The Piano

{copyright 2014 Arthur K Davenport}

There is much written about the history of the piano, and I will leave it to the reader to find what they want on the subject.  So, what can I add?  Well first, I should say that I play the piano, but not professionally.  I am fair at it, but not great.  I once memorized twenty pages of Gershwin’s, “Rhapsody in Blue”.  That gives you sort of an idea.

I took lessons for eleven years starting at age six.  I took my second year off and finished the remaining ten years starting at age 8 or so.  Who knew it would take that much boring practice.  Why did I continue to do it?  Simple, I love the piano.

The first nine years of lessons were wasted with teachers who were nice enough, but not inspiring enough.  And I didn’t practice enough.  I never had anything to learn that I liked.  It was probably typical of many music student’s lives, except that I didn’t give up.  And then I met a guy across the street, Harry O’Mera, who was a jazz pianist by trade.  I think most of what his quartet played were weddings and night clubs.  He kept miserable hours, and was a chain smoker.  However, he was generally a nice guy with a good sense of humor and an ability to play just about anything if you just hummed the tune for him.  I learned more about music in two years with Harry than all the other lessons combined.  Heck, I learned that much from him in the first month.  AND, I started practicing.  I played things I liked. Harry enjoyed it, and I enjoyed it.

So, what type of piano music do I like?  Well, just about everything.  I like classical, jazz, boogie boogie, ragtime.  However, I have my limits in all of those fields.  Who is my favorite classical pianist?  There are many, but I would say my all time favorite is Gary Graffman.  My favorite jazz pianist:  Earl Garner…boogie boogie:  Albert Ammons (his duets with Pete Johnson are classics)…ragtime:  Max Morath.

And what do I really know about the insides of a piano?  OK, I’m no expert, but most engineers don’t let that stop them.

There was an article in Scientific American many years ago about acoustic pianos versus electronic pianos, and electronic ones have come a long way since then, but here are some of the interesting points that were made.  First, acoustic pianos are filled with sounds that you don’t really notice.  You hear them, but you don’t notice them.  So, when they asked a group of strangers to determine which recording was from an acoustic piano and which was not, 85% of them picked the right answer.  The noise comes from numerous sources:  the pedals, the hammers, the movement, strings that are not being struck, parts of the strings that are never struck, any number of things.  It’s what makes the acoustic sound unique.  Remove those sounds, and it doesn’t sound like a piano.  I have never heard an electronic keyboard that can touch it.  And maybe that’s just me.  I wasn’t raised listening to electronic music.

However, it would be wise to conclude that not all acoustic pianos sound the same.  After all, there are numerous mechanical items whose materials vary, even though they are the same on paper.  The designs of different size pianos and different manufacturers are another large influence.  How each piano is tuned and adjusted is also a big influence.  And then there is always humidity, room acoustics, and who knows what else.

Finally, there is the ear of the listener.  If you were to be in the market for a piano, what would sound good to you?  I happen to like “bright” pianos.  Typically, solo concert pianos are bright.  They are great for solo piano work, but not so great for background situations such as accompanying singers or for use in bands.  Some manufacturers are better at bright pianos, and some are better at pianos used for accompanying other instruments and voices.  If you are a soprano, you probably do not want to be accompanied by a piano that sparkles in your voice range.

For all of my piano playing history, I have loved the sound of a Steinway, a concert grand Steinway.  It is certainly a bright piano…just what I like.  Decades ago I visited a dealer that had ninety Steinways on the floor.  I tried several of them and found a seven foot grand piano that I loved.  I should add that not all Steinways of the same size and design sound the same or feel the same.  You have to find the one that fits you best, just what real concert pianists do.

There was only one problem with the piano I liked.  The price was $40,000.  That was far out of my range.  So, I went back to my upright and settled on the idea that I would never own a grand piano.  And then one day, decades later, my wife heard of a concert grand piano, a bright one, that was for sale.  It was old, built in 1906, but within our price range.  It was a Weber concert grand, fully nine feet long, and it was my piano in both sound and feel from the moment I touched it.  We bought it.

So, I am going to tell you about a Weber piano that sparkles and booms, one that doesn’t like competition for the top spot.  Here are two pictures:

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This piano is quite special to me.  I love its sound.  I love the feel of it.  And yet, as they say, there’s more.  What follows is not verified, although it’s probably true.  It’s hard to get the facts pinned down.

It’s well known among professional pianists that concert tours are physically demanding.  And even for a famous man like Ignacy Jan Paderewski, it can take its toll on arms and nerves.  He is known to have had problems with one arm.  And here is where there is no direct support for the story, but he is said to have asked his normal supplier, Steinway, to make four special pianos for him.  These pianos were to have a greater number of strings in each unison, the group of strings that make up each separate note.  The idea was to limit the effort required to get the same sound level.  In a normal piano at the upper end, there are three strings per unison.  In his pianos, he wanted four per unison.  Supposedly, Steinway refused.  However, Weber is said to have agreed.  If you look again at the right hand picture above, you will see that the unisons have four strings each.  It seems that this is one of the four Paderewski’s pianos.  Another one belongs (or did belong) to a dealer in California.  I am told that another one is in a bar in Portland, Oregon.  The location of the fourth is unknown to me.  Paderewski did indeed play some of his concerts on Weber pianos and did write at least one letter of recommendation for Weber, a copy of which I have.  And here is one more proof of his use.  This is a copy of a playbill that I found in the Seattle Public Library.

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If you look closely at the bottom, you will see that a Weber piano was used.  My guess is that the pictures above are of that exact piano.

All I know of the piano’s history after Paderewski is what the salesman told me.  He said that it had belonged to the Mason’s for many years.  After that it was owned by a woman whose name I do not know.  When I got it, I found fourteen pieces of dried chewing gum on the underside and numerous glass stains inside (not visible when fully assembled) under the action assembly.  True, it could use a little work, but it is really in good condition overall and sounds wonderful.  At the time we bought it, I had no idea of its possible history.  It was our first piano tuner who was surprised by the four string unisons, and who knew the owner of the other piano down in California.  It would be nice to know more, but it plays and sounds just as well even if that’s all we ever learn about it.

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2 thoughts on “The Piano”

  1. Hey there Arthur. A great friend of mine actually has another one of those 4 concert grands. The same story, to the letter, was relayed to him when he bought his. I have had the joy of playing it.

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