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The Piano Shop on Route Seven South by William Harris

Ben Giroux

  This is a wonderful story written by the late Middlebury College Prof. Em. William Harris, about the man I apprenticed with, Ole Hansen, & his piano shop. Hansen & son pianos was located in Shelburne Vt. Ole Hansen was in the piano business in Vermont for 45 years. The shop in Shelburne was closed in the Fall of 2013. Ole Hansen passed away in October of 2014. He was an amazing man, I am eternally grateful for the time I got to spend with him.

The Piano Shop on Route Seven South

The Piano Shop on Route Seven South

Hansen and Son

It was a couple of years ago on a rainy summer afternoon as I was musing over the back shelves of a used book shop in Vermont, that I came upon Thad Carhart's little book "The Piano Shop on the Left bank". Not knowing that this was a best seller in 2001, I left it on the piano to read someday, and picked it up one evening after dinner top see what it was about. Of course it was fascinating, I stayed up till late enjoying the Paris scene, the atmosphere of a dusty piano shop with its penumbra of thin light on old instruments, made real by the writer's charming skill with words and scenes. But the note on the rear cover that it was one of the top ten books of 2001 did surprise me. Americans do read novels, which you see by the thousands in every recycling shop; but do they read essays on music today?

Part of the answer showed up on page 289 of the paperback as a "Reader's Guide" with some pages of Questions for Discussion. Yes, there are a hundred thousand piano teachers in America, and a data base of all the students, willing or unwilling, whom these teachers have taught, will be unthinkably large. This book caught the eye of every home where there was a piano still standing, and became required reading for highschoolers who were doing weekly lessons while preparing soon to abandon the piano for dance, football or just hanging around.

When you mention Paris you conjure up an atmosphere of enchantment, of old winding streets with cobblestone pavement, a touch of literary and artistic history with a sense of an Old World timelessness. Books have that wonderful ability to let you the reader interactively fill in the visual detailing as you read, something which cinema and TV have to compress into short expensive shots and sinter together to make a storyline. Books can meander and ramble, they are very good at that and we can expect some surprises as we go along with the flow of words.

But why just Paris? The modern world has piano shops in every country, from the Czech Petrof industry to factories and shops in Japan and Korea, and of course by way of Steinway's Long Island City yards where wood is still stacked for the needs of the elegant Steinways which have been coming out for a century and a half. In every town of size there are several piano shops where skilled craftsmen who have done a long apprenticeship of close association with the instrument are carefully doing their work.

Each morning some of these men and women go out in the seasons of climate change to tune pianos whose wood has responded to the urge of humidity. There is that familiar hammering of repeated notes as the tuner goes up and down the scales, hearing beats between discordant strings which most of us would miss entirely. Minute movements of the "tuning hammer" which you and I would call a wrench, will micro-adjust the tensions on each string, since each must accord with each others to the tune of eighty eight keys with over two hundred high tension steel wires. Doing all this in an hour and a half is sign of skill. Doing it perfectly means that when you sit down to play on a freshly tuned piano, it will sound brighter and cleaner in tone. But in two weeks something will be a bit off and we learn to accept that, punching the keys in time with the score and not really bothering about that fresh-tuned acoustic purity.

Tuning is largely seasonal, spring and fall. The rest of the time there are pianos of every variety to be repaired in the shop, even disassembled and rebuilt from the ground up. When you enter a piano shop you see workers busy with intricate jobs of adjustment and repair, there is a slight whiff of wood and perhaps of hot animal glue in the air. A light film of dust has settled everywhere including on the windows which are never washed. It is this diluted afternoon sunlight which gives the shop its soft-focus appearance, the thin light through the windows is part of the setting.

We don't have a Left Bank in the United States. If there are artistic quarters in major cities, they would be for clubs and galleries, not where a working piano shop could survive. But go to any small city with an address in hand, and you will find a piano shop on a side street, or in a spare building behind a Victorian house; or out in the country away from commerce. People come to the shop, it does not have to put up a big sign or advertise. If you have a serious interest in your piano, you will wind up one day in such a piano shop in the large showroom to try out some new and used instruments, or eventually to go into the working inner sanctum itself, and discuss bringing your instrument back to its pristine brilliance.

Yes, it doesn't have to be in Paris at all. I am thinking of a piano shop on the left side of Route 7 South, out of sight of the two-laned "highway" on a picturesque sounding Longmeadow Road in Shelburne VT. A small but very clear sign remarks "Hansen and Son", so you turn right to the front of a longish modern one story building, park the car and find your way to the front door.

There are dosens of pianos of every size and style in the carpeted showroom, from modest uprights to new Baldwins and shiny black Petrofs. You walk around and look inside the raised lids of the resplendent grands, finally you sit down at one which is interesting and play a few passages of something you remember. You are free to play on, the men in the workshop know you are there but they know you are enjoying the piano and wouldn't want to come in an interrupt you. Take your time, piano people do not like to work or think in a hurry.

After a while a large man with an impressive stance and graying beard comes out and listens to your playing. This is Jonathan, the apprentice who has only been there for half a dozen years, still full of enthusiasm for the piano master's fine work. He goes back into the shop and a while later Ole Hansen appears. He talks familiarly with you after a handshake, as if he had known you before, everything open but courtly and modified by his slight Danish accent.

You had seen on the wall to the right when coming in a framed account of how his father had come forty years ago from Denmark to found a piano business here, dying a few years later and leaving his apprentice Ole to run the business. And so for thirty year Ole Hansen had lived in a world of pianos, always busy because there are pianos needing help everywhere , and piano owners everywhere who want to know more about their instruments. Talking pianos, Ole lights up. He is full of interesting insights into the remarkably complex mechanical and acoustic system which we call a piano. Forever watching and forever learning something new, he is a craftsman of the first order. He is available to talk with you when you come in, always humorous and sunny and amused.

The shop at the nether end from the neat showroom, with pianos in rows on rows, is another world. It is guarded by two French doors always kept closed, with a light see-through curtain draped across the inside surface. At you approach this "gate" you are welcomed by the glass windows which suggest that there is something special on the other side; but although you can see light and a few shapes of equipment, you can't really see anything in there. I hadn't thought about the significance of these doors during the year that I got accustomed to come over on a Saturday afternoon and try my hand on one of the various pianos. Ole welcomes playing on his new instruments, he says new pianos are stiff and should be worked in a bit to get their true tone, so I felt I was doing something pleasurable for me and also useful for the piano.

Some months later, I think it was on a bright fall afternoon, the door opened wide and Ole came out to greet me with his customary handshake, inviting me into the inner sanctum. Now at last I could see what was on the other wide of the gray curtain, and I followed him back inside stepping cautiously over parts of disassembled actions, legless grands perched on end against the wall, boxes of new and spare parts everywhere, even an antique single cylinder gasoline engine from 1889 which Ole said they fired up just once a year for July 4th. This was the first time I had seen a piano keyboard and action outside the case, it felt like being in an anatomy lab with painted plaster body parts laid out in front of a life size wall poster of a man. Did all of this come out of that case? Do all pianos have that array of hundreds of little wooden parts with multiple pivots and springs?

For most of us the piano is a large and impressive box, standing vertically or perched on three legs. We spend a lot of time in front of it playing with a printed score on the stand, the fingers of both hands running around like squirrels on the black and white keys. And when we have finished fun playing or just practicing, we close the fallboard and walk away. The piano becomes a part of the living room's furniture, it is a good place on which to put framed family portraits, a jar of dried flowers, a drink on a coaster when you have a party. But what is inside that piano ---- we are no more aware of that, than we are aware of what is inside our pectoral cavity.

But humans have insatiable curiosity, and once you start reading an anatomy book, your life is changed forever. It is so with the piano, and when Ole showed me the clever complexities of the "action", as he called it, which Sebastian Erard had figured out in the l840's remaining essentially unchanged to this day, I knew I was in for a steep curve of learning. Just as the violin had reached its final form in the mid 17th century at the hands of Amati and Stradivari, so the piano had become what we think of as a piano today, some time before 1890. Some even prefer the 1900 models to have rebuilt and restored, feeling that the craft and the wood of that age is superior to what a modern factory can now turn out .

In fact all the moving parts of a Steinway can be replaced from Germany, the strings are easily replaced with new hard drawn wire, and nothing but the hardwood case, the keys with their sadly resplendent ivory, the fallboard and lid will remain from the original instrument. Even the heart of the piano, which is the soundboard with its bracing strips underneath, can be replaced from the factory or from a variety of custom makers. The piano is stated by some to have only a fifty year life before things begin to wear out, but wear can be replaced with new parts; and a piano restored properly can be as good as a new instrument. Some even state flatly that a good restored model will be better than what you can purchase today, with Steinways and Mason-Hamlins preferred if they were made before 1912!

Now that I was a frequent visitor when I was in town, Ole Hansen told me a little more about his work and the difficulty of getting an apprentice trained. The last man had worked for seventeen years with him, then went off into his own business making bagpipes. At least he didn't set up local competition! This really has to be a family business, handed down the way his family did from generation to generation, not only to pass along the craft and experience, but also to keep the business intact as an operating system. Jonathan was learning fast, but he knew he could not really catch up with Ole at his age. You have to start this work almost in the high school years, getting the pace of work first and then slowly adding the technical know-how which a competent piano technician must have. It is a long road, with the sole advantage of knowing that pianos are stable business and will not disappear into the snares of a new technology. Electronic keyboards sprout like the weeds in July, losing value faster than their owners' cars, while a good piano will actually appreciate over time.

One day when I was wandering through the showroom to see what was new, I noticed a small grand in beautiful fine wood verneers, somewhat different in shape from the usual format. It was an ancient 1840's Chickering from the one of the few American makers who developed cast iron for its strength in the stringing in the decades before Heinrich Steinweg came to this country. Later Ole told me that this was one of several which had graced the White House in the 19th century, now on display in the Smithsonian. I was interested in the fact that the "unisons" which now have three strings in the middle and upper range had only two in the early days, which explains the use of the term una corda in notation for the soft pedal , despite the fact that it is played with two strings. Here was a true una corda , and I thought this would be a fine instrument on which to play early Beethoven and Schubert, perhaps even try some Chopin with a light hand and see if that single string playing had a special sound of its own. It was now out of tune and unplayable, Ole added this was marked SOLD because he was keeping it for a personal project in his retirement.

At the far end of the showroom was a storeroom with a normally closed door. Asking permission to peer in there, I saw an assortment of large parts, all sizes of covers and cases, and over by the wall on its side a very long and impressive piano which turned out to be an ancient Boesendorfer. I asked Ole about it, he said this would be a special project when he had time to work on it. It was something quite different from the usual grands with their firm hardwood cases surrounding the vibrating soundboard. Here the case was soft and resonant, it was designed to be a part of the total sound of the instrument rather than just a support, and this was part of the reason for the special sound of this remarkable and famous make. Again, for future years when there would be time...

It was two years later than my wife and I were in the showroom when Ole pointed casually to a shabby Steinway down in the far corner. I knew he meant something special since he didn't waste words, so I went over and played a few chords. It was way out of tune, the sound was harsh from ancient age-hardened felt hammers, but I heard an interesting growl down in the bass, and asked him where it came from. It belonged to an older woman who had taught for years. When this piano was in need of extensive reworking, she bought a new upright for her teaching, later decided the Steinway should go.

It was a 1928 Model L which is the largest of the smaller group before you get to the seven foot Model B and the magnificent Concert Grand D. This was one of the good ones as Ole pointed out. Somehow he had a suspicion that this would be a very fine instrument, although with cracked black lacquer on several faces which had been in the sunlight, it looked sad indeed. But he was sure it had a good soundboard, and I filed his information in the back of my mind.

A week later we were back and I played on it more and thought about it further, until my wife said we should get it and have it completely reworked. After all, I had enjoyed my little Steinway console for many years, it was a good piano exceedingly well built in those post-war days when the Steinway tradition was still strong. On the other hand it had the vertical hammer action which could not compare with the Erard grand, the sound was modest and I had to pull it out away from the wall to get the full tone out of the back-mounted soundboard. Inconvenient!

I thought about expenditure, but it was the factual notion of piano appreciation of value which convinced me. That afternoon we shook hands on a complete reworking of the piano and set a price. But that was in the summer and Ole said he would never work on a fine piano until well into November when the heat would be on to dry all wood parts sufficiently. So I set my mind to rest and waited, came in to play on it occasionally and compare it with some other pianos in the room, always satisfied that this one when acoustically reborn would be just what I wanted.

All through the fall I came in Friday late afternoons after we had done shopping in the city, and saw the work in progress. The action came out first, then the cast iron harp was lifted up and away on a ceiling hoist, and the soundboard was ready to be dealt with. It was well arched and solid, just one crack which Ole and Steinway maintained had nothing to do with the sound quality. But he had a high speed router which cut a narrow swathe into which a scrupulously chamfered spline was glued. Soon the stringless board was being varnished, and I took back to my home workshop all the crazed lacquered parts, even legs and the lyre of pedals, everything which I could dismantle and I did the black spray finish on them myself. The lid was good, sides acceptable and I figured that after all it was an instrument that I wanted, not a dazzling piece of furniture.

The lady who had the piano all those years had a ring and long fingernails. Rings are always bad for the bass side of the fall board, but she did little damage there. On the other hand she had abraded away the ivory keys in the central or tenor range almost down to the wood, obviously believing in long practice with an artistic fervor. It was a question of changing to new plastic which is good these days, but Ole came up with a box of saved ivories and matched the worn keys with suitable pieces, gluing down with a special white glue underneath. Ivory is always worth keeping, not just as a presently rare and unavailable material, but because it has a curious ability to absorb sweat from your fingers while you play. It is a better feeling material than plastic which is hard, strong, easily cleanable, but inert.

When I was cleaning up the legs at home, I decided to replace the original brass casters with new double roller ones, and noticed that the brass wheels on the front pegs was clean while the rear one had a coating of verdegris. Oh yes, said Ole, I remember the lady had a dog! The dog knew enough not to use the front legs where it might show, but could not resist leaving his mark on the back leg, a preference which cannot be trained out of the canine mind. We have our peculiar preferences as human beings too, but fortunately not that one.

One afternoon when Ole was out I talked with Jonathan about the work he was doing there, which he obviously relished. He was terribly impressed by the precision and speed of Ole's working habits, couldn't believe how he could keep so many things in mind accurately, while also moving with alacrity from one operation to another. It wasn't just a question of reiterated practice, it was a special kind of talent with hands and mind. Jonathan was kept busy just finding the right tools and parts and handing them to him, trying to anticipate what he needed next. He said it felt like being an assistant at a surgical operation, where the instruments had to be at hand in the doctor's reach without question. These were not life saving procedures, they were restorations of the life of instruments used for the art of music, so the purpose was different but the intensity and accuracy was much the same.

Years later when I told visiting friends that I should sometime finish up the worn edges at the front where hands had rubbed the lacquer down to a trace of the wood underneath, Joanna smiled and said she thought it should stay as it was. After all it had accrued proper marks of years of use and enjoyment, which were part of the instrument's nature and history. Some older things have a charm in their decrepitude she added, her eye roving unconsciously to her husband who was learning over the ivory keys. I still think of painting those edges, but then I remember the piano is actually two years younger than me, and maybe we should both have some touch-up to be in accord.

The last time I dropped in near the time the piano would be ready for delivery, they were putting the lid on and slipping the pins into the hinges. I remarked to Ole that many pianists and teachers I had known played with the lid down, often with a heavy blanket over the top, presumably to keep the "noise" down. But the sound would be terribly muffled, not the sound a sensitive player would want to hear as he worked out the interpretation of a Mozart sonata. Ole agreed he had seen this often, a surprise to him as the man concerned with getting the best and clearest sound from an instrument. I thought maybe this had something to do with that pianist's adage of "Practice, Practice and Practice....", often to the tune of six hours a day. The fingers becomes automatic in a perfected pattern, but the ear goes dull and I think pianists can eventually suffer from not listening to what they are playing. Playing the piano for many means concentrating on the complex finger work, something quite different from the approach of violinist or clarinetist for whom bow or breath are the starting point for every note.

We are so used to the sound of the piano that we often forget that it is initially a percussion instrument as hammers bounce off stiffly tensioned strings. If you graph a sounded note, the amplitude can be quite loud but it falls off steeply, usually pausing with a slight bump before flattening out; then surprisingly the pitch trails upward just as it is ready to disappear. But this is no simple sound, it is a complex array of overtones which mark the fact that this is a Piano sounding, while also indicating how good an instrument is being played. Since there are so many variables from heat, moisture and wear in the train of parts from your finger to the hammer striking the string, it is not surprising that there will be stray upper harmonics appearing at unsuspected times, even buzzes and zzzzings which can be annoying and hard to fix. But that is the nature of the piano, its sounds are impure but very rich in subtle harmonics, and this can be weighed against the advantages of having two handed polyphony over the widest tonal range of any orchestral instrument.

Speaking of the hammers, they are after the soundboard the most import contributor to the piano's sound. Physicists have done studies on the exact degree of bounce required of a hammer as it sets the string into motion while getting back out of the way so as not to dampen the sounded vibrations. Special felts of special hardness have been devised for each breed of piano, some harder to give a bright and strong sound for playing in a large hall, some soft for use on pianos which are strung with hard high-tension wire. For a living room or a private studio a gentle sound may be required. But the making of a perfect hammer is a matter of chance blended with the maker's experience, and even then there can be variables of hardness, bounce and weight in the produced run of an eighty eight note set. Restorers know from experience what works best with a given piano, they also know how to soften the sound with repeated needling or how to harden with drops of a secret dope.

In this area there are intense personal opinions, because the slightest variant can produce very different sounds. And hammers do harden with time, by continued use and through changes in moisture, so much that a consistent player may want them changed in three or five years; but another set may last decades before becoming strident. Dealing with the critical matter of hammers is still more of an art than a science. Ole tends to favor a hammer he has found good and he forbears the needling and doping. Get everything in and adjusted right, and see how the hammer settles itself into the piano in six months' playing.

The piano arrived in March with a thick blanket of snow still over the front lawn. I had worried about how it would come onto the porch and in through the glass door, but a piano is much lighter in fact than it seems, and Ole with a helper moved it with grace and agility. I finally saw in action what longtime practice with hands and arms can do. First two of the legs go legs on, then turn it over and pound the last leg in tight, the so called lyre with its pedals gets installed, and after an hour of adjustment it is ready to play. Now there was nothing more for me at that moment than to thank my wife for her decision to purchase the instrument, and thank Ole for the personal interest he had taken working on my piano over the winter months. I finally had what I wanted, iI had my Steinway grand!

You may be interested in my other essays on the Piano and on Classical Improvisation, which you can find on my website on the Music Page.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College