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Music : David Stanwood: A passion for piano

By Karla Araujo
Photos by Ralph Stewart

Published: November 12, 2009
Martha’s Vineyard Times

David Stanwood knows his way around the inside of a piano the way a Grand Prix mechanic knows every nuance of his Formula 1 race car.

It’s this knowledge – combined with curiosity, persistence, mechanical aptitude and an appreciation for the rigors of math and science – that has earned this West Tisbury resident an international reputation as a piano innovator.
piano-innovations-stanwood
West Tisbury resident David Stanwood, inventor of Precision TouchDesign, with his latest invention, Stanwood Adjustable Leverage Action.
Which allows the player to alter the feel of the keys, creating the perfect balance between musician and instrument.
When he was studying piano tuning and repair at the prestigious North Bennet Street School in Boston, he asked his instructor how to change the feel or action of a piano.

“The teacher, who seemed to know everything about pianos, had no clear answer,”  Mr. Stanwood says, still sounding mildly incredulous 30 years later.

What made one piano so effortless to play and another so difficult?

And why did the feel of even the same model piano by the same manufacturer vary from one to the next?

His dream: to create a system of metrology, a science of weights and measures, to explain how to balance piano action.

He discovered that playing a piano was like riding a bicycle: a piano that offered a consistent touch allows the player to move smoothly and effortlessly through the music, just as a paved road offers the cyclist an easy glide.

In contrast, a keyboard that feels inconsistent from note to note acts as a barrier between the music and the musician, the way a potholed road forces a rider to watch for hazards rather than just relaxing and enjoying the journey.
stanwood-piano-innovations
Mr. Stanwood’s work requires a steady hand and a meticulous approach.
To solve the riddle of piano action inconsistency, Mr. Stanwood began the arduous task of removing each piano’s components to weigh and measure them.

He devised a system that took apart the action and analyzed the measurements, allowing him to understand the relationships that, as he puts it, “revealed themselves as an algebraic expression, ‘the equation of balance’ – a fundamental algorithm that explains the weight leverage characteristics of piano action.”

His company, Stanwood Piano Innovation, applied this approach to the reconditioning of pianos around the world through a network of technicians trained in Precision TouchDesign.

This patented approach can reconfigure the touch of any piano to achieve a degree of feel and tone that he characterizes as higher than any attained previously.

A piano is an intricate piece of artistry that allows the musician to interpret many types of music in many different ways. It contains more than 200 strings and upwards of 10,000 individual parts.

Most pianos have 88 keys, the depression of which causes a hammer to strike one, two or three strings. Simply put, these different parts work in unison to comprise the “action” of the piano.

Computer technology enabled Mr. Stanwood to track measurements from piano to piano. By developing new standards of measurement, he could create more predictable feel and response from each instrument.

With accolades from the late piano virtuoso Rudolf Serkin and jazz icons Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea, and “Stanwood-ized” pianos commissioned by such institutions as the New England Conservatory, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Brandeis University, David Stanwood’s pioneering work is slowly gaining acceptance.

His Precision TouchDesign is part of the curriculum at North Bennet Street School and at Florida State, the only university in the U.S. that offers a masters degree in piano technology.

“I chose a very conservative field,” Mr. Stanwood explains, with cheerful resignation. “It’s tradition-bound. If you attempt change, it’s sacrilege. It takes time to overcome.”

He traces his desire to question authority to his childhood in the 1960s. “I found that it worked to open doors. And it helped me to discover a whole body of knowledge that benefits our culture.”

By altering the touch design, Mr. Stanwood can customize the action of a piano to suit its owner – from light to heavy, depending on the physique and health of the player.

Many of his customers are what he calls “passionate amateurs,” avid players whose pianos may not suit their style of play and who are willing to pay an average or $2,500 to have their piano reconditioned.

“By practicing countless hours every day, concert pianists learn to adapt to different pianos,” he says. “Amateurs are really my best customers – they need more help than the professional.”

And, while Stanwood Precision TouchDesign enabled Keith Jarrett to resume playing following a crippling bout of chronic fatigue syndrome, the system’s only limitation was that once a piano was modified it was not adjustable.

Until now.

Never content to accept the status quo, Mr. Stanwood envisioned creating a system that could adapt not only to the musician but to the type of music being played as well.

Today he is in the process of yet another breakthrough in piano technology: the Stanwood Adjustable Leverage Action, or SALA. With the twist of a knob, the player can change the feel of the piano from heavy to moderate to light, striking the perfect balance between person and instrument.

With SALA, a single piano can suit players of different stature or physical condition. And the pianist can better match the feel of the piano to the musical selection.

David Stanwood is on his way to achieving his dream: to make the mechanics of the piano disappear from the player’s mind.

He says, “I get incredible joy from helping musicians to create better music.”

Karla Araujo is a regular contributor to The Martha’s Vineyard Times.

the piano book: the transformation stanwood gives is likely to be miraculous

the piano book

Excerpt from “The Piano Book”
By Larry Fine

Stanwood Touch Designs for the grand piano

Pianists agree that piano actions vary widely in their characteristic feel and in the way they respond.

Of course, regulation of the action and tone of the instrument have a significant effect on what the pianist experiences. But there exist more basic underlying elements in piano action design that no amount of regulation or voicing can change.

This fact is most pronounced in pianos with unusually heavy action that “play like a truck”.

Research and study of piano actions carried out by David C. Stanwood has shed a whole new light on the subject of piano action design and led to the development of Stanwood precision touch design for the grand piano action. (Stanwood Co., RFD 340, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568; (508) 693-1583).

Stanwood’s system has been known to improve even some of the finest pianos, so if your piano plays like a truck, the transformation is likely to be miraculous.

The Stanwood Touch Design System is installed in the piano by modifying the pianos action parts. It is available in a variety of stock or custom touch designs.

Each touch design is a special recipe which specifies for each note the exact proportions of hammer weight, hammer leverage, key balancing weight, and frictional resistance.

Once calibrated to these rigid specifications, the piano takes on the expected characteristic feel, with an extremely consistent response from note to note.

Touch designs are chosen based on tonal projection needs and desired characteristic feel.

The higher hammer weight designs have a firmer feel with
more powerful tonal projection, as required in concert halls.

The lighter hammer weight designs have a lighter feel and give a lower tonal projection appropriate for smaller rooms and studios.

Stanwood says the advantages of his precision touch design include reducing, or in some cases stopping, repetitive stress injury due to inordinate physical stress; increasing the value of the piano; facilitating the purchase and sale of pianos; and generally improving pianistic ability and expression.

Stanwood is currently licensing, and training technicians around the country to install his touch designs, which have received strong endorsements from concert artists and technicians.

– Larry Fine

Trip brings piano technician in tune with past

cuba trip

By Julia Wells, Globe Correspondent, Boston Sunday Globe, 02/15/98

WEST TISBURY – The black and white photograph captures three young boys standing in front of a fireplace – sport coats buttoned, hair plastered into place, corny smiles for the camera.

David Stanwood props the picture on the table in the sunny kitchen of his West Tisbury farmhouse. For a minute he is lost in memory.

It was February 1958, and Stanwood was 7 years old, vacationing in Miami with his family. ”My father said, `Let’s go over to Havana for the day,”’ Stanwood recalls.

They visited the Havana Country Club, and during the visit a picture was taken of David and his two brothers in the formal reception room at the club. Behind them, over the mantel, hung a portrait of Frederick Snare, their great-grandfather.

In the early 1900s Snare founded an engineering company that helped build Cuba’s infrastructure. The company built bridges, schools, and the National Baseball Stadium in Havana.

Snare, who loved to play golf, also founded the Havana Country Club in 1911 and was its president until his death in 1946.

Stanwood remembers the day of the visit and how, as the youngest brother, he was the one who had to wear a ”stupid” bow tie.

A year later, the Cuban revolution occurred and the Stanwoods lost all touch with the island. ”My whole life I have had this picture – but we always thought the place was probably gone after the revolution,” Stanwood says.

In July 1996, Stanwood, an internationally acclaimed piano technician who lives on Martha’s Vineyard, attended the annual Institute of Piano Technicians Guild meeting in Orlando, Fla.

While there, he met Benjamin Treuhaft. Treuhaft told Stanwood about a mission he had begun to take pianos and piano technicians into Cuba.

”It was kind of a mission of mercy, as he described it,” Stanwood says. During the conversation Stanwood told Treuhaft that his great-grandfather had founded the Havana Country Club.

”He just screamed and said, `That is where we work!’ He said, `You have to come.”’

In January, Stanwood and his wife, Eleanor, traveled to Havana with 18 piano technicians from all over North America. With special visas from both the US Treasury Department and the Cuban Ministry of Culture, the group’s mission was to work with Cubans on pianos for 10 days.

They brought 25 donated pianos, medical supplies, and 13 bicycles. Officially they were called the Piano Tuners’ Brigade, but at the outset Eleanor Stanwood came up with another nickname: the Piano Peace Corps.

Stanwood admits that the mission was the second reason he wanted to go to Cuba. ”Deep down inside me the real reason I wanted to go was to find out what happened to the country club, to the painting of my great-grandfather,” he says.

The morning after the group arrived, they walked to the country club and gathered in front of the fireplace for the opening reception – the same fireplace where Stanwood was photographed 40 years ago.

”I didn’t say anything. I just took the picture out and put it on the mantel,” he smiles.

The Stanwoods were amazed to find that the country club was unchanged; the furniture was the same, the same two urns stood on the mantel, the same barometer hung on the wall near the fireplace. Like so much of Havana, the room had been frozen in time.

The only thing missing was the portrait of Frederick Snare, which the Stanwoods learned had been taken to the Havana Museum of Fine Arts for safekeeping after the revolution.

”All these years we always thought they had probably trashed the place. I imagined it had been burned in the name of the revolution, my grandfather’s portrait slashed and destroyed as a symbol of capitalism,” Stanwood says.

Instead they found that after the revolution the country club had been turned into Cuba’s first school of the arts, the Instituto Superior de Arte. It is where the country’s most talented artists come to study music, sculpture, painting, dance and theater.

”Everywhere we went, we heard music,” Stanwood says.

Stanwood, whose work takes him all over the world, was struck by the quality of the music he heard. ”I have been on the campuses of music schools many, many times – and what was really different here is you could stop at any moment and listen to a level of music that was really extraordinary. It is the expression, the heart, you can feel the Cuban people, you feel their embrace in their music.”

The Stanwoods say traveling to Cuba was like traveling back in time. All the automobiles are from the 1950s, there are no high-rise buildings, and everywhere people walk and ride bicycles. ”It seems like time stopped in 1959,” says Eleanor Stanwood.

The Stanwoods say the Cuban people have little money and few material possessions, their buildings are crumbling, but they are rich in spirit and culture.

”The revolution is a very clear presence in the minds and hearts of the people,” says Eleanor Stanwood. ”You are not free, there is no privacy. And yet they are very open, very aware of each other. Everyone looks you in the eye and you feel completely safe, even on the darkest street at night with complete strangers.”

”The success story in Cuba is the quality of their culture – it is something they are doing right,” David Stanwood says.

The piano technicians did most of their work in the same room where Stanwood was photographed with his brothers 40 years ago.

Stanwood said there are thousands of pianos in Cuba but only a handful of technicians trained to work on them. Many of the pianos are in terrible condition and there is a widespread problem with termites.

The Stanwoods plan to return to Cuba next year with the Piano Peace Corps; this time they plan to stay for a month and take their two teenage children. The group hopes to establish a school at the institute to train piano technicians with the help of foundation money from the United States.

Stanwood has one other goal – to retrieve the portrait of his great-grandfather from the museum and hang it over the mantel again in the reception room of the old country club.

”That they chose the country club to make it an institute of the arts was the finest tribute to the spirit of my grandfather,” he says.

By Julia Wells, Globe Correspondent, Boston Sunday Globe,

This story ran on page B07 of the Boston Globe on 02/15/98.
© Copyright 1998 Globe Newspaper Company.

The New Touchweight Metrology

Published in  the Piano Technicians Journal, June 1996
Reformatted for HTML internet reading

The new touchweight metrology
By David C. Stanwood, RPT

Boston PTG Chapter

Introduction

As piano builders and rebuilders, we have inherited a crude and archaic system for measuring the balance of the action mechanism.

The weight of the hammer, which sits out on the end of a long lever arm and has such tremendous influence on touch and tone, is measured in weight to the nearest pound of a sheet of felt from which many sets of hammers are made.

We assume the proportion of key to hammer movement is roughly 1:5, but have no reasonable means for accurately measuring this ratio or detecting leverage problems.  The keys are “balanced” using downweight as a primary indicator but “balance” implies a state of static equilibrium and downweight is taken from the moving key.

We know that when a piano is built, the weight of the action parts sitting on the back of the key exerts an upward force at the front of the key which is too high without the addition of keyleads to the front of the key.
What is the effective weight of the action parts?

How does their weight translate to an upward force at the front of the key?

How much is the downward force at the front of the key?

Conventional wisdom simply does not provide answers to these important questions.

A New System Of Weights & Measures

I have found answers to these and many other questions’ by inventing a new system of weights and measures.  Metrology is the science of weights and measures so I call this system “The New Touchweight Metrology.”

The units of the New Touchweight Metrology define the balance of the upwards and downwards static forces at the front of the key as contributed by the weight and leverage of each action component.

The piano action may seem like a complex mechanism but in fact it acts as a simple lever that propels a hammer into the string. It functions as a catapult, with a short lever arm on one side of a pivot and a long lever on the other. The long lever arm is shortened into what engineers call a “folded beam” by use of the wippen and shank levers.

The New Touchweight Metrology takes the folded beam of the action and “Unfolds” it into a simple balanced lever such as the scale you might find in your doctors office, where:

B = Balance Weight
F = Front Weight
W = Wippen Weight at the Key Ratio radius
S = Strike Weight at the Strike Ratio radius


Figure 1


Figure 2 shows the balance of static forces at the front of the key, where: The downward static force of the Wippen Weight on the back of the key translates through the Key Ratio to the upward force of the Wippen Balance Weight at the front of the key, and:

The downward static force of the Strike Weight is multiplied through the combined leverage of the shank, wippen, and key to the upward force of the Strike Balance Weight at the front of the key.

The balance of the upward and downward static forces at the front of the key are expressed as the equation:

BalanceWt + FrontWt = (WippenWt x KeyRatio) + (StrikeWt x StrikeRatio)




Definition & Determination Of The Units

Balance Weight– The amount of weight, placed on the front of the assembled key that equals the upwards static force at the front of the key.  Balance Weight is found by measuring UpWeight and DownWeight and
calculating:

Balance Weight = (DownWeight + UpWeight)/2

When measuring UpWeight and DownWeight the touch weights are placed on the key centered on a point 13mm in from the front vertical edge of the key.   When the balance weight is placed on the front of the key it is balanced and motionless as if it were a balanced scale.

Additional weight must be added to the balance weight to overcome friction and start the key moving down (DownWt) and weight subtracted from the balance weight to start the key moving up (UpWt).

Front Weight– The radius weight of the keystick pivoted on its balance point, taken at the front of the key.  It represents the downward static balancing force at the front of the key.

Front weight is found by placing the key on a wedge pivot so that the balance hole is centered across the edge of the wedge.  The front of the key rests on a roller bearing which is on the pan of a digital scale.

The key is oriented in a horizontal attitude similar to that when the key is at rest in the assembled action.  The roller bearing rests on a vertical axis through a point on the surface of the key 13mm in from the front vertical edge of the key (see Photo I).

Wippen Weight– The radius weight of the wippen pivoted on the wippen center, where the capstan contacts the wippen heel. The wippen heel rests on the roller at the capstan contact point.

The wippen flange rests on the felt wedge so that the wippen center is aligned with the vertical axis through the center of the roller.  If necessary the flange may be wedged with a sliver of wood to prevent the flange from rotating (see Photo 2).


Strike Weight– The hammer weight plus the radius weight of the hammer shank, pivoted at the hammer flange, taken at Strike Line Radius.  The strike line of the hammer rests on the felt wedge block and the end of the tipped up flange rests on the roller so that the flange center aligns with a vertical axis through the center of the roller. The height of the roller is adjusted so that the shank rests horizontally. Playing cards can be helpful as shims (see Photo 3).


Key Ratio– The ratio of down- wards force at the capstan to the corresponding upward force at the front of the key.  The key is set on the jig as for weighing front weight.  An amount of weight is placed on the front of the key to make the front weight at least 70 grams.

This weight holds down the front of the key. The scale is then tared to zero. (Digital scales have a tare button which makes the scale read zero, regardless of what weight is on the pan.)

Two 50-gram weights are placed on either side of the capstan so that there combined center of gravity is at the capstan/heel contact point.  The scale will then read how the 100 grams translates to the front of the key.  For instance, if the scale reading were -57.0 the key ratio would be 0.57 (see Photo 4).


Wippen Balance Weight– The upward static force at the front of the key from the leveraged weight of the wippen. Found by calculating:

WipBW = KeyRatio x WipWt

Top Action Balance Weight– The total upward static force at the front of the key resulting from the leveraged weight of the wippen, hammer, and shank.

Found as:

TopBW = BW + FrontWt

Strike Balance Weight– The upward static force at the front of the key from the leveraged weight of the hammer and shank.

Found by calculating:

StrikeBW = TopBW- WipBW

Strike Ratio – The amount of weight to balance one gram of strike weight at the front of the key.
Found as:

Strike Ratio = StrikeBW/StrikeWt

Conclusion

The New Touchweight Metrology bridges from the old Metrology of DownWeight and UpWeight through the Balance Weight, thereby maintaining the connection to traditional touchweight parameters.

The array of information provided by the New Touchweight Metrology gives a wealth of information that has heretofore remained hidden from us.  Of particular utility is the ability to measure hammer weight “on the shank” and the calculation of Strike Ratio.

The New Touchweight Metrology provides a useful and relevant framework for a more complete understanding of the balance of piano action mechanisms.

The weights and measures described above only partially describe the units and methods of the New Touchweight Metrology.  Other units and methods will be described in future articles.

In my next article I will show the results of studies using the New Touchweight Metrology and discuss the correlation between strike ratio and leverage which leads to the ability to rate the “dynamic” feel of piano actions using methodology of
the New Touchweight Metrology.

Notes:

1. To the best of my knowledge, the Balance Weight value was first described by Don Galt, RPT, in “Resistance in Piano Action,” in the April, 1969 issue of the Piano Technicians Journal.  He called it Weight Resistance.  In the October, 1990 Journal is published a method for balancing keys to a specified Balance
Weight, by David C. Stanwood, RPT.

2. For this work, a scale needs to have 150-gram capacity and resolution accuracy of 0.1 gram. The roller bearing shown is an “idler bearing,” which can be purchased from small parts component suppliers. In a pinch, an edge-trimming router bit can be used.

3. In all cases it is only necessary to carry the decimal to the nearest tenth except for the “key ratio,” which is carried to the nearest hundredth.

Taking the Pain Out of the Piano

by Phil Novak (Globe & Mail Newspaper, April 6, 1996)

A new movement — Frustrated by an instrument that has evolved little in almost three centuries, some keyboard aficionados hope to make the pianist’s job easier and, at the same time, less hazardous.

Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON — When that musical man of the 18th century, Johann Sebastian Bach, tried the first piano his countryman Gottfried Silbermann had constructed, he praised the piano but condemned the instrument as too hard to play.

Stung by the criticism, Silbermann returned to the drawing board, determined to win Bach’s approval. He succeeded and Bach began to write for the piano, thus ensuring its legitimacy in the classical world.

Fast forward 250 years to Boston Symphony Hall, where concert pianists were recently not just denouncing the Baldwin grand piano as being too hard to play, but actually cursing it – with four letter words, according to the Hall’s piano technician, Tony McKenna.

Thankfully David Stanwood, another Massachusetts piano technician, was brought in and, using a revolutionary adjustment system of his own devising, put an end to the stream of expletives.

Stanwood, who lives on Martha’s Vineyard, has refined piano action, the physical process responsible for producing sound – and removed discrepancies in exertion needed to strike each note.

Stanwood isn’t the only one boasting improvements to the piano. In Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., Shaw Festival music director Christopher Donison has overcome the problem of his smaller than average hands by developing a smaller keyboard.

With the help of his business partner, Pennsylvania textile manufacturer David Steinbuhler, Donison is now able to give pianists “larger hands” without surgery or genetic engineering.

Stanwood and Donison are two piano aficionados who don’t believe the predominant thinking about the instrument – namely, that it has evolved to the point of perfection, so if it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it.

While their respective innovations don’t change the look or design of pianos, they make the pianist’s work easier while reducing occupational hazards such as tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome.

Patents are pending on the three men’s innovations, and Steinway & Sons has expressed interest. As well the D.S. keyboard has the potential to revolutionize nearly three centuries of piano design and construction.

The piano wasn’t so much an invention as it was an outgrowth of the harpsichord, with the 17th century Italian harpsichord maker Bartolomeo Cristofori acting as catalyst.

He is generally credited as creating the first piano, circa 1698. Working in Florence at the time, Cristofori was frustrated that no matter how percussively he played the harpsichord, the strings were plucked sweetly, neither pianissimo (soft) or fortissimo (loud) enough.

Inspired by a behemoth dulcimer, he replaced the picks with hammers anddeveloped a key mechanism to control their volume. The instrument that emerged, the pianoforte, became the model from which all future pianos were based.

The period between the late 18th and 19th centuries produced a flurry of piano-related inventions and improvements.
European manufacturers such as Henry Steinweg (who, after moving to the United States in 1819, changed his name to Steinway), Ludwig Bosendorfer, Camille Pleyel (whose pianos were played by Frederic Chopin), Carl Bechstein and Theodore Heinzmann (the father of the now nonexistent Canadian piano industry) all guided the development of the instrument. But manufacturing techniques and materials aside, very little has
changed in piano technology in the last century.

No part of the piano has given the inventor more food for thought than the action. When a key is struck, it sets off a remarkably complex Rube Goldberg kind of chain reaction inside the instrument involving capstans, balance rails and levers, culminating in a felt-covered hammer hitting the desired string.

Friction, leverage and key and hammer mass are among at least 35 variables that can affect piano action.

The action in grand pianos today is based on the Erard-Hertz grand action develped by a Frenchman, Sebastion Erard, in 1821, and simplified by the Vienna-born Parisian, Henry Hertz, in 1851. And while European pianos built then seemingly had the ideal action craved by both compsers and performers, modern piano manufacturers, despite producing expensive, masterfully-crafted instruments, have often been unable to translate the concept of perfect action into reality.

Stanwood has seen the exertion needed to strike different keys on the same piano vary as much as 30 per cent, a discrepancy noticeable by, and irritating to, piano virtuosos.

“It would be like asking a waiter to carry a tray of glasses filled with water up and down a staircase where no one stair is the same height, and expecting him not to spill a drop,” explained Stanwood.

He began to work on the problem in 1988, armed with a computer obtained in a trade for an upright piano. Using a nine-foot Steinway grand, Stanwood took apart the keys and used his computer to boil down the differences in weight and playing exertion required on each key into an algebraic formula.
The formula, which contains about 40 measurements that he devised, including “strikeweight” and “key ratio,” enables him to transform pianos “which once played like a truck into ones that play like a Mercedes.”

Using his new formula, Stanwood rebalanced a piano at the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont and invited the late great concert pianist Rudolph Serkin to play it.

“Really, I was at the point where I just could have dropped it all, but Serkin said I was on the right path and encouraged me to go on,” he says.

Rather than the traditional method of regulating action, which involved placing lead weights under piano key surfaces, Stanwood weights the components of each piano key.

The data is then entered into his computer. Stanwood modifies the keys accordingly by, variously, sanding the wooden hammer shanks, adding or subtacting weights, changing leverage and modifying friction.

He’s now training and licencing technicians in his method, and so far the more than 200 pianos featuring the Stanwood action have drawn superlatives from those who use them.

“David is an inventor and technicianof brilliance and imagination,” says Harvard professor Robert Levin, who is also one of the world’s leading Mozart scholars.

Stanwood first met Levin, who has recorded for Sony’s classical music label, while rejigging the action in an 1870 Steinway model D concert grand located in the Pusey Room at Harvard.

“What David ended up doing to the piano was to produce a significant and quite remarkable evenness in the feel of the instrument from top to bottom, particularly noticeable in the bass.”

In fact, many master players who previously suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis told Stanwood their afflictions disappeared once he had rebalanced their pianos.

“By eliminating heavy piano actions, David has eliminated the accumulation of tension in the arms that leads to these injuries,” says Barbara Lister-Sink, a concert pianist and artist-in-residence at Salem College in Winston-Salem, N.C.

And thanks to Canada’s Christopher Donison, there could be a whole generation of piano players who won’t have to stretch their hands quite as much. His keyboard is 41 inches in length rather than the normal 48 inches; it allows smaller hands to traverse “stretchy” passages.

Indeed, since the DS is almost 7/8s the size of a conventional keyboard,
what would be a seven note stretch normally is an octave on the smaller
version.

Donison notes that the difference in size is roughly the same as the
difference in hand size between women and men. “And because a pianist
won’t have to stretch as far on the smaller keyboard, hand dexterity is
improved and the risk of injury is reduced.”

A composer, musician and professor at Brock University in St. Catharines, Donison says his new keyboard is better suited to the average size hand. According to Keith Allison, the Victoria-based piano retailer and technician who’s selling the DS keyboard, “Most of the world has been left at a disadvantage with the conventional-sized keyboard, which was designed with the input of 19th century Caucasian male composers. This will at least
provide a choice of two standards and even the playing field.”

Donison began to think about revamping the keyboard 20 years ago, while studying music at the University of Victoria. He had just purchased a 1927 Steinway model D concert grand piano with a sterling history. It had been the house piano for Victoria’s Royal Theatre and been played by such illustrious visiting performers as George Gershwin and Sergei Rachmaninoff.
Donison approached Allison and asked him if he could build a smaller keyboard. He did, and it was retrofitted into the Steinway.

But it wasn’t until 1992, when Donison’s partner to be, David Steinbuhler, and his daughter were visiting Niagara-on-the-Lake and were booked into a room at Donison’s bed and breakfast that Donison’s thoughts of improving on the design were rekindled. “Christopher started talking about the idea to me and I thought, ‘Hey, this is a big idea.'”

After further discussion, Steinbuhler, a computer sciences graduate returned to his home in Titusville, Penn., and began to develop a program that would allow a computer-driven router to cut smaller piano keys to the proper scale.

The keys of the DS board are made of sugar maple, to give them more tensile strength. (White ivory was once the material of choice in premium pianos, keyboard surfaces these days are usually made of plastic or bone, while the keys are constructed from sugar pine or spruce.) Most important, says Donison, the keyboard can be retrofitted into existing pianos by a trained technician.

He and Steinbuhler are now building up a database of piano measurements for all makes and ages, to allow them to retrofit any model with their new keyboard. Once orders of sufficient volume start coming in, the keyboard will be manufactured at Steinbuhler’s Titusville factory.

In the meantime, they’ve already sold their first unit to Linda Kereluk, a Victoria businesswoman. “I’m going to go out and buy the third Rachmaninoff piano concerto and Chopin etudes, all the pieces I had trouble playing before,” said Kereluk, a former university classmate of Donison’s.

For all their benefits, neither the Stanwood action not the DS keyboard come cheap.

Depending on the piano, Stanwood’s piano action system costs between $1,200 and $4,100; Donison’s retrofitted keyboard costs from $900 to $5,000. The modifications are certainly beyond the reach of the average doting piano parent and pint-sized prodigy. And unless manufacturers begin to incorporate the technologies into new pianos, under licence, it will likely stay that way.

Much depends on how accurate the pronunciation of the late Alfred Dolge, one of the most remarkable figures in the history of the piano, prove to be. Dolge was an innovative German-American piano manufacturer and parts supplier known for the excellence of his instruments and his good relations with his work force.

In this 1911 classic, Pianos and Their Makers, Dolge speculated on the problems faced by piano craftsmen in a money driven world.

“Their very occupation of designing pianos, inventing improvements, dreaming of tone quality etc., totally unfitted them for the cold, exact calculation of the economic factory organizer and the liberal distributor of the finished product, not to mention the reasoning of the financier, who never has an eye for anything else but cold figures and algebraic reductions.”

Whether or not the factory owners and financiers of Dolge’s vision have triumphed, piano-making doesn’t seem to be the craft it once was; the instrument has become just another commodity. And the long-established manufacturers may be reluctant to admit that outsiders have solved problems they didn’t even know existed.

As well, they may feel that change will rob their instruments of their most cherished individuality, their characteristic tone and Klangfarbe (the German term for tone colour). Ironically, it may be their quest to enhance the bottom line, rather than to improve the instrument, that will prod manufacturers to take action.

Stanwood says that by adopting his methods, piano makers could cut in half the time it takes to do even the most conventional balancing. And companies such as Steinway could develop a new income stream by either selling pianos with smaller keyboards or offering retrofits to their existing models.
The laws of evolution may have finally caught up with them, and it’s time for the piano to play a whole new tune.