So how and why does one take apart a perfectly good piano? Slowly and with help I would answer.
Notes from the ecopsychological expressive art work-bench: Piano Un-wound
So often we see and discuss only the beginning or finishing of art products, that sometimes I think we can forget the beauty which can occur in the process of the work itself.
It can be dirty, challenging, confusing, and directionless. Skinned knuckles and broken tools are quite common akin to failed angles of attack and numerous coffee breaks pondering just why we even decided to start such an adventure in the first place. Until it all starts to fit into place and the light shines through.
This is one such story I’d like to share just a snippet of: a piano un-wound.
So how and why does one take apart a perfectly good piano?
Slowly and with help I would answer.
When confronted with yet another ailing piano which few wish to accept for repair and use, the director of the ArtisTree music department, Mark van Gulden, and I decided to have a go with a little deconstruction for art-sake purposes. With a mental note of having parts for an upcoming class in musical instrument making, taking apart an old piano found in an unused practice room seemed the logical next step. Then when a request came in to create a piano shroud for an upcoming theater production- our work seemed given new direction and focus. And to our tool boxes we went for a demolition to begin.
With a little help and a shove or two, the old piano came to rest outside for the work to begin. Speaking for myself, I think we thought that it might be easy or we’d revert to the ‘good ‘ol chain saw and crow bar if need be. Sadly, this was not to be the case. This became surgery, not demolition.
The keys were first- easy lift up and off their balance pins. Even in this model of piano, they are still carefully cut, sanded, numbered and aligned each in their corresponding slot, and are something to behold. They went in a bucket which mirrored our sentiment at the moment.
Then for the action and hammers therein which came out with a few screws. Surprisingly there was little rust or elbow grease needed to disassemble at this point. No hidden mouse homes or fly graveyards- as we found in another piano in the Grange nearby.
The internal workings reminded me of Theo Jansen’s Strandbeest: ready for a life of its’ own somewhere out in the world (http://www.strandbeest.com). It just needs the right puff of inspiration to set it free. For now, it will rest out of the wind and rain and has surprisingly therein sparked inspiration and wonder to a few afterschool kid’s art classes who take snack break nearby. So often are the children are minded carefully in their use of instruments, that many had never seen the inside of one before, much less been able to touch the parts and start to see how their musical collaboration occurs.
The children come and go, and things are moving swiftly and easily at this point as we get back into deconstruction. We work almost silently in tandem with little comment here and there, and take a break when most of the obvious parts are removed.
The next move presented more of a challenge, the cast iron plate holds the strings over the bridges on the upright soundboard and is somehow securely fastened all around to the wood case. I’ll admit, I thought that this would be just as easy. Just unscrew and separate the heavy iron and poof! Cool pre-strung art piece would be ready to install or play or do something with.
Unfortunately, that was not the case at all. As I tried to futilely hack and pry the plate out, there seemed to be more and more flat head screws hidden under the bridges, strings and even on the other side of the sound board. I nearly cracked the sound board figuring that one (sorry piano makers of the world) out until Mark gave me some much needed insight. Take a minute and look at it.
Like it or not, the string assembly is something to be admired as parts which make a whole, and cannot simply be taken out en masse. There is a sense of workmanship, craft, art and careful planning and acumen which allows this piece of part furniture part instrument to function quite beautifully even if it’s just a simple upright piano, a bit forlorn and forgotten.
So I slowed down at this point as Mark went off to teach, and took some time to really take a look at of some of the various parts in situ. There is a lot of tension on those pins and each piece is carefully set in its’ course from pin across a bridge in order to allow for clear, lasting sound. No wonder it’s not easy to disassemble, it’s meant to stay together and in tune.
Mark came back and it dawned on us. The real work had yet to begin. We’d have to one by one unscrew each string tuning pin from the cast metal plate as it was clear they were screwed through that and into the wood behind by at least a few inches for support and durability. Lucky for us, Mark had the only tool which could fit the square tuning pin, a Grover-Trophy pitchpipe tuning hammer he kept from back in the day, and we started turning - eighty-eight strings until done.
I think we skinned our hands so many times we were glad to switch off the chore throughout the day.
The wires started piling up in interesting shapes and designs.
Each wound wire a certain gauge, wound within in particular pattern up through the piano, fitting ‘just so’ into cast metal fittings. All tuned in so that the entire piano becomes (sorry for my lack of knowledge here) the strung instrument itself – just waiting for a note to be struck.
Alas, we were here to undo such careful forethought, workmanship, and craftsmanship.
With the style of a fisherman gutting a toothy pickerel, we stripped away the prickly appendages only to leave the carcass standing. Tools finally at rest. Parts strewn about. Coffee cups cold and backs tired from bending over wrenching on parts clearly not eager to leave their mounts.
But they gave their last and we prevailed.
Or did we?
The case is off for its’ new life on stage in town. The parts are sorted and piled for future use. It’s too bad the strings had to come off in process, but now that they’re off, it’s nice to see the parts as they are intact, without being broken, and knowing they can go back together again if need be.
Lo and behold, we just got wind of another piano which might need the same done; this time even bigger. I wonder what will become of it and what we’ll learn in the process.
I wonder if you have ever taken the time to stop and enmesh yourself in the process? Take the time, be inspired by the little things, hard and difficult sometimes. You might be surprised what you find out about yourself.
Happy creating this month.
Ben Fox LCMHC intermodal ecopsychological expressive art therapist & art educator at ArtisTree.