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.