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It's All Greek To Me

As published in the Piano Technicians Journal

Dan Berg  

Dan Berg

Central Florida Chapter

This story came to me by the way of a person who was actually at the event. I take some creative license in description but not in facts--except for changing the names and places.

          It was a beautiful evening in Athens, Greece, at the Theater of Heradicus Atticus. My informant was at the 2,000 year old theater to enjoy a performance by Ivan Smirnoff, a well-known Russian pianist. The piano sat alone on the stage, its lid propped up proudly. The lights dimmed and a hush came over the crowd. Mr. Smirnoff entered and took his seat. He began to play and then, as if the piano spoke to him, he stopped, lifted his hands, stood up and walked off stage. The audience was shocked. What had happened? Was Mr. Smirnoff ill? Did he hurt one of his hands? Did he need to use the facilities? As it turned out he was offended. Apparently the piano tuner had left the instrument in a condition that was not worthy of his performance.

          What would happen?  Would the Greeks have to go back home, play their bouzoukia, and drink Ouzo in sorrow?  The powers at hand put a most aggressive solution into action. It was probably the most impressive offensive ever launched for the sake of a piano and its Maestro. As piano tuners we have all gone on our emergency piano service calls. You know the ones—“Help, I have a recital tomorrow and the B above middle C won’t play!!!” Or, “We have a concert tonight. Can you tune the piano in the next few hours?”  This was far different. Or was it?

 

          A helicopter (yes…really) was dispatched to find Mr. Karras, a well-known and skilled local piano technician. (It makes you wonder who was in the audience that night.) Anyway, after locating Mr. Karras by Greek swat team, he was escorted through the streets of Athens on a motorcycle, the police clearing the intersections to make the way open. He arrived safely on stage, wearing his casual clothes, tuning kit in hand. Can you imagine what was said? “Do your tuning, Mr. Karras, before this audience of thousands and Ivan Smirnoff, who must give his performance. He was not satisfied with the previous tuner’s work. Make it right!” So, like a pro, Karras did his job, patiently tuning all 88 notes. After about an hour he finished and stood to the side. Smirnoff took his place at the bench. The tuner stood by with his tuning hammer in his hand. Smirnoff was now playing to check his work in front of the audience of thousands, who were all anticipating the outcome. Would he walk off stage again? After a few moments Mr. Smirnoff stood up from the piano and moved over to the tuner. The audience sat on the edges of their seats. Mr. Smirnoff got down on one knee, bowed his head and spread out his arms to Mr. Karras, as if addressing a king in his court. Within seconds the audience rose to their feet in thunderous applause that seemed to go on forever. Gracefully the tuner bowed and left the stage. Mr. Ivan Smirnoff then played marvelously to the delighted audience under a beautiful Grecian night sky!

          Now you may ask; why won't our customers show this gratitude after we finish our work? As a matter of fact they do. The next time a customer gives you a great big “thank you” and a strong handshake, a bag of cookies or sandwich and a soda to go, a warm smile after checking your work, or a nice tip discreetly stuffed into your hand as you walk out the door, remember Ivan Smirnoff who was not about to execute his fine performance on a piano unless it was properly prepared by a skilled piano tuner. Keep learning and keep up the fine tuning performances.

It's All Greek To Me Images

The Odeon of Heredes in Athens

Odeon of Herodes

ouzo bouzouki

Ouzo & Bouzouki
left photo:AlMare License


Acropolis in Athens

Acropolis in Athens

dog on bench

Boldly Go Where No One Has Gone

It’s been about eighty five years since the end of the “Golden Years” of piano manufacturing and we “as an industry” or even as individual piano technicians have not really gone anywhere that notable since then. I am not referring to personal acheivement for there have been countless examples of notable progress by many individuals. The focus here is on the instrument itself. Sure there have been several modifications and additions to the piano in the last fifty years or so that are very interesting and even impressive. However, in the end it is still the piano we know for themost part. Now let's explore some other possibilities.

The era of 1900 to 1930 gave birth to some of the most wonderful pianos the world will ever know. Because of that, many of us have dedicated ourselves to resurrecting these instruments and bringing them back to their previous glory or even better. Furthermore, our industry has confined itself to basically making one type of piano. And so as a collective, we design and redesign and restore and manufacture the same thing over and over. Einstein's definition of insanity is; “to do the same thing over and over expecting different results”. Are we all insane? To a certain degree we could be. In hind sight this might be said years from now. Maybe the term “in a rut” is more appropriate. The piano as we know it with it’s very large and heavy structure, three string unisons and wonderful and efficient key action is for the most part perfected thanks to the brilliant minds of yesterday and today. Piano designers, makers, rebuilders, technicians and parts manufacturers have taken what was very good in the Golden Era and made it excellent. Some of the newer pianos and rebuilds from artisans the world over are a joy to play, have a wonderful tone, touch, range of response and timbre. How much further can we go? I have all these idea’s for improving the piano you say! Why not take this creative energy and make something different that will prompt people to say “that sounds wonderful, I want one of those”. Why not go where we have never gone before. Or have we?

Has mankind explored the land of keyboard instruments before? Of course, look at all the piano-like instruments that have been made that are not generally available today: harpsichord, virginal, clavichord, tangent piano, bowed clavier, claviorgan, clavicytherium, carillons, orphica, table piano, small pianos by Stein, Broadwoood and Zumpe, viola organista, Hurdy Gurdy. An interesting partial list indeed. Those little 50 note pianos made by Wurlitzer and others are very intriguing. If these were taken seriously and not designed basically as a toy, they would have been so much better. As technicians, builders, rebuilders and artists we have the knowledge experience, resources and skill to propel the world of mechanical keyboards and similar instruments to a far greater plane of existence. Cristofori did this when he saw the need for a quiet and loud keyboard instrument. He and others took the idea of the harpsichord to another level not knowing how this idea would influence an industry centuries later. Taking an instrument already there and making some brilliantly inovative changes he made something exciting. People embraced his instrument because it worked well, sounded really good and was fairly easy to play. How many Cristofori’s are out there that could design and make some really innovative instruments. Musicians and composers today who respect artists like Beethoven and his contemporaries yet will not try something new actually belie the very truth that these revered composers embraced something new and different, the piano, and created a whole catalog of music with it. Beethoven went where no one had gone before. Now we seem to just follow.

An inquisitive look at our modern piano could pose the question; Why three strings per note? What is one of the main reasons three string unisons where integrated into the piano? For the most part volume with some timbre benefits to boot. Volume was needed to fill the concert hall and still is. However, we don’t live and teach in concert halls. Not everyone plays Rachmaninoff and other composers that wrote for this instrument. People like different sounds to create with. And let’s admit that three string unisons are much harder to service. All the tension from three string unisons requires hefty support which makes the piano very heavy, large and formidable. Andre Segovia called the piano a “monster” and after rebuilding so many I tend to agree. If I misquote Segovia, than let “us” call it a “monster”. We all like him very much. Which brings us to the next question.

What might people want or look for in a different instrument? If we were to take a poll of millenials or any group of people for that matter that are looking for change. What kind of keyboard instrument design would they be interested in? Although some would no doubt be happy with pianos as they are and others would want another synthesizer, many surely would suggest....something with a different sound, new way of playing, more versatile, perhaps smaller, the ability to morph, portable, something cool to look at, acoustic for sure, environmently friendly, the list could go on. There is a whole group of people, no doubt rather large, waiting for this. So then, why are we so attached to the “monster”. Well, it is a friendly monster with a beautiful voice. On the other hand, music is not for monsters only. Rachmoninoff needs a monster, jazz feeds the monster well and Beethoven likes the monster. But much of the music we enjoy and create does not need such an instrument. Of course most music can be played by the modern piano but our piano has a hard time wearing different hats. It is pretty much what it is and that is fine. What it is “not” at our point in history is something different, new, versatile and perhaps smaller or more delicate sounding.

Enter now David Klavins and Nils Frahm. Their union is a perfect example of going where we have not gone before and we will see more of this to be sure. In a Youtube video entitled Creating Una Corda produced by Native Instruments Nils Frahm makes the point that there are so many types of guitars but only one kind of piano. He is not alone in this thought. David Klavins realized his need for a different sort of piano. David designed and created what he calls the Una Corda a one string per note piano. Nils Frahm is quite pleased and is giving performances with this unique piano. Native Instruments, a musical software company has created a program using the sound of the Una Corda. Visit David Klavins website; www.klavins-pianos.com and do a video search on Youtube for the Una Corda and you can explore this development.

Music is a form of communication and it's means of conveyance will change. Looking how another form of communication has evolved, the written word, can illustrate this situation. Mankind has evolved his communication over centuries. First there was carved symbols and words on stone and wood, at times without vowels. Then came ink on leather and paper, the printing press and now entering text in the digital domain. We still like letters carved in stone and carry around our papers and books but now one of the most popular forms of communication is made of abbreviations, accronyms and emoticons.... “texting”. We are in a communication transition. What will the communication of music become? There are countless younger people and older alike that are eager to explore new ways to express themselves with music. A brief perusal at an app store will uncover a plethora of musical apps with new and intersting ways to make music in the digital realm. And who says that a mechanical instrument needs 88 black and white keys to qualify as an instrument. Why are there only half-toned keyboards when much of the world uses quarter-tones? Strings and other sound producers can be hit, plucked, brushed, muted, rattled with other material, amplified, mutated and varied in so many different ways. Triggers could be switches, levers, buttons of all shapes and sizes. Mechanically made sound is an open field to explore.

It seems we are passing through a door into a renaissance of piano building by individual makers and small companies. The signs are there; musicians want something and those with the skill are beginning to make it for them. Luthiers have usually been individuals and even some of the finest woodwinds are now made by individuals or very small companies. The work of the craftsman is alive and well and it would be an advantage for younger skilled artisans to begin designing and building keyboard and other mechanical instruments of all varieties. A piano like the one David Klavins has made will need tuning and service and at some point some restoration. It appears to have a lovely tone and character and has some unique innovations as well as standard piano features making it an easy transfer for a skilled player of the “usual” kind of piano.

There is so much to be explored, realized and discovered and here we sit with the monster trying to make him better when he is already making us happy the way he is. The other creatures are out there if we are bold enough to find them and make them sing for us too.

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