A Piano Journey

by Jeff Kellem

my piano

I've looked for pianos over the years, but never could find a used one at the right price range that really matched me. A piano is a very personal purchase decision. After not having a piano near me on a daily basis for way too many years, I finally made the decision to get a new, nice piano. Of course, I did have various keyboards and synthesizers around. Unfortunately, I didn't really have the room for a nice grand piano. So, I decided to settle on getting a fairly nice upright.

With grand pianos, I had a fondness for Bösendorfer and Schimmel pianos with Renner action. So, I started there in looking at uprights. The Bösendorfer was a little too pricey, of course. If I was willing to spend the money on a Bösendorfer upright, I might as well clear out part of my house and make room for a nice Schimmel grand piano. The Schimmel generally has a nice clean bass, which I like, and still has a good feel, and quality Renner action parts.

I started my research, again. I reread my old 1994 edition of The Piano Book by Larry Fine (the book that anyone considering the purchase of a piano should read before buying one) and purchased the latest edition and the latest supplement (to check on current prices).

What I Wanted in an Upright Piano

As you might guess from reading the list of pianos below, I wanted a tall upright piano. 50"-52" is about the tallest you can purchase these days. Older uprights have been as tall as 60". The longer the strings, the nicer the sound. That's why you see many pianists preferring larger grand pianos and taller uprights. Renner action, a deep and clear bass, a nice ringing tone in the high end (hard to get on uprights), and that subjective feel were all things I was looking for.

The List

I came up with a list of pianos I was interested in from various descriptions, reviews, and reading I'd done. The following list is my original, handwritten, list with minimal notes for myself. The italics are comments I added to the list after looking at various pianos. The list included, in no particular order:

This list was my starter, but I was willing to consider pianos I hadn't listed above nor had ever played previously, just in case I find that gem that just matches what I feel.

The kind of sound I like is an unfortunate mix of two extremes – a bright sound, punchy bass, where the sound jumps out at you versus a very clean, deep bass, somewhat mellower sound for nice flowing pieces. The ideal is to find a piano that can have a kind of transparency going between the those two extremes.

I was very curious about the Fandrich & Sons pianos. The notes I had read in two editions of The Piano Book, plus other mentions I found, all indicated the kinds of things I like to hear about the piano I wanted. Plus, I wanted to try this unique Fandrich Vertical Action which Darrell Fandrich had developed that played more like a grand piano. It supposedly allowed you to play repetitive notes more quickly and soft passages more easily, both of which tend to be difficult on upright pianos.

Later, I found out that everything I had read rang true. The playability of the Fandrich & Sons pianos with the Fandrich Vertical Action was just amazing. The dynamic control achievable on their upright pianos was phenomenal. I have trouble imagining how anyone could buy any other upright, than a Fandrich & Sons, once they've compared it with a traditional upright action.

The Fandrich Search and Day Trip

I called Fandrich & Sons in January, 2002, to ask if there were any of their upright pianos in the Bay Area, California near San Francisco and San Jose. They mentioned that this guy in Pacifica, CA had just purchased one and that it would be arriving during the next few weeks. They were sure he'd be willing to let me try it out. So, I sent him a note and arranged a visit a couple weeks after his piano arrived.

When I finally tried the Fandrich & Sons piano in Pacifica, CA, I did find I liked it. I knew I still needed to hear the sound of the ones that the Fandrichs had in their showroom. But, it was good enough to convince me to fly from San Jose, CA to Stanwood, WA (60 miles north of the Seattle International Airport, Sea-Tac) one day, Saturday, 9 March 2002.

I had my eyes set on a used 1998 Fandrich & Sons in a nice walnut color, hand rubbed, satin finish. But, I still needed to play and listen to it to make sure it was what I really wanted. I booked my flight on Friday afternoon, 8 March 2002. When I got home, there was a message on my answering machine indicating that my flight had been cancelled. I had just booked it a few hours earlier! So, I called and got on the earlier flight. Whew. When I arrived at the Fandrich & Sons showroom in Stanwood, WA, Heather Fandrich greeted me. Their house, showroom, and workshop are all on the land there.

And, it really is a nice, family owned business. Their sons are also involved in various aspects of the business – building, regulating, and finishing pianos. Darrell Fandrich is a very sought after technician, an expert voicer/regulator, and the inventor of the amazing Fandrich Vertical Action.

Heather and I talked about the pianos, how their action works and differs from a traditional vertical action, the process they use, a little about their history, etc. And, then, she left me by myself to play the pianos in the showroom.

I definitely liked the feel of the piano. It wasn't loose and clunky like traditional uprights. The Fandrich Vertical Action had a nice smooth feel to it. As I started to press the key down, I could see the hammer move. As I slowly released the key, the hammer pulled back. I think of it like the difference in steering a standard automobile (like a Saturn) versus a car designed for racing (such as Porsche). With a standard automobile, the steering wheel can be moved a little back and forth with the car continuing to go straight. (Think of that as a traditional upright.) In a Porsche, when you move the steering wheel, even a little bit, the car reacts quickly. That's the way the Fandrich Vertical Action performs. That's how you get the range of dynamics that you just can't achieve with a traditional upright.

Admittedly, I wasn't as thrilled as I had hoped, initially, with the sound of the 1998 piano. It was used and obviously had not been kept up by the previous owner. I think the owner only had Darrell in to work on it 3 times over 4 years. A piano should be visited by a technician 3 to 4 times per year, depending on the amount of playing, the climate, etc. And, definitely, 3 to 4 times per year during the first years of a piano's life. So, the piano needed some regulating and voicing.

But, after playing the Fandrich Vertical Action, I knew that I wanted to buy one of their pianos. So, it was between the 1998 model and their new model put together by the Czech Republic company, Klima. The new one had brand new, hence soft, hammers on it. So, it had a mellow and muted sound. (This is fairly standard for new pianos, unless the hammers had been pre-compressed – a practice I don't like nor recommend.) I had to use my imagination to figure out what it might sound like after 5-6 months of playing, when it's tone would be built up and become brighter. With the 1998 model, I had to still use my imagination, but to determine how it would sound after being regulated and voiced, making the sound less bright.

Darrell chose a particularly harsh and bright A note. He spent a little time voicing it by shaping the hammer and making a couple adjustments. There was a definite difference. It had more of a singing tone. To really complete the voicing would require more work. But, it did show me what could be done, at some level. I went back and forth between the pianos and discussed things with Darrell and Heather for many hours. I really appreciate that the Fandrichs spent so much time with me.

I really did like the look of the 1998 model. The new one was only in black. Though, as much as I liked the look of the 1998 model, my decision was going to be based on the sound and other subjective things that are sometimes hard to articulate. I spent more time with the 1998 model and realized that it was the one I wanted. I made this decision with a bit of faith that Darrell will be able to produce the sound and tone that I'll like after spending a bit of time regulating and voicing it. He and I spent some time going over the kind of tones I like and he listened to some of my improv playing. As I mentioned previously, the kinds of sounds I like are often at odds with each other. You tend to find one or the other and I wanted a little of both. He said that he has an idea of what I want to hear from the piano and believes he can produce something I'll like.

So, I agreed to buy the piano! Yay! I finally bought a piano! And, not just any piano, but the absolute best upright I have ever played over the past, almost 30, years. I flew back to San Jose, CA that same evening. Of course, now I have to wait . . .

Fandrich & Sons works with Keyboard Carriage for shipping their pianos around the country. From what I understand, Keyboard Carriage ships the majority of pianos for manufacturers and dealers in the country, using climate controlled trucks. The Fandrichs schedule pickups by Thursday for a weekly pickup the following Thursday or Friday. So, my piano wasn't scheduled to get picked up until 21 March 2002 (now 28th, as you'll see below). The thing about Keyboard Carriage is that they'll only deliver to dealers and warehouses. So, you need to locate a local mover to take receipt of the piano and move it to your location. I ended up choosing Duncan Piano Moving in Alviso, CA.

I talked with Heather Fandrich on Tuesday, 12 March 2002, to give her the local mover details. She said that Darrell was really enjoying the tone he was getting out of the piano and thinks that I will also really like it. She said there were a couple more days of work left on it. This is all still promising and exciting!

I heard from Heather again on Monday, 18 March 2002. She forgot they were scheduled to have to be at the Piano Technicians Guild conference in Eastern Washington this week. So, they need to delay pickup of the piano for a week. She also added that she's "sorry for the delay, although it will give Darrell a little more time to put his "glow" on the piano when we get back." That's fine with me. Another week wasn't going to kill me. And, if it allows for an even nicer sound, even better. I originally told Darrell and Heather that I was more interested in making sure the piano was well prepared than getting it quickly.

Latest update: My piano arrived(!!) on Friday morning, 18 April 2002 (after having left the showroom in Stanwood, WA on 28 March 2002).

I had intended to take pictures of the action mechanism while I was in Stanwood, WA at the Fandrich & Sons showroom. But, I forgot. I asked Heather to send me pictures, so I could show my brother and other friends who are interested in seeing the differences and what makes it work so well. Here are the pictures she sent of the Fandrich Vertical Action. Eventually, I'll put up pictures of a traditional upright action for comparison.

Yes, that's my piano at the top right of this page – the walnut colored one! The link goes to a larger picture of it than what's at the top of this page. All the pictures were taken by the Fandrichs.
Darrell Fandrich has two U.S. patents on upright piano action designs, U.S. Patent 4,896,577 and U.S. Patent # 5,042,354. I need to ask him which (maybe both?) apply to the current action they use as the Fandrich Vertical Action in their upright pianos. He also has a patent on a grand piano action.
Jeff Kellem