Marcel has been here since Tuesday afternoon performing a series of intricate, highly sensitive and skilled operations on the innermost reaches of my beautiful piano. Almost before he was through the door (he had forgotten to bring a coat) he was at the hammers, with an abrading tool, smoothing away the ridges and troughs caused by the countless impact of hammer on tri-chord strings, refashioning an impeccable “nose ” from which he would then restore the hammer to renewed life. Fluff and dust making a film of snow along the bed of the action as it rested in his lap. 7 and a half octaves. 88 notes, ranging from squat sturdy bass to slender delicate treble in an almost imperceptible transition from left to right. A row of heart and soul, felt and lacquer, brilliance and tenderness to be stabbed and shaved. All in the search for beauty, refinement, infinite responsiveness.
The thing about a good nose is that it will throw up just the right amount of harmonics. If, say, in the middle range, the nose is too broad, the string will produce high harmonics that can overwhelm the more restrained harmonics of the same note an octave above, giving the illusion of the piano being out of tune. Adjusting these 88 noses therefore has to be an art that can encompass the whole and the individual at once so as to bring about a blend. Just this procedure can give the impression that the piano has been tuned even though the tuning lever has stayed in its bag.
Marcel has noticed that one of the hammers is slightly loose. He explains that if the hammer strikes the strings at an angle so that instead of meeting the 3 strings that belong to it simultaneously, it strikes one after the other in quick succession, the strings produce an uneven wave that throws the harmonics out of balance. The glue collar at the junction of the hammer head with its shaft is a crucial element in keeping the hammer secure and preventing it from swiveling.
By supper time the noses were in nice shape and Marcel tied up his long hair to avoid the beetroot soup. He talked about his rock band, recording, mixing and multi-tracking. His training with Steinway in Hamburg. The masters of this fascinating craft are sadly often reluctant to part with “the knowledge” seemingly oblivious to the threat of extinction.
Next off, a session spent adjusting the “set off” This is the precise distance from the string at which the hammer escapes instead of blocks. This too can have an effect on the sound, but put simply, the main effect is to make it easier to control and play pianissimo. How far the hammer then drops before coming to rest, ready to strike again alters both the sense of weight and the rapidity with which the note repeats. Too deep a drop and it takes more effort and time to repeat. Too shallow and there will not be time for the note to ring.
The piano is now disembowelled and the action is lying exposed on the lid of the piano in a marvelous row of wood, colorful felt and countless levers, springs and adjusting screws.
Marcel polishes some little brass buttons that I will never see once they have returned to the interior.
We check for the dreaded moth and spot some tell tale signs. Down with the moth. Fortunately there is only a tiny scattering of grit and the damaged piece of red felt is not crucial. A good spray of deterrent and we leave the fumes to dissipate while we go for a breath of fresh air at Slapton. I lend Marcel my ski jacket. He is slender and tall, so luckily it fits quite well. It always was a bit too big for me.
When we return, the next phase is a careful injection of silica based lubricant to the felt-lined holes in the front underside of the keys so that they will rock without friction upon the pins that hold them stably on the key bed. This will give them more freedom and a greater sense of response and lightness under the fingers. It is important however, not to deprive the action of too much friction otherwise the loss of support throughout the moving parts will result in the total weight becoming more obvious and heaviness will return. A bit like ligaments and joints I suppose.
We now have a good nose, freedom of movement, rapid repetition and a smooth blend of harmonics across the the piano. Where there was a glaring shrill note there is now an even texture.
Zooming out to the environment, there is the room, the floor, me and my personal preferences.
Last night we watched Horowitz playing Mozart. His deeply hooded eyes twinkling in an otherwise nearly motionless head and torso while his unlikely hands and fingers performed with exquisite and effortless control. In his late eighties he was craftily looking around, pulling cheeky childlike little faces as if to say “that bit was good wasn’t it? ”
His technician tailored the action to be so like a twitchy thoroughbred that very few pianists would have been able to control it. He had it shipped all over the world. Benjamin Britten had very particular voicing requirements so that in his accompanying you often could not tell which instrument was playing, so finely were they blended together. Marcel tells me that a good technician can make a Steinway sound like a Blüthner and vice versa.
I have often wondered why Alfred Brendel wears sticking plasters on the ends of his fingers. I was about to be enlightened.
The mystery of the hammer now begins to unfold. It can be treated in such a variety of ways as to match the individual requirements of the pianist. Horowitz liked a very crystalline, sparkling, I would say, golden sound. The hammers would need to retain their surface brilliance or hardness and because he could exercise such control, he was able to produce the most delicate pianissimo. Brendel, on the other hand prefers to wait for his fire and brilliance until he is playing in the range of forte or beyond, so the outer layers of the hammer felt need to be softer. In this case the quieter to medium quiet passages have a sweeter, mellow sound, I would say, more towards blue. Only when the volume increases does the tone become more brilliant, red, volcanic. This is from the deeper centre of the hammer and so requires more energy…. Very much more in Brendel’s case and so this shreds the fingers.
American Steinway hammers are built with more lacquer and so come into the world ready to be softened.
German Steinways have less lacquer and so are born for hardening up. Incidentally, such is the standard of quality in their instrument building that Steinway discards an astonishing proportion of wood that comes into the factories. It goes to other piano manufacturers.
A balance between the use of abrasion (to harden) and the rather horrifying procedure of pricking. (making holes gives a more spongy texture)
You can see that unskilled voicing could damage a hammer beyond repair!
Last but not least Marcel brought out his stylus and set to with vigour, stabbing the needle into the hammers at varying depths. His flare and experience coming together to smooth the transition from treble to the top end of the piano, high treble, where the strings are no longer damped. There was a sudden break from high D# upwards going from a warm caressing tone to an unpleasantly shrill shriek. Marcel has managed to layer the brilliance so that it sweeps steadily upwards to a sparkling peak for a last octave of ecstatic pinging celebration.
Can you imagine what it is to be able to manipulate the hammer felt so that it is sweet on the outside, warm in the middle and bright with sparkle and fire
deep in the middle?
Marcel is indeed one of a rare breed.
Not surprisingly our conversation turned to the subject of authentic expression. The unanswerable questions of what is personality. The mask of illusion and the joy of performance. How wearing a wig or donning a costume immediately liberates another facet of our character. How vital it is to live in the deepest appreciation of life and to be grateful for so much. The search for at least some kind of truth and the hope for things to improve in a world torn with strife.
He left promptly this morning at 11o’clock. The glue is still setting on the errant hammer shaft.
I am about to begin all over again with an instrument that is doing me the honour of being my teacher. I now have a sense that I can choose which part of the hammer I want to sing with. Wow!
I have not felt much urge to play over the last few months.
I can’t wait to start again.
Thank you Marcel. I feel incredibly lucky to have had somebody of your skill, patience and good heartedness to take such great care with the love of my life.
Pricking and abrasion.
Leaning into the sharp points and having your nose rubbed in it?
If you have read this far, I hope you have enjoyed some of the inner secrets of the piano. I have loved writing about it.