Piano HQ

Glen Barkman's Muse on all things piano.

Piano Cosmetics – the Basics of Refinishing Part 1

Posted by glenbarkman on October 25, 2009

steinwayLet’s face it, pianos are small elephants.  You put them in the room of a house and they will ALWAYS draw attention – whether good or bad.  If you have a beat up piano, you already know that it makes the room look blah.  On the contrary, a spectacular looking instrument improves the look of a room and makes it more classy.  If you’ve been thinking about refinishing your piano, there are some basics that you need to be aware of.  First of all, the wood on a piano most likely is veneered.  I say most likely because in 20 years, i’ve had 2 solid wood pianos.  Now before you start saying to me “OH NOT MINE… mine is SOLID WOOD”… i have to strongly disagree and say that in 20 years in the business i’ve had only 2 solid wood pianos come into my possession.  Why is that?  I used to employ a french polisher.  French polishing is the art of painstakingly applying shellac by hand.  It’s an INCREDIBLY slow process but worth every hour.  Anyway, he used to own an antique store.  This man was at best abrasive… at worst… rude.  He would tell me about customers coming in his shop “Yes i have solid wood furniture” to which he would reply “oh i’m so sorry to hear that madame”.  They were always taken back by his response.  I think it’s in our nature to want something to be solid and sturdy.  But he educated me and said “the best furniture in the world is all veneered”.  For those who don’t know, veneer is a thin layer of wood glued on to another ‘substrate’ or solid core.  Y’see, cosmetically beautiful wood usually is the WORST choice for construction.  What makes beautiful cuts of wood are quite often rippled pieces or trunks or trees to create ‘flamed’ or ‘ribboned’ effects.  No one in their right mind would think about building out of that.  The other problem is also warpage.  Solid wood will warp whereas veneered wood glued cross grain can be made straight.  And above all that, let’s say you wanted a piano out of rosewood.  Rosewood is so scarce and expensive, even small pieces of veneers will run into the hundreds – let alone solid pieces.  Well at this point, i usually hear the re-buttal “but my piano is older than that…. long before veneers were used”.  Again, not to pick a fight, but the oldest piano i’ve had in my shop was 1855 – brilliant rosewood cabinet on an Broadwood 8 foot grand (30 years newer only than Beethoven’s!)  And guess what? it was VENEERED! In 1855!  So to recap… pianos are built with a solid CORE…they’re made beautiful using lovely cuts of veneer – usually about 1/16th of an inch thick.  Oh and BTW, those 2 pianos i had in that were solid? They were so utterly BORING in the cuts of wood, you would have passed by them without batting an eye. 

OK one more story from the french polisher… i love this one.  This lady comes into his antique shop… would like her Louis XV chairs refinished.  She says in a whisper “they’re authentic”…. hoping to get at least a raised eyebrow from him.  He so much as threw her out of the shop stating “no they’re not.  You mean to tell me that you have chairs dating back from the 1700’s – each one worth into the hundreds of thousands? possibly museum worthy? Well if you do, you sure don’t want to be refinishing them now do you? Good day, Madam”… oh he was feisty, i must say…lol.  Anyway… onward to the next part of piano refinishing…

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Rotational Inertia…Kinetic Energy

Posted by glenbarkman on October 18, 2009

rkeI’m the first to admit, i’m not into physics – not to say i don’t enjoy it, but i’m untrained in the area of advanced physics.  What i AM interested in though is the practical application of physics – more specifically the touch of the piano.  A few years back i had a Yamaha C5 in my shop.  Beautiful instrument.  It was apparent however that the touch was simply ALL WRONG.  It had been monkeyed with.  So i applied usual regulation specs and it turned out nicely.  However, there was one niggly thing sitting in the back of my head that just wouldn’t go away… and that is that the instrument felt somehow sluggish.  At the same time i had been looking over some ideas on key weighting which is the concept of adding/removing lead weights into the keys to achieve a more balanced keyboard.  For those who are unaware, key weighting is a common practice in MOST pianos.  The key weighting is part of the balancing of the equation to achieve a certain initial weight at the outset of the key.  (And if you don’t believe me, next time you’re near a grand, press down a key and look at the neighbouring keysticks – you may just catch a glimpse of a circular led weight inserted into the key. )  Anyhow, for kicks i thought that i would key weight this C5.  Sure enough the touch improved dramatically.  End of story? Nope… i was still bugged by that same sluggish feel.  So i rechecked my work and i must say that at soft playing, the piano was EXCEPTIONAL.  It wasn’t until you hit the fast notes that i noticed the problem.  Well… the piano ended up selling but that problem lingered in the back of my head. 

Fast forward 3 years.  I have a client who is an engineer.  We were speaking about physics, touch of the piano… and he just so happened to mention Kinetic Energy.  I had a small epiphany… i thought to myself… IT DOESN’T REALLY MATTER HOW MUCH KEY WEIGHTING HAPPENS BECAUSE THAT ONLY REPRESENTS THE HAMMER AT REST POSITION.  AHA! No wonder that piano felt great at soft volumes – there was little inertia and the key weighting was ‘closer’ to the ‘at rest’ weight.  So… the ONLY way then to affect touch is to change the mass.  Ok gears turning here… if i could measure the velocity of the hammer in travel (ie radar, infrared beam etc) and the weight of the hammer i can measure… then i would be able to calculate the Kinetic Energy.  What that means then is that one could ‘reverse’ model the ‘feel’ of great pianos.  The rotational radius is similar as pianos have become more standardized.  The combination then of calculated KE and key weighting would make for an undeniable touch don’t you think?  So if KE=1/2MV2… we know mass… if only i could determine velocity… hmmm… thinking thinking… could i borrow my cop friend’s radar gear? lol.

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After 9 – Piano Book

Posted by glenbarkman on October 15, 2009

after9I’ve been teaching for about 25 years.  Funny… my very first 2 piano students who were ages 4 and 7 just contacted me via facebook.  I was just a teenager then working on my performance diploma.  Over the years i’ve had opportunity to teach many adult students.  One thing i know for sure about adults is that they have different demands on them than kids.  Having raised my own 3 children i know that it’s not as easy to get at the piano as as adult as it was growing up.  Presently i taxi teenagers around to various lessons – piano, bass, drum, guitar, voice and dance!  Add to that mix making meals and household cleanup, and you quickly realise that most adults don’t even BEGIN making sound at the piano until AFTER 9PM.  And thus, this book was entitled.  After 9 is a collection of more easy going, easy listening songs.  They’re not aimed at making life complicated but rather simplified and calm.  This is a quiet sit-down at the piano.  Enjoy.

Repertoire:

  1. Daybreak
  2. Dream
  3. Reflection
  4. Rose
  5. Summer Days
  6. Valentine Waltz
  7. Lost Heart
  8. The Old Carousel
  9. We All Need
  10. Sometimes I Do
  11. Days End

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The Solution to The Big Mess Part 3

Posted by glenbarkman on October 14, 2009

Bosendorfer art The following is a very biased opinion of what the solutions are for the present piano market based on 3 needs.  And what exactly are those needs?  Simple.  Some people look for quality name brands, some people look for vintage, still others look for new pianos.  Finding used quality pianos is relatively easy.  Look no further than the top of the line Yamaha or Kawai pianos.  Most technicians and teachers would agree that there is a very high level of high quality manufacturing among these two companies.  They are the largest global high level piano companies in the world.  Some could argue that there are higher quality ones… indeed there are – but consistent volume of great sounding/playing instruments – these companies are some of the best.  In a 25 year average, Yamaha put out about 100,000 pianos per year (according to the Pierce Piano Atlas).  Kawai -roughly half that many.  The ever-so-popular Steinway – same averaged years manufactured 2,500.  I must say, there is strength in numbers.  If one company has built into the MILLIONS of pianos… that’s M as in MILLION – think about that.  Their design, servicability, acceptance around the world must be significant.  One small problem… over time their prices are what i deem almost unaffordable now.  In CDN$, a new professional U3 lists at approx. $14,500.  Used versions of these are GREAT investments.  You can usually find them hovering around the $5000 mark.  And if you look around, you’ll find one with plenty of tread still left on the tire.

The second purchase is looking for old and vintage.  Just don’t be snookered… those old pianos are only worth between $300 and $1600 PERIOD!  If you’re paying more than that… you’re paying too much.  If the asking is more – there needs to be a reason – new hammers, new dampers, new bass strings… SOMETHING!  See the previous post on my position pertaining to that.

Ok here’s the biggie… new pianos.  The biggest part of the biggest mess.  Why? Companies have been bought and sold for their name brands.  Old traditional piano companies are now simply a name brand for something cheap (usually).  So who do you trust? What makes a good piano?  Well… here are some words of advice: back to consistency – i’ve owned Chinese pianos, Korean, Japanese, German, North American, Russian, Indonesian, British, Scandinavian – and here’s the world scheme of things… ok i’m gonna do something most would consider faux pas – and that is to compare the piano market to the car world.  At the top… leader of the engineering team… i gotta say is still our German friends.  They have that je ne sais quoi that is like rich dark chocolate… and i also have to say -comes at a price… a VERY expensive price… those are the BMW and Mercedes or pianos.  The Toyota Honda are the Yamaha Kawai.  Brilliant design – less cost.  Next we have domestic and Korean in cars… Young Chang and Samick build solid, decent instruments.  My preference is leaning towards Indonesian construction.  The lower end pianos are ALL Chinese built.  When you consider Indonesian vs. Chinese… every step in manufacturing is cleaner, nicer, more polished in the Indonesian pianos.  If you’re looking simply for price?  Buy something black and shiny – you’ll find it. 

If it were my nickel?  I get enjoyment out of each category.  I love the vintage – i find that the quality in manufacturing back then (1900-1940) was second to none.  BUT they NEED restoration.  The used Japanese – also a FABULOUS option.  If you’re looking for new… then my vote is for Indonesian.  Beautifully finished, nicely crafted… designed by one of the bigger Asian companies (Samick and Young Chang).  But don’t take my word for it… go out and try lots of pianos… see which way you lean.

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Countries of the World – Piano Book

Posted by glenbarkman on October 13, 2009

Countries of the World Piano Book

Countries of the World Piano Book

Truth be told, i’m a jack of all trades master of none.  Over the years i’ve had the opportunity to play in so many different styles and genres – everything from country to hip hop to rock to jazz.  If i were to say that i have a speciality, it’s analysis.  One of my few awards in my life was for analysing scores of music and finding patterns  (Believe it or not, there are awards for such things…lol)  and although my formal training is in classical music, the methods of analysis are the same regardless of style.  So in my younger years, i used to do radio and television advertising – y’know the jingles – the tunes of the ads.  In this one agency they would say “we need it to sound like…” and they’d give you some name of some piece of music.  Well off i’d go – assignment in my hand and analyse the piece of music – all the while picking up on the components that make a certain ‘sound’.  Over the years, i have become well versed in many styles.  So without further adieu, this book is a compilation of fun songs written in various styles from around the world.  They’re stereotypical.  So the french song sounds like a musette in Paris.  The cuban song – with traditional cuban rhythm.  The american country tune – like a southern ballad.  This book is designed as a ‘sampler’ of ways of trying out different styles without having to know anything of the culture.  It’s all there in print.  Enjoy!

Repertoire:

  1. South African Sun
  2. Antigua!
  3. Cuba
  4. Irish Luck
  5. Mexican Moon
  6. Turkish Coffee
  7. Spanish Guitar
  8. American Serenade
  9. French Musette
  10. Jamaica, Man!
  11. Tango Argentine
  12. Ukraine
  13. Scottish Pub

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What's in a Name… the Big Mess Part 2

Posted by glenbarkman on October 10, 2009

stringsIn the blog entitled As Good As Old  I talked about the fact that restoring old pianos is becoming cost prohibitive unless you find the right instrument.  The whole piano market seems to be in a bit of a mess right now because the old pianos are really too old (without restoration) to be viable instruments and the other problem is that ‘affordable’ pianos quite often are less than desirable.  Five years ago, i never used to talk about country of origin and subsequent name brands.  Presently, this is one of the first things i address.  Why? Because many companies who manufacture are trading in their wares on the name/reputation of another piano company.  In the world today there are approximately 105 piano manufacturers alone in China.  Each of those manufacturers represent upwards of 5 names each… we’re talking mayhem!  Since Chinese names in North America quite often don’t sell well, they’re conveniently slapped a traditional name on the front of the piano.  In essence they’re hoping someone will pick up on the reputation and buy it.  Here in Canada for example, Heintzman was considered the piano supreme.  They folded the company in 1979.  It was then resold about 4 times.  Now, the name exists as a brand of Chinese pianos.  Now before you get your knickers in a knot and think i’m prejudiced, let me just state that i’ve seen substandard workmanship in pianos from around the world.  But what i can tell you is that consistency is the key.  I’ve consistently seen quality from Japan and Germany.  I’ve seen shoddy workmanship consistently from China.  I’ve seen decent work out of Korea and Indonesia.  One thing that continues to be a huge problem in pianos with substandard workmanship is that the quality of parts is poor and the wood used has not been properly kiln dried.  This poses many problems in the not too distant future.  Now before i go on too much more of a rant, i must say that the piano market is in turmoil because ‘affordable’ pianos – which are the ones most consumers are apt to buy are the ones made with substandard parts and workmanship.  Like everything else in the world, apply more technology and do it for less money.  So the good news is that prices are coming down… bad news – the pianos are hardly what i would call ‘artistic’.  So what’s the answer?  Check out the Big Mess Part 3

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What’s in a Name… the Big Mess Part 2

Posted by glenbarkman on October 10, 2009

stringsIn the blog entitled As Good As Old  I talked about the fact that restoring old pianos is becoming cost prohibitive unless you find the right instrument.  The whole piano market seems to be in a bit of a mess right now because the old pianos are really too old (without restoration) to be viable instruments and the other problem is that ‘affordable’ pianos quite often are less than desirable.  Five years ago, i never used to talk about country of origin and subsequent name brands.  Presently, this is one of the first things i address.  Why? Because many companies who manufacture are trading in their wares on the name/reputation of another piano company.  In the world today there are approximately 105 piano manufacturers alone in China.  Each of those manufacturers represent upwards of 5 names each… we’re talking mayhem!  Since Chinese names in North America quite often don’t sell well, they’re conveniently slapped a traditional name on the front of the piano.  In essence they’re hoping someone will pick up on the reputation and buy it.  Here in Canada for example, Heintzman was considered the piano supreme.  They folded the company in 1979.  It was then resold about 4 times.  Now, the name exists as a brand of Chinese pianos.  Now before you get your knickers in a knot and think i’m prejudiced, let me just state that i’ve seen substandard workmanship in pianos from around the world.  But what i can tell you is that consistency is the key.  I’ve consistently seen quality from Japan and Germany.  I’ve seen shoddy workmanship consistently from China.  I’ve seen decent work out of Korea and Indonesia.  One thing that continues to be a huge problem in pianos with substandard workmanship is that the quality of parts is poor and the wood used has not been properly kiln dried.  This poses many problems in the not too distant future.  Now before i go on too much more of a rant, i must say that the piano market is in turmoil because ‘affordable’ pianos – which are the ones most consumers are apt to buy are the ones made with substandard parts and workmanship.  Like everything else in the world, apply more technology and do it for less money.  So the good news is that prices are coming down… bad news – the pianos are hardly what i would call ‘artistic’.  So what’s the answer?  Check out the Big Mess Part 3

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Secret Agent – Piano Book

Posted by glenbarkman on October 10, 2009

 

Secret Agent Piano Book

Secret Agent Piano Book

 

I have two boys that play the piano.  Only problem is… piano music for boys is not exactly exciting.  When you’ve done about 3 year’s worth of music, what’s left to do but (insert yawn here) is 19th century Minuets; boring little doo-dad songs that sound unimpressive, uninspiring and are completely irrelevant to boy’s minds… how do i know this? I’m a graduate of 19th century minuets… yep – true story.  Despite the fact that i finished 2 degrees in classical music, i still find the early years in piano a complete GRIND.  So.. for the fun of it, i started writing music for my boys – things they would like to hear – things they would not only find challenging but interesting.  This book is all about spies… morse code, getaway car, super powers, headquarters – very James Bond, very stealth, very hip ‘n groovy… ok ok ok… i know my kids have told me not to use the word groovy…but, if the shoe fits…. well, you know what they say.  The songs will soon be made available online for purchase.

Repertoire:

  1. Espionage
  2. Chase
  3. Getaway Car
  4. Mission Accomplished
  5. Super Power
  6. Spies
  7. Covert Action
  8. Close Call
  9. Morse Code
  10. Headquarters

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As Good as Old??? the Big Mess Part 1

Posted by glenbarkman on October 9, 2009

Vintage Steinway

Vintage Steinway

The piano market seems scattered… people are more confused than ever.  The pricing seems all over the map.  Name brands are being traded and ‘re-invented’ and in general the whole scene is ONE BIG MESS!  Why is it more of a mess now than 20 years ago? Why, i’m glad you asked that question.  2 things have changed: one is that the ‘old pianos’ from 1900-1930 are now even older.  A piano built in 1925 – 60 years later takes us to 1985.  A 60 year old piano could still be a viable instrument.  But now, fast forward to 2009 (almost 2010) – that same instrument is 85 years old.  When you meet an older person who is 60 or one who is 85 – they’re quite different aren’t they?  What happens if the piano was built in 1905? That instrument is now 105 years old!  Without question it needs restoration.  Is it worth it? Well… the answer is a definitive MAYBE!  Some pianos at the point of manufacturing were cheaply made.  Some were the Rolls Royce of pianos.  When restoring, you need to have a great candidate for restoration before starting.  What that means is – a good soundboard and bridges, a good cabinet (one that has been taken care of) and also a decent name…. now what’s in a name? Pianos, like every other product have some provinence.  If you have an old Steinway or Bosendorfer, those reputations are valuable because they manufactured the VERY BEST instruments in the world.  The thing that every consumer NEEDS to be aware of is cost.  Sure you can restore an old piano…but at what cost?  Take an old upright piano for example… the piano might be able to be purchased for $500.  The parts, however:

  • hammers $1200
  • bass strings $1000
  • dampers $500
  • bridle straps $250
  • key bushings $450
  • refinishing $2000

Tally that up and including the instrument, you’ve spent nearly $6000!  So why would anyone want to do that?  Well… simply put – 2 reasons: one is that you quite often can’t buy the quality or size of instrument for even $6000 at new.  A taller piano made by Yamaha in CDN$ lists at $14,500.    Second reason, is that you have a unique vintage instrument.  They sound different, they look different and overall, they’re just beautiful not only to look at and listen to, but they’re quite often artistic in the approach to design of the cabinet.

The second thing wrong in the marketplace today and why it’s one BIG MESS… i’ll leave you hanging… that’s for another day…

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