NAMM 2009 - The Piano Made New
Piano Technicians Journal - April 2009
By Ed Sutton
As I drove to the airport, the morning news reported that due to reduced demand in auto and aircraft production, Alcoa Aluminum was laying off thirteen thousand workers. It struck me how much my purpose in visiting the NAMM show had changed since last year. Our friendly host Lisa Weller had already e-mailed that we should expect a smaller show. PTG representatives Barabara Cassaday and Shawn Bruce had cut back their schedules bt one day. Worg was out that at least one major piano manufacturer was making big cuts in piano displays and staffing, and a smaller one would not be present this year. My thoughts had moved away from "What's New?" and were beginning to form new questions. How bad will it be? Is the industry collapsing? What does it mean to our tiny corner of the music world? Would a collapse of the piano industry necessarily be bad for piano technicians? Will the piano perhaps come back in a different form as the world economy rearranges itself? Is it possible that whatever is happening contains mre and interedting opportunities for technicians and rebuilders?
The role of piano technicians in our world is complex and not always easy to quantify. Are we part of the music industry? Well, yes, if your definition of "music industry" is broad enough. But how many of us work for piano dealers, or even want to? The instruments in homes that constitute most of our service base are in many ways "off the map" for what is generally called the music industry. Most of us are self-employed by choice, and intend to stay self-employed. The freedom of our situations allows us to deliver unique services to unique customers. Industry looks for consumers, service looks for customers. A slowdown in the pace of consumption might not produce a parallel slowdown in the need for our services. Might it perhaps produce an increase in the demand?
The NAMM show is exciting, and self-important, but may not be a very good guage of the role of music in the country. NAMM (or at least its most assertive face) is about what is new, and about what "must" be purchased now in order to follow the latest fashion. If music is fashion, if music is industry, the NAMM news might be bad news.
But is that all there is? As I sat in the airport I realized the Brahms intermezzo I heard was being played on a digitally driven grand piano. The unisons were clean. Whoever tuned it did a great job. It was playing music, not music industry. Are people going to give up music because of a bad economy? Where exactly is this "non-industry" music to be found? In my home, for example, there are currently three pianos. They are all virtually lost to the music industry, but not to the piano service industry. Over the years I've replaced various hammers, action parts, strings and tuning pins, contributing at least a few thousand dollars to suppliers. The NAMM show may indicate something about conditions in the retail music industry. It doesn't necessarily give clear indications of the overall conditions of music in the USA or in the world.
By now I was beginning to wonder what surprises I might find in the new, sownsized NAMM. Maybe hidden in NAMM was a different kind of news about the music and instruments I love. Maybe if NAMM were smaller, it would be less noisy, and even less new. After all, for someone as retrocultural as a piano technician, old news might be good news! I looked forward to a chance to look backward!
Having steeled myself with the expectation of bad news, I checked into NAMM a day early. I felt at home seeing the pianos hauled in, watching company presidents and designers at work in shirt sleeves and T-shirts, hearing the tuners at work (including a surprising number of fast aural tuners)... to a Piano Technicians Journal reporter on the peowl, these were fertile hunting grounds.
There are piano companies that always keep their "fronts" intact. Even as they unload pianos, set up displays, tune final unisons and polish cases, one feels a certain pushing, a sense of being held at a calculated distance where the view can be controlled. With other companies, the fascination with and love of pianos seems to burst through the barriers of business protocols and language. When real piano people get together, not talking about pianos is not an option. Looking at the show with the eyes, ears and heart of a piano guy, I found bad news hard to find, and I found lots of good news.
Put simply, the number of good pianos being made is probably greater than ever. Asian and Central European manufacturers are making wonderful, successful investments in improving their products, and are finding creative and innovative ways to bring production methods into the twenty-first century. The better low end and mid-level instruments of today are vastly superior to the instruments of the now-bankrupt American makers of the end of the twentieth century. It is not only that the product is made better; there is a change in the deep concepts of what a piano should be. These are not piano-shaped objects, they are real musical instruments. Action and scale parameters, touchweight and acoustic response are designed in from the start. These instruments are fun to play! They sound good and respond to expressive touch. I can't help but wonder how many of the failed piano students of the last half-century were simply disgusted by the sound and touch of the miserable spinet, console and petit grand pianos they were expected to play. Perhaps it is a dream, but I believe that children who begin to play on these new instruments will have a far better chance of growing up with the love and skill of piano playing. I also wonder what we, as piano technicians, may be able to do to assist these instruments in finding their places in active musical homes.
Large manufacturers are exploring new ways of production that exploit the best uses of robotic and hand production. The Samick Corporation has now opened a facility in Gallatin Tennessee to complete the new Knabe grand pianos. The case and bellywork will be done in Asia in Samick's new factory, which is heavily invested with computer-driven equipment. This facility can produce soundboards and bridges, for example, with accuracies far superior to hand shaped and notched bridges. In Tennessee, production then focuses on skilled handcraft as keyframes are fitted to cases, actions are assembled and aligned, and dampers, underlever systems and trapwork are installed. This work is done to extremely high standards. Tuning and voicing are brought to a level that is usually only done in the most expensive European pianos. Roger Jolly has been given a free hand to make these pianos according to his ideas.
Both design and process has been tweaked in painstaking detail, and the result is a smooth, warm, responsive instrument with an extremely fast and controllable touch. Besides having a smoothly progressing downweight from 52 to 48 grams, the pianos have upweights of 30 grams or more. Wurzen felt punchings are used under the keyfronts, and also for wippen cushions and regulating punchings, giving very precise aftertouch and reduced action noise. Removing the traditional graphite from the bridge tops reduces the amount of humidity absorbed by the bridge cap. Quality labor was part of the design plan of these pianos from the very beginning, and is ceucial in producing a piano with the intended sound and performance characteristics. Gallatin will be producing a full line of Knabe grand pianos, from 5'3" tp 9', but all instruments will receive the full attention to hand finishing needed to produce pianos with the tone and playing characteristics which will be the dominant feature of the Knabe. In addition, the new production facility will offer unique and valuable work and training opportunities for new technicians.