Tales from the Piano Tuner: Unusual Pianos
Aside from countless standard grands, uprights, and spinets, I've tuned and repaired dozens of rare and nonstandard pianos. Here are some of the more unusual instruments I've maintained. What are some of your favorite rare pianos?
Square Grand Pianos
I have a personal fascination with square grand pianos. Several years ago, I acquired a Hallet and Davis square grand from another technician who had it as an incomplete project piano. It required a complete reassembly and, well, it still does. I currently have two clients that have them in their home, one of which is a Steinway. I occasionally work on the Chas. Stieff Square Grand Piano in the Durkee Mansion at the Kemper Center, too.
These instruments are designed differently than the modern grand piano and can be challenging to tune due to the location and shape of the tuning pins as well as the overall stringing of the piano. Many technicians won’t touch square grands because not only are they difficult to work with and require specialty tools, but a broken string can be dangerous.
Square grands were popular in the early 1800s and were in fact the most popular piano mid-century. They were intricately carved out of solid wood and incredibly heavy. When newer styles of pianos gained traction, Victorians couldn’t get rid of their square grands fast enough. Sadly, they were chopped up in parlors and even set on fire to make way for newer models. Today, square grand pianos are rare and the parts are difficult to source. If you find yourself in possession of a square grand, consider yourself lucky!
I was asked to tune a small barrel piano or street piano (some incorrectly call it a hurdy gurdy, which is a completely different instrument). The reason my client called it a “monkey piano” was because around the turn of the century, it was commonly played in the street and a monkey would collect coins from the people watching the show. Essentially, it’s an organ grinder instrument somewhat like a large music box containing a drum and pins which are turned by a crank. The pins would move the various sprung small hammers that strike very short piano strings. The strings are attached and tuned with regular sized piano tuning pins, which gives it an odd Alice in Wonderland feel. It has a distinct “old fashioned” tinny sound, very different from a standard piano. It was an antique when I tuned it, and I’d estimate it’d be about 100 years old today. Very interesting little instrument!
I was asked by our local Civil War Museum to tune and do some basic work on a pianoforte. Antique pianofortes differ from modern pianos in their smaller size, thin strings, lower string tension, and leather hammers. The sound of these instruments is unique in their softer and less sustaining tone.
The museum intended to play it during the opening of the traveling exhibit of items that belonged to Senator Stephen A. Douglas. I worked evenings in the museum under the watchful eye of the curator to prepare the instrument for opening day. I enjoyed the challenge and appreciated the history attached to the instrument. I had three very pleasant and challenging evenings in the museum, and yes, it was exactly like the movie “Night at the Museum,” dinosaurs and all. I kid, I kid. Or do I?
Grand German Zither
I know this is not a piano but there are parallels, plus, I enjoy seeing and working on interesting antique instruments. I have worked on many autoharps, dulcimers, student zithers, psaltries, even accordions, guitars and banjos.
Notably, I have worked on a couple of Grand German Zithers. These instruments are far from common, so I had to research them in my local college libraries to find tuning and mechanical details. It turned out that I had many tools that worked very well and strings were a combination of usable antique strings on the instrument, autoharp and zither strings. Cabinet or resonator box work was a combination of personal experience working on the other instruments mentioned above as well as my experience working on student orchestral instruments. I’ve worked with many string instruments, but I do not claim to be a luthier.
When playing the zither, you may think you are hearing two guitars or a mandolin with a guitar. The “Third Man Theme” is a great example of this unique sound. Incredibly, it’s played by one instrument.
Bird Cage Piano
A bird cage piano action is extremely uncommon. I’ve only come across a couple over the last 30-odd years, and they've all put me to the test. If you have a bird cage piano, you might be able to remove the dampers, but this can be a tricky proposition. I made some special mutes to help tune these pianos. It takes a little longer, since the but the results are good. These antique pianos are interesting and challenging.
I like harpsichords but have limited experience working on them. While I was an undergraduate student, my piano professor hired me and another student to move her harpsichord to concert venues. She had a couple different instruments at her home and we were charged with taking it off the stand, packing it, moving it to the venue and setting it up on stage. We would attend the rehearsal or concert or occasionally leave and return to bring the instrument back to her home. I had the lucky opportunity to watch Professor Bedford tune and do basic repairs herself. I would like more opportunities to work on these special instruments.
Believe it or not, I had the opportunity to tune a desk! The desk appeared and functioned as a regular furniture style desk, but lift off the upper shelf, drawers and cubbies, take off the writing surface… and a small spinet piano appears as if by magic. I worked on the instrument only once and was not sure if it was a commercial production piece or a bespoke crafted piece of furniture/instrument. Either way, it was a challenging adventure that I won’t soon forget.
Clavichord and Pipe Organ
These two types of instruments (I’m sure I can list many more) are on my bucket list of instruments to work on. Hopefully one day….