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“Miracle in a Box” — the Quintessence of Repair

If properly maintained, a fine piano can last for centuries. So what does it take to keep them in top form? A remarkable documentary follows one team that pulls this off, and even improves these instruments as they age.

Theme: The Art of Repair

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Since 1975, John Callahan (front right, blue shirt) and his family have operated Piano Services in an old warehouse in Alameda--a wide, flat island just east of San Francisco known mostly for its history as a military shipyard. The shop's services run from basic tunings to complete rebuilds, which occasionally include burnt or water-damaged pianos that appear beyond repair. image courtesy of Bridge Pin Productions

Introduction by TODD OPPENHEIMER
Film by JOHN KORTY
Narrated by JOHN LITHGOW

  1. Patent Races in Horse and Buggy
  2. Steinway Flexes its Muscles
  3. Enter the Little Guy

Back in 2007, three big talents came together in Northern California to make a remarkable documentary film called “Miracle in a Box.”

The film followed a competition between several pianists, and how the work of a mid-sized piano restoration outfit—Callahan Piano Service—shaped their instruments, and their final performances. The film was directed by the now late John Korty, whose pioneering work in film’s artistic heyday, in the 1970s, inspired George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola (and led them, for a time, to work alongside him). For some extra gloss on his story, Korty had it narrated by none other than the multi-award-winning actor, John Lithgow.

The late John Korty, who made “Miracle in a Box,” the documentary featured at the end of this story, was one of America’s first film directors to bring artistic sensibilities to commercial film and television. When Korty died, in 2022, the New York Times published an obituary that summarized his quirky path to success. One of his early achievements, in 1974, was winning nine Emmy awards for a single film: “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” which starred Cicely Tyson. image courtesy of Bridge Pin Productions

The film, which Korty titled “Miracle in a Box,” opened at the 2009 Mill Valley Film Festival, an annual ritual that enjoys its own national reputation for excellence. Korty’s story ended up being an unusually intimate, one-hour portrait of a remarkably nuanced, exacting, and potentially endangered craft. After its debut, “Miracle in a Box” continued to show in a variety of America’s local film festivals, sometimes winning small awards. It also appeared on a handful of public broadcasting networks, including PBS International, then eventually faded into the forgotten archives of film history.

But the documentary remains as relevant today as it was at its release. As the music world continues on its accelerating shift to electronic sound, and mass-produced instruments, the traditional piano—with its myriad strings, felt hammers, and long line of black and white keys (88 in all)—the piano stands apart as an instrument that has held its own for centuries.

This is the main reason why we, at Craftsmanship magazine, are giving this fine film a second life. We’re also posting it (see below) because its primary subject—the work and expertise of the Callahan family, which has run Callahan Piano Service since its beginnings, in 1957—speaks so loudly to our Fall 2023 theme: “The Art of Repair,” and what it takes to revive a culture that can support it.

To understand why fixing up an old piano matters, it’s worth starting with a quick walk through its history.

PATENT RACES IN HORSE AND BUGGY

Technically, keyboard instruments of one kind or another (most small and largely primitive) date back to the 14th century. However, the piano in the form we know today—as a hammering keyboard able to create variable tones and sound levels—was first invented, in Italy, around 1700, but still in pretty basic form; the instrument’s great jump in refinement occurred in the mid-1800s, in New York City, driven by a handful of skilled, newly arrived German immigrants—with Henry Steinway and his two sons in the lead, literally racing their competitors to the patent office, in horse and buggies, with paperwork in their hands claiming one innovation after another. By 1885, the Steinways had nailed a design for the piano that endures to this day.

“Miracle in a Box” was narrated by the actor John Lithgow, whose distinctive voice and talents have brought him dozens of awards and honors, including a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. image courtesy of Bridge Pin Productions

The Steinways’ big breakthrough was figuring out how to build the large, teardrop-shaped wooden case that is still the piano’s signature form. The case’s new size and strength allowed the Steinways, and then all their American competitors, to add more tension to the piano’s strings, which greatly expanded its sound power. Over the years, Steinway & Sons also engineered ways to add more complexity and power to the piano’s tone, especially in its mid-treble section, an area where traditional European pianos from centuries-old firms were considered lacking.

The ambitious new piano system worked because the bigger, sturdier case could now hold a massive, cast-iron frame—without which the piano would essentially explode. “There’s about 20 tons of tension across the [piano’s] scale that’s trying to fold the thing in half,” says John Callahan, who runs the repair company with his brothers and a handful of technicians. “The iron frame, and the piano’s massive structure, are what’s keeping that from happening.”

This history should not suggest that Steinway & Sons’ competitors are its inferiors. Bosendorfer, another German piano maker, has long made what some consider an even more refined piano that delivers a lighter sound (and a much higher price); and every rock and jazz musician knows the brighter tones and other nuances that makers such as Yamaha have brought to the piano. But try as they might, no piano engineer has ever come up with a significant new design idea that warranted fundamentally changing how the piano was built in the late 1800s.

STEINWAY FLEXES ITS MUSCLES

Over the following decades, Steinway was not shy about putting its design dominance to lucrative use. As their pianos proliferated, literally across the world, Steinway & Sons treated its professional customers to an assortment of perks—as long as they would sign contracts promising to play only on Steinway pianos. The result: As those musicians traveled for their myriad performances, they had to tell venue managers that they would not play unless there was a Steinway on stage. That of course spurred more sales to concert halls, music schools, and the like, which begat more visibility for Steinway, which begat even more sales.

Fortunately for the music world, Steinway’s manufacturing standards generally kept up with the company’s commercial success. The quality of the company’s pianos did take a marked dive in the decades after World War II, but so did those made by other companies. This was partly because of post-war materials shortages, but the downturn in Steinway’s work, and craftsmanship in general, had another, more insidious cause: the novelty of mass manufacturing, and the marketing promises made by America’s growing advertising industry, quickly made handmade goods look like yesterday’s obsolete game.

Restoring old pianos typically requires swapping in a whole new set of hammers, which are made of wood and cushioned with felt. Then comes the painstaking process of regulating the whole mechanism, which is called “the action.”  The task falls here to Callahan piano technician Amanda Livi. photo courtesy of Callahan Piano Service

For Steinway, its twin company values—high-quality instruments built for the ages; and a relentless drive for more sales—put them in an odd but not unusual bind. If you make a product that’s good enough to last a lifetime, or longer, how do you get your customers to keep buying new ones?

The Steinways pulled off this trick with another bilateral strategy, and this one was a little more devious. First, they started convincing event managers that their performers were putting pianos through such heavy use, even a Steinway would soon be unable to meet a professional musician’s highly exacting standards. Before long, concert managers, who now had to have a Steinway to attract talent, were replacing their pianos about every five years.

So where do all those used pianos go? That question inspired Steinway’s second sly tactic. The company, which had long sold replacement parts to restoration shops around the world, started holding back on those supplies. Voila! You need a new piano whether you need one or not.

ENTER THE LITTLE GUY

This time, humanity’s incessant spirit of invention saved the day for old pianos. Over the last 40 years, inventive tinkerers and makers started to create their own versions of Steinway parts, many of which were comparable in quality, and sometimes better. In the 1990s, for example, thanks to some “micro-balancing” studies (conducted by a hyper-scientific piano engineer named David Stanwood), it became possible to make the action in a restored piano more precise, and more consistent, than Steinway’s own technicians did with the company’s brand new instruments.

Stanwood’s new methodology was based on what he called “touch weight metrology,” which led to his trademarked name for this special service: “Precision Touch Design.” His methodology has proven so successful that, according to the Piano Technicians Guild, it’s now the gold standard for complete restoration.

Stanwood’s procedures enable piano technicians (if trained and licensed to use the Stanwood system, which plays a cameo in Korty’s film) to balance the piano’s hammers with near-absolute exactitude. The final balance can get so precise, in fact, that the weight of each hammer, as felt when striking its key, is within one-tenth of a gram of its neighbors. While a hobbyist pianist may not notice such micro-differences, professionals often squeal with delight, sometimes literally, the moment they start tickling their newly restored piano’s ivories.

The cast-iron plate in this Steinway concert grand weighs roughly 500 pounds. To get it placed in the piano properly (and gently), the Callahans’ shop foreman, Patrick Murphy, uses a small electric crane. photo courtesy of Callahan Piano Service

All these innovations and fine points only matter, of course, if piano restoration shops can stay in business. By ordinary standards, there’s no reason they shouldn’t: The piano remains a popular, highly valued instrument, and demand for restoration work remains robust—enough so, in fact, that Callahan has an 18-month waiting list just for a piano to get in the door. The reason there’s such a logjam is the old, sad story with exacting handwork everywhere: There aren’t enough new workers entering the trade.

Callahan believes that if more people understood the pleasures, flexibility, communal spirit, and decent income that a piano restoration shop can offer, he’d see a lot more job applicants. “You don’t really need any musical talent,” he says, quickly noting that he doesn’t even play the piano. All one needs, he insists, is a keen interest in keeping old pianos alive, a desire to work with your hands, and good hearing. “If you’re a retired rock musician or a roadie, this profession probably isn’t for you.”

That said, even if spending hours in a workshop isn’t your jam, Callahan wants you to know that there are plenty of other rewarding jobs in any company devoted to keeping old pianos alive. These giant instruments are still a primary feature of musical life in all sorts of institutions, such as schools and churches, and they always require onsite servicing and tuning. Concert hall pianos, in particular, often need tuning several times in a single day. There are also constant house calls, which often become more fun than they sound. “We generally find ourselves in the living room of a beautiful home, working with what’s usually this person’s most prized possession”—what might be called their own little miracle in a box.

Editor’s Note: Most of Korty’s other cinematic achievements during film’s golden age can still be found on IMDB.

More stories from this issue:

Throwaway Nation

The Case for a Maintenance Mindset

Is France Making Planned Obsolescence Obsolete?

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