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David Burge enters local homes and businesses and tests pianos

San Diego grand

Susan Dramm: “Very few of my friends have pianos anymore.”
  • Susan Dramm: “Very few of my friends have pianos anymore.”
  • Image by Joe Klein

I grew up in the Midwest during the Great Depression. As was the case with most families, we were poor, but there was, nevertheless, a small upright piano in our living room. There were upright pianos in everyone’s living room, as far as I can recall. Pianos were taken for granted, like overstuffed sofas, somber pictures of grandparents, and marble-topped tables. In every family at least one person played the piano, if only a little.

Replacing hammers, especially for a concert instrument, is an expensive matter, and the symphony was having financial problems.

Replacing hammers, especially for a concert instrument, is an expensive matter, and the symphony was having financial problems.

My parents had somehow come up with the money for their upright soon after they were married. Mom liked to sing, and Dad had taken what must have been grueling lessons as a kid in South Dakota territory. He had learned one of the Beethoven sonatas and would sit down and play it on occasion, actually getting a lot of the right-hand notes correct. He had lost a great deal of hearing in France during the First World War; maybe that is why he paid so little attention to the left hand. Mom said he had played for the silent movies in the ‘20s — God knows what that must have been like.

Earl Kallberg: “John Lill said he was particularly fond of our Steinway's enormous dynamic range, from very soft to very loud.”

Earl Kallberg: “John Lill said he was particularly fond of our Steinway's enormous dynamic range, from very soft to very loud.”

From time to time my parents would play four-hand music. They had old, ragged copies of one of the Mozart sonatas and an arrangement of the Schubert “Unfinished” Symphony. I loved to listen to them play, even though they could never go more than a line or two without coming apart. They never argued. They just stopped, and one would say, “Where are you?” after which they’d laugh and decide where to start again. When I was a little older they took me to free concerts at the church or the nearby university. I was surprised to hear that people playing together could go all the way through entire pieces without getting lost and stopping. I wondered if I’d ever be able to do that.

In second grade I began to take lessons at school. There were eight of us in the class and one piano. The teacher sat us around a table and handed out cardboard keyboards. She had huge hands, or so they seemed to me, and with her strong fingers she could strike the black and white pained marks with tremendous force. Even when it was my turn to play the real piano, I couldn’t make as much sound as she made on those cardboard keys.

At that time I was unaware of the difference between one piano and another. A piano was a piano. Each one in every house had music piled on tope, next to the old photographs and paper flowers, and everyone scrunched more music books into the same kind of wooden piano bench until it forced the plywood bottom out. Some people had mostly popular music, written in annoying keys like B-flat and E-flat, whereas other had hymnbooks and sentimental songs handed down from their grandmothers, and everyone had some version of The World’s Greatest Piano Music, with its green cover and mysterious, enigmatic pieces by Gretchanifoff, Sindling, MacDowell, and the like. Later one, someone told my father his son should have a better piano. Somberly we went through the want ads in the paper and, not having a car, trudged several miles to try out instruments that people were having to part with. One time my mother took me to Chicago to play for the great piano pedagogue Rudolph Ganz, but when his secretary told us that an audition would cost $15, she sighed and returned home. Many years later, a professor of piano myself, I met Dr. Ganz at a music festival and told him of that long-ago visit. The 85-year-old gentleman, still imposing in his old-fashioned stiff shirt with detachable collar, shook his head gravely and said, “Too bad. Why didn’t you just come in the door?”

Retiring during the spring of 1993 after a long career in music, I moved to San Diego and found myself in need of a new piano. I continue to give concerts now and then and need to practice; also, my wife, Liliane and I like to play four-hand music on occasion. Beyond all that, I still have the same old feeling that a piano is an essential part of a living room.

I found an irresistible new Mason & Hamlin in James McEvoy’s Music Center and asked to try it out at our condominium. Jim was agreeable but had some worries concerning how we would get it up and around the front staircase. His mover came for a visit and confirmed his apprehensions, which was discouraging, to say the least. After a great deal of pacing around, measuring, and chin rubbing, the mover declared that the only way he could deliver the instrument was by hiring a crane company to bring in one of their big rigs and set it up in the driveway so they could hoist the piano over the rooftops to the deck on the other side of the house. Then it could be moved through the sliding glass doors into the living room, where we wanted it. Naturally, this raised the cost of the move substantially and ended any thought of a tryout period. I could see clearly that once in, the piano would stay there forever.

The reader will have guessed by now that my new instrument is not one of those little uprights of childhood memory. A lifetime of association with pianos has changed my tastes, and the piano in our living room is seven feet long from keyboard to tail. Why? What is the lure of such a huge, bulky piece of equipment that is inconvenient and expensive to move and takes up a disproportionate amount of square footage? Obvious, you say; a big grand piano sounds better than a little upright. All right: louder, perhaps, buy why better” The upright has just as many keys as the grand. What is the advantage of all that length? Acoustics 101 (brief version): As with the violin and the guitar, sounds at the piano are made by vibrating tightly stretched strings that are attached to an amplifying soundboard. The pitch of a given strong is determined by a combination of (1) tension, (2) thickness, and (3) length. More tension raises the pitch; increased thickness of length lowers it.

Those who play violin or guitar know that the strings on those instruments are of equal length and that the necessary differences in their open-string pitches are created by somewhat greater tension in the higher strings and considerably more mass in the lower. This is possible even though the vibration ratio between the top and bottom string of the six-string guitar (standard tuning) is 4:1 (that is, the highest string vibrates four times faster than the lowest). The ratio is nearly as great on the violin.

In contrast, the top note on the piano vibrates nearly 150 times faster than the bottom note (4096 cycles per second versus 27 ½ cps). The much greater pitch range makes it impossible for all strings to be the same length; in fact, they must be markedly different. In particular, while high-pitched strings are quite short, bass strings must be very long. Or rather, they should be.

A piano, however, is not just a musical instrument. At least in its home setting it is also a piece of furniture, and not every family wishes to turn the parlor into a hallway by putting a convert grand against the wall. Besides, as pianos get longer, they become more expensive. Clearly there is a need for small, economical pianos. The obvious problem — not enough room for proper bass strings — is one piano manufacturers have wrestled with for two centuries.

A compromise solution is to add mass to a string by overspinning it with a metal winding. In this manner the lowest bass strings can be made so thick that even when they are less than four feet long they can fool the ear into thinking something like the correct pitch is being played. Especially in the bottom octave, however, such mass becomes so unwieldy that no real fundamental tone is present. Also, in such a string the pattern of natural harmonics that is essential to a pleasing sound quality is so greatly distorted y the poor mass/length ration that the vibrations actually fight with one another, creating havoc, with tone and duration.

Obviously when the size of the instrument allows these low bass strings to be longer, as in grand pianos of six, seven, and — with concert grands — nine feet, these distortions are alleviated. A richer, more desirable quality of tone becomes possible as the mass of the string in relation to its length becomes more ideal, allowing the harmonic series to maintain its natural, self-reinforcing ratios. A longer piano also means a larger area for the sounding board, which in turn allows for greater projection, longer durations, and more “singing” quality.

Whether we speak of grands or uprights, it is clear that pianos are found in far fewer homes than when I was growing up. I mentioned this to Susan Dramm recently during a visit to her home. Mrs. Dramm, who studied piano at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, is a founding member of the organization that became the La Jolla Chamber Music Society.

“Very few of my friends have pianos anymore,” she said. “I think it’s too bad. Music is of central importance to me — not just listening to it but making it myself. There is so much nourishment and discipline that comes with playing, and this carries over into other aspects of your life. I wouldn’t be without it.” So saying, she went to one of the two pianos in her living room and played a Scriabin etude.

“We purchased this Mason & Hamlin ‘A’ [5’8” long] recently so that I could do two-piano work with a friend.” She played a few notes on the other piano, A Steinway “B” [7’7”]. “They have been voiced similarly and match surprisingly well, don’t you think” It was true, the two pianos were nicely compatible and sounded good together, as we later found out when we tried some of the Mozart Sonata for Two Pianos. Of course, the lager instrument has a more resonant bass, but otherwise they both have a bright, pleasant tone.

Tuner-technician Earl Kallberg, who rebuilt both pianos for Mrs. Dramm, agrees that there are far fewer pianos in homes than earlier in the century. However, he notes that during the past five to eight years an interesting phenomenon has taken place. Mature people are buying quality pianos or restoring old pianos that have been in the family for some time. They are studying and practicing again — I’ve seen it a lot lately.

Most of these people, he continues, studied when they were young, then gave it up because of the pressures of business or of raising a family or simply because they lost interest. But now they want to take it up again. “Sometimes,” he adds with a smile, “they are real fanatics about it. They become fascinated concerning the piano itself, how it works.”

“At the present time all of my students are adults, professional people who want to enrich their lives through music,” says Donna Clitsome, a San Diego native who has taught piano here for 36 years. “This has happened during the past 4 years,” she adds, “though I don’t know exactly why. I used to work with children, too, but these older adults work harder than any kids I ever had.”

Ms. Clitsome began her study with Florence Stephenson (who, at the age of 90, still lives in San Diego) and continued with the late Lyell Barbour. Subsequently she spent a summer working with Rosalyn Tureck and has maintained an active performing career. “They’ve taken music out of the schools, you know,” she exclaimed, worried that so few children now play the piano. “Values have changed so much; money has become such an issue, for one thing. Music just isn’t included in the family anymore,” she concluded, sadly.

Art Olson, president of the Piano Exchange, also notes that there is a reawakening of activity among older adults. “But the drop in interest among youngsters over the years — in knowledge about the piano and piano music — cannot be ignored. Music as an activity that can be participated in has suffered from being squeezed out of the curriculum in our schools.”

Olson points also to the need, “especially in California,” he adds with a chuckle, for “instant gratification. To play the piano reasonably well takes work, lots of it. People don’t want to do that any more. So this is what they want,” he said, beckoning me to follow.

He took me into the demonstration room for digital pianos and put one of the smaller models through it paces with I thought, astonishing skill. Olson is a graduate of the Berklee School of Music in Boston, which emphasizes training in jazz and commercial music, and the ease with which he moved from one style to another, each with the sound appropriate to it, was very impressive.

“Someone without much in the way of chops can get something out of the digital piano immediately. You know, people are fascinated with computers these days, and this feeds into that,” he adds, pointing to the switches and dials that surround the keyboard. “Costs the same as a little upright, you know.” I told him I was sorely tempted but left before he could clinch the deal.

Debate continues concerning the quality of old pianos versus new. There is always a certain fascination with instruments made before the turn of the century. Do they still have musical value? Or are they only of interest as antique furniture?

In fact, pianos nearly identical with those being built today were produced several decades before 1900. If they have been well maintained they can be quite wonderful. That is a big if, however. Also it is worth knowing just how far back one can go without running into serious construction problems.

The history of piano building in the 19th Century focuses primarily on the struggle to improve the quality and strength of strings and on experiments with the frame and soundboard designed to achieve greater total string tension and sound projection. Pianos constructed around 1800 were under a maximum tension of only two or three tons. For a variety of reasons these instruments went out of tune quickly, and pianists were constantly breaking both hammers and strings.

(Anton Reicha, turning pages for Beethoven around 1805 in the performance of a Mozart piano concerto, wrote, “I was mostly occupied in wrenching out the strings of the piano which snapped. Back and forth I leaped, jerking out a string, disentangling a hammer, turning a page. I worked harder than did Beethoven.”)

These early pianos, with a range of about five and a half octaves, had a wooden frame. Modern replicas exhibit the same problems that were encountered 200 years ago; a stronger frame was definitely needed. In 1843 the piano builder Jonas Chickering took out a patent on an iron frame; this was developed further by the Steinway people soon after they came to the United States in 1853. The strength of the metal frame eventually allowed piano makers to increase the range of the instrument to seven and one-third octaves (the 88 notes that still remain standard) and to vastly increase the level of tension to about 30 tons, ten times the amount on Beethoven’s piano.

Other improvements in the design of the sounding board, arrangements of strings, quality of hammers, stability of tuning, and efficiency of the action were perfected by 1870, and we can safely say that the “modern” piano dates from that time.

There are several grand pianos in San Diego County that are more than 100 years old. I visited Mrs. Paul Ringler to examine and play her 1883 Steinway “B.” Mrs. Ringler, now in her 80s, was a skilled accompanist for many decades. She explained that she had always wanted a seven-foot “B” because she felt it blended best with other instruments, not overpowering as the nine-foot “D” might do but giving full support, nevertheless. She purchased her instrument more than 50 years ago during the Second World War.

“I had a colleague back in Milwaukee with an old Steinway,” she said. “Yes, it was already ‘old’ in 1942! She told me she needed to sell it and I could have it for $200. That was an amazingly low price, even for then, so I grabbed it!” (It is clear she is still pleased with her purchase.)

“The piano originally had a rosewood finish, but we had it redone in ebony. And of course, we put in new hammers. The elegantly carved legs were gone when I got it, replaced by more modern straight ones.”

I tried the piano, now 111 years old. In the small living room it was difficult to play as softly as one might wish, but the sound is bright and even throughout. The sounding board shows signs of repair — certainly not surprising — but it is still a rather nice piano.

When it comes to old instruments, however, square pianos take the prize. Well, perhaps not the first prize. According to John Denker, who was for many years the official tuner for the San Diego Symphony, there are a number of square grands in San Diego County. Readers who attended that beautiful but strange film The Piano (why did that 19th-century woman doodle late 20th-century new-age riffs on her beloved instrument?) will recall the travels and travails involving the heroine’s square grand.

Given the fact that production of squares had nearly stopped by 1850, it is probable that most of the instruments now in our vicinity were shipped “around the horn” to California before the construction of the Panama Canal. That in itself is interesting, of course, and the antique value of such venerable pieces of furniture is indisputable. Denker, born and apprenticed in Bremen, Germany, came to San Diego in 1964. He is obviously amused by the fascination some of this customers have for square pianos. “They think they are very valuable musically,” he whispers, with a conspiratorial smile. “In fact, almost nobody plays them. They just put them in a prominent place in the entranceway to their nice houses so that everyone can see them. They really aren’t very good, you know. The action is slow, and tone just so-so. And to tune them gives you a real backache!”

San Diego’s most famous square grand is on display at the Villa Montezuma, under the care of the San Diego Historical Society. The home was built in 1887 for the eccentric English spiritualist-musician Jesse Shepard, who believed that “the spirits of famous composers or pianists performed through him,” as it says in the society’s informative booklet describing the villa and its various occupants down the years.

Unfortunately, according to curator Barbara Pope, Shepard’s square piano, a Knabe, disappeared long ago. The replacement now on display was donated in 1972. Surviving a serious fire in 1986, this second instrument was refinished by Abel Sanchez, but neither he nor Ms. Pope could give me further historical details. Although the present instrument appears to have been built as late as 1870 in Boston, it closely resembles pictures of the original.

When I asked if I could try the piano, I was informed that as a museum piece it use is discouraged. Whether or not it actually works, the case is a beautiful example of ornate 19th-century craftsmanship that is well worth examining wen Villa Montezuma is open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays.

The following remarkable advertisement appeared long ago in the Los Angeles Times: “We are closing out the Zwiecki piano because the cost of replacement from Copenhagen would increase the price to over $1200. While they last the price is $795.”

Mrs. Robert Arthur proudly shows me the sales slip her late husband signed in 1963, to which the advertisement is still attached. The tiny upright sits in the corner of her handsomely appointed living room, the windows of which afford a splendid view of the ocean. Made in the days when the Danes were still designing furniture with simple, graceful lines using light woods such as teak or Philippine mahogany, the instrument is both aesthetically pleasing and efficient looking.

At Mrs. Arthur’s invitation I open the top and peek in. The clean lines of the outer case continue into the businesslike interior; the action still looks new. The keyboard is shorter than normal; the instrument is so small that there is simply no room for the lowest bass strings found on conventional uprights, so several were eliminated by the practical builder, Louis Zwiecki, whose name is modestly embedded in front. I asked Mrs. Arthur if she still plays, but she replies that she no longer did so. “My eyes are giving out, and I have trouble reading the notes,” she says. “I was surprised I could still find the sales slip,” she adds wistfully.

I play portions of pieces by several composers. Mozart sounded quite fine. Though small, the piano is not a toy. It is a Zwiecki. And, 31 years ago, Mr. Arthur got it before the price went up too!

What do concert artists want in a piano? And what kinds of instruments do they find when they come to San Diego? I suspect that though most pianists have their allegiances to this or that brand name, in their hearts they know that their most important concern should not be the make of the piano but who is taking care of it. Without the skills and attention of an excellent tuner-technician, the finest concert instrument may turn out to be a minefield of musical disasters.

The concert Baldwin piano at the Civic Center was under the care of John Denker for decades. The instrument was used by many of the artists who performed with the San Diego Symphony during the time the orchestra played tat the center. I asked him about artist’ demands.

“They all want to have a piano that is brilliant,” he said, adding with a smile that not a single pianist had ever asked him “to make a piano more mellow. But that is only natural,” he continued, “because they have to be heard over maybe 90 or 100 players. So I tried my best to oblige them.” His favorite story concerns his first meeting with Artur Rubinstein. He had just finished tuning when the artist appeared on-stage, walked briskly up to him, and asked, “Well, how’s the piano?”

Denker said he was nervous in the presence of the great man and replied, hesitantly, “f-f-f-fine, fine! I-I just tuned it for you.”

With that, Rubinstein slapped him on the shoulder and exclaimed with a great laugh, “Well, now I’m going to knock it back out of tune!” That broke the ice, Denker said, after which they got on famously.

There are times when technicians wish they could do more to improve potentially fine instruments. I spent an hour playing the nine-foot Mason & Hamlin that is in the San Diego City College theater. Discussing it later with piano technician Tom Myler, I had to agree with him that this is a particularly frustrating case. On the one hand, the instrument is not only remarkably easy to play but has one of the most satisfying sounds imaginable, particularly in the bass register. On the other hand, however, it is quite evident that it needs a great deal of work to put it into the kind of shape such a superb piano deserves.

“The piano was built around 1970,” according to Myler. “I did some regulating in 1983, but by then it should have been given an extensive overhauling, much more than I did. I made a rough estimate for the college — it wouldn’t have been cheap — but heard no more thereafter. What a waste! It’s one of the really great pianos around!”

Earl Kallberg, now the tuner for the San Diego Symphony and one of San Diego’s busiest piano technicians, tells a happier story. A few years back, the concert Steinway belonging to the orchestra was giving artists severe tonal problems, he says, and several of his colleagues commented that they felt it needed a new set of hammers. Replacing hammers, especially for a concert instrument, is an expensive matter, and the symphony was having financial problems that made the proposed outlay impossible, at least at that time.

“I brought it up at a meeting of the San Diego chapter of the Piano Technicians Guild,” explained Kallberg, “and they voted to donate a set of hammers — and the installation of course — from our discretionary fund. The symphony was very pleased, and everyone thinks the piano is much improved.”

In recent years, pianists coming to San Diego to perform solo recitals often choose the Steinway concert grand CD 24, available through the Piano Exchange. “When John Lill was here recently, he used it,” says Kallberg. “He said he was particularly fond of its enormous dynamic range, from very soft to very loud,” I agree that CD 24 is, indeed, a marvelous instrument, one that requires great skill to play effectively. This is particularly true of the very aspect mentioned by pianist Lill: dynamics. Because there is such an unusual range of 18 possibilities, it is easy for the performer to lose control, to allow a crescendo to become too loud and crashing too soon. Like the fine thoroughbred it is, the instrument needs to be held in with a firm and on the reins.

One of the most enterprising tuner-technicians in our area is Lawrence Sinz of Vista. Trained in business and geology, he has nevertheless spent much of his long life selling and working on organs and pianos. In recent years he was one of the only distributors in the country for the Falcone piano. The Falcone Piano Company was established 11 years ago in Massachusetts by a man named Santi Falcone, who set out to make the “best piano in the world,” according to his own modest publicity. Whether or not this ambition was fully realized during the short life of the company, the several hundred pianos he made show remarkably fine workmanship in every detail and have aroused enthusiasm from many performing artists.

Sinz no longer sells Falcones but still has a concert grand in his living room. “You can see that this is number 183,” he tells me, indicating the serial number. “It is the last good concert instrument Falcone made.” Indeed, it is a very responsive piano. As with the symphony’s concert Steinway, one must be constantly careful to control the volume of sound, especially if one wishes to maintain a very soft level throughout a passage. Exercising such control, one can find a remarkable range of subtle colors in the beautifully made instrument.

Having discussed pianos, pianists, piano teaching, tuning, and selling with dozens of people, I find it particularly heartening to learn that almost all of them are concerned with making music — music as something in which one can be an active participant — more available to young people.

Music should be part of the educational process,” exclaims Mike Greene, president of Greene Music. “Not only is piano-playing fun, something that can be done on many different levels of accomplishment, but psychologists have proven beyond a doubt that kids who experience the kind of discipline music study provides do better in school — every aspect of school!”

Greene and his associate, David Leman, spent two hours showing me the pianos in their store and enthusiastically reporting on their establishment of a Yamaha music program in the K-through-6 years of one school district in San Diego County and their “Future of Music” programs at Southwestern College.

“Contrary to what you might have heard, we think we’re seeing more younger families being involved in music,” Greene reports. “Music is fulfilling. Playing the piano is fulfilling. That’s the message we want to bring to everyone!”

(Mrs. Arthur, owner of the Zwiecki piano, died several weeks after the story was written.)

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