“Talk about the life in Massachusetts, speak about the people I’ve seen” (1)
I first wrote about the Mason & Hamlin piano factory when I toured the factory during my Churchill Fellowship in May 2013. I was invited by the Head Engineer, Bruce Clark, after meeting him in Australia. Although at the time I was employed by a Steinway and Sons dealer, I thought it was a great opportunity to tour another factory and see and hear different ideas.
After returning to Australia, I settled down into work and decided how to use the knowledge I gained during my Fellowship. I knew that my ideas of piano service were supported by all the technicians I met during my travels. I became less brand conscious and centred my work around the idea of leaving the instrument sounding and performing at a higher standard through tuning, action regulation and evenness of tone.
I already knew the importers of Mason & Hamlin and one day I was asked to tune and perform some adjustments to the instrument. The work steadily grew, and I started preparing grands for recitals. Then a music festival’s Artistic Director asked if I could provide the piano service for that festival.
Soon, I will be working for my sixth music festival with Mason & Hamlin Australia. Some of these festivals have been a joy to work at, and a few others were more difficult due to the climate or location. I am in awe of the tuning stability and performance of these instruments, even in the toughest of climates.
For the second festival, I had the opportunity to prepare a brand new piano. It was just out of the box and freighted to the hall. I had a weekend of chamber music, solo piano, voice and piano, and to finish it off a Mozart Piano Concerto with Chamber Orchestra. All that with limited tuning time as rehearsals always seem to run overtime and reduce my time for tuning.
The artists were happy with the instrument and the performances. However, I was unsatisfied with my work simply because I wasn’t entirely happy with my action setup and I just couldn’t find the right balance of touch and sound.
I decided to ask Mason & Hamlin Australia if I could travel to the factory for training. On the plus side, I also found out that a colleague was working in the factory. We had met over the internet, as I had purchased voicing tools from him.
The Mason & Hamlin grand piano factory is located in Haverhill, MA, and is one of the few piano factories still operating in the USA. They have a history that goes back to 1854 in Boston. Steinway & Sons started manufacturing in New York in 1853, and there has always been a great rivalry between these factories, even though they have different ideas of piano building. They’re both correct!
Today’s Mason & Hamlin pianos have the original building design. However, they have replaced the traditional wood action (felt bushings) with a new composite action containing carbon fibre. They have also replaced the traditional felt bushings and brass alloy centre pins with hard bushings with stainless steel centre pins. The result is an extremely fast action, and due to not having felt bushings, no more tight centre pins (aka sticking notes.) Fantastic! The action of these pianos are worth a separate blog post.
The other slight difference in these actions is the choice of hammer head. They use a soft to medium pressed hammer, more traditional in design, so no more 14000 needles to soften the tone. The hammers, plus the design of the instrument, produces an instrument that does not react to humidity trying to soften the hammers which softens the tone.
A month or so later, Mason & Hamlin Australia advised that I could attend the factory for training, and at the same time, they would be at the factory to select a new concert grand for an Australian venue.
(1)Writer(s): Barry Gibb, Max Wittmann, Maurice Ernest Gibb, Robin Hugh Gibb
To be continued …