The Piano Whisperer: Local Piano Restorer Calms Cranky Keyboards
You could say Benjamin Wiant is in private practice. Many of his clients have seen better days. They have a lot of baggage to clear out from within their hard shells. They're touchy, sometimes even completely dysfunctional. And they come with strings attached.
Many, many strings attached.
Wiant is the man who makes many of central Ohio's concert pianos sound like, well, concert pianos. When you hear a world-class pianist perform a concerto with the Columbus Symphony or a solo piano recital at the Southern Theatre, you're also hearing Wiant's work. Likewise, if Wiant hasn't touched up the pianos the artist is playing, you hear it immediately.
It may seem glamorous to hobnob with the thoroughbreds of the classical music world: Steinway, Baldwin and Bösendorfer concert grands and the elite artists who play them. But in his four-decade career as a high-level piano technician and rebuilder, Wiant has seen a steady stream of instruments in desperate, very unglamorous need of repair, or even complete overhaul.
And when a piano shows up on his doorstep, Wiant gets busy.
Pianos He Has Known
It's often a good samaritan who brings a downtrodden piano to Wiant's attention, someone who takes pity on a once beautiful instrument gone to seed. When that happens, Wiant says his first task is to get to know a piano's true nature. And the best way to get to know a piano is, of course, to play it.
"When you first sit down to play it — if it's playable — you let the piano speak to you, regardless of what condition it's in. And if it has certain qualities, you can say, 'I know it has this much. Let's see how much more of that we can get by putting it in good condition,'" Wiant said.
If a piano isn't in playable condition, Wiant makes basic — or sometimes not-so-basic — mechanical adjustments to the instrument's 88 hammers, countless pins and strings and any number of other parts to bring it back to life.
"You start from scratch and you make it playable," Wiant said, "and then (you play it and) you go, 'Wow!'"
Wiant has gotten to know his share of soul-sick pianos through the years. Early in his career, he met a brown rosewood 1885 Steinway concert grand that had been handed down with all of its original parts, produced during what could be called the golden age of American piano manufacturing. Years of neglect meant that when the piano finally reached Wiant, it had to be completely rebuilt. But it had good bones: its high-quality parts allowed Wiant to get the best out of the instrument.
"That piano could play down to volume levels scarcely audible. It wasn't appropriate for concertos, but it was appropriate for chamber music," Wiant said.
Then there was the Kaim piano that had made its way from Germany to Wiant's shop in 1985. With no small amount of persistence and ingenuity, Wiant eventually prodded the piano into beautifully playable condition.
"The piano had never been played, but it had come to the point where it was not tunable," Wiant said, "so I had to devise a way to get a new pinblock into it, which was quite a task because the configuration of the pinblock was very complex ... and I couldn't get anybody to make it for me, so I sort of had a rough draft made by another technician and I worked with it."
But Wiant says he's proudest of his work on a 1963 Steinway grand. He spent countless hours fine-tuning the instrument to bring out its very best sound.
"The piano had a very special voice, and I was trying to find it," Wiant said.
Wiant's own voice as a piano technician — his instinct for the inner workings of fine pianos — likely would not have developed to such an extent were it not for the mentoring he received in both restoring and playing pianos. Born in Bejing to American parents, Wiant eventually went to the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music to study with the Russian-born pianist Olga Conus, who he says was one of the great piano pedagogues of the twentieth century. Conus' way of mentoring her students was similar to how Wiant would later approach the pianos he restored.
"On her class recitals, she would present however many students had repertoire that was ready to play. And after you'd been there for a while, you could see that this repertoire kept recurring, and you could see that they had all been taught by her - and they sounded completely different. So she was not a martinet in any sense of the word, but she was very concerned about your being able to speak your voice," Wiant said.
While in Cincinnati, Wiant the piano technician also found a mentor in the form of Ben McKlveen, who was both and engineer and a professionally trained musician.
"He was always available to me whenever I had a question," Wiant said. "That kind of mentoring is something that very few people have an opportunity to acquire."
For years Wiant rode the dual waves of piano performance and technology, refining his skills in both areas during a teaching stint in Arizona and the beginning of a piano performance doctoral program in Michigan. After relocating to Columbus in 1969, Wiant, now proprietor of Benjamin Wiant Piano Service, became a full-time piano technician and restorer. He says he was intrigued by the mechanical aspects of pianos even before he had any interest in playing pianos. During his early years of piano study, he practiced on the six-foot Boston Chickering grand piano his parents borrowed for him to use. It was love at first touch.
"There is a level of craftsmanship and quality in the American piano industry, particularly in the latter part of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century, which has not been matched, except in a few European makers. This was apparent to me from the beginning," Wiant said.
Wiant has a good reason for preferring older concert-quality pianos to many more recent instruments.
"From a technician's perspective, they're made from material that doesn't exist in the world today," Wiant said.
Deforestation and pollution have meant that the old-growth Adirondack Spruce used to build the sounding boards (the part that gives each piano its unique sound quality) in many American-made pianos in the 1800s and into the 1900s is virtually no longer available.
"The Adirondack Spruce forest is practically dead because of acid rain," Wiant said.
Hard maple, the wood of choice for many of the mechanical, or "action," parts of a top-flight piano, has succumbed to a similar fate.
"There's no old-growth hard maple anywhere in the country anymore, as far as I know. And that's where a lot of the deforestation took place, cutting these old-growth trees without regard to what was going to replace them," Wiant said.
Some European piano makers have been able successfully to make action parts from other types of available wood. But the decrease in the high-quality natural piano building materials of earlier eras means that technicians like Wiant likely will have less-good instruments to work on in the future.
And even though Wiant says the craftsmanship of fine pianos is today as high as it's ever been, the unavailability of the same natural materials used in the late 1800s and early 1900s to build the world's finest pianos means that pianos made today are beginning to sound different. So, if Wiant were in the market for a good piano today, where would he place his bet?
"If you can get a piano that was made in that era and it hasn't been completely bowdlerized, it's a good buy," Wiant said.