Pimp my piano: a technician lifts the lid
Dublin International Piano Festival opened with an intimate look at – and inside – the instrument
Piano technician Martin Walsh is fully on the side of Hamburg Steinways over the New York-made version
The website and printed material for the new Dublin International Piano Festival & Summer Academy are emblazoned with a night-time image of the Convention Centre Dublin and the Samuel Beckett Bridge. The bridge’s harp-like cable stays have been cleverly integrated into the festival’s logo, where they represent the frame and strings of a grand piano.
And it was with an exposition of the nuts and bolts of the piano that the festival opened at the Piano Academy of Ireland in Rathgar on Thursday.
The speaker was piano technician Martin Walsh, a man you might have seen at work if you are a regular concert-goer, and someone whose work you are almost sure to have enjoyed, even if you have never even heard of him.
He is what you might call a piano nerd, someone for whom the minutest scrap of information about pianos can be of vital interest. You may think of him as a piano tuner, but that is only one aspect of what he does. If he were just a tuner, he wouldn’t have begun his exposition with the piano partly dismantled, and the keyboard and all its associated mechanics – collectively known as the action – ready to slide in and out. To use one of his own phrases, he is expert at what he called “pimping a piano”.
He has worked on a production line for pianos, at the end of the process where the instruments get a final tuning and checkover. His advice – and bear in mind that he was addressing an audience mainly of aspiring professional pianists – was not to buy a production line piano, but to go for a handcrafted model, even though he gauged the price difference for apparently similar models as a factor of three.
The handcrafted product, he said, would not only sound better, but give less trouble, and last longer.
He fielded questions about the merits of Hamburg-manufactured Steinways over New York-manufactured ones (he is fully on the Hamburg side, as most Europeans are), offered advice about whether to play with the lid up or down (up, up, up, was his advice, saying you will wear a piano out early by playing it with the lid down, because the muffling will cause you to use more force to compensate), explained why it is okay to use a hot iron to treat the hammers (the shape and texture of the hammers are crucial to the tone), and went into the minutiae of the way temperature and humidity affect not just the stability of pianos, but also the nature of the sound they produce.
If you are serious enough about pianos to follow his advice, you will have a thermometer and hygrometer recording the factors affecting the inner life of your instrument, if not a machine to condition the air in your room so your piano can have the right atmosphere in which to sound its best.
And he had advice for anyone trying out a piano before they buy it. Don’t be impressed by the bass end, or the highest treble. These, he said, can be adjusted. It’s the mid-treble, the area where the right hand does most of its work, that’s crucial. If that is not right, there is not much that can be done to fix it. If it is good, the rest can be adjusted to put the whole in balance. Of course, you would probably know a thing or two about pianos to make that mid-treble judgment call in the first place.