St. Louis Piano Newsletter, October, 2009

The St. Louis Piano Newsletter October, 2009

 Published  by James Grebe Piano Service


     In addition to pictures and descriptions of the products I create, on my website there are numerous articles about histories of various piano companies, helpful discussions on purchasing new and used pianos, maintenance guidelines and bios of various theatres in St. Louis.  Feel free to browse the site and if you have any questions about any of the topics feel free to call or email me


     In the current issue of Popular Mechanics Magazine, the entire issue is dedicated to families being able to survive catastrophes and being able to have those things we use in our everyday living to not only last longer than currently but to be able to recycle them for further use.  How does this relate to musical instruments?  In newer instruments, it means really taking care of them, which does not mean only dusting but really maintaining them with regular thoughtful service to keep them operating at peak efficiency.  I run across pianos each week which have been solely in rooms that their only purpose was to display pictures, lamps and memorabilia.  Just last week, I performed a pitch raise on a really nice grand with a reproducing system that had not been tuned since purchase 3 years ago.  Even if no one played the piano, it would play itself and yet it sat unused.  This is the case so many times.  Mechanically, the piano is part machine and all machines need use to keep them working.  One of the things keeping owners from repair is the high cost it seems of repairing them and refurbishing instruments.  This past week I was called in to service a studio piano that I had serviced early in the spring.  At that time I had to replace 6 bass strings on the badly beaten piano.  This particular piano had replaced strings before and the design of the piano found that the strings were too heavy and to get the proper pitch tension was so high that the strings break when played at more than soft levels.  Last week, the piano had 10 broken strings, many of them, the same notes I replaced just 6 months ago..  At the last visit I recommended not doing any more work on the piano but replacing it.  This school, a parochial high school, like most are hard pressed for finances.  They have 2 other pianos, one in a gym area and the other in a chapel.  After giving them the estimate on replacing the 10 strings and knowing the same thing would happen again they opted for me to work on the chapel piano, another studio piano.  The piano had a few broken parts and I was able to get it useable for a fair amount.  In working on it, I found that the treble bridge was delaminating for about 8 inches affecting all those notes that crossed it.  I pointed this out the teacher .If this piano was maintained properly, its problems could have been dealt with as they occurred rather than, finally, the whole thing was almost a lost cause.  Bottom line is, deal with problems as they occur rather than letting them build up to a crisis situation.


     One of the items that have become part of my interest lately is the reed, or pump organs that used to be the family instrument just before the advent of the affordable upright piano.  In the 1800’s there were literally hundreds of pump organ manufactories that sprang up.  The pump organ factories did not need sprawling expanses of factory but could literally be made in small shops, sometimes even by one person operations.  Many of the famous names in pianos got their start in building pump organs such as Mason & Hamlin, Kimball, Estey, Clough & Warren, Cornish, Packard, Story & Clark and others.

     In 1922 Kimball produced their last reed organ.  The last one they made was their 403,390th organ and that was just one company..  Probably the largest reed organ built was the Lyon & Healy “Peloubet” Church Organ that had 1,948 reeds and 36 stops. Most however were of modest size and cost.  The cases, generally the simple woods with small decoration of stenciling and carving.  Many had “fake” pipe organ pipe tops and elaborate mantels with shelves, mirrors and various other decorations.  Most of the reed organs had 2 sets of reeds.   They were relatively small, had 1 keyboard with no bass pedals and you pumped it with your feet..  When I was in the army in 1964 I played a military pump organ, in the field, for Sunday services.  It was a small 1-keyboard model finished in OD Green. The larger examples had hand cranks on the side so a pumper was required.  Many of these with the pipe tops are highly sought after today.  I believe Estey continued to make reed organs till the 1940’s though by that time they had electric suction units.  There was an elaborate Estey reed organ in the mansion that sits across from Reservoir Park on south Grand Ave in St. Louis.  It sat on a stair landing on the grand staircase in that home.

     With the advent of the winter season coming upon us, I will remind you that maintaining humidity in your home is very important on stabilizing the tuning on your piano.  Ideal level is 42% relative humidity.  You may look into adding a humidifier to your central heating system.  The more the humidity changes in your home, the more the tuning will change in response to it. 

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