2010 Steinway D
This nearly new piano belongs to a university. The very astute pianists there wanted a bigger sound in a portion of the tenor area, and complained that the piano was a bit unresponsive, its action sluggish, its tone too mellow.
It turned out that this lovely instrument was just fine. What had happened was that it had experienced the normal settling of new action parts that occurs with every new instrument, and needed only the very minor regulation touchup that is entirely normal and predictable for a new piano that has had little use. The hall in which it was kept was a bit humid, which not only made the hammers swell slightly, muting their sound, but had slightly unseated the keyframe. Remedying what had been described as a lack of power in the tenor section required only a very minor reseating of the keyframe.
Following a thorough regulation in which I made only minuscule adjustments, I lubricated the key pins to reduce friction, and ironed the hammers to tighten their surfaces enough to restore the tone. With the tone and power restored, it was easier for the pianists to produce the sound they wanted, which had the psychological effect of eliminating the action’s perceived sluggish lack of response. What had been presented as a complaint about the voicing of a small section of the tenor had turned out to be, for the most part, problems of regulation and humidity. After I’d touched up the fit of hammers to strings, evening out the tone in the first treble section required the very slight needling of only a few hammers.
When pianists praise a piano for being even and smooth, with effortless control, these qualities are the results not only of a quality action correctly installed, but also of hours, days, or weeks of technical attention paid, in both the factory (or rebuilding shop) and in the field, to realize the instrument’s potential. As the above examples illustrate, the real problems and the true potential of a fine instrument are not always obvious, and even the best pianos can play poorly when badly maintained or rebuilt, or when their problems are misdiagnosed. A purchaser armed with this understanding, and with the support of an experienced piano technician, is in a position to recognize otherwise excellent instruments with correctable problems that others might pass up. As an informed owner, you can communicate your complaints about action and tone more clearly, and you’ll be in a better position to evaluate whether or not your technician can satisfy your piano’s technical needs.
As the owner of the 1935 Steinway D wrote to me after several weeks and many visits to correct its problems:
“I think many pianists live with the frustration of never quite playing the way they really hear the music, never realizing that things can be better. You really can sing at the piano, and the instrument can be truly miraculous if you don’t have to fight it. As a result of our collaboration over the past few months, I have been able to develop my tonal palette considerably.”
Over the past 35 years, piano technician Sally Phillips has worked in virtually every aspect of the piano industry — service, retail, wholesale, and manufacturing. In her role as a concert-piano technician, she has tuned and prepared pianos for concert and recording work in such venues as Town Hall, Alice Tully Hall, and the Kennedy Center, and for such orchestras as the Cincinnati Symphony, the BBC Concert Orchestra, and the Vienna Philharmonic. At present, Phillips lives in Kentucky and works throughout the southeastern U.S. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.