Tech letter for Teachers #2

In the last Tech Letter for Teachers I posed several questions. At that time I dealt with the issue of cracks and how sound board cracks are all they are cracked up to be. A crack nearly any place else in the instrument generally is a greater problem than a crack in the sound board necessarily would be.

Now to continue my mission to debunk myths and legends about our favorite instrument:

So what is wrong with a spinet? What is bad about old uprights?

A modern spinet is a vertical piano with the action located fully or partially underneath the ends of the keys. This is in contrast to larger verticals such as the console, studio, and upright where the action is located above the keys. Spinets first came on the scene at the end of the depression as manufactures tried to make less expensive pianos. Some manufactures put quality into these small instruments while others did not.

Outside of the issues of size and the compromises necessary to build a spinet, the single largest challenge these instruments face is lack of proper maintenance. The typical spinet buyer was not a serious musician (though a surprising number of teachers use these things to teach on). Beyond the very occasional tuning no further service was ever performed. It doesn’t matter if the name on your piano begins with the letter “S”and was built in New York, if you did not have anything beyond 4 tuning every 10 years your piano will sound and play like a piece of junk. Once the proper maintenance has been done on most of these pianos they can play and sound quite remarkable for their size.

What is the proper maintenance? Nothing more than should be done on any other piano. The hammers should be filed and voiced, lost motion should be removed, keys leveled, let off adjusted, and damper timing set properly. These alone would make a remarkable difference to any vertical piano. Before one condemns a spinet it should be examined by a qualifies technician.

Do you ever think about the stories a 100 year old piano could tell? Someday I will share some of the stories these instruments have told me. Even with proper maintenance a seventy year old piano is worn out. So while doing the work mentioned above for spinets may be helpful, the problems facing the upright go far beyond these remedies. Generally pianos built during the golden age of piano building 1890 - 1930 are of far superior quality to pianos built during the following 45 years. Pianos which are still structurally sound were probably also the better quality pianos from this era. The cheaply made pianos have long since fallen apart and been disposed of.

So what do we do with these heavy relics from the past? When considering the cost of a new upright piano, $9,000 for a Southeast Asia model to $19,000 for a top New York or European model, all in essentially plain black boxes, we really have a lot of options. While certainly many old pianos don’t merit the full rebuild (pinblock, soundboard ((yes soundboard)), complete action), even a partially rebuilt action with new strings can give you a piano with 45 years of life left in it capable of a tremendous amount of sound. A fully rebuilt upright piano can play as well or better than most new uprights and have a far fancier case at a fraction of the cost.