Pianos: Shrouds, slippers and spanners.

Inside pianos, inside my head, inside my house, and the houses of others. In a good way. There are no glimpses inside my house here but I ain't hiding anything! Selective snippets of my garden are due to make a comeback, provided I can persuade the garden to make a comeback. I'm so glad to be home from a sizeable slab of touring as a performer, so that I can water it myself and take personal responsibility for my brown-thumb casualties. But I digress... where was I? Pianos!

The weird reshaping of these hammers has not been done in accordance with orthodox methods deriving from factory practices. In this part of the piano each hammer head is angled and must be reshaped individually. Only in sections of the piano where all the hammer heads are straight and parallel (usually the top two sections) can a 'gang-file' approach to reshaping be taken. Here the 'technician' has possibly trained using the wealth of ignorance available on the internet.

YouTube provides a surfeit of horrendous 'advice' on how to tune and service pianos. Is every half-baked wrench-wielding Cletus Spuckler hell-bent on validating their ignorance by seeing their name up in pixels? I use the word 'wrench' with a twist of the pejorative (if it isn't obvious) and to refer to the regular shed offerings for manipulating nuts and bolts. We call them spanners. A tuning hammer (or lever) can be called a wrench, but we Australians don't use that term. Confused? You're welcome!

In certain domestic tuning situations it's customary to de-shoe. In my own house I, too, de-shoe. But I have no supplies of crazy ill-fitting manky footwear to offer visitors nor tradies. I'd usually rather be in my socks but politely wear what's offered at least until I've tired of being unable to keep them on every time I take a step backwards away from the piano. This 'pair' of down-at-heel offerings plumbed a new low. Were they pilfered from different hotels? Raffles and Wagga Wagga Best Western is my guess. 

A regional school piano is on its ear to gain access to its tender tootsies. Serviceable casters will be fitted to ease its many moves around the room. 

That natty little trolley was whipped up by my partner in piano pampering to evade the demands of an oddly-entitled alpha-client who insisted that a piano frame (the cast-iron gold part) and sound board (the table-like expanse of spruce in a grand) each be resprayed in the 'good room' with the aid of parachutes to protect the tchotchkes. Madness. Superhero Tech skived off to Bunnings, made the little trolley (small enough to get down the furnished hallways) then used it to dismantle the piano and move its frame to the front veranda then move the rest of the piano to the back deck to perform the assigned spray-painting tasks. Astonishing. 

A fluoro shroud protects this performance piano from dust. It's centre-stage and circled by musicians and feather boa-ed dancers for eight shows a week. The tuner only has to dance around the back-pack-vac cleaners of a morning (that's a bloody intrusive sound if you use your ears to tune). The trick was to organise for the fire curtain to be 'in' (down) which was effectively a merciful wall between the auditorium and stage. A season's work tuning at the Lyric Theatre was nice. I rode my bicycle every time (my go-to for precincts with unreliable or expensive parking). 

Flashback to when I tuned the rehearsal pianos - two uprights, side by side. The mock-up of the set and performance piano looked like this. At the time I blogged, 'Here's the piano I'm not tuning. It was made by Noni Hazelhurst and John Hamblin* with generous sponsorship from Australia Post.' 


There are a surprising number of times I am required to wear a hi-visibility vest to tune a piano. It seems absurd, and it mostly is. This view from the piano amused, as these blokes checked microphone heights (or something). It really looked like the Two Toilet-Cleaning Tenors were about to open the larynx. Perhaps they could do a version of  Tim Minchin's Prejudice. Did you know that the plural of larynx is larynges? No, neither did I. Upon learning, I determined it was safer to stick with the singular.

This shoe was not offered to me, a sleeping slipper next to the piano in an establishment dedicated to hothousing the triple-threats of tomorrow.

The view from the piano. Too-early-o'clock. Sydney never ceases to amaze me, even after all these years of living here. Glimpses of the Harbour Bridge and my old office (the Opera House) abound through the glass expanses of many of the popular event hire piano venues.

In what might seem a festival of bad car karma at least I have support. I'm no helpless damsel, I'll give it a go (or phone the NRMA) but I have been officially declared as a piss-weak middle-aged female. Pending a convoy to another adventure, I discover that it's not only neglected domestic pianos that are flat. Gah! Never fear, Superhero Tech is here. My trusted partner to the rescue.

Note the convenient seat. This piano bench has been customised to be a comfy seat on wheels but about 200mm off the ground. No, it's not for playing toy pianos, but rather, for use when regulating pianos - for keyboard levelling in particular. For this task it is great to be conveniently seated so that your eyeline is level with the keyboard. 

La Scala in Sydney.

Piano carriers charge per step, as part of their broader method for quoting on piano moves. This scene makes it look as though the money ran out.

Between two event hire tunings (I'm effectively following the piano carriers) I find I have another tyre that has become compromised. I swear I was going to give the whole change-a-tyre routine a go, but knew (again) that undoing the wheel nuts would defeat me. A lightbulb appeared above my head! I could kindly ask the piano carriers to loosen the wheel nuts (after they'd installed the piano) then soldier on with the task myself.

The perfect gentlemen refused to see this damsel get her hooped skirt greasy. Thanks, fellas. I promise I don't plan to make a habit of this.

This piano was a prop for another act at the Woodford Folk Festival. It was easy to move because it had been gutted of its cast-iron frame (easily the heaviest component) tuning pins, strings, action, keys and pedals.

Another Woodford memory. I can only spell 'guaranteed' correctly every second time, and I'm a good speller. So, should I be more charitable? I don't know.

Piano tuning clients' houses never cease to amaze and entertain. This house was a hidden gem, unfurling into spaces and oases that belied its still-charming fa├žade. The purple kitchen is going, I was told, as my client explained how many brightly-coloured walls had already been neutralised. 

I will immortalise the purple kitchen in photographic form, I announced. Purple! My sister would be partial to that burnt orange splash-back. Is she a bad cook, putting the burnt into orange? Well, no, most certainly not. As we each claimed and celebrated our favourite colours there was a time when our shared bedroom's cabinetry bore a passing resemblance to this kitchen. Nowhere near as fancy - but there was a whole lot of purple and orange going on. Well done Dad, for the painting.

Me on my back deck. I purpled up for Woodford Folk Festival.

This Beale piano is on display in the foyer of the former Beale Piano Factory in Trafalgar Street Annandale. I tuned a piano inside (not this one). Of course the building is now home units, but the foyer display and photographs honour the building's important past.


Areas of the building are named after the various models of piano that were made. Nice.

A note atop the piano reads:

This is a Beale piano. It was manufactured in 1911. It is locked and the key is being held by the Site Manager.

I feel the Site Manager could have chosen a better picture than this clip art to illustrate his note. Perhaps he doesn't have the internet.

Fortunately the photos of factory activity make up for his dubious design.

We see an upright frame on the left and a grand frame on the right. There are piano technicians still working who worked in this factory. My favourite little story is that of Ray Green, whose job as a youngster was to get in very early to turn on all the glue pots so that they would warm up the hide glue ready for the day's glueing together of action components. I doubt that Ray will stumble across this little mention - it's true - he doesn't have the internet!

The Beale Vader all-iron tuning system is a design of complete genius. Such a pin block, non-traditional (eschewing the usual hardwood laminated plank) can outlast any wooden pin block. They're unorthodox to service, but the tuning system (theoretically) could go for several hundred years, I reckon. I kid you not.

There are still plenty of Beale pianos out there. Usually it is the action and damper systems (strings, keyboard and nearly every other part) that is in a state of aged dilapidation. The all-iron tuning system, once resurrected (if it's been let go a bit) can be made to function superbly.

Here's the plaque:

In 1893 Octavius Beale established a piano factory in Annandale. In 1901 this main building was opened by the first Prime Minister of Australia, Edmund Barton. Beale and Co. made all their own components and introduced a revolutionary improvement, the all-iron tuning system, patented in 1902. They also made sewing machines. Relayed in 2007 by the Mayor of Leichardt, Alice Murphy, in recognition of the piano factory's historical significance to the community of Leichhardt.

During World War Two the factory manufactured fuselages for De Havilland Mosquito aircraft. I read that on the internet.

 Beale Company briefly imported pianos while it was getting up and going. These pianos are known as Hapsburg Beales, and are definitely behated for a complex set of reasonable reasons. I condemned this one and deemed it destined for 'creative re-purposing'. They'd dragged it in off the nature strip. I recommended dragging it back out. I also said that advertising it on Gumtree was fine as long as it was made clear that it could not be resurrected as a musical instrument. Its burr walnut cabinet exteriors were pretty. I later noticed that the instrument was listed on Gumtree - without my proviso. Ne'er mind, I'm happy to condemn it again.

I don't often decide that something found on a nature strip is worth somehow carrying home on my bicycle. This shoe rack seemed worth giving it a go. I attached it above my tuning tool bag (I had finished an inner-city tuning where the trusty treadly had been the best transport option). I discovered on the first corner that the rack extended out to twice the width you see. I spent the rest of the trip with one hand behind my back trying not to be a wide load.

More courtesy slippers...

...with just my own socks the potential embarrassment.

Look at my toe, isn't it cute? Long, long ago a boyfriend convinced me that my feet were cute. Extraordinarily, this belief has stayed with me to this very day. 

* It's a Play School reference. The TV show's foundation has been built on low-frills (yet substantial) production.  With gentle, natural engagement from its presenters (directly addressing the child viewer) and plenty of simple household items serving as props and materials for craft projects, Play School's stated philosophy is to encourage a child 'to wonder, to think, to feel and to imagine'.

I urge you to sample some other bloggy bits...