Dangar Island - The Island Tuner

A fine muso mate from our shared Jack Daniels Silver Cornet Band exploits asks me if I'd like to tune pianos on Dangar Island (in the Hawkesbury River just north of Sydney). Would I? Sure! Island pianos are the most needy pianos, surely my karma would go through the roof if I tend more island pianos. Yes, I'm up for it.

I cycle to many a piano tuning. I drive to many a piano tuning. I fly. Today I'm chauffered stylishly in a tinnie, and what a perfect day for it! 'My other car is a boat'.

But, first, the essentials... fuel. Adroitly pulling in at the servo-for-boats (something I've hitherto never wondered about) my gracious host explains how new he is to boating, and that his knots are more like bows at this stage...

And we're off! Look, there's the Dangar Island Ferry through the windscreen, and the island is the land you see. The motivation to get a boat is clear - ferry timetables do not keep musicians' post-gig hours. The procedure for mooring boats and parking cars is in a state of regulatory flux. Typical.

I'm off and tuning. A perfectly respectable island piano. A Wurlitzer U-352. I'm glad to make a positive difference. This photo documents one slightly mismatched replacement string in the bichord range of the piano (where there are two strings per note). An interesting little challenge or annoyance for the tuner. Often the physical differences between the note's two strings mean that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to blend them into a perfect unison. Subtle differences in the dimensions of the core wire and copper winding, as well as where the winding starts and ends (its length) mean that the harmonic series within each individual string behaves differently, which is why they may be impossible to blend. 

The recommendation in fine piano circles, when one string of a two-string note breaks, is to replace both strings. That way the string maker can endeavour to make 'twins'. Most island pianos cannot afford to be quite that particular. The other observation about this Wurlitzer was its rock-hard hammers (unresponsive to the usual techniques used to warm the abrasive sound). Not grooved, worn or particularly compressed, just bloody rock-hard (in hammer terms). I was convinced this piano could be heard from the mainland.

Nothing against Bono, just a perfectly respectable Yamaha U2 piano taking pride of place in a beautiful home. My gracious host, who escorted me from piano to piano, also kindly made me lunch so I could keep working. One finds it necessary to relax into 'island time' especially when very young kids are in tow, who walk slowly, have shoes that hurt, need to be carried, or have tiny bikes, which makes for even slower speeds. Not a gripe, rather, the observation of a beautiful stage of life and its wonders. OK, I'm finishing another piano, come get me...

Here's a neat form of island transport! This beats all others used so far (except the tinnie).

Off we go. The island is tiny, but I still don't know my way around, because I have the luxury of being royally guided to each appointment with a wheelbarrow escort. Here we're nearing the ferry wharf. Island folk alight here with their grocery shopping and use their own personal wheelbarrows to take it home.

The line of barrows is testament to the resourceful nature of humans, and how different island life can be when we're still effectively in Sydney. Wonderful. These kids will grow up with the most fabulous memories of this carefree time. They'll think it is normal to be wheelbarrowed, and ride in a boat to school, because for them, it will be. The family's wheelbarrow of groceries includes about ten litres of milk. The dog (above) Buster, was languishing on the verandah while I tuned the Yamaha U2, then walked with us until he didn't. One of the few dogs in the world that actually didn't make me anxious.

I could save my spare anxiety for the Hall piano, a notorious Beale-Vader.  There's (moderate) trouble in paradise. These Beale pianos have a rather ingenious alternative approach to the tuning pins and pin block. Borne out of climes that were overly fatiguing to wood, is the all-iron tuning system (patented in 1902). 

Rather than tuning pins held tightly in a multi-laminate hardwood plank (normal) the tuning pins have flared bases and are inserted into their holes in a steel pin block (or wrest plank) from behind the piano. Each tuning pin is tensioned by a grub screw which pushes onto the base of the pin.The grub screws can be adjusted so reduced torque is (theoretically) easily addressed. Very clever, but these pianos are elderly, frail and failing. Add to that, rusty pins that may actually have rusted into the steel pin block and can break. Caution! I'm determined to make a positive difference and see this instrument at concert pitch for the hall use. There is no one around to hear my risk-management speech, so I just set about my rigorous toiling. 

The hammer heads in this part of the piano are angled more severely than the string groups, for no real reason. Piano renovators and rebuilders may take the opportunity to improve such details if hammers are being replaced. This is achieved by calculating more appropriate angles for the drilling of the hole into which the hammer shank will insert. Island pianos probably don't get the chance to go for that fancy city stuff.  

This piano has been fitted with acoustically-disadvantageous critter carcasses. 

I don't usually annotate keysticks, not my thing. But I've made and exception for the odd island piano. On a last-minute whim I inscribed a block-lettered flourish with my chinagraph pencil, because I'd been as thorough as possible to help this poor old dear, and didn't want someone to think it was last tuned in 2008. But the only folk who see these keystick scrawlings are other tuners! And whaddayaknow, I wrote on one of my favourite notes, E flat. This piano is under the purview of Hornsby Council, who will cough up the Dangar money and danger money, which are one-in-the-same on this occasion.

Finally, a very worthwhile tweak of my host's piano, getting it up to pitch ready the whole family to enjoy. Then dinner and wine, one cannot say finer than that! One has to be organised to have supplies on the island - there is no just slipping up to the shop if one would like wine with dinner, or simply dinner! I've driven my car just for a chocolate bar, but would I untether a boat?

After half a bottle of tuning fork, synchronicity reigns supreme and all is concordant.

Wow! I've earned my Island Tuner badge (which I hand-crafted out of recycled pixels and proudly awarded myself). I can't wait to sew it onto my uniform! In my capacity as Island Tuner I also went to Lord Howe Island. These diversions make it very hard to come back to 'normal' life.

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