Category Archives: Music

Musical Desire Meets Taskmaster

I play the piano. And have played for 50 years on again and off again. The last couple of years have been on again, and it has been a joy. But for someone who likes the jazz medium, its too bad that I’m tied to notes on the page. I haven’t developed skill at improvisation.

I’ve approached it many times. Whether it is a teacher or a book, the set is the same: There are 5 variations of the 7-chord. For each chord, there is a root position and 3 inversions to learn. Learn the 5 variations and 4 voicings in all 12 keys. Do that in both the right hand and the left hand. After you have that done, you are ready for lesson two! Talk about hitting a wall at lesson one! I’ve hit that wall several times.

The most recent book I’ve acquired is Bill Dobbins, “A Creative Approach to Jazz Piano Harmony”. I’ve been working at lesson one for about a month. I’ve learned major-7 and dominant-7 in 12 keys. I’m working at the minor. I will still have half-diminished and diminished to work on! This is not exactly what you call instant gratification! But I think I’ll hang in there.

Yesterday, I read, or perhaps re-read, Mr. Dobbins introduction to the book. What he had to say was profound. At least it was at that reading.

The question may be asked, whether or not it is really necessary to practice all material in all inversions and in all keys. The answer, of course, is that it is not really necessary for any of us to do most of the things we do. If we are really interested in developing our bodies we submit to endlessly repetititve exercise regimins with little complaining, as long as we eventually see some positive result. If I wish to have a richer harmonic vocabulary than I do now, and to use that vocabulary with both greater effectiveness and spontaneity, it seems only logical that I will need to practice differently than I do now. Unfortunately, contemporary society and the media strongly condition us to expect to be able to have anything we want almost immediately, and with the investment of as little time or money as possible. No one seems to notice that most things which can be so easily obtained are not worth having to begin with.

So Mr. Dobbins sent me that message loud and clear. Since I’ve already bought the book, I might as well hang in there and do the work. Unless I don’t want to. I think I do!

A minor victory for the aspiring pianist

I can’t say how long I’ve been practicing Marian McPartland’s Twilight World. Months and months! The transcription is 8 pages long. For some time now, I’ve had pages 6,7, and 8 memorized. But I’ve been stuck on page 5 for quite some time. I suspect that practice technique (or lack thereof) are to blame, but I have been stuck! Finally yesterday morning was breakthrough. The bottom 3/4 of Page 5 works without referring to the transcription.

I have a lot to learn about memorization, and I still find it somewhat frightening … because honestly, once it is done, the playing of the song is some kind of miracle.

I wish I could get into another musicians head, and see how he or she thinks!

Despite it all, my memorized repertoire is growing. I need to tackle the top bit of page five with rigor, and see if I can speed the process along. Twilight world is such a beautiful tune, I’m not bored with it, but it would be nice to grow the repertoire faster!

Google Sketchup Meets Piano Man

I had the good fortune of attending a one day class on Google Sketchup on Thursday of last week. Good fortune, yes, because without some guided instruction, Sketchup was rather intimidating. In six hours, I learned far more than I could have on my own.

In the new house, I’m certain that pianos will move in and out from time to time. As such, I wanted a ramp from the garage floor to the kitchen. (This is the best route into the home for a piano) Commercially available aluminum and fiberglass ramps are prohibitively expensive, so I decided to build a wooden ramp specifically for this purpose.

Piano Man Meets Sketchup

Wow. Designing in 3D is pretty. Pretty intense too. To be fair, I’d already designed the geometry of the ramp using a CAD tool

The Old-Fashioned Way

But the sketchup tool makes a pretty picture, and with 3D, I actually got into the details. I was able to specify the specific joints for the plywood, and realized that a tapered hardwood shoe at the base of the point was needed. That was a detail that was going to wait for construction otherwise.

It was interesting to see that the modeling tool, in fact, improved the product.

If you install Google Sketchup, you may explore the model itself with this download.

Another piano: 1916 Chickering

Partly because I couldn’t resist (I like Chickerings!).
Partly because the Stieff project has been delayed.
Partly because I wanted to have a piano placed at Syracuse Arts Academy now … not later.
Partly because I’m looking forward to my next rebuild project.

Well all together, I did it!

I found this nice Chickering 5’4″ baby grand on Craig’s List in Denver. The seller was Steve Norris, a piano technician in the Denver area, who had the piano on consignment. It was a fun to purchase remotely from Steve, because I could understand very clearly what the piano was.

I drove over to Denver to get the piano. (Check my timing here. January might not be the best time to drive with a trailer to Denver.) With help from friends, the piano was setup in the school last Sunday. It fills the musical space of the school foyer very nicely.

The piano will be a great rebuild project, but also is quite playable right now. Tuning pins – which appear to be original are tight. Nate Griffith came over to the school on Friday and gave it his expert tuning. It does need some immediate attention also: The key tops were resurfaced with plastic, and the blacks were not raised, so that needs to be done. With the blacks too low, its not very nice to play. In addition there are notes in the mid-treble that need re-regulation. So I’m going to begin my education in grand regulation.

Duane re-surfaces!

Hibernation? Death? Disaster? None of the above. Distraction.

Oh yes, I’ve been distracted. Following an interesting conversation with Terri, my wife, in October, we decided to shop for a suburban home that had a large shop to accomodate my woodworking and piano rebuilding activities. Working out of a storage unit was showing itself to be unfriendly to us both.

So we bought a house with room to build a shop and we’ve been busy with moving and updating the place at Pleasant View. It’s been hard to leave our beautiful condo on the golf course, but we are both enjoying being close to work. In the summer I expect to be enjoying a new shop!

Stieff Bridge and Soundboard Repairs

Woodwork repairs to soundboard and bridges is complete.

If you are curious about grand piano construction and would like to better understand the terms used here, you might want to refer to this article.

I removed the bass bridge cap with the plunge router and cleaned up with a hand plane. I installed a new quarter sawn rock maple bridge cap of uniform thickness. I then hand planed the bridge cap to achieve the original height of the bridge above the bass apron.


Technique for the treble bridge was somewhat different. The hide glue joint of the original bridge cap easily separated from the bridge with some prodding from a 1-1/2 chisel. This resulted in no tear-out of the underlying bridge. I flattened the underlying bridge with my 15″ flat sanding block. This was a light operation which simply prepared a fresh gluing surface by removing the crystallized surface of the old hide glue. The existing bridge cap was not of uniform thickness. To duplicate this varying thickness in the new bridge cap, I prepared two sections of bridge cap which I tapered to the correct end-to-end thickness on the joiner. That was tricky work, but I satisfactorily achieved tapered thicknesses within a tolerance of 0.1 mm. I cut curves on my blanks to match the curvature of the bridge, leaving 3-4 mm overlap. After gluing, I trimmed the bridge cap with a flush-cutting router bit. These caps were installed about 0.4 mm over finish height. I hand sanded to finish height with the hand sanding block.

Cracks in the soundboard were repaired using two techniques, depending upon the size of the crack. For the larger cracks, I enlarged the cracks, not by cutting and removing material, but by compressing the fibers of the crack edge into a V-shape for insertion of a V-shaped spruce shim. I made these V-shaped enlargements by inserting the 1-1/2 inch chisel into the crack and then giving the chisel one or two sharp blows with a light mallet. I continued this for the length of the crack, then reversed the orientation of the chisel for a return trip up the crack to complete the V-shape. Prior to gluing the shims, I spread the crack some more by placing upward pressure on soundboard ribs below with props. This had the effect of producing slightly more crown in the soundboard while gluing up. Once the shims were glued and inserted, I removed props which were pushing the ribs upward. This caused the shims to be more tightly bound. Once the glue dried, I flushed the shims to the height of the soundboard. My preferred tool and and technique was simply to hand plane to the soundboard surface. At some points along the case edge and bridges this was not possible. In those cases, I cut them flush with a Japanese flush-cutting saw. I then scraped to the final surface level.

I opened the smaller cracks with the blade of my Japanese flush-cutting pull saw. This essentially used the first two or three teeth of the saw as a chisel of less than 1 mm thickness. It proved to be a very good technique and allowed a wood repair of very narrow guage.

Tasks remaining in this area are

  • Rebore for new bridge pins
  • Notch (chisel) treble bridge
  • Install new bridge pins
  • Scrape/sand soundboard
  • Fill remaining minor imperfections
  • Varnish soundboard and bridges

Stieff Plate Removal and Veneer repairs

Disassembly Complete
Yesterday, disassembly came to an end, as I was down to the soundboard! Ryan helped me remove the plate. We used the shop crane to good advantage. I’m glad we had it! Lesson learned: bind points are at the front of the piano, not at the back. Thus, it is important to lift primarily at the front. It wasn’t a problem as we went slowly and monitored progress well.

Piano vintage confirmed:

While the eBay listing for this piano suggested it was made in 1905, the serial number is only three different from my own piano, which had been dated to 1911 by the prior owner. Upon the removal of the plate we found the 100 year old chalk marks on the back which clearly identify this piano as 1911. End of story.

Veneer Repair Begins
My hypothesis is that the piano was stored on its side in a damp location at one time. There is evidence of mold on the soundboard and bridges of the piano. The veneer suffered buckling and separation on the left side. Repair to the buckled veneer is to be as follows:

  1. Rout 1/8″ channel through the buckled veneer at its peak to relieve the buckle.
  2. Re-glue the veneer
  3. Fill the routed channel

The inside veneer was separated at the top. It was re-glued using Titebond glue applied with a veterinary syringe.

Stieff Evaluation and Disassembly

This week, I took a closer look at the piano, while disassembling it. Generally, I found that nothing was worse than I knew it could be, but a few things were not as good as I had hoped:

  • In preparation for measuring downbearing, I attempted to bring the piano up to pitch. I found at least a dozen unisons which would not hold pitch.
  • Almost uniformly, I measured zero downbearing from bottom to top.
  • The source of the veneer damage is certain to be water damage. I think that at one time the piano was stored on its side in damp or wet(!) conditions. There are mold markings on the left side of the sound board and on the bass bridge.
  • The hammers do not look as good as I thought they might be prior to removing the action. I guess that’s to be expected, as you can see them better once the action is removed! In any event, they appear to have been reshaped at some point. The topmost hammer is odd. Hammers in the top octave have worn through to the wood core. It is not clear whether the hammers are original or not.

BUT … I wanted to rebuild a piano, and this is a great one to rebuild.

There are also some really good things about the piano that I appreciate now that I have begun to dismantle.

  • The keybed is flat and looks great!
  • I found a missing ivory keytop inside the case. That should make a complete set. I’m pleased to have an ivory keyboard
  • I should have known (could have looked at my Stieff in the living room), but I am pleased to see agraffes from the bass through the first two thirds of the treble. Theory states that’s good for tuning stability, and that makes sense.
  • The action is really in great condition. It has kept good regulation and aside from hammers shows no serious wear or damage.


More pictures on Flickr.com