Pianos: Painos (not a typo)

This immaculately decorated tree that I had to squeeze past to reach my piano prey just seemed too much, too early, at the beginning of November. Am I completely out of touch with this sort of thing? Probably. I put the question to a few mates and was heartened to find that others were prepared to join my 'it's-bad-enough-that-retail-outlets-are-gussied-up-to-the-nines-but-in-the-home?' chorus. Perhaps it's for the kids to have fun doing, but again, such streamlined decorating did make it seem that the (young) kids had not been allowed anywhere near that tree.

What the fudge? Or Bah Humbug, at least.

The strings of a Brinsmead piano, at the break where they cross from the treble to the bass bridge. Except they don't - it is a straight-strung piano. Unusual and obsolete, but still able to be found occasionally. 

There are treble and bass bridges, visible either side of the centre cast iron plate strut. What is absent is cross-stringing, standard in all pianos, where tenor and bass strings are less vertical, making more of a somewhat diagonal line across the piano, to maximise the length that these strings are able to be. It is a perennial vanguard of design pursuit, the compromises required where pianos need the greatest string lengths. There are myriad other considerations - where the hammers strike, where the dampers damp, the string lengths at either end, beyond the speaking (sounding) part of the string. A straight-strung piano (whose evolution comes out of harpsichords then fortepianos, then into older 'modern' pianos) is more compromised and may disappoint.

Did a Neanderthal get to shave and put on a suit? In part, a factory may have kept their old methods alive for a couple of decades too long. Time travel - it's all part of the job.

'Mello' - not to my ears!

Another troubled piano where I reached past the ola to see if I could help the pian. Nothing turns young and old alike into curious kids again like contemplating the innards of a piano (in this case a player piano). My golden rule: 'Look with your eyes, not your fingers!'. Fragile action parts and felts are easily misaligned by innocent mishandling, Miss!

I love distinctive business imagery: "We repair what your husband fixed." Oh, the emasculating indignity! Blokes (or chicks) seem more inclined to feel they're the equal of that troublesome S-bend than most piano problems, or otherwise the Caped Regulators might need to cruise the streets in a similarly-emblazoned vehicle.

The irony of many a piano-themed book, but particularly a book on piano tuning - atop a Clavinova (an electronic piano that doesn't require tuning, nor any of the services I'm equipped to provide).

A seventies reprint (just look at that cover!) of a 1907 publication, I learned myriad salient statistics about the industry's current state of health and the explosion of piano numbers... in 1906! I reminded myself of my younger self, instantly devouring the book. Don't worry, the acoustic piano still got tuned. Shared duties, as the Caped Regulators went bush, meant that I could opt to tune, or read. And read I did sitting on a nearby sunny step, to the sounds of tuning that I otherwise would have been making. Just like a holiday, eh?

I'm not perturbed by the exclusive use of masculine language. "Presuming that the average life of the piano is about fifty years..." Mr Cree Fischer might roll in his grave to think of the palliative pianos double that average that are still on the scene, clinging on for dear life, or not!

More bush scenes. I trespassed to photograph this car. Fortunately all the nearby fences were acoustic. Quite a few pianos that folk think 'just need a tune-up' are like this car. 'Beware of free pianos' (I often say). Get a piano technician to look 'under the hood' or at least chat about the possible pitfalls and expenses. 

A free car? What a bargain! It's beautiful, they just don't make them like that anymore. OK, so it needs a few parts and a bit of a spruce-up. Surely all its parts are standard and readily available. No, and no. Much can be done, almost everything, in some manner or other, but it is rarely able to be justified financially. Think 'new engine' - replacement of parts, strings, pins, pin block, soundboard rejuvenation and much other woodwork and metalwork. Only a very, very special free piano is worth all that.

Here's a Richard Lipp piano with an exposed pin block. In most upright pianos the cross-laminated hardwood pin block (into which the tuning pins are driven) is covered by the cast-iron plate. Here it is exposed and you can clearly see cracks and bell-mouthing of the holes around the tuning pins as the strings' tension is persuading the piano to almost collapse in on itself. 

The 'split Lipp'  again. "It just needs a tune-up" (people tend to say, especially in their eBay and Gumtree copy). No. In this condition there are many pins that simply cannot hold the necessary (large) tensions required for the strings to be at pitch. Where parts of the pin block have seriously failed, there are no simple remedies. 

In less severe cases where tuning pins lack the necessary torque, there are some remedial methods technicians may try to attempt to squeeze a bit more life out of a piano well into its twilight, but the methods may not yield reliable improvements.

Similarly, the tenor range of this Langenberg piano was an absolute disaster. Although I was chalking too-loose pins here and there, I stopped that quickly lest I run out of chalk. With technical caution and various methods I made great improvements. But where the pin block (again, exposed, but painted) was simply failing, there is little that can be done without major investment.

With the whole piano's pitch being in Victoria* (or Bass Strait) and several strings' pitch being well south of Tasmania, being brought up to New South Wales was too much for one little stringy soldier. 100-year-old wires degrade too. I won the battle and both pleased and educated the client about the piano's problems and journey it (from Tassie and further south, remember). Now the imaginative yougster can make music, but the piano still has many problems.

Piano actions are machines, with many moving parts and plenty of odd materials. Fortunately, this troubled piano had a moderator knob with which I could regulate my mood.

I was charmed by this lovely piano practice log, which anagrammed 'paino'. It's a Freudian slip I've typed way too often, or not often enough. It couldn't be more apt on this occasion.

This compositional score fascinated. The nine-year-old is guided by a creative teacher. Composition and self-expression are part of every lesson. This map of notes-to-self by the resident young composer is to be read in conjunction with fragments of conventional notation. Marvelous! If I'd had a teacher like that, I might just have turned paino into piano. But, alas, nein!

Back to Mr Cree Fischer. I loved the days when you could weave 'tin-panny' quite reasonably into a conversation. Well, they're still here! Time-travel, all part of the job.**

My theatre dressing room somewhere in The Netherlands, well, the toilet - there was another room attached.  

* I'm saying that the pitch was flat, low, well below Concert Pitch. Beyond a semitone flat (a musical half-step) and in many places a tone (a whole-step) flat. 

Now, for your homework, review those pitches on the handy toilet seat chart above. Now, class: how flatulent was the troubled piano?

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**Incredibly, this book is old enough to be freely available online. So, y'all can read it, fix your own pianos, then give me a call to fix what you fixed!