The sum of small details


“It is not enough to do your best, you must know what to do, and then do your best”.  

W. Edwards Deming

I consider myself to be one of the lucky piano technicians. I have had so many opportunities for training in my career yet I am still striving for further knowledge. Why should I accept the status quo, and just go through the motions of my work, thinking that the customer won’t know the difference or should I always be striving to improve my techniques or to improve the instrument I am working on?

During my apprenticeship a colleague used to always tell me to think like a mechanic to solve the problem then use my musical training to imagine the goal of sound or touch. He was a highly respected repairer who was taught the trade by the traditional hands on training , yet he always questioned the “we have always done it this way” mentality. Lachie was ahead of his time and constantly thought of different ways to make our work easier and sometimes a question was answered as “use the other hand, Boofhead.

I have been in the industry long enough to know that there are many opinions to what is considered correct, however every one agrees when it is wrong. I remember training at Yamaha in Melbourne and I was levelling the keyboard on a grand. This is performed by placing fine punchings under the keys,to make the line of the keys a straight line. This standard is correct when a straight edge (or slightly convex in Kawai and Steinway) is placed on the keys, and the instructor checks that there are no keys lower or higher than the straight edge, and then checking visually. I remember this instructor looking at my work for what seemed an eternity before he passed my work, and allowed me to continue with the next procedure, as it was pointless to continue if the basics were not correct. (This taught me to constantly evaluate my work and to strive for that elusive perfection yet the downside is that some technicians do not look for or know this standard or simply know that the customer does not have the skills to evaluate the work.) I regularly see performance instruments with poorly levelled keyboards, yet I am supposed to believe that this is an accepted standard.

I have had the opportunity to train in Japan, US, and two different factories in Germany. The goal of these manufacturers is to produce the best piano possible using their own production methods as well as meet  their production cost. The more expensive pianos naturally spend more time in the factory as well receiving more refined  adjustments. The factory workers strive for the best results and are proud of their standards, and are willing to pass on their techniques so that the piano will be maintained to a standard after leaving the factory. This is why there is factory training for technicians as well as training facilities like C.F  Theodore Steinway Academy for Concert Technicians in New York and Hamburg, or the Yamaha Technical Academy in Hamamatsu, Japan. Through these experiences, you realise that the best techniques are best sourced from the manufacturer and I believe that this knowledge should be shared and not squirrelled away. The ideals of these training centres can be described in this quote:

“Being forced to work, and forced to do your best, will breed in you temperance and self control, diligence and strength of will, cheerfulness and content, and a hundred virtues which the idle will never know.”

Charles Kingsley

The following photos describe my thoughts. In my opinion a piano is worthy of not only being finely adjusted in both touch and sound as well as being cosmetically appealing even if only a few will know the difference. Who are the keepers of the standard?

Image P1020643

The photo on the left, the dampers will function correctly, however I believe that a little more attention to detail will improve the look of the finished product. Should it look good?

hammer P1000751

The above hammers will create the sound, but the accepted standard is to have equal amounts of felt on both sides of the hammer. The hammer on the right has had its life shortened by too much felt removed on one side. There are other problems with this hammer and that can be discussed in another blog.



The use of gauges (hammer strike distance from string) can easily show discrepancies in why this piano was unresponsive, and the owner dissatisfied with the instrument, even though it was a premium brand.

I have always valued constructive criticism from other technicians as it is through the sharing of ideas that the industry benefits. I have found that the best techniques and advice comes from the technicians in the piano building factories. Whilst in Japan, the technicians told me “do it this way” or “please copy“, and the same teaching occurred at Schimmel and Steinway and Sons in Germany. All these factories have a process that is followed and this is all part of the culture of the factory as well as their quality control processes. The first time I trained at Steinway in Hamburg, I commented to my instructor that my shoulders were sore from all the hammer needling. I then suggested with a smile that they should use a machine to pre-voice the hammers, so then there would be less physical work for the voicers. I also added that they could save money with my idea. Jan laughed at my humour and told me that they have tried the voicing machine, and the company did not like the result. There are reasons why each factory’s method is the best for their piano so why should we question their methods?

There have been numerous myths about technicians having secret techniques or that they can perform work in about a quarter of the time that the factory workers can. Unfortunately, many of these guarded secrets were short cuts and not always the best practice and the industry has suffered. Through the sharing of this knowledge and  conferences through Australasian Piano Tuners and Technicians Association, the whole community benefits.

There is more to maintaining a performance piano, or even a home piano, than just tuning or making a few simple adjustments. It is the technicians job to perform the best work he/she can and to keep the instrument playing and sounding at its best. In a high performance venue, piano  maintenance should  have the same ideals as a Formula 1 Team. The concert piano you see on the stage is the pinnacle of performance pianos, and they deserve the highest quality service they can get. All the small seemingly insignificant details all add up to the final result.

Does the Formula 1 car look good as well as perform well?

“You try to do your best at what you are getting paid for”

Sean Penn





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