"If it doesn't feel right, how can I change it?"
This was the very first question David C. Stanwood asked Bill Garlick, then the head of the Piano Technology department, upon his arrival at North Bennet Street School in 1978. Even as a new student, David recognized a problematic relationship between piano and player. The analogy he draws today is between a violinist "who has the instrument attached to their neck" and a pianist with "5,000 pieces between them and the sound." The "change" David was looking for had to do with the system for measuring the "feel" of pianos. Little did he realize, there wasn't any.
"There's not a single manufacturer in the world today that has a specification for the weight of the hammers," he observed. "It doesn't exist."
Even Bill, a master technician and an NBSS graduate himself, couldn't offer a simple answer. "He said, 'Oh, it's not easy," David recalls. "So right from the beginning, there was a kind of black hole of knowledge in piano technology."
Most technicians would have thought of ways to make do, but David, who had studied Engineering at Rochester Institute of Technology, was used to problem solving. His goal was to bring the pianist closer to the sound, and in the years following his graduation from NBSS, he developed a way to do it.
"New Touch Weight Metrology" is a method of units and measures that details how each piano action part affects the feel of the action. The system analyzes the working parts of an action to produce the cleanest, most precise touch. The goal was to make each key more predictable and the instrument as even and uniform as possible. In devising the system, David created a whole new field: "Piano Touchweight Technology."
Word spread quickly. After securing patents, David, who had built a successful practice on Martha's Vineyard tuning in the summer and rebuilding in the winter, found his business transformed. Suddenly, he was getting overwhelmed with requests from individuals and institutions interested in learning "The Stanwood Method."
David began training others--foot soldiers in a small army of technicians who understood the potential impact this new method had on their industry. Today, this select group of international consulting partners includes around sixty technicians.
"Just this last summer, I was in Norway," he says, rattling off an impressive itinerary of teaching gigs that have taken him from his homebase on the Vineyard to Germany, the Netherlands, and other far corners.
For David, family and music are inexorably linked. He played piano from a young age, but it was only after he'd already become a tuner that David discovered his musical heritage--including a great, great grandfather who was the only person in their hometown of Augusta, Maine able to tune a piano. "Maybe it's a genetic predisposition," he laughs.
Whatever the explanation, David has always been drawn to the instrument. It was at Steinert's in Boston that he finally asked a salesperson, Paul Murphy Jr., where one could go to learn piano tuning.
"'Right here in Boston, there's one of the best schools in the country,' the salesperson replied. 'Just take a walk up to the North End.' I walked up there and quickly realized there's a lot more to pianos than tuning."
David was part of the North Bennet Street School's first class of second-year piano students. Bill Garlick remembers him as a very good student and, later, a technician who was "forever refining the techniques he brought about." For his part, Bill found the one Stanwood-modified instrument he tried to be "remarkably even" and "quite a joy to play," but he also noted a split within the industry.
" Some people don't like it," he explains of his former student's innovation, "but quite a lot of people rave about it."
Part of the explanation for this divergence of opinion can be found in David's basic philosophy that all piano hammers should have a specific weight and tolerance-a belief that puts him at odds with manufacturers.
" (Manufacturers) are very threatened by it," he acknowledges plainly, before adding with a laugh that "they haven't taken me out yet."
" If piano manufacturers published hammer weight specifications then they would feel obligated to make all their hammers to the specified weight, and this is extra work that they have gotten along without."
The irony, as an executive from one company candidly suggested to David, is that "as long as piano manufacturers continue the old way, you'll be guaranteed plenty of work!"
" Manufacturers would never admit it, but they've learned stuff from David," explains Tony McKenna, a Belmont-based technician whose clients include WGBH, the New England Conservatory's Jordan Hall, and the Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Natick.
Still, there are those industry insiders who believe that the whole process goes beyond what most customers will feel, need, or understand. David responds that his system could be seen as an "aftermarket" enhancement for those inclined to make the upgrade. There are certainly legions of technicians who recommend it. Claude Thompson, the technician responsible for five concert halls at La Place des Arts in Montreal, recalls a concert by the jazz pianist Chick Corea at the 4,500 seat Wilfrid Pelletier Hall. "After he played a couple of minutes on the Steinway D with the Stanwood Precision Action Design, he told me he never in his life played such a beautiful New York Steinway. After his second piece, he told the public,
'Tonight, I play on a wonderful piano.'" Thompson refers to Stanwood Precision Action Design as simply "the highest achievement in grand piano technology."
"I wholeheartedly recommend it," adds Boston Conservatory Piano Chair Michael Lewin, whose home Steinway Model C is Stanwood-equipped. "The Stanwood System is a marvelous and reliable way to insure perfect regulation of the piano action, and to enable piano technicians to easily make precision adjustments."
Still, the question persists: are the high standards set by Stanwood, in effect, overkill? Could a pianist who has grown accustomed to working on a "Stanwood-ized" instrument even feel handicapped when faced with one that hasn't?
"The more they can play on a really fine instrument, the more they can realize how well they can play," David responds, "and they can transfer that to any instrument because they have, in their mind's eye, an idea of what is possible."
Sort of the way David felt after his first visit to North Bennet Street School.
"What really got to me was the enthusiasm of the students," he recalls. "It
was really infectious. They all wanted to show me what they had learned that
day, or how to take an action out. Here they were doing all this exciting stuff
and I just said, 'This is for me.'"
Andy Levinsky, North Bennet St. School Newsletter Spring 2003