Friday, August 19, 2011

Old Player Pianos

Did you know that I am one of the few people in all of South Florida that does antique player piano restoration? There aren't many people in the country with experience working on those old pneumatic players. These days, with everything going digital, there are hardly any technicians who can tell the difference between a player motor and the stack.

A little bit about the player piano:

They suck...literally. The bellows compress and then open, literally drawing, sucking, air through the mechanism at various points. The bellows draw air through the motor and through the tracking bar, that bar with holes in it that the roll goes over. Air is drawn into the tracker through those holes on the paper roll, through the air tight stack with 88 full pneumatics, one for each key, 88 valves, and 88 smaller pneumatics that operate the valves.

The roll and tracker are driven by the motor and transmission. The motor is right beside the transmission, which is attached to the roll box. The transmission is an assembly of gears and chains while the motor is a box with four or five pneumatics on it, driven by a curled piece of metal. That's the basic layout of the player piano.

The player piano was invented in 1863 and was a mechanism that literally rolled up to the piano, pneumatic fingers hovering above the keyboard and played the piano in that manner.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Evolution of the Piano

The piano today is one of the finest, most versatile instruments in the world. It has exquisite sound and and incredible playability and range. Of course, it had a long evolution. The first known ancestor to the piano, the dulcimer, was invented about 2000-years-ago in Persia. It was generally same instrument then as it is today, except it was struck upon the strings by two hand-held felt (wool) mallets. It is interesting that the next step didn't occur until 1400 A. D. The clavichord was a small keyboard instrument, small and square, with strings that were struck by brass tangents. It didn't have much volume, but it had a great range of control, even allowing for vibrato.

Side note: This is just an interesting thought I could't avoid while writing this. Even in the 1400's, when the first keyboard instruments were being introduced, they were generally considered to be a woman's instrument. A woman would hold the clavichord on her lap and play in that manner. Men were expected to learn something like the trumpet, or lute or such. To this day, as a tuner I note that the boys in families are playing whatever instrument in a marching band, but the piano is for the daughter.

Moving right along. From the clavichord, we move along to the virginal. It was essentialy like the clavichord in most respects, except that its action used a plectrum instead of a tangent. A tangent strikes the strings like a hammer, but a plectrum is a rod on a jack. The rod lifts up and a small finger on the side plucks the string. This action became the standard action for several hundred years. The major difference here is that the plectrum considerably improves the volume of the instrument.

Next along the line is the spinet. Not much different from the virginal, except in size, shape, and most importantly portability. Here we have a truly robust instrument that is not designed to be moved and certainly won't sit on the lap. It uses the same plectrum type action as the virginal and in it's case design, which greatly enhances the volume, we can see the modern piano start to emerge.

Finally, the spinet gave way to the harpsichord. This instrument was the bastion of Mozart, Handel, and Bach. This instrument set the standard for the scale and design of the piano. It even looks a great deal like a piano. Still using the standard plectrum system that was introduced with the virginal, that type of action was about to fall by the wayside. It had reasonable good repetition, but enough for many of the pieces that were being composed. The biggest concern? There was only one level of volume. There was no way to play hard or soft, which is what inspired Bartolommeo Christophori to develop an unique hammer-strike action.

The Piano-Forte: the true name of the piano is pianoforte, piano simply being shortened version. Christophori was a harpsichord builder in the early 1700's. His primary problem was with the harpsichord's lack of volume control. Installing a hammer based action in one of his harpsichord creations, the pianoforte was born. Using hammers instead of the plectrum system, the new action used a whippen system that greatly improved repetition (double repetition [the ability to strike a note before the key fully returns] still had not been developed and would not be developed until the early 1800's) and most importantly, since the hammers struck the strings instead of plucked, a soft strike meant a soft sound, and a hard a strike meant a loud sound. Thus the name pianoforte (in Italian piano means soft and forte means hard).

The pianoforte went through numerous changes through the centuries. The escapement action, developed in around 1770 allowed for faster repitition and allowed for the addition of sustain and soft pedals. Indeed numerous pedals could be added for various effects. Pianofortes could have as many as eight pedals. The harpsichord was already using an upright design in the 1600's, but a suitable upright style hadn't been developed for the pianoforte until 1800.

The square grand was an attempt by builders to adapt the piano to the traditional square design of the clavichord. Square pianos were incredibly problematic. The scaling was ultimately catastrophically flawed. The way the piano is strung sends all of the pressure and downbearing to a single corner of the plate. Over time, that corner cracks. While tuning, I have had a square grand spin away from me. Apparently, it's a common occurence.

It was in 1821 that the double-repitition action was developed. The keyboard was final extended to its full, modern size in the late 1820's with the development of the cast-iron frame. It was in the 1830's that the cross-stringing method was developed. In addition to making the piano's scale more stable than the straight strung method, the design of the cross strung plate improved the sound of the piano by assuring that more strings crossed over the center of the soundboard. Since then, numerous innovations have been made, such as the introduction of the sostenuto pedal, and the result is the pianoforte that we know today.

Friday, May 13, 2011


I'm Thomas Myers and am a tuner and technician based in Miami, Florida.
If you would like to use my services, my phone number is 786-260-2089

Basic Service charge: $50.00
Evaluation/estimate: $50.00
Both of the above charges do not apply if you choose to use any of my other services.

Tuning: $75.00
Pitch Raise (tuning a piano that has fallen 20 cents or more below A440): $150.00
Moving Verticles: $75.00
Grands: $250.00
Additional charge for four or more stairs
Key Re-topping/re-covering: $125.00

Pricing for all other services requires an estimate:
action rebuilding
case repair
all other piano restoration services.

I do not offer refinishing.