mistake in thinking you’re a mechanic. Drivers are not mechanics”. Thankfully I had enough sense at the time to heed his words.

Over the years, I’ve literally played thousands of pianos. I must say that now knowing cause and effect – what mechanical processes and components creates a certain touch or tone – is a huge asset. And so I’ve compiled my thoughts from the 'front end' - from the keyboard side to try and explain a little of what is going on 'under the hood' and what tests are fundamental to any piano. I've reduced these to 5 steps for newbies (I know... I know… it’s what my kids call me… “Dad you’re such a noob”)

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Testing Pianos Like a Pro

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Downbearing

1. Sustain - A piano that sings speaks to its ability to sustain the tone and not disappear after a few short seconds. One thing that I listen for is a piano that sings. Sustain, means that when you depress a key the tone continues to resonate. This sustain speaks to great manufacturing techniques and great components.

Test: Play any note on the piano with medium pressure and listen to the sound as it gradually dies away. How long did it take? What was the sound like as it decays? Carefully listen to low and high notes doing the same. In every octave (every 8 white notes) you’ll hear differences of the ‘decay’ (don’t worry… it’s not the same as tooth decay. It’s the more technical term of ADSR – Attack Decay Sustain Release)

Technical: The strings resonate with just the correct amount of pressure (called down-bearing) onto the bridge where the vibrations are transferred to the amplifier we know as the soundboard. Working properly, the materials should not be ‘inhibiting’ the tone from freely singing. The piano is a transducer, converting the energy of touch to string vibrations and then into sound waves. All three of these elements must be working in sync to produce tone. A piano that sings – that’s a thing of beauty. I’ve played many a piano that has a ‘sweet spot’ in a certain range or octave but to get a piano to sustain from top to bottom, that requires excellence in manufacturing and design. While a good technician can alter some elements of the piano to bring out tone, sustain is a tough one that in my mind either ‘you got it or you don’t’.

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Testing Pianos Like a Pro

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String of Pearls

2. Evenness – My piano teacher (when I was 13) asked me to play a scale “like a string of pearls – each one should be matched in color and size”. That’s a great lesson in musicality but also for testing pianos. What happens though when you apply the same amount of pressure but neighboring notes don’t respond the same way on the piano? It’s REALLY difficult to express a melody when the piano parts are not manufactured or prepped so that all 88 notes respond with evenness. Often notes ‘jump out’ at you – either in volume or brilliance.

Test: Play a series of adjacent notes with even pressure and see if the volume or brilliance changes. Quite often it is better to strike each note with the same finger if you’re not accomplished at the piano. People unversed with piano technique will unknowingly play heavily with a thumb or finger and think it’s the piano not responding correctly.

Technical: There are approximately 6,000 parts in a piano action. The action is the ‘engine under the hood’. When pianos don’t respond evenly, this could be one of many adjustments (also called regulation). I’ve played pianos that once regulated, you wouldn’t know they’re the same instrument. In addition to adjustments, too much friction, not enough friction, action design, quality of parts, execution in manufacturing, balanced keys – all of these play a part in making all 88 keys function to make the piano play smoothly.

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Testing Pianos Like a Pro

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3. Control – Aside from evenness, there is an aspect called control. This is by far the most difficult aspect to explain and most difficult to test. While evenness speaks to neighbouring note difference, control refers to the feel of the keys moving through varying degrees of pressure. This is not referring to the sound of the piano but rather the correlation of key pressure sensitivity to piano tone. What you’re wanting is a piano where the keys feel like an ‘extension of your fingers’. I’ve played many pianos that feel hard to control. This refers to the subtleties of touch. For example, sometimes you’ll be trying to play quietly but the keys feel inordinately heavy and when the tone comes out, it’s not the whisper you’re looking for. At other times you’re looking for power but the piano doesn't deliver. Making your softs soft and your louds loud – control is vital to satisfaction.

Test: Test one key at a time. First depress a key in slow motion so that the note makes no sound: pay attention to how the key feels. Does it feel succinct at the beginning stage? Does it feel loose or does it feel heavy at the top? How about halfway through the key stroke? Can you feel more pressure? And the ‘click’ at the end of the key stroke – every piano has one – that’s the reset of the key. And finally the cushion of the felt at the bottom – is it too spongy or hard? Play the same note repeatedly getting louder all the while paying attention to the feel. At maximum pressure, how does it feel? The best test for this is to A/B compare different pianos in this process and determine which one feels most ‘natural’. I’ve often said that everyone should play a concert grand at some point in their lives. The most expensive grand pianos usually have been given the most attention at the factory. Sometimes it’s great to get a reference point of a piano that you may not be able to afford… but to try it to see what excellence feels like. Then… reality check – match your budget with the closest piano you can afford. If you’re new to the piano, test the best benchmark you can find.

Technical: Intrinsic to piano design is the geometry of the action. Action design – the weight of a hammer, the degree of the whippen, the placement of the capston, and the quality of all of these parts – all of these small seemingly insignificant parts play a vital role when we attempt to control the piano through varying degrees of pressure.Click Me
The combination of manufacturing, quality of parts and careful regulation (the adjustments of the parts) all make for a piano that feels incredible.

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Testing Pianos Like a Pro

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Piano touch

4. Tonal quality – This refers to the sound of a piano. I’ve played many pianos that excel at one certain volume level but sound terrible at another. Myself? I look for versatility. Ideally I want that really felty soft tone when playing quietly and a more bold strident sound at louder volumes. What do you like? This is by far the most significant element where personal taste is involved. If, for example, the piano sounds great at soft volumes and you only intend to play quietly you may want to look for a piano that suits your ears in more of the quiet range. Some people only play loud and louder and look for a more percussive sound. Different folks, different strokes.

Test: Depress keys one at a time and listen for the color spectrum going from soft to loud playing. Does it change or does it sound the same from soft to loud playing? Does the piano excel at one volume level but not another? Sometimes a piano may seem dull at louder volumes or too bright when playing softly. The harmonics (in plain speak the “ring” or overtones) are at times clanging or distorted. Does the depth of tone feel satisfying in the bass (lowest notes) and do the highest notes (top octave) sound defined or too ‘plinky’.

Technical: As we heard in the interview with Jack Brand, resiliency and elasticity of the hammer felt are vital for the production of great piano tone. The design or ‘scale’ of the strings also plays an important part. In fact, this topic is so immense, we could discuss piano tone all day – the composition or the soundboard, the bridges, the cast iron, the placement of the hammers… the list goes on and on. The main thing is that you actually enjoy the piano you are playing. BTW, often overlooked is simply TUNING the piano! Pianos in tune or out of tune sound vastly different.

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Testing Pianos Like a Pro

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old nickel

5. Touch weight – Do you know how much a nickel weighs? Most piano technicians do. Why? Because touch weight refers to the amount of weight required to set a piano hammer in motion. If the keys feel too heavy, even by the weight of a nickel a piano can often feel laborious or tough to play. (A nickel weighs approximately 5 grams and technicians will use them in a pinch for measuring key weight). But there are in fact two measurements for piano weight – static and rotational inertia. Soft playing ‘dead lifts’ the hammers while loud playing deals more with the inertia of the hammer once set in motion on a rotating axis. Sound complicated? LOL it is!! I’ve had many people ask if something can be done with the touch. The answer is yes but… it’s also complicated and costly to implement. More often than not I advise people to find a piano where the touch feels comfortable.

Test: Play a song or various keys and make mental note to the actual resistance to your fingers. This should feel comfortable. Try and remove your ears for a moment. You’re now not supposed to be listening but feeling. Too light of an action doesn’t provide proper dynamic expression while too heavy can feel tiresome.

Technically: If you look at the wooden edges of the piano keys, you’ll most likely be able to see circles of inserted lead. These weights are inserted into the keys to offset the weight of the hammers and assist in playing at quiet volumes. The weight of the hammer itself however is responsible for most of the rotational inertia at loud volumes. Pianos can play incredibly different at polarized extremes and sufficient testing should be done at different dynamic levels.

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Testing Pianos Like a Pro

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Glen Barkman

So you’ve narrowed down which piano you like? You may want to confirm your decision with a professional. Remember, drivers are not mechanics. Have a word with a local technician. For a list of local technicians in your area, see our Find-A-Tuner chapter.

I’ve often thought that it’s a shame that the new starting point for children has moved away from the piano to an electronic keyboard. We don’t ever fall in love with keyboard sound or touch. I truly believe that kids today quit piano before even being introduced to a real instrument. I remember once having a discussion with someone who had come to my house remarking that they had never seen a grand piano in a home before. They'd seen pictures on TV of grand pianos on stage but never actually come across one in real life. That was amazing to me. I hope that if you're a newbie at the piano and you read this that you'll take courage enough to go to a piano store and try one. You'll be amazed at what you find. These electronic devices we call keyboards are not even a shadow of the depth and beauty of real piano tone. It's like handing someone a box of crayons and saying "paint a masterpiece"... it simply can't be done. The depth and richness of shading and color that can be achieved from a real piano that is properly tuned, voiced and regulated is not only a dream to play but allows full expression of tone that goes beyond words. As the great Bill Evans put it, "When you play music you discover a part of yourself that you never knew existed."

Piano Keys Top View

2014 April Jack Brand
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Interview with Jack Brand and the making of Weickert felt.

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Interview with Jack Brand ~ April 2014

Piano HammerJack BrandIs he a spy? No. Is he famous? No. But this one man’s company has single-handedly infiltrated most of the major names of pianos in the world. 200,000 pianos per year to be exact! Who is he? Jack Brand. Haven’t heard of him? I hadn’t either until the interview with Del Fandrich a few months back. After some preliminary investigating, I found out that Jack Brand owns a company in Canada called Brand Felt. So what does this have to do with pianos? Jack Brand, third generation felt maker along with his father, Klaus Brand, re-established the German Weickert/Wurzen production facility, the oldest, most respected felt maker of piano felt in the world. I queried Jack a few months ago about his interest in shedding some light on the felt making process and he agreed to do this interview. I’m so excited to share his words. I’ve only scratched the surface and already I’m finding that felt making is more about art and intuition than formula; that you could spend a lifetime studying how hammer felt affects piano tone so drastically. Established in 1783, Weickert is over 230 years old! The trade secrets, production notes, and piano technician feedback have been handed down so that this closely guarded secret of felt making lives on. But don’t take my word for it… let’s hear it from Jack.

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Jack Brand Interview

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Weickert and Wurzen are some of the oldest names (THE oldest??) for felt manufacturing in the world and yet the Weickert felt has been “re-introduced” again for hammer manufacturing, correct? Can you tell us a little history about the name and origins as well as your involvement with Weickert and Wurzen?

Wurzen is the oldest existing felt plant of wet processed felts in the World. The oldest. Basically, I was very lucky to come across this beautiful opportunity to re-introduce the old legendary Weickert Felt. All the know-how had disappeared between 1945 and 1‎991.The Weickert company was expropriated in 1945 by the Communist government and the family fled to the West. The last owner of the company was Alice Weickert, who was an American and had married into the Weickert family. Steinway New York was one of the largest US customers for Weickert hammer felt. I am the fourth generation of textile makers, third as felt makers in the Brand family. All previous generations lost everything due to wars and expropriations, my dad and mom started in the West with nothing after WW2. I am the first in four generations who can build on something.
In 1991 my dad asked me if I was interested in coming back to Germany to look at my grandfather's plant which couldn't be salvaged and also at the former Weickert felt plant.
To make a long story short, my dad and I re-privatized the old Weickert plant in 1991. We got a phone call from Renner, Germany asking us whether we could produce the old Weickert felt. We were lucky, the old production recipes were handed to me by an old former production manager of Weickert's. We ran some materials and the hammers were sent anonymously to Steinway. The response from Steinway (who did not know who had made the felt) was:

Brand Felt Canada- this felt reminds us of the old Weickert Felt
- where is this felt company?
- and we want more

The rest is history. The PTG (Piano Technician's Guild) of Germany came to the Wurzen plant in 1992, and conducted blind tests on four different grands and the difference in tonal result was significant. After that our supply for Wurzen/Weickert hammer felt was always sold out. Capacity has steadily increased to the point where today annually 180,000 to 200,000‎ instruments are outfitted with Wurzen felt, about the same amount as in 1903 when 'Weickert' felt already had a widely recognized name in the piano world.

Your company Brandfelt.com – how did you get into this business? Did you grow up always wanting to manufacture felt?

I basically learnt felt around the breakfast and dinner table. Our living quarters were at the felt plant. My parents sent me to Canada in 1971 because they wanted me to grow up in a country where there hopefully would not be wars. A small felt plant was founded in Toronto, something to fall back on, in case everything gets lost again thru political turmoil.

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Jack Brand Interview

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Jack Brand continues...Wurzen Factory

Personally I am a production/product development guy who identifies with a natural product like wool felt and who got lucky to stumble upon the challenge of piano felts, which is probably the most difficult felt to make.‎ My colleagues and I didn't invent the Weickert hammerfelt production method, we only re-introduced it because of fortunate circumstances together with determination and real interest in the product by a whole bunch of people in our factory. At this point I also want to thank all the piano builders and hammerhead makers in the world who showed genuine interest in making a better product and let results speak for themselves.
Piano felt is a small part of our overall world sales, but it is one of the most challenging and interesting ones. We have manufacturing and converting plants in USA, Canada, Europe and Far East.

Let’s get into hammer felt making. How many basic grades of felt are there?

First of all I would say there are today about four major different manufacturing methods‎ in the world for piano hammer felt.

1) I call it the Royal George method out of England, whose technology was purchased by a Japanese felt company in the early 90s,just as the Wurzen /Weickert hammer felt method was being reintroduced into the market place. Royal George as a felt maker does not exist anymore.

2) The VFG method which is a manufacturer out of Germany (in the former West Germany before German reunification in 1989).

3) The Japanese/Chinese method which existed before a Japanese felt company purchased the know how from Royal George, England.

4) The Weickert/Wurzen method which was developed in 1847 near Leipzig and which by 1861 was internationally recognized. By the early 1900 's the J.D. Weickert Piano Forte Felt Company supplied top hammer felt for about 200,000 annually world wide.

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Jack Brand Interview

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Jack Brand continues...Various Felt Parts

Each of these felt methods provide different resiliency or elasticity effects in the felt, hence different results at the hammer head maker and different tones at the voicing stage (because each type of felt will react different in voicing even if hammerhead making method‎, voicing method and type of instrument are the same)

Each felt manufacturer offers in addition different grades. The Wurzen Felt company offers 4 different grades:

-Piano (which can also be used for grand instruments)
-Grand A
-Grand AA
-Weickert Special (the latest and probably also the best in most instances, especially for grand instruments)

All these four different grades by Wurzen are being produced in accordance with the basic principles of the legendary Weickert hammerfelt manufacturing method‎. The difference in the above felt grades can, for example mean different wool blends and/or slightly changed processes, for example with more or less hand labour in the different stages of production. But we always follow the old Weickert method which nobody else does in the world at the moment. Basically the different grades offer different kinds of elasticities to the hammerhead maker and end user. Weickert in the olden days also carried four different ‎grades of top hammer felt.

What exactly is virgin wool? I presume it doesn’t refer to non-promiscuous sheep…hahaa Do piano hammers primarily use virgin wool?

Virgin wool is wool shorn from live sheep, not dead sheep (usually raised for meat production. Those wools are called skin wools which often are chemically removed). Usually live animals get shorn twice or once a year depending on the food environment and what type of length or fineness of fibre is required. These are virgin wools.

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Jack Brand Interview

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So the big question: What raw materials and process make for great piano felt? What factors affect tone?

Using the right fibres is very important and a prerequisite. The Wurzen/Weickert felt company has a long tradition of knowing what fibres are best suited and how these fibres have to be processed after they are shorn from the sheep. We have our own company specific recipes and specifications, which we consider proprietary‎. But the different steps in the manufacturing method are essential to provide good tone results in the end (fibre blend, mixing, carding, felting, fulling, finishing). This is where the real know how lies and which differentiates the Wurzen/Weickert felt from all other methods in the world.

In my seminar on the principles of felt making I hand out identical pairs of felt samples which represent the different stages of production, i.e. felted or fulled material but which feel quite different from one another in your hand when you squeeze, bend or just touch them. The pairs of samples are identical in fibre, dimensions and weight and still one will feel harder or stiffer than the other (or one surface feels smoother and the other rougher). Why the difference? Well it is the difference in production method. For example the one sample may have been exposed to high temperature steam whereas the other to low temperature steam affecting the moisture content in the felting and interlocking of fibres process (for fibres to interlock properly the scales on the fibres have to properly open up before they can interlock which only happens if you have the right temperature and moisture content),the right stoke and speed settings of the felting plates, plate patterns, type of transportation cloth on which the material gets felted, etc...

‎The point is the resiliency/elasticity of the product always changes if one changes any of the parameters in the production process. So that is the craftsmanship which one has to attain thru a lot of trials and errors. Specs of weight and dimension and which fibres alone don't define the elasticity of hammer felt. One needs to know how these wool fibres are being processed‎ under what parameters at each step of the production process.

The end result is a certain felt elasticity which stands for, in our case, for the Weickert method of hammer felt making. Generations of felt makers at our plant in Wurzen developed it in conjunction with and with feedback from piano builders and hammerhead makers since 1847. The Weickert method is proven and with the help of a good hammer head maker who will adjust his method to our felt, it will produce a beautiful tone. It is very important to work closely with a hammer head maker and also with the piano builder or piano technician to get optimal results‎. You can have great felt but without the right hammer making method you will end up with mediocre results. Vice versa a good hammerhead maker who knows his stuff and uses a mediocre piece of felt can still get a decent result but not the optimal one.

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Jack Brand Interview

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Jack Brand continues...

Weickert Awards

We know of many examples where the identical Wurzen felt hammer specification was made into hammers by different hammerhead makers for the same piano factory customer, one was good and the other was rejected. The conclusion is that without all three parties working closely together (felt maker, hammer maker, piano builder) you almost have no chance to get the optimal tone result.

To answer your question 'what affects tone' I would say it is almost endless but it helps to know what felt and which grade is on your hammer,‎who made the hammer and what method was used (ie hand vs Hydraulic press, prepress or not, shape of how felt is cut from sheet, what temperatures and times in presses etc...) and what design of instrument and tonal taste one wants to achieve.

The art and science behind felt making, the experimentation, the feedback from builders and technicians – it’s amazing that the Weickert “secret recipe” was not lost. Pianos around the world might have been changed forever had these production notes not have been found and handed to you.

Yes! The basic trade secrets were handed over to me by the then production manager in 1991 who in turn got it from the previous production manager ‎who was still working during the Weickert family era. The last production adjustment to the Grand D hammerfelt spec production sheet for Steinway‎ was initialled and dated in 1933.

Wow! That’s incredible. For those wanting to see felt making in action, here’s a video link to the Brand Felt Company in Canada. I’ve learned so much about an area of pianos I knew so little. And scratching the surface one quickly realizes how broad this speciality is. I just want to convey my thanks to Jack for taking the time to do this interview. Your insights and expertise are not only helpful but inspiring and captivating.
2014 March Ivory
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Changes to Ivory Regulations and Piano Implications

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Proposed Ivory Changes ~ March 2014

African Elephants

Do you live in the USA?

Do you have a piano with ivory keys?

You may soon be conducting illegal activity if you try to sell your piano, according to proposed changes by the Obama administration announced on Febraury 11,2014.

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First of all, I want to clear the air by saying that I don’t believe in the slaughter of elephants. That age and era is closed and done regarding piano manufacturing. The piano industry neither fuels nor propagates the sale of new ivory. However, I take exception to changing the rules so drastically that many piano stores, technicians and individuals will find themselves conducting possible illegal activity simply by selling a piano that was until recently deemed legal. Do you own a piano with ivory keys? Read on...

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Proposed Ivory Changes

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Clint Hughes - Grand American Piano

Vintage Grand Piano

When Grand American Piano owner, Clint Hughes, brought this to my attention a few weeks ago, he said “Glen, the effect on the piano industry would be titanic. Check out this Forbes article.” Piano Price Point, however is a website about modern piano making. The piano industry today doesn’t involve ivory of any kind since the official ban in 1989/90. CITES (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species) prevented further slaughter of animals for the use of materials in pianos. Since then, (25 years later) the majority of pianos have been made with plastics while others work with cattle bone, simulated synthetic ivory or mineral keytops. The reason I bring this up is that if you’re in the piano business – whether new sales or not - then you’ve run into ivory keys at some point. For those who have not seen the published article, you can read it here. (Also printed by National Geographic,Telegraph and original source US Fish & Wildlife). In short, on February 11, 2014 the Obama administration released proposed changes to American laws regarding ivory. The proposed changes are as follows according to the Forbes article:

1. NO imports are allowed even with antique status (over 100 years). In past, CITES certificates could be obtained for authentication of pianos older than the 1989 ban.
2. All exports are banned except for antiques with documentation.
3. All interstate sales are banned as are intrastate commercial transactions - prohibited except with documentation.

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Proposed Ivory Changes

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I’ve been in piano sales since I was 23. Occasionally, exceptional pianos (usually higher priced grands) were bought and sold between the USA and Canada and CITES certificates would be obtained for such instruments. Minimum wait times were 3 months but more realistic delays were 10 months to a year. If I’m reading this Forbes article correctly, not only is the sale of pianos with ivory keys banned between these two neighbouring countries completely, but within the United States there is also a requirement for EVERY piano newer than 100 years old to have documentation if it has ivory keys. I don’t know about you but the ramifications of this are huge.

Firstly, I really dislike the fact that now piano technicians and shops are ‘guilty unless proven innocent’. The responsibility is that the owner needs to provide proof of authenticity, without which the sale would be considered illegal. It makes this respectable industry criminal. Secondly, if the procurement of occasional CITES permits seems to presently take an eternity, try having mandatory paperwork for EVERY piano with ivory. What will happen? My guess is that the over-taxed under-staffed CITES office will be bombarded with requests and subsequent wait times will balloon into years. Conversely, people will throw up their hands in frustration and simply ignore the new rules. Trying to regulate ivory and prohibit sales of legally obtained ivory from decades ago, as it exists on pianos, will not advance the cause the Obama administration is trying to implement. The Forbes article raises valid questions – namely, will this be enforced? Will the commerce of ivory cease? Will the Fish and Wildlife agents be able to keep up to demand?

So, what’s the answer? Awareness is the first step in addressing the issue. That is why this blog and mail out are important. Piano owners in the possession of ivory need to be made aware of the implications of new ivory regulations. The next step might possibly be discussion at the local level of piano technicians and teachers. If the process of registering a piano could be simplified via accurate serial number dating and/or exceptions made for pianos as a whole, the industry might not suffer such a black eye. Finally, communication needs to happen at governmental level to express concerns.

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Proposed Ivory Changes

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Ivory Trade

Am I blowing this all out of proportion? Possibly. The enforcement of such laws may never be implemented. The regulations might be too poorly manned. When push comes to shove however and there is a piano in transit that gets stopped… who is going to be in the wrong? Precisely – the seller will be considered conducting illegal trade of ivory. Subtle as this may be, the new rules shift “the burden of proof for whether ivory is legal from the government to an ivory holder.” [National Geographic] Never before in the history of piano making has the yard line been so drastically altered. In my opinion, this topic needs careful consideration and requires immediate action.

Elephant facts:
There are fewer than 500,000 elephants known to exist in Africa. Poachers are killing off an estimated 35,000 per year. It is completely understandable that the illegal trade of ivory needs to stop. According to the Telegraph, the ivory business represents a 7-10 billion dollar annual trade.

2014 February NAMM Highlights
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Pianos at NAMM 2014

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NAMM Highlights ~ February 2014

Anaheim Convention Center NAMM 2014If you've never heard about NAMM, it's the largest music trade show in North America. NAMM stands for the National Association of Music Merchants. So if you're in the trade, whether it be musical instruments, band instruments, music software, support - like sound reinforcement, lighting, guitar strings, music books... this is the place to be. Established in 1901, the show now has reached an attendance of 95,709 visitors. Hosted in sunny Anaheim, California, the following pictures are the piano highlights for me. Hopefully they'll give you a glimpse in terms of what it's like. Enjoy!

Branford Marsalis Joey Calderazzo

In the middle of the trade show was a small concert highlighting Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo, hosted by Schimmel. It was an intimate event in a venue that held only about 80 people. Kudos to Schimmel for this. For years I've followed the musical careers of both Wynton and Branford Marsalis. Joey and Branford play at such a high level and yet somehow make it so incredibly accessible and fun... best moment of the show for me. And it also brought back home again why we are involved in the music business... to make music.

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News from NAMM 2014

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Many of the brands that you see in stores were represented at the show. On the 3rd floor were Kawai, Samick, Schimmel, Pearl River, Kayserburg, Ritmuller, Hailun, Kingsburg, Petrof and Cline. On the 4th floor on display were Fazioli, Bluthner, Ronisch, Baldwin, Otto Meister, Hallet & Davis, Schumann, George Steck, Schulze Pollmann, Baldwin, Mason & Hamlin, Perzina, Story & Clark, Ravenscroft as well as Young Chang.

Mason & Hamlin piano NAMM 2014
Kawai piano NAMM 2014
Otto Meister piano NAMM 2014

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News from NAMM 2014

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Hailun Chen NAMM 2014

Fazioli NAMM 2014

Perzina NAMM 2014

I always count it a privilege to meet people at this show who are what some would call 'movers and shakers'. It was great to meet Mr. Hailun Chen (from Hailun pianos). He's this unassuming man humbly standing in the corner. After I showed interest in the technical side, we then started dismantling his pianos in order to show me the finer points. Despite the language barrier (he's pointing out features and I'm nodding) we still managed to connect about some of the new features of Hailun. When you consider that the Hailun company is responsible for manufacturing not only tens of thousands of pianos but is also a supply house of action parts to many companies, it was truly an honor to meet him. Connecting with Christian Bluthner (Bluthner pianos), Michael Spreeman (Ravenscroft pianos), Kirk Burgett (president Mason & Hamlin), Del Fandrich (designer of Young Chang), Thomas Dolan (CEO of QRS and Story&Clark) was also very exciting to hear what is going on in each of their respective companies.

Kingsburg NAMM 2014

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News from NAMM 2014

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Baldwin-NAMM 2014

Kayserburg NAMM 2014

Bluthner NAMM 2014

One of the FIRSTS this year was the Kayserburg release of their grand piano from Pearl River Piano Group (see Piano Price Point blog October 2013 for more details on Kayserburg). The piano played and sounded wonderful... and although the price is TBA, in usual Pearl River fashion it will represent excellent value when it hits the market in North America. Unbeknownst to me, someone snapped a picture of me playing the Ravenscroft piano. They also released a VERY fine computer based sample of their piano. Pictured to the right is the unmistakeable look of Bluthner music rack and legs.

Ravenscroft-NAMM 2014

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News from NAMM 2014

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QRS-NAMM 2014

I'm not one for novelty items but I must say, the QRS Piano Arc was fun. It was positioned at the entrance of the 4th floor piano section and there was always a small crowd gathered. It was great because often 2 or 3 people would get in the middle of the circle and play simultaneously. And that's part of what music is about right? Bringing people together and this display certainly brought a lot of laughs.

Falcone, George Steck and Hobart Cable lines have been acquired by the Nanjing Schumann Piano Company also known as Welkin Sound. Pictured below is an example of the Schumann piano.

Schumann-NAMM 2014

Seiler-NAMM 2014

Young Chang NAMM 2014

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News from NAMM 2014

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So I'm standing at the PTG (Piano Technician's Guild) booth when Kent Webb from Steinway shows up. "Have you guys seen the gold Bosendorfer?" For those who are unaware, Yamaha purchased Bosendorfer in 2008. At the trade show, Yamaha has their own display floor (due to immense size) in the adjacent Marriott Hotel. I had yet to visit the Yamaha booth. I must say, the Bosendorfer (serial #50,000) was truly impressive. More details can be viewed HERE. By the way, the whole cast iron is hand applied gold leaf with 24 carat golden statues flanking the rim. This year's NAMM show was exciting and inspirational with a beautiful array of instruments, innovations and talented musicians.

Bosendorfer 50000

2014 January Del Fandrich
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Interview with Piano Designer Del Fandrich

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Del Fandrich Interview ~ January 2014

Del Fandrich

When you short list prominent piano designers in North America, you will always run into Del Fandrich. His career has spanned nearly 5 decades and has been a contributor in companies such as Baldwin, Charles Walter and most recently Young Chang. Years ago he worked his way up from (as he calls it) 'grunt work' to concert technician. Most noteworthy is his experimentation and implementation of floating soundboards. Although there are numerous topics we could've discussed, this one I find particularly interesting and hopefully we'll have him back to discuss some other interesting (and rather groundbreaking) ideas he has in his back pocket.

Your name is prominent in North America for piano design. What’s your background that has led you to this place?
I started in this business in 1961 in Southern California. I did mostly grunt work; refinishing and “refurbishing” uprights. I’ve never had any formal training as a piano technician. I learned most piano work by doing it. In the late ‘70s I had a job—along with much of the concert work in Portland—that included prepping new, high-end pianos prior to sale. During this time I became increasingly frustrated with certain specific timbral abnormalities that were consistently found in certain models. Ultimately I came to the conclusion that most of these were design-related issues and I started searching for answers. In 1981 my wife had an opportunity for a management job in California so we moved there while I studied and conducted quite a lot of experimental work and piano rebuilding in my piano shop in Sacramento. I was hired by the Baldwin Piano & Organ Co. as Director of Research and Development. The title was a little misleading however I was able to expand my knowledge some before coming to a parting of ways. The day after leaving Baldwin I received a phone call from Charles Walter who had heard from a mutual friend that I was now independent.

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Del Fandrich Interview

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Del Fandrich continues...

He asked if I would design a grand piano for them, which I did: The Walter 190. My wife and I then returned to the Northwest and I began developing what ultimately became the Fandrich 122 Upright. This piano had a unique soundboard design that I was able to patent, and I licensed my brother Darrell’s patented vertical action design. Our little company built a hundred of these instruments and CNN did a story which resulted in George Harrison purchasing one for his home in England. A few years later Charles Walter asked for a second, smaller grand piano design and I drew the Walter 175 design. In my opinion—and I freely admit to some bias, here—this is still one of the best under-six-foot pianos available.

Young Chang

How long have you been consulting for Young Chang pianos? Young Chang, for readers who aren’t aware is considered one of the “big 5” Asian pianos ~ being Yamaha and Kawai (from Japan), Samick and Young Chang (from Korea) and now Pearl River (China) who collectively manufacture hundreds of thousands of pianos annually.

In late 2007 I was asked by Phil Glen—then Technical Services Manager for Young Chang—to prep one of their concert grands for the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) show and, when finished, write a report on both the condition of the piano and its design, which I did. This led to my being asked to meet with the company’s new Chairman, Mr Park, following which I was asked to visit their factories in Incheon, Korea, and Tianjin, China. That led to the request to redesign the entire product line. The company had just been purchased by Hyundai and its new management wanted to divest itself of the past and develop a product line that was uniquely Young Chang.
I’ve been making roughly six trips a year to Korea and China ever since. The design work was completed by late 2009, and since then my work involves helping the company to implement them and generally improve their production processes and quality control.

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Del Fandrich Interview

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Young Chang

When I spoke with you at NAMM convention a few years back you had introduced me to the concept of “floating” soundboards. Sandwiched between the rim and the cast iron frame weighing upwards of 500 pounds or more, and having roughly 225 wires holding nearly 18 tons of string tension, having a soundboard that “floats” seems paradoxical. How exactly does that happen?

Broadly speaking, the concept of “floating” the soundboard simply means that some part of the soundboard system is not solidly attached to the inner rim (grands) or the liners (uprights) through some part of its perimeter. The idea did not originate with me. I first saw this idea implemented in early 20th Century American-made pianos such as the Mehlin grand. (There were others but this is the one that comes to mind.) I later encountered the feature in the Holland-built Rippen vertical pianos. There are also a few U.S. patents on the concept by inventors such as Howard Graves (all of whose patents make worthwhile reading). I was intrigued with the design feature and spent some time experimenting with various applications, which led to the implementation I used in my 122 Fandrich upright and the Walter 175 grand. In the upright I attached the soundboard panel to a hard maple liner and left a gap between the liner and the back panel. This was similar to the configuration found in the Rippen though I did not make the float quite as long.

In the grands, a slot is cut in the inner rim (before the outer rim is attached) about 25 mm down from the top surface and a relief cut is made in the inner rim along this length to provide a space of about 5 mm between the soundboard panel and inner rim section and the outer rim. It has been my experience so far that some float is good, too much introduces tuning problems. I’ve designed some float in all of the smaller (185 cm and shorter) Young Chang/Weber grands and all of the vertical pianos.

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Del Fandrich Interview

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Young Chang


And so what are the advantages then of having a floating soundboard?

The benefit is improved freedom of movement around the lower end of the bass bridge. It also makes it practical to remove the bass bridge cantilever but that is another story (see below). This increased freedom of motion enables the soundboard to respond to the coupled energy from the strings at lower frequencies. A fundamental rule of sound production is that if you want to create sound energy at low frequencies you have to be able to move a lot of air. In very large pianos this is less of a problem; the bass bridge is relatively far out toward a somewhat flexible portion of the board. In short pianos, however, placing the bridge close to the inner rim makes it impossible for the board to respond to lower frequencies. Hence the muddy, indistinct tone quality of most pianos shorter than roughly 180 to 190 cm. In the redesigned pianos in which I’ve done this the clarity of the low bass has been significantly improved over the more traditional design. And it’s not just a perceived improvement. Extensive signal analysis has shown that there actually is more sound energy in the lower partials of the sound envelope and this adds clarity to the sound and improves pitch identification.

Would that floating soundboard ever have any structural repercussions long-term?

These systems have been used long enough now that if there were any associated problems with the design they would have shown up by now. The only problem I’ve seen so far is that if it is overdone—i.e., made too long—there can be some tuning instability in the low end of the scale. As with everything else in the piano it’s a compromise. The float, incidentally, is only done through the bass section around the lower end of the bass bridge.

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Del Fandrich Interview

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Young Chang

In past, correct me if I’m wrong but the way that manufacturers accomplished longer speaking length was to have a cantilevered bass bridge. How does the floating concept compare to cantilevered system?

The two are not mutually exclusive. In other words, you could use a bass bridge cantilever along with a floating section. But one of the advantages of the floating soundboard system is that it becomes practical to completely remove the bass bridge cantilever. I cannot think of any logical reason to use a bass bridge cantilever in any piano of any size.
It has long been taught that one of the most important design features of a short piano is to somehow fit the longest possible speaking length in there. Unfortunately this means placing the bridge very close to the inner rim. Also unfortunately there is very little flexibility in the soundboard system back there so the “solution” has been to place the bridge body on a cantilever and make the physical attachment to the soundboard panel some further out into the body of the soundboard system.
In theory this is supposed to transfer energy from the vibrating string(s) to the soundboard system. In the case of the low bass section of the piano this includes energy at very low frequencies. The biggest problem with the bass bridge cantilever is that it very effectively filters out all of the low-frequency energy that it is supposed to be transmitting to the soundboard system. This energy is absorbed into the cantilever system (i.e., converted into heat) and is no longer available to move the soundboard.

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Del Fandrich Interview

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Del Fandrich continues...

The second problem is that it demands a very short backscale. This short backscale acts as a clamping mechanism, restricting the motion of the soundboard system. This is a concept that should be understood intuitively but we’re so used to the old bass bridge cantilever system that sometimes it takes hands-on (ears-on?) proof to convince people that this really works. Being able to conduct and demonstrate this experiment is one reason why I built my string-testing frame; I can compare the two designs side-by-side. In every case where I have demonstrated this comparison to technicians they have—sometimes to their great surprise—agreed that the combination of a shorter speaking length, longer backscale and directly coupled bridge (no cantilever) gives a substantially improved bass tone.

Finally, your name is pronounced Fandrich as in “Fawn” not “Fan” right? Hahaa… might as well set the record straight. What’s your cultural background?

It’s pronounced as if it were spelled “Fondrick.” My ancestry is German and Norwegian. My paternal grandparents were of German decent but living in southern Russia when they were driven from their homes. They fled to Germany but, as refugees, were not overly welcome there. The solution was America. My maternal grandparents were both born in the U.S. to recent immigrants from Norway.


Del, I can't thank you enough for the insights you have provided. Despite the technical nature of floating soundboards, I find it exciting to hear about innovations in the music field. I continuously hear the statement "pianos haven't changed a bit in a hundred years". They couldn't be more wrong. Pianos are being worked on continuously and it's because of the risk and experimentation from designers like Delwin Fandrich that piano tonal color is becoming more rich and beautiful. Thanks again for taking the time!
2013 December Ravenscroft Interview
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Ravenscroft Pianos: An Interview with Michael Spreeman

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Ravenscroft Interview ~ December 2013

Michael Spreeman

This month I had the great privilege of interviewing Michael Spreeman, owner and founder of Ravenscroft pianos. They are a new addition to Piano Price Point. You can find their listings of pianos in the manufacturer index here. It's always great to hear inside the minds of piano makers and designers - why they do what they do. Hope you enjoy this talk as much as I did.

PPP: When was the company officially launched?

MS: The official date… we opened the Scottsdale Studio in 2004… wow, that was nearly a decade ago. Time flies when you’re having fun as they say.

There are so many great piano companies in the world. What was the initial inspiration to build a piano, to create something that had never been done or rather, make your mark on the industry?

One of the motivations for starting SPI/Ravenscroft Pianos was the re-design I did for Bob Ravenscroft.. and yes.. there was also a frustration with what I was seeing in new pianos. In addition to rebuilding and concert work, I was also doing a fair amount of “new piano prep” on high-end pianos. What if I, as a technician, were to build my own pianos?? And… yes.. yes..exactly..I know… WHO in their right mind would even consider starting a piano building business in a declining market!?? However I knew I could do better… and yes… it was (and is) a quantum leap from technician to builder. But as a technician, I wanted to create something unique, not so much something that had never been done before but rather, a performance piano that would do what the numerous artists I’ve worked with have been telling me that THEY want a piano to do: to offer them a broader spectrum of color and dynamics than they’ve ever experienced in order for them to better convey their musical message, that would encourage and allow them to do things they couldn’t do on other pianos… a piano that would minimize the mechanical interface in order to maximize the efficiency of their expression. And then as an Artist, I wanted to do what I do for ONE reason and ONE reason only ~ to present the very finest customized, hand-built instruments that we absolutely positively can to concert venues, pianists, and enthusiasts… to raise the bar for all performance instruments.

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Ravenscroft Interview

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Ravenscroft logo

Michael Spreeman continues...

I also wanted my small company to be different than the large manufacturers. Regardless of how many or how few pianos we can make in a year, it is simply not in our DNA to sacrifice on the quality of any of the thousands of components that make up a performance piano. As a limited production builder we do not have the manufacturing constraints that the larger more well known companies do. Our industry is challenged, it is unfortunate, but many of the old great piano manufacturing companies around the world are gone or have had to sacrifice quality to meet a declining price point. But our mission is to build elegant, responsive, pure and powerful grands that are unique and extraordinary.

What’s your background in manufacturing?

I don’t have a background in manufacturing. Rather, I began my training from the best in our industry, the technician side of piano RE-making, RE-building. Early in my career as a Steinway tech I loved that bold NY Steinway ballsy sound! As years went on, I rep’d Yamaha as a National Technical Consultant and Concert Technician working with many of their top performance pianos and artists. I so appreciated their clarity and articulation, something they are renowned for…. eventually I worked with a top US Fazioli dealer who also sold several other European based pianos. This helped formulate my taste of the European’s purity of tone.

Bluthner, Bechstein, Fazioli, Bosendorfer, Steinway… why are we not playing a Spreeman? What’s the story behind crediting Ravenscroft?

You know Glen, that’s a cool story… I actually decided to create my collection of Ravenscroft limited edition pianos because I was …well….ready….after spending those 30 years learning and practicing the craft. I was a concert tech preparing performance pianos for well-known artists, and actively rebuilding numerous high-end production pianos. Back in 1994, jazz musician and composer Bob Ravenscroft commissioned me to completely redesign and rebuild a grand piano that could produce a specific sound to fulfill his well-known free jazz style. I named this growing collection of grand pianos to honor Mr. Ravenscroft… based on that first successful project.

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Ravenscroft Interview

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What are some unique features that characterize Ravenscroft design?

I think I know what you mean by the word “Features” …but I am a builder, so it is one of those words that I hear sales guys use as “providing the sales staff with something they can differentiate their product from another in order to increase sales”, LOL. My impression from the top performance artists who visit our Arizona studio and whom we get to enjoy at NAMM every year is that …. most manufactures are designing or building what the “company” chooses to present to the pianist. This is not at all my approach. Rather, I am free to design and build what the artists are telling us …what they want.
Nearly every aspect of my business and our collection of pianos are different from the norm. For example, one custom build with individualized custom hardware to match the clients architecture,… the one-off scale design to obtain a distinct sound for just one customer,… the 1000 year old Sitka Spruce chosen for a specific concert instrument and harvested just for the production of musical instruments, …or just our relentless pursuit of quality in every single piece of the instrument. Come to think of it, there’s very little we do that would be deemed “normal piano making” by any standard. It takes a lot of hours and a lot of passion to build an instrument that when finished and cared for should be around for 2 or 3 generations!

Ravenscroft CAD

How has CAD (computer based design) optimized your custom made Renner actions?

We, the audience, experience the piano from an audio perspective, but the artist has to make a mechanical interface through the keys and action of the piano. Therefore my goal with all of the Ravenscroft pianos is to make-possible and facilitate an emotional connection between the piano, the pianist playing the Ravie, and the music being produced…hopefully to a level that they merge and become one. It’s from this creative space or zone that an artist can express their thoughts, ideas, and emotions through the instrument. We strive to make this wonderful connection as invisible as humanly possible.

For example, our actions are individually CAD optimized to each and every piano before they are ever assembled. This provides a custom geometry configuration that is precise to the piano. The “down weight”, or amount of force necessary to initiate motion in the key, is a controllable variable and is critical to the evenness and performance of the action. We actually weigh-off each key to 1/100th of a gram in a specialized CAD program, which results in a real world tolerance of 1/10 of gram. Most factories only have the time to work within a 3 gram tolerance. Every pianist who enjoys playing the Ravenscroft notices this and comments on this attention to detail and how it has an enormous impact on their experience …because of the evenness of the touch from note to note. This is an incredibly time intensive procedure that we feel results in the finest performance action we can possible present to the pianist.

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Ravenscroft Interview

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Ravenscroft grand

What’s your philosophy of tone? Where does it come from?

One very important starting point for me is evenness of tone and volume across the entire keyboard. So many high-end concert pianos that I’ve worked on tend to have uneven or weak areas somewhere in the scale. This can make intimate expression of phrases difficult for the pianist. Throughout my career, Steinway tech… Yamaha National Technical Consultant and Concert Technician, Fazioli support and setups…those experiences combined with years of input from artists, …I decided my quest was to attempt to create a hybrid tonality… my ‘best of the best’ as it were. A philosophy of tone, as you say, that has the warmth and purity of the fine European pianos, the harmonic complexity of the older great American pianos, that clarity and articulation of the great Asian pianos, then….from there…to ensure our design has it’s own unique colors with enhanced duration and as broad a spectrum of dynamic expression as is possible. Although our sound is very clean and pure, it’s also multidimensional. I strive for multiple layers, or dimensions, of complex harmonics that can be heard, sensed, and felt without sacrificing a strong emphasis on a bold fundamental tone.

What elements would you like to focus on in the future and are there plans to expand the line?

As more and more people get to sit, play, experience, and dream of owning a Ravenscroft…our focus will continue to be on the limited editions of a quality instrument, second to none… yet, we are always challenging ourselves on how to advance the aesthetics, the feel, sound and performance of our pianos. As demand for our pianos inevitably increases, we will expand to meet our customers’ requests…. within reason….without ever compromising our commitment to them and our quality standards. We will build the finest possible finished product we can create. BTW, we are excited to be releasing a new product at NAMM this year (Jan 2014), unfortunately I can’t yet share the details…. But stay tuned!

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Ravenscroft Interview

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Ravenscroft Model 220

Your pianos have received world acclaim. What was the first moment you realized that you created something that made you smile?

I don’t smile until the artist smiles…or cries, often times right in our Scottsdale Studio. Those are the magical moments……the moments of truth… where passion applied to our work for our clients is affirmed... and suddenly it’s all worth it.

Warm regards, Michael Spreeman

Before signing off, I just wanted to thank Michael Spreeman again for doing the interview and to leave you with more media - check out Ravenscroft video page for samples. And for some eye candy, click down for a beautiful shot of their two grands taken from top down.

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Ravenscroft Interview

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Ravenscroft top view

2013 November Finishing Trends
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Pianos Trends

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Cosmetic Trends ~ November 2013

Steingraeber upright piano

To prove artistry and craftsmanship in the late 1800’s, pianos were intricately and ornately carved. As the Victorian era ended and we were ushered into the 20th century, many of the older piano legs were swapped for simplistic ones to stay ‘modern’. The advent of both world wars saw an era where mainstream piano cabinets became simple and plain and if you wanted something a little special you ordered an “art case” piano. Story and Clark grand pianoFast forward to the late 60’s… black is IN. Browns are in the background. Why? With the advent of resins and polyester finishes, there was a demand for a more polished look and manufacturers didn’t need to consume time with matching great looking veneers. Let’s face it, you can spray black over top of any finish but great cuts of wood require time, attention and skill.

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Cosmetic Trends

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Steingraeber grand piano

Fifty years later, after a sea of black pianos, makers are slowly changing the tides. Accents are in. Custom makers such as Steingraeber are touting their skill by mixing wood with black – that’s the hottest trend. As I’ve piled through thousands of pictures of pianos and brochures compiling this online book, the common theme is that the mix of wood with black is what many are finding the 21st century trend. From a sales perspective, it’s a ‘value added’ feature or another way to sell up. August Forster upright pianoAnd it’s not just happening with the boutique makers – right across the board at every price point – from Bosendorfer, Fazioli to Hailun to Story & Clark to Yamaha these accents are becoming more and more prevalent. Is it a completely new trend? No. Many of the European art case pianos have been integrating different woods on rims and under sides of lids for over a century. What is new is that these accents are becoming the 21st century mainstream for piano decor. While there used to be carvings and “gingerbread” on old pianos, now there are accents of exotic woods on rims, music rests and selective panels.

GAP2

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Grand American Piano

Grand American Piano

Grand American Piano

2013 October Kayserburg
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Kayserburg: Pearl River's new Flagship

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Kayserburg Unveiled ~ October 2013

Kayserberg logo

Carte blanche literally translated means “blank card”, a canvas ready for creation. But it also denotes “blank cheque”, signed with no numerical value yet filled in. Such was the case for famed piano engineer Stephan Mohler and designer Lothar Thomma when asked by Pearl River to build a line of pianos with no holds barred. They were given creative and financial freedom to produce pianos similar to their heritage in Europe – having worked for both C.Bechstein and Steingraeber. Pearl River, presently the largest piano company in the world producing more than 100,000 pianos annually has impressed the musical community with the vast improvements in their pianos yearly with contributions from Thomma on both the Pearl River and Ritmuller lines. In the largest growth market in the world (China), they have become the undisputed champion surpassing even Yamaha in volume.

For those of you who are sceptics, I can relate. It wasn’t until interviewing the CEO of Pearl River America, Al Rich at NAMM 2011 that I started to follow this company more closely. He stated that instead of hiring a small army of manpower to facilitate manufacturing, they chose rather to invest millions into automated CNC machines. So advanced is their manufacturing that companies like Steinway (with their brand Essex) have entrusted them to build their pianos.

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Kayserburg logo

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Kayserberg logo

Fast forward to January 2013, Pearl River Piano Group (PRPG) released the all new Kayserburg line. PRPG successfully constructed a “company within a company” – a separate division to undertake building their highest level of instruments to compete with European makers for the most discerning pianists. So what makes a piano compete at this level? Only those with a background, namely Thomma and Mohler would know.

Introducing Kayserburg pianos featuring:
Louis Renner premium hammers from Germany ~
Ebony wood sharps ~
European Roslau strings ~
High elevation spruce soundboard ~
Maple bridges vertically laminated with rosewood, beech capped ~
Traditional sand cast plate ~
Nickel blued tuning pins ~
Schwander type action with all maple parts ~
Solid spruce keys with maple buttons ~
Tuned hammer shanks ~
Hand wound bass strings ~
Quarter sawn ribs doweled to the soundboard and mortised to the rim ~
"Ivolan" German keytops (mineral-plastic substance that is very ivory-like) ~
Hand-made by the Artist team and each finished product inspected by Mohler

What caught my attention was a blind ‘taste test’ in California this January where the Kayserburg went head to head against some of the most expensive pianos in the world. The results? 80% thought that it was the highest priced piano. 100% thought that it was within the top 2. In fact, the retail price was the lowest.


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Kayserburg logo

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Kayserburg KA126

It was stated by one pianist "the touch of this piano is so far superior to the others that it MUST be the most expensive one." Why mention this piano? I think it’s going to be one worth watching in the coming years. Never before has China produced a piano that can compete on a Tier 1 (highest) level of pianos… all for a price that is by most considered reasonable. Grands to follow within the next year.

My only caution is to not get the branding levels of Kayserburg confused. Apparently Pearl River has in past used the Kayserburg name in Australia. This new series is appropriately called the "Artist" series and is labelled in the top right corner of the cabinet (as pictured). The other Kayserburgs are apparently more similar to the Ritmuller line except with laminated soundboards. New Artist pianos have the model designation KA while the others are UH. They are vastly different pianos... and just wanted to clarify. If you want to see the pianos in Piano Price Point, simply press the button below.

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2013 September The Sale of Steinway
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The Sale of Steinway

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The Sale of Steinway ~ September 2013




Steinway grand piano

From its inception in 1853, Henry Steinway had 2 goals – make pianos that produce beautiful music and build a successful company. The former is done through innovation and craftsmanship. The latter is a result of sales and marketing. With success (as in the case of Steinway and Sons) comes change. Procedures are multiplied and streamlined, while efficiency and productivity are examined. In the early years, Steinway manufactured 1000 pianos per year or roughly 80 per month. Within 7 years (1860), those numbers doubled.

Bloomberg Steinway ReportBy 1900, Steinway was producing three and a half times the amount of pianos they originally made per year and then by the 1920’s, they were producing 5000 per year. Think about making approximately 400 pianos per month. That’s a major accomplishment for the 1920’s. It begs the question however, “why more?” Why do companies need to be bigger, better, stronger, faster? In a word - economics. It’s just business.

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The Sale of Steinway

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Bloomberg Steinway Report

The year 1972 marked when Steinway was first sold out of the hands of the Steinway family to CBS. After plans to build a musical conglomerate didn’t turn out as speculated, the company was sold to a group of Boston investors in 1985. In 1996, the company became a publicly traded stock with Samick (Korean piano company) as the major stock holder. It wasn’t until July 1st, 2013 that Kohlberg put an offer on the table of $438 million for the company. Steinway had a 45 day period in which to shop for higher bidders. Samick placed a bid of $499 million which was topped once more on August 14th, by Paulson & Co. with a bid of $512 million.

So why the interest in purchasing a piano company like Steinway? Money moguls aren’t interested in sitting on a company for the sake of boasting rights. They’re in it for the same reason Henry Steinway was over 100 years ago: to make sales. The concern from many is that the company will get watered down. Despite the trends of the last decade to trade upon name value and cash in for the ‘quick nickel’ selling name rights to produce lower priced products, it is apparent that many companies conversely see the upper middle class emerging in areas such as Russia, Brazil and China. What John Paulson is interested in is a great American icon – one that is so branded, it is synonymous with quality. In the words of Bloomberg Businessweek “The Steinway brand is both opulent and bulletproof”. It is my opinion that it would be unwise to rock the boat as it were in production if the aim is set at higher sales and market share of luxury items. Giants such as Kohlberg and Paulson hedge bets not on dismantling companies but developing new markets and pushing values higher because they want to get their money’s worth. After all, they didn’t exactly buy it for a song.

2013 August Kawai GX
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Kawai's Re-design of RX into GX grand pianos

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Kawai Unveils GX Grands ~ August 2013

Kawai stretcherEarlier this year, Kawai introduced us to their newest GX line of pianos following nearly a 20 year run with the RX series. Continuing on with their high tech Millenium III actions made of styran infused with carbon fiber, the piano scale has also been redesigned. However there are bigger structural changes which are outlined here:

1. Stretcher widened. The stretcher is the perpendicular beam (pictured left with lock plate) that connects the left/right sides of the rim. Kawai has solidified this beam and connected it to the pinblock and frame to act as a single unit.

Kawai key buttons
2. Concert key buttons. Notice that the length of the key buttons (pictured right with red bushings) are very long acting as structural reinforcement to the key. Stiffer keys mean better energy transfer to the action.

3. Longer keys in all models. This lengthens the distance from the fulcrum (pivot point) enabling both greater control in dynamics and minimizing touch difference from front to back of the key at the keyboard.

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Kawai Unveils GX Grands

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Kawai Katagi rim
4. New rim design called “Konsei katagi” meaning “mixed temperament”, mixing 2 alternating woods, one from northern grown closed pore hardwood, the other a tropical grown open grain wood provides both projection,warmth and full body.

Kawai soundboard5. New tapered soundboard. Using straight grained, quarter-sawn solid spruce for the GX line, the new soundboard taper offers greater sustain and projection.

2013 July Yamaha CX

Yamaha's Latest Grand Pianos

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Yamaha's New CX Line ~ July 2013

Yamaha CX grand pianos

The year 2012, marking their 125th anniversary, Yamaha introduced a new line of pianos. For those who have been in the trade, you will know that Yamaha became famous for their G series grands in the 60's and 70's. The C series soon became the popular models throughout the 80's and 90's and through the millennium. In 2010, Yamaha introduced a brand new concert grand replacing the CFIII with one called the CFX. Just two years later Yamaha unveiled the entire CX line utilizing the 'trickle down' effect where technology on the highest level of design has been applied to smaller sized grands. So what are the features of the new CX series? Like any scale design changes, they must be observed first hand. But here's the skinny on major points.

Yamaha design

1. Thicker back-post structure. Yamaha has increased the thickness by about 20% on supportive beams.
2. New soundboard design. Although not much has been revealed about what this entails, with years of experience and millions of pianos having been made, Yamaha states that the new manufacturing process to create the crown offers more projection and response.
3. New hammers. Based on the same felt as the CFX concert grand, these new hammers offer wider color range and tonal expression.
4. European wire is now utilized throughout the CX series presenting more pure fundamentals and distinctive sustained overtones.
5. Cabinet redesign. Pedal lyre, case arm, music rack and legs now have a minimalist look to them.

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