Goanna Roundup

City life - it's the life for me! Possibly the funniest piano name since I saw a BENDER piano in a shop window in the Netherlands. The City Life piano was two kilometres from home at most, but I drove (a decision rationalised by the extra tools in the car, a piano I haven't met, I don't know what I might find). As it was, a perfectly respectable instrument. But it proved a boon, the lazy drive, when my housemate accidentally locked himself in the tiny area between the front door and the security door. I was able to rush to the rescue, then back to the tuning. If I'd been on the bike it would not have taken much longer, but walking, on the other hand, although I usually use my feet.

Another dear old piano, with a youngster who could keenly point me to the sometimes-sticky notes that had been getting in the way of her practice. This A4 page was affixed to the front top board. How wonderful. I felt I had never given, nor received, such a perfectly cogent and age-appropriate plan. I hope the preparation is on-track!

The same piano. Ed Seiler. It's fun pointing out the beauty and information inside the piano - normally it is rarely seen, let alone quipped about - You ROCK, Melbourne! The second list ended with 'Turin 1911', not only interesting, but a fun way to speculate reasonably accurately, with the client, on the instrument's vintage.

Nerdy train-spotting for piano technicians. A Blüthner piano with the Aliquot System. Observe (in the treble) the normal three strings per note PLUS a fourth elevated 'aliquot' string that is intended to be tuned an octave higher than its neighbouring three. It is not struck directly by the hammer - but instead, designed to vibrate sympathetically. Unfortunately, there is much surface rust on all steel strings in this piano. And much dust and dirt. If you're inspecting a piano, ideally you wish to see silver (or at least grey) not brown, on the plain wire strings (and tenor and bass string core wires, beyond the ends of the copper windings).

The Blüthner again. See the little extra bit on the side of the grand damper, a mini-damper (elevated) for muting the aliquot string? (Viewed from the upper treble, where the dampers end). This piano would be a prime candidate for a transformative rebuild makeover, and I have told the client as much!

Piano log book. It is quite common for tuners to write log book-style entries on the usually-hidden back part of the key levers. It certainly provides a fascinating curio to point out to the client, when explaining to them the risks (and technical caution required) of pitch-raising and tuning such an elderly instrument). This piano did seem to have had a cared-for life, but it is still VERY old. Looking at these keys - it's like peering into a time-tunnel! Keys 1, 2 and 3 pictured, the lowest three notes (it is normal to start down there, for log-booking, but not tuning!). I personally don't sign keys, but I DID do it on Lord Howe Island (once) to amuse/inform the colleague for whom I deputised.

Flashback to Lord Howe! A piano action sunning itself on the front deck. An attempt to improve some sluggishness in the action's movement. High humidity can wreak havoc with pianos as woods and cloths within the action expand. A nifty lubricant that all techs use generally assists (unless there are larger problems - corrosion of metal, or degradation of cloth).

Enough of that island life - back to hustle followed by bustle. I've been privileged to tend a flurry of event hire pianos from Hutchings Pianos. The carriers deliver and install the instrument, the tuner nips in and tunes, a great gig/reception/party ensues (one hopes!) then the carriers whisk the piano away under cover of darkness, drunken after-party, or sunny weekday morning. 

Above, see that nifty horizontal strut for mounting microphones? Fab, but borderline for manoeuvering around with the tuning hammer, especially in the upper treble.

Mere millimetres, but fortunately I could get by without having to ask for it to be removed (which would not have been well-received, I suspect). Time is usually very limited in these environments, with myriad other preparation tasks to be performed.

Who played this piano? Rather than simply name-drop *clang* I'll see if I can form the name into an anagram...


Observe a much more rustic version of the same idea: this time, a length of gaffa tape with two microphones attached to it.

Again, it could be annoying! Fortunately the piano was in good order and only a touch-up was required. Still, the mic pictured drooped down to touch the dampers the moment I lifted the lid. I balanced it precariously in its gaffa-loop and worked around the lot as efficiently as I could. Only on the drive home did I ponder what a dodgy and possibly injurious thing this was to do to the plate of the piano (the risk of sticky residue, paint being pulled off).

Here's how I wrote it up on Facebook:

Don McLean 'clang' band (and the piano I tuned) relocated to Evan Theatre, Penrith. Piano a bit late, half an hour outside the 2-4pm window. Perception/vibe (from the pianist) that the piano was *very* late (expecting it at 2). Pursed-lipped folk eyeing the spot-lit vacant patch of stage. I happily offered to step back and wait til after sound check to touch up the piano. I sat in the hall to hear the capable band have a sweet jazzy hit-out (assessing the piano as I listened) then transform - subdued smooth country - when Mr McLean took his centre-stage position, hemmed by a prairie-wagon crescent of foldback wedges. My karma and amusement ledgers are equally enhanced.

Here's the second piano in the foyer on anagram night. That wall was interesting. The shapes are symmetrical both left-to-right and top-to-bottom, but the lighting is what makes them look like... well, what do you see?

The walls have...

I call this 'the placebo pedal'. As you can see, the middle and left pedals are attached to the same lever! 'Normally' (in an upright) the middle pedal operates a practice muffler rail (felt curtain) so that you may explore your 2am compositional breakthroughs without a neighbour calling the cops (no guarantee!) Occasionally the middle pedal might lift only the bass dampers (a functions often deployed in the expression controls of player pianos). But, if the placebo doesn't work (c'mon, that is simply not possible) then I offer Victor Borge's explanation. The middle pedal is to keep the other two apart.


I've saved the most recent for last, buried down here in case the client gives me a good Googling! Hmmm. Said client (first meeting) had, within the week 'grown' her piano collection from one to three. Unfortunately, quantity, not quality. If only she'd sought an inspection BEFORE she moved all these extra pianos into her house. The coveted 'Germany's finest' that she was convinced was the answer to all her prayers (abetted by her teacher's repeated insistence that,'You can't go past a German piano') - proved to be a very rusty and dilapidated overdamper with loose tuning pins and many other predictable problems. Brand: Schmidt.

People, if you open the lid of a piano and you cannot easily see the line of hammer heads - you are most likely looking into an overdamper piano (below). If your knees are dodgy, walk away, if they're fine, RUN!

She loved the way it looked (inside and out) and of course there was much beauty (and interesting design aspects††). But!!! Fine in its day, but arguably past its use-by date and sadly, completely uneconomical and impractical to rejuvenate. It makes us want to cry when it's a piano, but we wouldn't feel the same way about a car, sez I. And why are folk so happy to spend 5K, 10K, 15K on a car, but are doggedly determined to spend $200 or less on a piano?

A piano tech colleague recently sent this photo, from his rural rounds near Coonamble. This car is on a par with the dead piano that too many folk think, or advertise with, "just needs a tune-up". Seriously. It's sad, but true. I often quip that I need to get a T-shirt with 'Beware Of Free Pianos' printed on it.   

Back to the Schmidt. Look at those cute note names stamped on the internal wood veneer, an unusual and fetching feature... including the German B (B flat) and H (B natural) as in B-A-C-H (and his eponymous fugue on those notes). The client was enamoured with this internal beauty. Highly undesirable signs, however - rust, rust, rust. All over the pins, string lengths and coils. Small amounts of surface rust might not be a deal-breaker, but what you see above exemplifies age, neglect (and living in the shed, rather than the 'good room'). The pins I tested were quite loose, meaning that being able to hold the necessary string tensions would be doubtful.

More to love? Yes, aesthetically, beautiful cabinet veneer and body shape. Turn it into a book shelf?

Coffee and biscuits served elegantly on the Schmidt (opposite the little Beale piano I was pitch-raising). None of my usual cheeky admonishments about how 'wrong' it is to use a piano as a drinks table, I could scarcely be bothered! It might have seemed bizarrely contradictory after my scathing, sobering assessment. After my slagging of the 'extinct' method of damping (the overdamper) she asks, 'Why not just take that bit out?' I demonstrated what that would sound like... hmmm... 

The other recent addition, a big ol' Londoner, sounded dire, the hammers. Why, oh, why? It could be grand, but only with a rebuild. Big bikkies, baby! This time copperplate note names near coils. I kept pointing to plain wire sections with a torch, 'All I see is brown - I'd like to see silver, or at least grey'. Again, more could be done, but it is hard to gauge the expectations and commitment of folk so thoroughly committed to trawling the bottom of the barrel.

Over coffee I asked what sort of playing, beginner, intermediate, advanced? 'Middle' she offered. Shortly after, I noticed all the beginner large-print music books and then the key annotations on the British piano... (heh).

Of the three, I turned my nose up at the two recent unwise additions... I've not mentioned that ALL THREE were minimum half-step FLAT. I offered to pitch-raise the little Beale, the ugliest, smallest, but 'newest' and least-rusty. Whew! It was finally at concert pitch, but a Mini-Minor can't sound like a Ferrari. Loftier goals will only be served by stumping up more-than-diddly-squat for some sort of upgrade.

How about this? A wonderfully Aussie regional extra decal on the Beale fallboard. It was common for the furniture/music stores of the day to add such detail to imported and (in this case) Australian pianos. Cootamundra! Wattle I bloody see next?


And now for something completely different!

Perhaps an apéritif to cleanse the palate of nasty overdamper aftertaste...

A Bösendorfer I tuned a while back...

Honestly, the wealth of some schools is galling! The schools I attended couldn't even afford apostrophes. Instead, I pilfered them when grocers weren't looking - but you tell that to the kids of today, with their Bösendorfer bass notes!

This one goes down to F (below the usual low A). The black keytops are a reference point for the pianist's peripheral vision when playing something outrageously fancy that covers the 'usual' range. Reminiscent of the infamous black pudding in Ripping Yarns - where "Even the white bits are black". They sound pretty wanky-amazing, these additional four notes.

My latest tiny film...
Pets and Pianos - Lloyd the Great Dane
Check it out!

Clang = the sound of a name being dropped. 

†† The Schmidt overdamper was interesting in a couple of other ways. Firstly the 'soft' pedal actually side-shifted the action to the right. How rare is that? Bloody rare. Dog love those innovative striving Krauts! An 'una-corda'! In the large majority of uprights (and even a few grands) the left pedal moves the hammer line closer to the strings. You might wonder what might make an overdamper mechanism even less efficient, how about one that pivots from one point only? A fixed point at the end of the treble (able to rotate on its axis) with all the movement driven by the pedal exacted on the left-most end. So the last section of dampers didn't do much lifting. I made some tiny video clips I hope to share.