A Stunning New Book for Piano Technicians:
Upright and Grand Piano Repair by Carl-Johan Forss
Reviewed by Trevor Nelson, RPT Boulder CO Chapter
When you live and breathe pia¬nos every day, it’s easy to miss the changes occur¬ring around you. Then one day you step back and realize that the advances
that have occurred in piano technology over the last twenty years are unlike any that have occurred previously. We live in the most exciting era in piano technol¬ogy yet known.
Stop and consider the wide variety of high quality tools, jigs and materials available to us. Specialty tools by Bill Spurlock and Joe Goss’s string leveler, for example, make our work much easier and our results far more consistent and precise. We have easy access to the world’s finest action parts for rebuilding. (Remember how rare Renner or Abel parts were back in the 1980s?) We can order pre-crowned soundboards. Some build their own pneumatic soundboard presses. Thinkers such as David Stan¬wood, Ron Overs and Del Fandrich, to name a few of many, have dramatically broadened the way we think about such topics as touchweight and piano design. Our annual conventions are brimming over with classes taught by the brightest piano minds from around the world. We enjoy an embarrassment of riches today, and the standards of the average techni¬cian have risen dramatically.
Interestingly, one area that hasn’t kept pace is the availability of high quality textbooks for both student and professional piano technicians. Arthur Reblitz’s Piano Servicing, Tuning & Re¬building, first published in 1976, with a second edition in 1993, is still considered the most comprehensive book on piano technology. It ambitiously covers history, construction, theory, tuning, repairs and basic rebuilding, and targets, according to the subtitle, everything from hobby¬ists to professionals. But it is more of an introductory handbook than a textbook; its size limits it from delving too deeply into any one topic. Even though our profession has been around for more than a century, we still lack textbooks to provide a detailed and comprehensive introduction to our field. Producing a comprehensive book on piano technol¬ogy is a monumental task and the market is quite small.
In Europe the situation is different, thanks to government subsidies, a deep reverence for the high arts and traditions of instrument making, and a tiny group of daring and committed publishing houses. Among these publishers, a firm named Edition Bochinsky deserves particular mention. They publish a wide variety of books on musical instruments and related topics, and the piano is not neglected. Readers may already know Max Mathias’ Steinway Service Manual as a product of this fine company.
In 1998, Carl-Johan Forss, a Swed¬ish piano technician and Professor in Methodological Pedagogy (read: How to Teach Effectively) at the University of Leksand, published the first of three textbooks on piano technology. Edition Bochinsky published them in German in 2003, 2004 and 2007. The first textbook dealt with repairs to grands and uprights, the second with regulating and the third with tuning. At 488, 576 and 492 pages respectively, these three books far exceed in scope and depth any other books on piano technology, particularly for the beginning student.
Until this year, these books have only been available in German and Spanish. Bochinsky has just published the first English edition of Upright and Grand Piano Repair, and the next two books are due out by the end of 2009.
Professor Forss knows how to present educational material. The layout is beautiful, the material is clear and easy to understand. Tool and material lists are presented at the beginning of each section, and each chapter concludes with a blank page for notes, questions for the reader to answer, homework, and review exercises to make sure the information in the chapter has been learned. Each topic is amply illustrated, and periodi¬cally there are callout boxes to review important facts or present important reminders.
In Europe the model for piano technician training is much more rigorous and thorough than in North America. In Germany, for example, student tech¬nicians are required to apprentice in a factory or workshop, and to attend piano technology college as well. To achieve a master’s degree in Piano Technology, a student must design and build a piano.
Forss is a product of this tradition, and his book presents all kinds of infor¬mation that the typical North American technician would ideally know but usually doesn’t, or doesn’t learn until much later in a career. For example, in addition to the repairs one would expect to be covered, there is a section on how to make your own bass strings, with tables of copper sizes. There are sections on making a replacement keystick from scratch, making an entirely new bridge, replacing pinblocks, making your own psychrometer to measure absolute hu¬midity, making your own action springs, measuring the moisture content of the wood in your shop without an EMC reader, and many more. The student achieves a much more thorough understanding of the craft than if one simply learned how to do the typical basic repairs, such as replace a bridle strap, rebush a key, splice a string, etc.
This philosophy is underscored in the introduction. Forss begins his book with eight pages instructing his readers how to most effectively be a student of piano technology: how to organize time, what books to study, how to keep records and notes of studies, etc. He urges his readers to take pictures of their work every day, make notes each day and keep a workbook and log of every piano and procedure performed. He also urges readers to learn as much as possible about related fields such as music instrument history, music theory and history, business and marketing, acoustics, woodwork, metallurgy, etc. He then presents a thirteen page step-by-step description of how to evaluate a piano, which the student is to utilize when first approaching any piano. His devotion to the highest standards is thrilling. The generation of North American technicians that has this book as part of its training will no doubt become our finest ever. Technicians of older generations who are still learning will find information they would never come across anywhere else.
Forss believes in the importance of context for a student learning new information, and each chapter includes sections on history. The extensive chapter on the pedal assembly, for example, contains a section on the history of the pedal mechanism, to help the student better understand its evolution, design and use. There is a 100-page chapter about “Science in Materials,” which covers a vast amount of information on all the various materials which can be found in pianos. Ever wonder how veneer is made, how a pinblock is made, what properties of different metals lead to their use in the piano, or how felt is made? This section contains much fascinating material on these and many more topics.
There are a few procedures that many in North America would consider out of date. For example, the method of soundboard shimming presented is the traditional one performed with a hand¬held soundboard chisel, rather than the very precise router method introduced by Bill Spurlock quite some time ago that many North American technicians prefer. The reader will also readily notice that the book is a translation from German, and as such, occasional mistakes in
grammar and idioms occur. It took this writer a while to figure out, for example, that the translator’s frequent use of the word “shift” (e.g., “shift the key bush¬ings”) was intended to mean “replace.” These types of errors will throw most readers for a loop until they figure out what is meant, at which point they will be only mildly distracting. Unfortunately, the illustrations are in black and white, whereas the German edition uses color. Color is more expensive from a printing point of view, but it makes the text much more effective
It’s very exciting that we now have a real textbook for piano technology, written at a college and university level. It will not be surprising if schools such as North Bennet Street, University of Western Ontario, Florida State Univer¬sity and Chicago School of Piano Technology incorporate it in their curricula in very short order. And there’s more to come. The next book by Mr. Forss was due out at the end of 2008, with the third to follow this year.
MORE READING: “UPRIGHT AND GRAND PIANO REPAIR”,
“UPRIGHT AND GRAND PIANO ACTION REGULATION”
“UPRIGHT AND GRAND PIANO TUNING” BY CARL-JOHAN FORSS.
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