Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Tuner’s Life 2

 Looking through some old files for stories this is another unique project I was involved with here in Vancouver.

Nothing to do with the sound of this piano but it was a movie stunt I helped set up.

 July 2006 Movie Scene:

 A pianist at the piano, playing in a balcony lounge setting. Two men who are in the lounge begin fighting; they eventually crash into the piano and the pianist; all of them crash through the balcony railing and go 90 ft down to the floor on top of 30 people.

Scene end.

Now doing a stunt like this is fraught with problems to overcome, not the least of which is who has the grand piano that requires disposal, and more importantly, who would like to be in the group on the main floor underneath the balcony?

There were several ideas floated to me regarding this: make a cardboard copy, this would be far too light resulting in too much sail, not falling the correct rate of speed and appearance.

Next up was a plywood copy; by the time you bent all of that wood to make the shape, still you have no parts inside to burst out all over the place.

So in the end the film accountant and producer decided to use a real grand piano…..but still they wanted to drop this one on top of 30 people.

There was only one way to accomplish this stunt. Drop the piano over the balcony but have a giant bungee cord attached so it did not destroy the theatre flooring upon impact.

 Also nobody would die either….this was good.

 The plan was to edit out the bungee cord in the production room; then edit in the crowd below…..(actually if I recall correctly I believe they took the crowd scene out….)

 With this part solved, they could now throw the instrument off the balcony and film the destruction.

Now they wanted a small black grand. I didn’t have one and there were none available second hand. So off they went to a retailer and spent 10k on a brand new Hoffman and Khune 5ft. grand.

Because of the way these instruments are built, if thrown off the balcony of that height, there would be a good chance the piano would not disintegrate because of all the bolts and screws and glue holding them together. (Think for a moment; how do I know this….. :)

After the purchase of this instrument brand new, I had to attend the special effects center here in North Vancouver to consult with the special effects foreman Denys Guillemette and set up the geometry correctly so that the instrument would come apart upon impact.

 I had to let all of the pressure off of the strings, unwind them all, undo all of the plate bolts that hold the casted metal plate in place, undo all of the action/keyboard screws .

Once this is done a particular way, the instrument will come apart upon impact with the accurate effects of having the case burst, the metal parts fracturing, the wire coming out and so on.

The film was White Noise Two; originally called White Noise The Light. This movie bears no relation to the first movie in any way; the plots are completely different. White Noise Two is about NDE (near death experience) and how some people when they come back to life can see white  light around certain people and hear the EVP. (Electronic Voice Phenomenon)

So if you are a Nathan Fillion/Katie Sackhoff fan give it a watch; pretty intense flick so if you are a sensitive or nervous person best not to watch.

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and terror, some disturbing images, thematic material and language.

Here is the trailer from YouTube. At your own risk… 2:01 you get a glimpse of the piano going over the railing….. two shots actually…… it was a fun gig.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

A Tuner's Life 1

There are times when the work is not always about pianos but piano-related. Sometimes I get the call for unique or unusual projects.

A couple of seasons back I got a call about a photo shoot being done here. This is the type of photo shoot called “photo murals.”


Although there have been experiments with photo murals since the beginning of photography, the type of work that I am referring to is called “large-scale, theory-referenced, and carefully staged photos”. This type of art was pioneered by artists around the world in the 1970s and is continued today by Vancouver artists such as Stan Douglas, Jin-me Yoon, and Rodney Graham.

So I got a call from Rodney Graham’s assistant; they required an old player piano to be used as a prop. Further they needed a technician on site for the entire day to rewind the player rolls and set the instrument for the next take of shots. These shots were taken by what is called a 14 X 11 camera, equipped with 26 strobes that went off as the shot was taken. These shots were then blown up to 16 ft. panels and were installed on a billboard of the L.A. freeway for some type of advertising.

Sixteen takes and 10 hours later we were done.

The theme is this:

There is a piano in an old saloon. Playing the piano is a cowboy. Sitting on top of the piano is another cowboy who is shooting at the feet of a preacher making him dance. The preacher is played by Rodney Graham.
Here is a link to some shots of the set and the actors involved in the shoot. Enjoy!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Humidity and the Piano Sounding Board

I was in conversation with a colleague of mine a while back; we got onto the topic of humidity, and how the changes in humidity affect the wooden structure of the piano.  An observation was made about how piano owners at times do not fully comprehend the amount of movement that happens to a piano when there are humidity changes from season to season.

 I was invited to attend his shop last summer to witness the results of performing experiments on humidity impact and how this changes the position of the sounding board and bridges.

Several jigs were set up to replicate a section of  the piano soundboard and  ribs that hold the sounding board in place. Then, over a period of time, these experiments were completed and the data recorded by local colleague Jack Houweling.

I have changed the watermark on the photos to reflect Jack's work as none of the jigs or experiments were done by myself. I assisted with picture taking and other tasks.


Here is the link for the photos of Jack’s experiments…..left click on any photo to enlarge and read the text included.

Humidity Impact

Also included here is a link from a technical forum about this topic.This is a direct link to the forum topic.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Transposing Pianos

These pianos were made by several piano manufacturers.  I have come across 3 companies so far that manufactured the transposing piano; the Heintzman Co. of Canada, Weser Bros. and the Sohmer Co. both of New York.

Irving Berlin, who was a self-taught pianist and played only on the black keys, had several models of this instrument to transpose the music into different keys.

There is a mechanism below the keyboard that allows the key bed to shift laterally left or right; this allows the player to play the same keys on the keyboard as previous while having the music played in a different key.

This is a rare Heintzman & Co. Transposing upright piano, which used to be produced some time back. This instrument has 98 keys and songs can be played in 10 different keys …11 in fact, including the one you are in. In 35 yrs. of service to the industry I have only ever seen two of these. Here are some photos of this model of transposing piano.


Here is a thread from Piano World Tech forum where I posted this as a topic. What ended up happening in the thread was an informal count of these instruments across Canada. So far I have come across more that 30 of these rare transposing pianos. Enjoy!

Rare Heintzman Transposing Piano

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Pianos without a Pin Block2

Here is another variation on a piano constructed without a pin block. This is a Mason & Hamlin piano built in the later part of the 1800’s. This one is has the nickname screw stringer for the way in which the strings are mounted and held in place.

I have not come across a Mason & Hamlin screw stringer piano for some time. Replacing a string is not that difficult; cut it to the length of the bar that the screw goes through, take the screw out, wrap the wire around the hook, and put the screw back.

One of the main problems with a piano built in this fashion is the availability of the original parts. When the stringers break it is difficult to obtain replacement parts for these instruments.

 In reality these have become museum quality pieces. Pianos such as the Brinsmead and the Mason Hamlin show us a historical record of piano building, development, and pioneering invention by some of the makers.

Here are a few photos of this type of piano construction.  


Sunday, April 3, 2011

Pianos without a Pin Block

The traditional way pianos are built for mass production is with the tuning pins pounded into a hardwood plank, usually constructed of 3-ply maple layers cross-banded. In today’s piano building market, multiple layered pin block construction, such as the 18 layered varieties, can be found in modern piano construction. 

The tuning pin in the wooden plank is a crude arrangement, similar to the violin peg; this type of build is subject to constant changes due to the ever-changing environmental conditions, as wood expands, and contracts with moisture loss or retention. Some of the difficulty in learning to tune pianos is learning to manipulate the tuning pin correctly in the wooden plank.

There have been inventions that were improvements to this area of piano construction. Unfortunately due to cost and other factors, many of these ideas fell by the wayside and have been long forgotten.

Here is one of the inventions that removed the wooden plank from the construction of piano building.

This is a piano built by Victorian piano builder John Brinsmead & Sons. On the 21st of May 1881 Brinsmead patented a piano so designed that the stress was horizontal. An extra perforated metal flange in the cast frame took a hollowed out threaded rod through which the string passes. To hold the rod in place there are two hexagonal nuts. On both sides of the frame there are two brass washers located on the frame, underneath the nuts, that allow the threaded rod to remain in place while tuning.

 The tuner needed a special T-shaped tool.  The tuning is much smoother and easier to accomplish than the tuning pin in the wooden plank. When applied to uprights, this kind of piano construction was called a "top-tuner" as the pins were above the plank, pointing upward instead of forward in the usual way. This type of piano build creates a “geared tuning” similar to guitar machine heads.

 Over the years Brinsmead made many improvements to this design. Because the strings are fixed in an entirely different way, many technicians refused to replace broken strings or wire in these instruments.
 Many technicians of the day and in later years refused to work on them at all. This resistance to change, along with the cost of production, where most likely the main reasons that inventions such as this did not become mainstream in piano building. In my view this idea not becoming mainstream in piano construction was unfortunate; every piano should have geared down tuning.

 These instruments are not rare or valuable; thousands of them were made in the 1880-90’s and still remain in Britain. Most of them today could be purchased for under $100.00. 

The Brinsmead’s called this the Patented Tuning Device. Here are some photos of the Brinsmead invention on a grand piano. This instrument remains in tune for long periods of time; I have only tuned this instrument twice in the last 20 years. Enjoy the photos below at this link provided.


Also, here is a link to some history of the Victorian piano maker John Brinsmead & Sons. Happy reading...