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Shall We Chat? Giving George a Voice Again

Piano technicians talk a great deal about voicing, it’s true.  Voicing, the process of tone manipulation  through the use of hardeners or softeners on the hammers, including the use of needles for poking the felt, is one of those topics about which one can devote volumes.   In the final analysis, though, it always comes down to the one question that matters most:  Can you make it sound like a Steinway?

Of course, I don’t mean this in the sense of, “Can you make “Any Piano” sound like a Steinway?”.  I mean it in the sense of “Can you make this Steinway sound like a Steinway should“?   This latter question cuts to the very heart of what, for piano technicians, is regarded as the divide between craft and art; the line across which a technician may cross to become an artist himself, leaving behind simple acts of woodcraft for the higher purpose of creating tone that transcends definition and thereby becomes the objet d’art itself.  Tone, pure art tone, is sound sculpted by the hand, imagined by the ear within, an aural fantasy that by its very nature has no dimension, no substance, no form we can touch, and yet possessing the ability to touch us.

The Gershwin piano has certainly touched us here in the piano technology department.  Now, as I look at the completed machine, I am contemplating the task ahead of making it again the “Voice of George Gershwin”.  The piano before me is definitely greater than the sum of its parts.  I’ve already written about what I believe with respect to the importance of the rim as the soul of the instrument, of the soundboard being its heart, of the action being all-new. Now I have the task of integrating it all.  It’s only now beginning to sink in.  After months of treating it like any other Steinway piano, I now have to address it as the historic piece that it is:  George Gershwin’s Piano!  The one on which he composed “Porgy and Bess”.   I’m touched.  I am touched!

Every piano manufacturer has their preferences for dealing with hammer manipulation.  Much depends upon the style of hammer that has been manufactured.  For New York Steinway, the philosophy is to utilize cold-pressed hammer felt requiring hardeners and selective softening with needles in a process known as “tone building”.  The result is a hammer that is flexible and versatile.  It is a hammer unlike any manufactured by other piano companies or suppliers, some of whom use a hot, steam-driven press that creates hardness in the hammers by virtue of extreme felt densities and high compression.   The methods for dealing with New York Steinway hammers would make some piano technicians unfamiliar with Steinway methods recoil in horror.  Steinway technicians routinely apply needles to the crown of the hammer, a region considered sacrosanct to many other hammer makers.  Truth be told, it is nearly impossible to “kill” a New York Steinway hammer with needles.  To be sure, however, a methodical approach to string-by-string hammer mating and needling is required to bring out the classic Steinway sound.  Nothing else will do.

As during so many steps that have come before, I must now have a conversation with the piano itself.  I must be sensitive to the piano it wants to be; I will listen and it will guide me.  The voicing process is as much about letting go, as it is about taking control.  There must be give and take.  I will be asking a great deal of this instrument, and in return, it will respond with instructions about how much lacquer hardener its hammers need, where they get needled, sanded or softened.  Every string must be level, each hammer perfectly mated to all the strands of string contained in a unison, the left pedal must shift just so, in order to provide me with the correct amount of timbre change, every damper quiet and efficient at doing its job.  The action must be regulated to the “t”, the piano tuned from top to bottom, I must convince the piano to correspond to itself, to exhibit the right balance of touch and tone. The balance also has to make sense to the musicians who will play it.  It has to “feel like it sounds”.  The dynamic possibilities of this reborn instrument must be freed and expanded so that a mere whisper or the greatest thunder can be drawn out , on demand, by the pianists’ fingers.

So much seems to be at stake now.  It just has to be greater than great!.  Along the way, I’ll be asking myself the question of whether I can do this with my hands and ears.  My hands, which have turned every screw, glued every hammer shank, shaped and sculpted every hammer.  My ears, which have heard the potential and imagined the tone.  Will I be able to achieve what I have been tasked to do?  Will this be the “Voice of George Gershwin” again?  There have been so many people in history who have come before me to build this piano, to produce this amalgam of wood and steel and copper and felt.  I stand atop a pyramid of artisans and craftsmen using their hands and arms and backs to bend its rim, their expertise with chisel and plane to carve its soundboard, bridges and pinblock, their intuition to select and form wool into felt, shaped into hammers, woven into bushing cloth.  They are all depending upon me!  Yes, I have my self-doubts. Who am I?  I got this job by luck and circumstance, really.  Will I have done justice to those who have come before me in making this piano what it is? what it can be?  Will George be content, disappointed, deliriously happy? When I’m done, then what?

Will I ever be done?

Truth be told, I think it’ll be just the beginning of a very long friendship and dialogue.  Once I’ve had enough of the work with my hands, then I’ll play.   I’m a firm believer in the truism that all work and no play makes for an exhausting day!  I’ll just settle in on the artist bench, close my eyes, stroke the keys, and listen…