Back in 1988, after having searched nearly ten years, I bought what I thought was the seven-foot piano of my dreams-- a Mason and Hamlin BB grand with an absolutely gorgeous tone from top to bottom. The action was heavy but I thought I liked the heaviness and it would build up my fingers.
Gradually my dream turned into a nightmare as I developed pain in my right arm. At first it didn't occur to me that "my baby" might be the reason but after about five years, in constant pain, and seeking massages, I'd stopped practicing. A couple pianist friends said my piano action was very heavy and suggested I look into getting it lightened.
So I asked a good technician and acquaintance in the Midwest what could be done. He said he could re-weight it for me, warning that it wasn't the perfect solution but it might do the trick for a minimum expense. I took the action to him and he added a lot of lead in the keys, thus lowering the touchweight.
Ah, this felt better, I thought. But now with all that lead I had even more mass to push and the arm problems persisted. I talked to my friend again explaining I still wasn't satisfied. He said I would then have to start from scratch and have a whole new action built. I spoke to other technicians and this was the general consensus. As it's generally believed that the "Renner" company makes the best piano action parts I also consulted "Renner America" and the "Renner" headquarters in Germany (since I speak German) to obtain their best advice.
After much talk and consideration I narrowed my choices down to three highly regarded technicians to rebuild my action" one in the SouthWest with a $10,000 quote, and two in the Northeast who quoted $7,000 and $4,000. This was a very wide range of prices and I wanted the job done right. I chose the technician with the $4,000 quote not just because he was the cheapest but because I got the best feeling talking to him over the phone and also he had the most experience with Mason and Hamlin pianos.
The piano was shipped off and I waited anxiously for 4 months to get it back. When it finally arrived I almost broke down and cried. Although it felt more exact than before because of the new action, it was still too heavy, keys were blocking, and the sound was much worse with all the new hammers. I complained immediately and eventually (after my local tuner worked on it at length), he sent a technician down who slaved over it for two whole days, regulating, adding more lead and voicing hammers.
It was improved, but again I was pushing all this lead and I wondered if it was maybe even heavier than before. A friend who played it actually was groaning at the excessive weight during fast passages.
Again, I complained to my rebuilder but didn't know what else he could do since his best man failed to satisfy me. He told me to find another technician of my choosing who could regulate it to my liking.
Oh, great, after having spent over $4,000, I was back to square one! But I was not ready to concede defeat. This piano is a great instrument and there's got to be somebody out there who knows how to fix it, I thought.
Another technician from the Midwest came to look at it and gave me ideas. a technician from Virginia, after examining it, told me of a fellow in north Carolina specializing in action work who he thought could set mine right. His name was John Foy. I called John and he convinced me he could do it. He works closely with David Stanwood, of Martha's Vineyard, MA, who invented a system for regulating keyboard actions, which he calls "Stanwood Touch Designs".
I had actually met David a couple years earlier through my brother, who lives on Cape Cod, and who had met him at a social gathering. I found Stanwood's work interesting and his piano actions good to play on but when I mentioned his name to other technicians, he was dismissed as a "fringe" technician who had his own system which only he understood. This is not true, as John explained there are about ten technicians who have learned David's system.
As I understand it, there are three factors which determine the touchweight of a keyboard:
1) the weight of the key, which can be altered either by changing the leverage or by changing the amount of lead in it.
2) the weight of the hammer, and
3) the friction in the combined action parts.
Every technician understands these parameters but only David Stanwood seems to have developed a comprehensive computer program which shows how to balance them in perfect harmony. Until now every technician has worked by empirical methods, matching up the various action parts which should work together and then making the final adjustments by adding more lead to the keys.
In the case of my keyboard, it had high hammer weight, high friction and a low key leverage, which meant every available spot at the key end was filled with lead to compensate for all the weight on the other side of the see-saw. Pushing all this lead with your fingers is like pushing a large gong for a bell-- no matter how well balanced, it takes a lot of effort to get it moving.
When John rebuilt my keyboard using Stanwood's computer program he took out about two-thirds of the lead, setting it at a low level. The leverage was changed by moving the capstan screws so there would be more leverage at the key end and no need for more lead. He set the hammer weight to the exact prescribed weight by the computer program to within .1 gram by taking wood off the ends. A couple hammers in the bass were too light so lead was added to them. Also, to further help with the weight and provide further adjustment at the finish, wippen springs were added, as in some European actions. The friction in the action was reduced by using a higher quality felt. (For pianos where the friction is too low or uneven, Stanwood has also developed a way to set the desired friction on each key.)
Finally, my three year saga of keyboard repair is over. If only I had used John Foy and the "Stanwood Touch Design" in the first year I owned the piano, what a lot of grief and expense could have been spared! When John was finally finished with all the work he was so impressed that he now wants to buy a Mason and Hamlin BB for himself. It no longer hurts to play and I certainly owe John and David a debt of gratitude because even though the keys look like Swiss cheese from the side, for all the holes once holding lead, the instrument now feels as it sounds-- like a dream.
- Kevin von der Heydt,