Science at the Service of the Arts

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About 15 years ago I imagined a robot capable of analyzing the forces and resistances occurring when a piano is played. My goal was  to provide more information to technicians than ever before, and at a much quicker rate. Five years later, I met two experts in the field of piano mechanics, Darrell Fandrich and John Rhodes. I furthered my studies with them at their facilities in Washington State. Both men had developed a software program that is now widely accepted by technicians who rebuild piano mechanisms.  I consider their invention to be a ‘GPS’ for action repairs.

At that time I immediately thought back to my idea of a robot and how it could be combined with their program.

Up to now, piano technicians have obtained their information statically; the robot in contrast will be able to get it dynamically1. In other words: the resistances will be measured when the keys are actually played. This, to my knowledge, is a breakthrough.

At this writing, the robot is at least another year away from completion; both the data analysis and software development will continue for the foreseeable future.

Two renowned piano professors at the University of Montreal, Jean Saulnier and Marc Durand, started me down this path by making me want to understand a phenomena known as double-escapementThey were interested in knowing how piano technicians could control this part of regulation. As much as I was grateful for their encouragements and compliments for the work I was doing in this area, I still had no real understanding of let-off from a scientific perspective, nor did I have a handle on how to control it. In the mid-1980s, I went to Japan to study at Yamaha. I was told how to regulate, but never why.

Confounded, I turned to the past and searched for books about piano actions. Of these, I studied the Pleyel action inventions from 1800 to 1830. These helped me understand the purpose of regulation as well as action synchronicity and how to control it. That knowledge is what enabled me to become friendly with Fandrich and Rhodes.

Part of the genius of their ITF (inertial touch force) program Is the invention of a measurement scale of acceptable ‘inertial forces’ while playing, i.e. in a dynamic mode. However, there is still one aspect that has yet to be qualified in precise terms, at least to my knowledge, and that is the specific point of let-off and synchronicity. It’s going to be a fun ride for me to define a scale of what is acceptable, or not, from a pianist’s and a technician’s perspective.

A few years ago, I met Professor Daniel Spooner from Montreal’s École polytechnique. After some discussions with him, he was sold on my idea and was ready to assist in making it happen. Through his generous encouragement and guidance of students over several years, we are almost there. And once we make it, we will finally be able to answer Jean and Marc’s queriessome 20 years later! Just to let you know, this is one of many fascinating problems that keeps us our toes, Our curiosity is insatiable, not only for the sake of understanding these, but also with a view of finding the best possible solutions. Such is our pursuit of putting science at the service of art!

Oliver Esmonde-White

By statically, we mean at rest, whereas dynamically” signifies the opposite, when it is in motion.

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