The days they pass so quickly now. That reminds me of words from a John Denver song. Exactly twelve months ago I was boarding a Qantas jet to commence my Churchill Fellowship and I used the words from the song “Today” in my travel blog and now I am thinking of the words from “Poems, Prayers and Promises”. It has been twelve months since an experience of a lifetime, training with great technicians, learning new techniques, selecting grand pianos, being critiqued as well as challenged, tested and truly inspired. I asked my mentors to teach me what I needed to know as well as what I didn’t know. My life as a piano technician has completely changed since May 2013.
My first training seminar was “Voicing and Tone Building” at Steinway and Sons in New York with Kent Webb. This was the course that I was nervous about. This was to be a new experience as the type of voicing performed on American Steinways is so different than the voicing techniques I was familiar with. I was also concerned about the theory discussed on American piano technician forums as I was not familiar with their terms. This seminar anwered so many questions. I have always been fascinated by voicing and I have had the opportunity to attend training seminars with different manufacturers, and have watched many technicians work. I found that although the New York method is different, the basic theory remains the same, that is, there are no shortcuts to quality work as well as similarities in each piano manufacturers tone producing methods. This seminar also has created an interest in the different types of hammers that are used by manufacturers and rebuilders, as well as an expensive taste for new tools.
Travelling to London, a meeting at Steinway Hall with Ulrich Gerhartz to inspect the London hire fleet turned out to be the highlight of my travels. I watched a technician improve an instrument that already seemed to be perfect, inspected pianos that were the preferred instruments of some of the worlds greatest pianists, and then was given an insight into his thoughts on what it takes to be a conscientious technician. It is a meeting I will never forget.
The course in Hamburg was an opportunity to revisit my Steinway mentors as I had a list of questions however they too had their own agenda for the outcome of the course. Gunter’s instruction in damper fitting and regulation has made me more critical of my own work and almost every piano I now work on I perform adjustments that will improve the look or functionality of the damper system. I cannot ignore the obvious.
The second part of the course in Hamburg was the fitting of a hammer assembly, the regulation of the action, pre-voicing and filing of the hammer heads and the final voicing and tuning. Although my instructor, Jan, knew my work, he still scrutinised my tuning as well as challenged me out of my comfort zone. Jan improved my listening skills and made me aware of slight imperfections in sound as well showing me how to improve the instrument I was working on. It was a great experience to work with a colleague who was not only my instructor but has the training of a piano builder and a concert technician.
During my travels, I seemed to be drawn to people or sights that somehow the universe wanted me to see; from meeting people that gave me an insight into my work or some wise words that have influenced me. From musicians on the subway, to reading the Rockefeller Credo, to a discussion on a book, to my mentors or asking a question to a factory worker or discussing the characteristics of similiar pianos all seemed to be linked instead of being random experiences. It is interesting that Gunter supervised Ulrich during his apprenticeship, so their thoughts and techniques were aligned, thus imbedding them in my conscience.
Inspecting many instruments in New York, London and Hamburg, I realised that I have a great memory for sound and I could feel subtle changes in piano actions and their characterisics from country to country. Performing a mock selection in New York as well as discussing the thoughts on why a customer purchased a particular piano was a great insight into selecting pianos. In Hamburg, I inspected the hire stock and mentioned to a technician that the New York concert grand he prepared sounded part American and part German and he mentioned that a number of pianists have also made the same comments. I also travelled through the Hamburg factory trying different instruments, and I found the instruments I preferred were pre-voiced by the same technician. The chance to inspect so many instruments reinforced the constant message of performing your best and consistency in technique.
All my overseas training has blended into a new style of workmanship. The technicial training as well as the wisdom of my mentors has given me more options as well as a new enthuasium for working on pianos, whether they are a small upright or a concert grand piano. Ulrich’s words of “improving the instrument” are ingrained in my daily work. I cannot just leave an instrument that needs some adjustment to improve the playability or leave a hammer that obviously sounds different than the one beside it. Most of the time the customer is unaware of the changes I make to the instrument, however I would rather have the job satisfaction I receive than to do nothing.
If you change nothing, nothing will change.
I will be writing about my travels in more detail, and I will publish them in due course. There will be more detail on each course, as well as new techniques, tools as well as my experiences as a technician, however it will not be a substitute for experience or training.
“I believe in the sacredness of a promise, that man’s word should be as good as his bond; that character — not wealth or power or position — is of supreme worth. I believe that the rendering of useful service is the common duty of mankind…….” from Rockefeller Credo www.rockarch.org/bio/jdrjr.php