by Phil Novak(Globe & Mail Newspaper, April 6, 1996)
A new movement -- Frustrated by an instrument that has evolved little
in almost three centuries, some keyboard aficionados hope to make the
pianist's job easier and, at the same time, less hazardous.
Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON -- When that musical man of the 18th century,
Johann Sebastian Bach, tried the first piano his countryman Gottfried
Silbermann had constructed, he praised the piano but condemned the
instrument as too hard to play. Stung by the criticism, Silbermann returned to
the drawing board, determined to win Bach's approval. He succeeded and
Bach began to write for the piano, thus ensuring its legitimacy in the classical
Fast forward 250 years to Boston Symphony Hall, where concert pianists
were recently not just denouncing the Baldwin grand piano as being too hard
to play, but actually cursing it - with four letter words, according to the Hall's
piano technician, Tony McKenna. Thankfully David Stanwood, another
Massachusetts piano technician, was brought in and, using a revolutionary
adjustment system of his own devising, put an end to the stream of
expletives. Stanwood, who lives on Martha's Vineyard, has refined piano
action, the physical process responsible for producing sound - and removed
discrepancies in exertion needed to strike each note.
Stanwood isn't the only one boasting improvements to the piano. In
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., Shaw Festival music director Christopher
Donison has overcome the problem of his smaller than average hands by
developing a smaller keyboard. With the help of his business partner,
Pennsylvania textile manufacturer David Steinbuhler, Donison is now able to
give pianists "larger hands" without surgery or genetic engineering.
Stanwood and Donison are two piano aficionados who don't believe the
predominant thinking about the instrument - namely, that it has evolved to
the point of perfection, so if it ain't broke, don't try to fix it. While their
respective innovations don't change the look or design of pianos, they make
the pianist's work easier while reducing occupational hazards such as
tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome.
Patents are pending on the three men's innovations, and Steinway &
has expressed interest. As well the D.S. keyboard has the potential to
revolutionize nearly three centuries of piano design and construction.
The piano wasn't so much an invention as it was an outgrowth of the
harpsichord, with the 17th century Italian harpsichord maker Bartolomeo
Cristofori acting as catalyst. He is generally credited as creating the first
piano, circa 1698. Working in Florence at the time, Cristofori was frustrated
that no matter how percussively he played the harpsichord, the strings were
plucked sweetly, neither pianissimo (soft) or fortissimo (loud) enough.
Inspired by a behemoth dulcimer, he replaced the picks with hammers and
developed a key mechanism to control their volume.
The instrument that emerged, the pianoforte, became the model from which
all future pianos were based. The period between the late 18th and 19th
centuries produced a flurry of piano-related inventions and improvements.
European manufacturers such as Henry Steinweg (who, after moving to the
United States in 1819, changed his name to Steinway), Ludwig
Bosendorfer, Camille Pleyel (whose pianos were played by Frederic
Chopin), Carl Bechstein and Theodore Heinzmann (the father of the now
nonexistent Canadian piano industry) all guided the development of the
instrument. But manufacturing techniques and materials aside, very little has
changed in piano technology in the last century.
No part of the piano has given the inventor more food for thought than
action. When a key is struck, it sets off a remarkably complex Rube
Goldberg kind of chain reaction inside the instrument involving capstans,
balance rails and levers, culminating in a felt-covered hammer hitting the
desired string. Friction, leverage and key and hammer mass are among at
least 35 variables that can affect piano action.
The action in grand pianos today is based on the Erard-Hertz grand action
develped by a Frenchman, Sebastion Erard, in 1821, and simplified by the
Vienna-born Parisian, Henry Hertz, in 1851. And while European pianos
built then seemingly had the ideal action craved by both compsers and
performers, modern piano manufacturers, despite producing expensive,
masterfully-crafted instruments, have often been unable to translate the
concept of perfect action into reality. Stanwood has seen the exertion
needed to strike different keys on the same piano vary as much as 30 per
cent, a discrepancy noticeable by, and irritating to, piano virtuosos.
"It would be like asking a waiter to carry a tray of glasses filled with
up and down a staircase where no one stair is the same height, and
expecting him not to spill a drop," explained Stanwood.
He began to work on the problem in 1988, armed with a computer obtained
in a trade for an upright piano. Using a nine-foot Steinway grand, Stanwood
took apart the keys and used his computer to boil down the differences in
weight and playing exertion required on each key into an algebraic formula.
The formula, which contains about 40 measurements that he devised,
including "strikeweight" and "key ratio," enables him to transform pianos
"which once played like a truck into ones that play like a Mercedes."
Using his new formula, Stanwood rebalanced a piano at the Marlboro
Music Festival in Vermont and invited the late great concert pianist Rudolph
Serkin to play it. "Really, I was at the point where I just could have dropped
it all, but Serkin said I was on the right path and encouraged me to go on,"
Rather than the traditional method of regulating action, which involved
placing lead weights under piano key surfaces, Stanwood weights the
components of each piano key. The data is then entered into his computer.
Stanwood modifies the keys accordingly by, variously, sanding the wooden
hammer shanks, adding or subtacting weights, changing leverage and
He's now training and licencing technicians in his method, and so far the
more than 200 pianos featuring the Stanwood action have drawn
superlatives from those who use them. "David is an inventor and technician
of brilliance and imagination," says Harvard professor Robert Levin, who is
also one of the world's leading Mozart scholars. Stanwood first met Levin,
who has recorded for Sony's classical music label, while rejigging the action
in an 1870 Steinway model D concert grand located in the Pusey Room at
Harvard. "What David ended up doing to the piano was to produce a
significant and quite remarkable evenness in the feel of the instrument from
top to bottom, particularly noticeable in the bass."
In fact, many master players who previously suffered from carpal tunnel
syndrome and tendonitis told Stanwood their afflictions disappeared once he
had rebalanced their pianos. "By eliminating heavy piano actions, David has
eliminated the accumulation of tension in the arms that leads to these
injuries," says Barbara Lister-Sink, a concert pianist and artist-in-residence
at Salem College in Winston-Salem, N.C.
And thanks to Canada's Christopher Donison, there could be a whole
generation of piano players who won't have to stretch their hands quite as
much. His keyboard is 41 inches in length rather than the normal 48 inches;
it allows smaller hands to traverse "stretchy" passages.
Indeed, since the DS is almost 7/8s the size of a conventional keyboard,
what would be a seven note stretch normally is an octave on the smaller
version. Donison notes that the difference in size is roughly the same as the
difference in hand size between women and men. "And because a pianist
won't have to stretch as far on the smaller keyboard, hand dexterity is
improved and the risk of injury is reduced."
A composer, musician and professor at Brock University in St. Catharines,
Donison says his new keyboard is better suited to the average size hand.
According to Keith Allison, the Victoria-based piano retailer and technician
who's selling the DS keyboard, "Most of the world has been left at a
disadvantage with the conventional-sized keyboard, which was designed
with the input of 19th century Caucasian male composers. This will at least
provide a choice of two standards and even the playing field."
Donison began to think about revamping the keyboard 20 years ago, while
studying music at the University of Victoria. He had just purchased a 1927
Steinway model D concert grand piano with a sterling history. It had been
the house piano for Victoria's Royal Theatre and been played by such
illustrious visiting performers as George Gershwin and Sergei Rachmaninoff.
Donison approached Allison and asked him if he could build a smaller
keyboard. He did, and it was retrofitted into the Steinway.
But it wasn't until 1992, when Donison's partner to be, David Steinbuhler,
and his daughter were visiting Niagara-on-the-Lake and were booked into a
room at Donison's bed and breakfast that Donison's thoughts of improving
on the design were rekindled. "Christopher started talking about the idea to
me and I thought, 'Hey, this is a big idea.'"
After further discussion, Steinbuhler, a computer sciences graduate returned
to his home in Titusville, Penn., and began to develop a program that would
allow a computer-driven router to cut smaller piano keys to the proper
The keys of the DS board are made of sugar maple, to give them more
tensile strength. (White ivory was once the material of choice in premium
pianos, keyboard surfaces these days are usually made of plastic or bone,
while the keys are constructed from sugar pine or spruce.) Most important,
says Donison, the keyboard can be retrofitted into existing pianos by a
He and Steinbuhler are now building up a database of piano measurements
for all makes and ages, to allow them to retrofit any model with their new
keyboard. Once orders of sufficient volume start coming in, the keyboard
will be manufactured at Steinbuhler's Titusville factory. In the meantime,
they've already sold their first unit to Linda Kereluk, a Victoria
businesswoman. "I'm going to go out and buy the third Rachmaninoff piano
concerto and Chopin etudes, all the pieces I had trouble playing before,"
said Kereluk, a former university classmate of Donison's.
For all their benefits, neither the Stanwood action not the DS keyboard
come cheap. Depending on the piano, Stanwood's piano action system
costs between $1,200 and $4,100; Donison's retrofitted keyboard costs
from $900 to $5,000. The modifications are certainly beyond the reach of
the average doting piano parent and pint-sized prodigy. And unless
manufacturers begin to incorporate the technologies into new pianos, under
licence, it will likely stay that way.
Much depends on how accurate the pronounciation of the late Alfred Dolge,
one of the most remarkable figures in the history of the piano, prove to be.
Dolge was an innovative German-American piano manufacturer and parts
supplier known for the excellence of his instruments and his good relations
with his work force. In this 1911 classic, Pianos and Their Makers, Dolge
speculated on the problems faced by piano craftsmen in a money driven
"Their very occupation of designing pianos, inventing improvements,
dreaming of tone quality etc., totally unfitted them for the cold, exact
calculation of the economic factory organizer and the liberal distributor of the
finished product, not to mention the reasoning of the financier, who never
has an eye for anything else but cold figures and algebraic reductions."
Whether or not the factory owners and financiers of Dolge's vision have
triumphed, piano-making doesn't seem to be the craft it once was; the
instrument has become just another commodity. And the long-established
manufacturers may be reluctant to admit that outsiders have solved problems
they didn't even know existed.
As well, they may feel that change will rob their instruments of their
cherished individuality, their characteristic tone and Klangfarbe (the
German term for tone colour). Ironically, it may be their quest to enhance
the bottom line, rather than to improve the instrument, that will prod
manufacturers to take action.
Stanwood says that by adopting his methods, piano makers could cut in half
the time it takes to do even the most conventional balancing. And companies
such as Steinway could develop a new income stream by either selling
pianos with smaller keyboards or offering retrofits to their existing models.
The laws of evolution may have finally caught up with them, and it's time for
the piano to play a whole new tune.