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The princely piano’s plight

Published: 
Monday, March 5, 2018

The electronic keyboard has become one of the more pervasive musical instruments in T&T homes where music is learned and played. In most instances, they have replaced the traditional acoustic piano.

“A piano at one time was considered a necessary part of music instruction, and possession of an instrument was a must,” says local representative of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (AMRSM), Jessel Murray.

“With the rise of keyboards which increasingly simulate the touch and responsiveness of acoustic pianos, parents have found it more cost and space effective to purchase a keyboard,” Murray, who heads the Department of Creative and Festival Arts at UWI adds.

An upright piano costs between $15,000 and $20,000, a grand piano several times more, while a keyboard with similar attributes for younger players can cost between $5,000 and $8,000.

Meanwhile, MIDI keyboards which are hooked up to a computer, are small, light and versatile and can be purchased online for under $1,000. They are becoming a staple among the new generation of music composers and producers.

But, even so, the acoustic piano is by no means set for extinction. They remain in demand among studio musicians and for music recitals, and Murray testifies that though there has been a decline in advanced music students past Grade Six, the number of students in the lower grades who undertake practical examinations on the piano “dwarfs any other area of instrumental activity.”

The longevity of the instrument remains not only a feature of people who play it, but of those who keep it in good shape. In T&T, the health of pianos is vastly affected by high humidity, the existence of termites and mice and improper storage.

In his father’s footsteps

When it came time to decide on a career, young Kent Lovell was advised by his father, David, to choose between developing his skills as a pianist or follow in his footsteps into the world of piano servicing and tuning. “You have to do one or the other,” Kent remembers.

During the interview for this article he played a few flawless chords.

Today, at age 40, Lovell Jnr is on the job at his Cunupia facility servicing, tuning, remodeling and supplying pianos to a shrinking household clientele and a steady but small number of institutions and events.

For instance, he services the University of T&T’s ten pianos located in Port-of-Spain and supplies and services pianos for public performances.

Meanwhile, along Tragarete Road in Woodbrook, a piano-servicing and tuning workshop which has been in operation for decades under the leadership of a now ailing Eyare Marshall, is now under the management of his cousin, Lance Smith.

Marshall, who turns 96 this month, and is considered to be an icon of the trade in T&T, is incapacitated and out of the business. Today, Smith, who is 52, is at the helm of the small, dusty facility. Piano frames, keys, strings and hammers are everywhere. In one corner of the workshop is a small area reserved for basic woodworking activity in the reinforcing and reconstruction of instruments.

Like Lovell, Smith’s craft is the stuff of family legacy. “I learned everything from him (Marshall),” Smith says.

Smith is all too aware of the slow withdrawal of the traditional piano as a standing feature of largely middle class homes and the emergence of electronic alternatives virtually everywhere.

“Electronics have taken over; somehow people prefer the electronic keyboard which is cheaper and easier to carry around,” he confesses.

Reminiscent of Murray’s observations as an examiner, he contends that “over time the discipline to learn music has also broken down.”

Lovell, however, appears to have embraced the technological changes and has in fact begun conversion of an old Yamaha Grand into what he describes as a “hybrid” that combines the original, elaborate wooden frame with a digital keyboard. No strings, no heavy cast iron plate and an “action” that triggers sensors rather than a hammer on strings.

Yet, like Smith, Lovell—whose cluttered workshop is indistinguishable from Smith’s to the untrained eye—savours the unique acoustic sound of both the common upright and the more elaborate grand pianos.

Modern technology has improved on the likelihood of getting their tuning right, but is yet to replace the human ear. Unlike the Sanderson Accu-Tuner which has led the piano tuning industry for a long time, Lovell’s smartphone app is, he claims, a much better instrument. It fits in his pocket and also takes calls.

Yet, for both Lovell and Smith, what people in the field describe as a piano’s “inharmonicity”—the frequency of partial tones—is an overriding attribute all tuners need to get right and requires expert human ears.

So, according to Lovell, the uninitiated may find a piano sounds “all okay” but things will not be recognised as being perfect by accomplished players.

Keyboards for the best in the business

These are the kinds of standards demanded in the preparation of pianos for events such as the ongoing National Music Festival and performances by local and international virtuosos.

Lovell, for instance, has supplied pianos for performers including the likes of John Legend, Roberta Flack, Michael Bolton, Air Supply and Lionel Richie. He has also worked with soca star Machel Montano, whose performances have used a hybrid.

Smith, however, holds that the traditional teaching and application of musical standards remain important in the development of music in T&T, whatever the advances in technology. He laments the decline in advanced instruction.

Like Smith, Lovell relishes the 88 keys of an acoustic piano over the smaller electronic instruments that have as few as 25 keys. But he acknowledges that changing technology will increasingly favour the digitally-produced generation of music.

People in the music world can name fewer than a dozen people who do the work of Smith and Lovell, but they all seem to at least know about each other.

It is a small community spread unevenly throughout the country. Some, like Smith’s with humble, fading signs, others like Lovell’s with large over-hanging signs and a Facebook page.

Murray, who has instructed a generation of musicians, believes the acoustic piano, the music it renders and the professionals who keep it relevant and alive are here to stay. As far as formal instruction goes, piano as an instrument is still enjoying a healthy response, he concludes.

People like Smith and Lovell remain there, as a younger generation, to keep this particular sound of music alive and well.

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