Category Archives: Music

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.

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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
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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.

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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

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Piano performance opportunities?

I’m looking for like minded adult piano students in the Ogden area who would like some informal performance opportunities. Perhaps monthly get togethers in the homes of members of our “group”. On a more formal basis, an example of this is the Adult Music Student Forum of the Washington DC area (http://www.amsfperform.org/) I would like more experience performing for others than I get at my teacher’s recitals and playing for friends (they say they enjoy it, though!)

Is there a group in this area like I describe? Or can we form one?

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Rhythm Syllables

While working at jazz pieces and some Stephen Heller exercises that have sextuplets (six note patterns in one beat). I needed to add to my counting vocabulary. My earlier training engrained syllables for a few patterns:

eighths: (one-and two-and … )
eighth triplets (one-trip-let two-trip-let … )
sixteenths (one-e-and-a two-e-and-a … )
quarter triplets (over two beats) (one-o-let three-o-let)

The above paradigm provided a specific syllable for each positional timing, and insisted that the first syllable of a pattern be the beat number in the measure. When patterns became more complex you would leave out the unplayed counts. All of this didn’t really help me when getting to the new pattern of sextuplets (e.g. in the patterns of McPartland shown in an earlier post).

Internet research shows that piano educators are in no particular agreement on what’s best, so I came up with something that works for me from the various schools of thought. What I like are pronounceable syllables that roll off the tounge with appropriate syllable emphasis. So for a six syllable word to aid in counting the sextuplets, I use:

  • rump-i-ty-hump-i-ty
  • This “word” places appropriate emphasis on the first and fourth syllables, which helps to keep the note pattern flowing properly. Because “rump” is different than “hump”, the word helps to reinforce where I am in the measure when learning long runs of sextuplets. I also find that hump is naturally stressed somewhat less than rump in the pronounciation of this word. That effect is also appropriate to the playing of sextuplets.

    While researching this, I found one simple phrase that is quite helpful with triplet patterns. I tend to rush them! The following is interesting:

  • stuck-in-gum
  • When used as an aid to counting a triplet pattern among straight eighths or quarter note patterns, it helps me to avoid the rush just because the image of “stuck in gum” slows a guy down a tad. Funny how the mind works!

    This week’s challenge is to learn a septuplet (seven note pattern) among a bunch of sextuplets. In this piece, I’m moving along with a bunch of rumpity-humpities, and now I have to deal with a ??-???-???-??-??-???-??? What is the aid I use?

    What I came up with is:

  • noodle-ee-bee-doodle-ee
  • It rolls off the tounge and places light emphasis on the final syllable. In addition, it focuses the mind on the symmetry of the pattern. (A seven note pattern has middle element –“bee”.) So I know that if I’m playing eighths in the left hand with noodle-ee-bee-doodle-ees in the right hand then the second eighth falls after the bee but before the doodle! I started out toying with noodle-ee-doodle-ee-doo, for septuplets, but that word has a problem! It places a strong emphasis on the last syllable, and I soon found that noodle-ee-doodle-ee was just another pronounciation of rumpity humpity, so it was counter productive. With this pronounciation it was easy to confuse the six note pattern with the seven. The word I chose, noodle-ee-bee-doodle-ee, is suitably distinct as a seven note pattern.

    I’m learning to talk “New Yorker”. So to use my favorite New York slang: How weird is that?

    Here’s some links to material I used in forming my thoughts on the subject.

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    Practice Technique: Don’t look at the keys!

    I’m sure its written. I’m sure you’ve heard it. Don’t look at the keys!

    Sure. But when the going gets tough, we look at the keys don’t we?

    I was practicing a line of McPartlands If You Could See Me Now (line 3 Page 46), which has a series of 10ths in the alternating bass line. Tenths are a stretch for me. In fact white key tenths are reached on the tips of the keys, above the key slip. So they are a challenge.

    I found that though I practiced for hours, I really wasn’t getting more consistent at striking the tenths confidently while playing at a good tempo. Then it dawned on me! I was constantly (twice per measure!) moving my eyes from the score to the keyboard. Something had to give. Either the score, or the keyboard. I’m of the opinion that ideally one should get to the point that vision is not essential to performance, so I chose to eliminate sight of the keyboard. (Hopefully the score will go away sometime, but that’s another story)

    To keep my eyes from the keyboard, I wedged three music books between the music desk and the fallboard, so that I was playing with my hands below the books, while I was referencing the score above the books. It really worked! I found that while my vision of the keys was eliminated, my initial performance was no worse than with full sight. Interesting. As I practiced, I found that my accuracy improved. More later … The quest for excellence continues.

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    Joy of performance

    When I got back to the piano a few months ago, after a 15+ year absence, I didn’t know what would happen. Ooo boy! A lot has happened. I have practiced with abandon, found a great teacher — Rebecca Wren of Ford Piano Studio — and things really are happening! The joy of it is that I find I can perform at a level which was not a part of me 15 years ago. What a fine feeling.

    For the past two months I’ve been working on learning a piece recorded by Marian McPartland many years ago. The piece is her interpretation of “If You Could See Me Now”. I am working from the transcriptions of Don Sickler and John Oddo: “The Artistry Marian McPartland” (c 1985) I purchased my copy of this book on eBay. Amazon also lists it..

    When first approached two months ago, I thought the first measure of page 48 was going to be out of reach. Today, well … I’m just so happy with it!
    1st measure of page 48

    Here’s an mp3 clip of my playing earlier this evening For me, it’s pure magic!

    You can also hear Marian McPartland’s performance of this piece on Rhapsody (free).

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