The Sunday Football-Related Music Post: A Reach?

As most of you know, I am a musician by trade. One of the tools of my trade is a grand piano, and it needs regular tuning. A very fine young man tunes it. He is a musician as well as a piano tuner (which isn’t invariably the case.) He plays numerous instruments and writes both classical and “contemporary” music.

I know Guy through many channels. I first met him when his sister was one of the many Wayward Musicians who lived in our basement apartment. (They weren’t really wayward, but one of the inhabitants christened it the Rollett Home for Wayward Musicians, and the name stuck.)

His parents are also musicians, although I didn’t meet them until after getting to know their daughter. Like his parents, he has sung with my group from time to time. Guy was also a Wayward Musician in his time, and like most of the WM the relationship has morphed into a quasi-adoptive one. As you can tell, he’s a pretty gifted person.

He was in a band for several years called Broken Fences, and they recorded some really lovely songs. Here’s one I particularly like:

But alas, the band is no more. Piano tuning, however, is forever. Back in February, Guy came for the scheduled tuning, and as usual I was working on my computer in the office which adjoins the piano studio. After the usual exchange of greetings he said he had something I might like to see, and googled a youtube video.

It was pretty interesting, but you can imagine how much more interesting it got when I recognized him in it. Here is the video:

Some of the background as to how Guy became involved in this commercial is in the video, but there’s way more to the story.

As one of the directors noted in the video, they had five weeks from start to finish to modify the piano and record the commercial. Part of the reason things were so tight was because they had a very hard time finding someone to make the modifications they envisioned.

Part of the problem was, they were asking the wrong question. Or, more accurately, they were asking the question of a lot of people who didn’t have the imagination to figure out the real question and suggest a way to do it. 

They began the process by asking a world-renowned piano manufacturer their question—can you make a piano that only plays a single note? And they didn’t just want a single note in the sense of all Cs in different octaves. They wanted a piano that would only play middle C when you struck any of the 88 keys.

The famous piano manufacturer told them it could be done, but it would take a year. They didn’t have a year, or anything close. So they decided to see whether a piano technician could modify an existing instrument to play only middle Cs. Apparently their strategy was to get a hold of the phone list for the Piano Technician’s Guild and start calling. Like the many other people they had spoken to before, Guy told them no, you couldn’t, because the question they were asking was whether you could tune a piano to all play the same note. This is not possible, because of the very things that make a piano able to play 88 different notes, spanning over seven octaves, in the first place.

This is possible because piano strings vary tremendously in length and thickness, as this Wikipedia article details:

The strings of a piano vary in thickness, and therefore in mass per length, with bass strings thicker than treble. A typical range is from 1/30 inch (.85 mm) for the highest treble strings to 1/3 inch (8.5 mm) for the lowest bass. These differences in string thickness follow from well-understood acoustic properties of strings.

Given two strings, equally taut and heavy, one twice as long as the other, the longer would vibrate with a pitch one octave lower than the shorter. However, if one were to use this principle to design a piano it would be impossible to fit the bass strings onto a frame of any reasonable size. Furthermore, in such a hypothetical, gigantic piano, the lowest strings would travel so far in vibrating that they would strike one another. Instead, piano makers take advantage of the fact that a heavy string vibrates more slowly than a light string of identical length and tension; thus, the bass strings on the piano are much thicker than the others.

Not being a piano technician, I can’t tell you how wide a range of pitches you can get from a given string, but from my experience tuning harpsichords I can tell you the answer is, not very much. (All harpsichordists have to be their own tuners and, at least to a certain extent, technicians, because the things go out of tune constantly, and things break.) Like a piano, the bass strings of a harpsichord are much thicker than the top strings. Loosening them too much means they won’t play, and tightening them too much means they break. I’m guessing you can get about a three-note range for most strings (more for the thin ones than the thicker ones.) I’m not going to try it, because I hate replacing broken strings.

The thing which made Guy different was, he thought beyond the question they were asking to what they were trying to accomplish, and told them how that could be done. So he was hired, and was set up in a secret studio in Pittsburgh to design and implement the modifications. He then made a top-secret trip to LA to film.

Now that you know how it was done, here’s the actual commercial:

As it turned out, playing the modified piano was very weird for the pianist. I’m incredibly impressed he was able to do it. The tactile-aural feedback loop is pretty ingrained.

I once played a recital at the National Cathedral in Washington. I had been told there was a lot of reverberation in the space. A very “live” acoustic like this creates a lot of problems for the musician, because you’re hearing the sounds you made coming back at you a few seconds later. In the case of the National Cathedral, not only is the space exceedingly reverberant (with about a 7-second lag between the sound you make and when it comes back to you) but the organ is exceedingly large, with pipework all over the place, so some of the sound is coming to you from a rather long way off (and often around a corner) in the first place.

My solution, since I would only have a relatively short time to prepare in the actual space, was to practice my recital with headphones on. They were playing the latest Switchfoot album, loud enough so that I couldn’t hear what I was playing on the organ. I essentially retrained myself to respond only to the tactile sensations. It was a pain, but effective—I discovered the reverb didn’t bother me much at all when I got there.

But pianists don’t have to deal with this problem, because they seldom play in reverberant spaces (at least to that extent) and the sound is much more immediate for them, coming as it does from about six inches away. And I can’t even imagine what it was like to play in c sharp minor, all over the piano, and only hear middle C coming back at you.

This is all very well, but at this point you may be saying to yourself, “What does this have to do with football.” And I’m sorry to say the answer is, nothing whatsover.

Guy doesn’t play football, although, being a Pittsburgher, he is naturally a Steeler fan. (To be honest, he is more of a Pirates fan than a Steelers fan.) I had gotten the idea that the commercial had aired during the Super Bowl. (I didn’t actually see the Super Bowl, as I was in Wales, and it ran in the middle of the night.) But in fact it aired during the Grammys. This is what I get for fact-checking—the whole premise of my article is ruined, thanks to the honesty of the subject of it. You’ll be happy to hear, though, that I’ve learned my lesson. Either do the fact-checking before I start writing, or don’t do it at all…

But I still think it’s seriously cool, and I hope you do too. I suppose it was a bit of a reach, even when it was a Super Bowl commercial, and now it’s even more of one. But just like the Steelers and Artie Burns, I don’t care : )

Here’s one more song to leave you with. Enjoy!

6 comments

  • cold_old_steelers_fan

    Broken Fences have a nice sound to them. They sound like a group that could play the Winnipeg Folk Festival.

    Maybe I am reaching here, but I think there could be a football analogy buried in your post. A team, like the piano, doesn’t work best when everyone plays the same note all the time. It takes a a variety of notes… then my analogy falls apart because my knowledge of music isn’t deep enough to take the analogy where I want it to go. I can see it but I cannot find the correct words.

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    • I agree on Broken Fences..I’m going to need to explore them further…even though they are defunct. Their singer has Gillian Welch quality to her voice…and I’m no expert. I do enjoy that sound.

      Rebecca – this is why your writing is so powerful..you expose us to so much else in the world. Long ago ( in a planet far away) I used to play French horn. Today…in the real world, my wife and I are ballroom dancers of reasonable skill. Music remains a large part of my/our lives and I always have appreciated your perspective on the Steelers as a result of your vocation.

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      • Andy – I can neither play the French horn or do a passable Paso Doble but I do understand close harmony. I agree with you that I enjoy their sound, although I think Gillian Welch’s voice is a bit more “Appalachian”. Have you run upon “The Milk Carton Kids”? two guys that evoke Simon & Garfunkel and the Everly Brothers all at the same time.

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  • I see the football analogy as the difference between a team full of specialists at each position vs. a team manned only by quarterbacks (or maybe centers as quarterbacks are far more interesting…just ask them)

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