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.
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.
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.