During the course of my business, I meet people with all kinds of interests. My hope was that, through the medium of this blog, I might be able to introduce some of these interesting folks to you, my blog reader.
So, please allow me to introduce you to Charlene Tymony.
As you can see from the accompanying photos, not only is she interested in the art of music, she is also an accomplished glass artist.
Charlene tells me that she began working with stained glass, but found reflecting glass much more to her liking and she has turned her home into a gallery of here work.
At the time of my last visit, she was working on this piece, a representation of the skyline of the city of Bellevue and its reflection on Lake Washington, which she views from here front window.
Its always fun to spend a few hours tuning Charlene’s piano, seeing her latest creations and curing my Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Tis the season to be late writing this month’s blog entry and I apologize profusely to all who are waiting in anticipation. But I do sincerely want to wish everyone the happiest of holidays. I know that, for me, in spite of the busyness of the season, I wouldn’t want to miss a single minute of it. Everyone seems to be in such good spirits. Many of my customers are getting the piano tuned up for a special occasion – a party, a visit from relatives, etc. so there is a feeling of expectation in the air. Friends and family are connecting with invitations and holiday cards. I look forward to the news from old friends about how they are doing. It’s a special time when there seems to be a glow in the air that gives a sense of delight to everything that goes on. So, best wishes for an enjoyable holiday season and may all your music-making be tuneful.
I recently heard that the universe might be tuned to B flat. Now being the naturally inquisitive guy that I am, I decided to check it out. It seems that most of the rumors to that effect have their basis in an investigation that NASA did some years ago at their Chandra Observatory. They were observing a certain black hole. Now, how one observes something that gives off no light is a little confusing to me, but then this is science. So these scientists noticed some strange vibrations being emitted by this black hole (I don’t know, maybe they were Beach Boy fans back in the day). They say it is about a B flat – a very low B flat. In fact, it is at a level 57 octaves below the mid-range of the piano. Just think about how low that is. If a piano was built to sound that note it would be half the length of a football field and the key board would be 35 feet wide. You’d have to run to your neighbor’s house to play that note. And, of course, we wouldn’t actually perceive it as a note, maybe a march tempo. Check it out.
So, because there is evidence that this black hole is tuned to a very low B flat, does that mean that the universe is likewise? I don’t know, but here’s some interesting evidence that NPR’s Robert Krulwich and friends turned up a few years back. They not only site the previous reference, but some other very peculiar evidence as well. Listen to this.
What I am aware of in my everyday walk of life is that our electrical current is tuned to about a B flat. You know how when you are in a quiet room that is lit by florescent lights and they are giving off that annoying buzz? They do that because our electrical current is alternating at 60 cycles per second. That 60 cps is somewhere between a B and a B flat. Anything that runs on household current (like your computer) is similarly tuned. Of course, that’s only been a phenomenon since the development of electricity, but I would love to have been in the room for that decision.
So, perhaps there is a fundamental pitch at which we all vibrate (I’ve often wondered what sound the big bang gave off) but until someone smarter than myself can give us some definitive evidence I’ll continue to ponder the question and search for that just right pitch for my OM.
As a piano tuner who, in my early years, took a lot of voice lessons, I have long been intrigued by the difference between piano intonation and vocal intonation. Since the piano must be able to function in all keys, it is tuned in what we call equal temperament. That is, all twelve pitches of the octave are equally spaced. In other words, the pitch difference between a C and a D is the same as that between a D and an E. The voice, on the other hand, is not so restricted. If that D wants to resolve up to the E, we can shade the pitch upward a bit, leading the ear toward the E. This will make the distance between C and D wider than the distance between D and E, all in the name of musical expression. Other musical instruments are capable of this pitch shading, but the piano, restricted as it is to the keyboard, cannot shade pitches in that way so must use other methods of phrasing.
What this means, though, is that the experience of making music on the piano is different than what we do with our voice. For many years of singing, I was not aware of this and believed that all my vocal pitches had to be the same as the piano’s pitches or it was “out of tune”. And this is, for the most part, true. When singing with any instrument (keyboard or non) we must agree on the pitches and be in tune with each other. It’s just that the piano is much more “iron fisted” about its intonation. It seems to be saying, “My way or the hi-way, kid.” So we comply with our totalitarian accompaniment, and we sing “in tune”.
But did you know that the piano is tuned out of tune with the actual physical vibration pattern of its strings? Yes, it’s that equal temperament thing again. You see, any pitch source sounds the tone that gives it its name (the fundamental), as well as many more weaker tones that we call partials. These partials are multiples of the basic pitch. In other words, in any string, there is a partial that is twice as fast as the basic note, one that is three times as fast, one that is four times, etc. If you go to this youtube video you will see an excellent visual representation of this phenomenon.
Now if you were to construct a scale from those partials (Do, Re, Mi, etc.), the resultant notes (termed “just” intonation) would not work in any other key. For example, if you wanted the Mi of the key of C to serve as the Fa in the key of B, it wouldn’t sound in tune. Therefore, the piano’s notes are “tempered” so that they sound equally out of tune in every key. I believe that this idiosyncrasy is one of the elements that gives the piano its unique tonal character and adds to the beauty of its sound.
The voice, on the other hand (when not in the company of a piano) is not so encumbered and is free to create pure (just) intervals, shade leading tones or even throw in a blues note when it seems appropriate. When I came to that realization, a Capella (unaccompanied) singing took on a whole new meaning for me. Where before, I worried about getting all the notes exactly where the piano said they needed to be, now I can take delight in the sheer joy of a pure sixth. Ah, such liberation.
Increasingly, I am running into a certain category of piano with repetition problems. This problem occurs in vertical pianos, usually 30+ years (although they can be younger), built in Asia with hammer return springs that are held in place by a fabric cord. With time, these cords have become stiff and brittle and are breaking, thus releasing the tension on the hammer return spring. This loss of spring tension reduces the touch-weight of the key and causes the hammer to function erratically reducing repetition and power in the piano. In most cases, this is a relatively easy fix involving replacing the action part on which these cords are mounted.
I recently ran across a Yamaha studio piano about 35 years old in which all 88 of these cords were broken. While the action was in the shop, I took a few pictures to show you just what is involved with this procedure.
Here you see the back side of the action sitting on the work bench.
Here is a row of old parts contrasted with a row of new parts. You can see how the old cords are broken.
Top hammer assembly shows the old, unbound spring while the bottom assembly has the new part with the spring at tension.
Here we see new parts installed on the action rail with everything ready to go back together and play again like new.
So if your thirty year old Asian vertical piano doesn’t have the spunk that it once did, you might want to have me take a look at those hammer return springs.
On Sunday, July 8th, while we were (briefly) able to shed our gortex and enjoy the arrival of the sun here in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, piano tuners from all over the map were quietly gathering their forces for an inharmonic convergence of dynamic proportions. It was the 55th Annual Convention and Technical Institute of the Piano Technicians Guild. This event, held every summer in various locations around the country, was the first of its kind here in the upper left-hand corner of the map and folks came from far and wide.
The week-long event began with a couple of days of business meetings followed by the Technical Institute; four and a half days of classes exploring the kinds of questions only a piano tuner would ask. There were over 100 classes offered ranging from tying a tuner’s splice knot to the latest in new stringing concepts. Ever wonder how a piano hammer is made? You would have been right at home.
Of course, it wasn’t all business. There were banquets, luncheons and social events to attend. Many out-of-towners took a break from classes to do the all-day Seattle tour including the Space Needle (of course), Pike Place Market and the Duck Tour. There was a bus tour to Snoqualmie Falls and the Cedar River Watershed Education Center and an evening cruise on the Virginia V accompanied by an incredible sunset.
All in all it was a great opportunity for greeting old friends and meeting new ones while, at the same time, learning new skills and recharging my batteries for another year on the journey for this piano guy.
Welcome to my blog. I hope these monthly missives will be an opportunity to explore a wide range of topics, from the care and feeding of the common household variety piano to the nature of existence. Certainly a wide pallet, but one which, I hope, will provide sufficient breadth to ensure a lively discussion and maintain an adequate level of interest for all. Won’t you join me?