Interview with Scott Jones

The following interview was conducted by Greg Cheng, RPT and president of the South Eastern Pennsylvania chapter of the PTG.  He interviewed Scott Jones in December of 2011.

Gregory Cheng: So when did you start in the business?

 

Scott Jones: I would have to say…I was fascinated by the insides of a piano when I saw my piano tuned when I was a kid. [It was a] Piece of junk upright. I had no technical skills at the time, and no mentoring, there was none of that in the family, but it stuck with me, I remember being just awe-struck at what was inside the box. So when I went to college, I jumped out of the pre-med template that I went into in the beginning and went into music composition. That is the first thing that started to move me into the direction where something like piano technology had relevance.  Realistically it started to become a serious thought for business when I was a senior [in college] when reality set in. You know what I mean. You have to start thinking about making money.

So, two weeks out of college I walked into the local Steinway dealership and instantly connected with the owner of the company, it was Hopper Piano Company in Raleigh, NC . At the time Lee Hopper was the president, he was 80 years, and we just hit it off.  It was like a father/son kind of thing. He really took me under his wing and I was highly motivated. I was soaking it up. And that was a 5 year relationship right out of college where I worked with a Steinway dealership.  I had keys to the store, which meant I could go and come as I wanted, and luckily for me, my relationship with the company gave me great freedom with the pianos. That’s really where it got started.  I spent a lot of late nights in the store by myself with the doors locked going through basic service and that developed into, “what can I do to get a little more out of this piano?” This lead to things like modifying hammer lines and changing the piano in ways that were on the border line with what a new piano warranty would cover, but working with Lee Hopper at the store, we gradually became more professional it the way we serviced the pianos.  But really, the big motivator, honestly, was just having access to those Steinways.  That was a magic period, for me.

 

GC: So, Lee Hopper was a technician? Or?

 

SJ: He was the owner of the company who had been a technician through the 1930’s and 40’s

 

GC: And he was also a Steinway dealer?

 

SJ: He was a dealer, right. He had been a dealer for many decades, by the time I came along he was an old man then. You know, we had two loves that we shared: Fats Waller and Steinway.

 

GC: So, how long did you stay with that store before moving on to…what was next?

 

SJ: Well, through Lee Hopper and his son, Paul, who still runs the company, who’s still involved I started to get more technical awareness, joined the PTG, began to network, this would have been 1985-1989,  opportunities started to open up. I remember Peter Goodrich and Fred Drasch, from Steinway,  came to Raleigh to give a technical seminar; it was one of the first one’s I had ever attended, That convention made me realize that I wanted to get closer to that community. And so, through guidance with Lee and Paul and the company, I started to communicate, writing letters to Franz Mohr, to Peter Goodwrich, basically putting my foot in the door and looking for an opportunity to get more involved.  But the thing that really turned the corner was when I started the hammer line project.  Laying out templates and measuring all the strings, creating graphs and it was before computers, so it was all done on paper. I was sending the data to Steinway. Primarily Franz, because he was the technical representative for the company at that time, and honestly, I think Franz decided the only way to get me off his back was to hire me. I was sending him charts and tubes with paper patterns, because I was really curious about the scaling design of the piano and wanted to know why does this region sound different and… And I think the company saw that as an opportunity to bring me on board to look more closely at it and; either that, or just shut me up. You know?

 

GC: Tell me more about Mr. Hopper. He was obviously an aural tuner, taught you how to tune aurally, taught you how to regulate, taught you how to do all that stuff.

 

SJ: A jewel of a guy. I loved him, dearly. Like I said, he was an old man when I knew him. So, you know, I walk into the store, 24 years old and he’s 80 years old, and the first or second day there, he is sitting there on the floor, Indian style, with me, as we were taking the action out of a 1098 and we’re picking it apart together. So, he had a real youthful mind as a technician, even though, he was an old man. Big pot bellied guy, he was just not the kind of guy you could see down on the floor, but, he’d do it. And, I think he recognized in me that I had a lot of ambition, and [that] I was just super-charged; I wanted to know anything he had to tell me.   I had gotten a degree in music composition with the emphasis on piano performance, Piano was my primary instrument.  So, I was an empty vessel and made the decision to go into the technical field. People like Lee Hopper were God to me. I was listening to every word they said.

 

GC: That’s great. Good teachers mean a lot.

 

SJ: For sure.

 

GC: So you were 24 when you met Mr. Hopper, and then you were 28 when you started at Steinway?

 

SJ: I was 29.  I had a small business in Raleigh as a self employed technician, ah, working, similar to what you have, working with a dealership, but you also  have your own business. I had already planted roots there. I had bought a house, and very close to my home, where I grew up, so, it was my community. But, ah, when I got the note asking if I wanted to join the company, the house was sold, and everything I owned was gone within two weeks. (laughing) I’ll never forget it; I just liquidated my life so I could get up toNew York.

 

GC: Wow. That’s exciting. So, and you worked for Steinway for how many years?

 

SJ: 12 years. Seemed so short now, but it was a really, intense time for my career; I started as a concert technician in Manhattan, which, you’ve been there, you know the environment; it’s high energy, it’s intense.  I was single at the time I was working with Franz, and, Ron [Connors], I was one of, I think, 7 technicians in the concert department, so we were just tuning our butts off. Everybody had 5 to 10 tunings a day and I cut my teeth there. Really got a sense of the culture of the company then, because that’s where the rubber hits the road in that company, and they put their performance pianos in front of really discerning artists. Places like Philadelphia, New York and Los Angeles, you just can’t duplicate that environment.

 

GC: So, you were with Steinway from when to when?

 

SJ: 1989 till 2001.

 

GC: 1989-2001, and you were a concert technician from, well when was the switchover?

 

SJ: I had three jobs in the company, and each one slowly transitioned out as the next one started, so there were overlapping times. When I started, I was a C&A technician. At the time, the company didn’t have a technical training program. Bill Garlick had left the company shortly before I joined and so there was a period of about 3 or 4 years where Steinway wasn’t offering any technical training. So, they weren’t at PTG conventions, or if they were, it was just an exhibit booth thing.  So there was a need there and I gradually moved towards that side of  the business, talking to technicians, networking. So I started to do the C&A work during the day, while at night I’d start putting together proposals for how we could set up the seminars again at the factory. And then for the next 5 years or so, developed the training program from picking up the pieces where Bill left off, which included running the week long comprehensive seminar, which is one they had been doing for decades, and that was a combination of factory tour and general overview of the technical work. We expanded the program to include the tone production seminar and the damper seminar, and the concert seminar had always been there, but while I was working with that program, we shaped it a little differently and started to toy with the idea of it being a more organized seminar, but I never went that far with that. That was for someone else later to take care of.  John Patton, Kevin Stock, Eric Schandall and Kent Webb have since taken the program to new and more professional levels.  My involvement in the training program continued for about five years and you can only do so much of that before you’ve heard yourself say the same jokes too many times.  You know what I mean? And it’s time to move on and that’s where I was in about 1998. And so, product development came along, the classroom and the R&D engineering lab were right beside each other. And I was going back and forth between the two rooms working with the two groups of people. When John Patton joined the company and took over the technical training job, I moved over across the wall, to the lab and started doing the product development work.

 

GC: Tell me. You developed 6 patents; 5 for Steinway, 1 for yourself. Ah, let’s start with the general overview of what they could be, or, I don’t know how you want to describe them.

 

SJ: The corporate patent strategy is typically to create as many patent claims as possible in order to protect an idea from multiple angles; multiple positions, knowing that most of them will never mean much of anything. They’re just, ah, they’re ammunition. They’re bullets in the gun. So, if you took the patents that I wrote, now several of them are connected, I think three are all part of an initial project that was an action design that basically made a real fast action with high up-weight and low down-weight, and it was a great project, but it was nothing the company ever intended to build. It was more of an investigation into the potential of the idea, find out what artists like in an action, what they don’t like, and concluded with, ah, an evaluation of 200 artists in New York, London, Hamburg; it was a big project.Lot’s of money was spent. It didn’t actually result in a product.

 

GC: So, it was more like a exploratory research and development.

 

SJ: That’s what a lot of is.  It’s a gamble. You could look at that and say it was a total waste; we did all this work, we developed this action, experimental action tests, and then we didn’t use it.

 

GC: Right, but you learned a lot at the same time.

 

SJ: Absolutely learned a lot. It’d be great if you could come up with an idea, patent it, build it, sell it, and have a homerun at every level, but it rarely works like that.

 

That first project, that action design project, that was two or maybe three patents all connected to the same concept.  The second project that I got involved in was a design for a re-evaluation of the back action of the piano. Stop-rail, sostenuto-rail and how they all function together. So, we created a system, that was very thoroughly thought out, very careful design, lots of great ideas, but in that case, it was design that included too much change for a company like Steinway & Sons.

And so, it wasn’t used because it wasn’t consistent with the current design. It was a little bit of a catch 22 there; you want to come up with an improvement, but you can’t change the product. Okay? What do you do then? The R&D projects that I worked on that were successful were actually not patent design ideas. They were changes to the current production that worked; were invisible. There was a change to the damper pedal leverage on the S,M,L,and O grands that I developed working with engineers Susan Kenagy and Greg Sims; it worked, we tested it with artists, they loved it. The change was built into the pianos and they still use it today. But it wasn’t a patent.

 

GC: Okay, can you describe that change? What it was before and what it is now?

 

SJ: Yes, you can see it. If you look under an S, M, L, O Model Steinway after 1998 the thing you’ll notice immediately is the pivot point is in a different location on the trap lever.  From a distance, everything looks the same, but the parts are moving in a much different way.  The idea was, to change the leverage of the component, to more accurately match what’s in a model D concert grand. Because, for years the small grands had heavy pedals, very heavy; you push the damper pedal and the piano rolls away from you!  Really serious in some cases. So, that was a real homerun. We found a way to, change production, minimally, actually, using existing parts to make a few modifications, and pretty significantly changing the performance capability of those models. So, that one worked, and it’s still happening in the New York  production today. And there were a few others that I worked on that had to do with changing procedures in, something in the action manufacturer, or hardware in the pedal lyres; for example the type of lubricant in the repetition lever spring grub and  the little thumb nuts on the tops of the pedal rods. Those were projects…but again, those weren’t patentable ideas. They were…process refinements.

 

GC: Okay. And your sixth and final patent is, for yourself, and what is that?

 

SJ: That’s for the product that I make and sell, called the Touchrail. My company was granted the patent December 2011, and I’m happy to say I managed to do it without a lawyer, but I don’t want to do it again (jokingly).

 

GC: How long did it take to process the patent?

 

SJ: It’s about a year, year and a half.

 

GC: So did you have to wait for that to be finished before you introduced the product, or you just introduce the product, patent pending?

 

SJ: Yes, that’s right.  I mean, if you’re a company my size, with a product this, ah, this specialized, you can’t wait, and there’s really no reason to wait. I mean, I’m not, ah, I’m not building the new hybrid engine for Toyota!  I’m building something that’s smaller market, and, patent pending is a very secure step forward in protecting an idea, so that was enough.

 

GC: How did you get to the Touchrail? What led you that way?

 

SJ: You’ll know the story line well, because you were right there. I actually gave a presentation at your chapter three years ago.  Typically ideas start with a fact finding state of mind.  You go into an idea, that’s a hunch and you say, “Well, I’m just gonna try stuff and see what I find”. I mean, that’s why the word research is what it is, “re-search”, you’re searching again. And that’s what I was doing with grand actions in general, but it was actually built around the idea of making an action more quiet.  Remember that presentation when we had the guitar amplifier and microphone, we were listening to noises in the action.  Well one really good idea came out of that little experiment, I had built a little brass rail, solid brass, it weighed about five pounds, ran the length of the action and had a thick foam cushion on the bottom of the surface. The idea was to try and catch and absorb some of the return impact of the key. But, because the foam is resilient  it was actually producing an assist spring force on the keys. But only for a very short stroke of the key. I happened to put a gram weight on the key when I had this device in place, and I noticed, “Wow, it just launches!”  But only for the first millimeter of the key stroke, and then it stopped. I thought, you know, one thing led to another, and it became clear, “Well, this is a great opportunity to take an assist spring, bring it to the front of the action and run it in series at the location where the key-stop rail is.” And it’s turned out to be a good fit. It works, it’s, ah, repeatable, and I’ve gotten very positive responses from customers

 

GC:  How much of a difference does the Touchrail Make?

 

SJ: Well, I should mention a few facts first.   Every Touchrail has two types of springs in it. Two gauges of springs, designed specifically for the sharp keys and the naturals. Well, about a year into it, I started to get requests from people saying, “Hey, I’ve got a piano, with 80 grams down wieght, what can you do?” That was beyond the scope of the original design. It had a range of 10 maybe 15 grams. But, I realized if I added a third, then I could offer two Touchrail settings from the combinations of those three springs. So there are now two strengths of  Touchrail, Each order receives a proper fit based on the down weight information I get from the customer. With that said, the maximum down weight right now is at about 20 grams. You can even go higher, but it depends on the piano, depends on key stop rail placement But, if you think about it, that’s enormous. 20 gram down weight reduction is an enormous change in a piano. I’m very happy with that, and I think that’s a pretty comprehensive, scope of change the product offers.  There have been a few along the way that have exceeded that range . You know, they say that it’s got 90 grams of down weight, and if that’s the case, well, it will make it better; 70’s better than 90. But, you’d have to concede a few grams on that one.

 

GC: And you’re product before this was the, Pitchlock String Couplers. What led you to develop something like that?

 

SJ: I have no idea. (laughing)  No, same start, same research mode of thinking, the beginning was, was leading me to think about mainly unison dis-tuning…and ways to, to possibly be able to reduce the amount of unison dis-tuning, because that’s the most detrimental thing that happens to the tone of the piano. I can tolerate playing a piano with bad octaves and temperament, but when the unisons are gone, the bouquet has withered. One day while my tuning mute was stuck between two strings of a bichord I happened to notice that only one frequency came out of that sound; instead of two separate frequencies. The strings were out of tune with each other, but when I muted them off, the sound that came out was a thud, of course, but it was just one pitch, and that kind of got me thinking along the idea of coupling. I have a neighbor who’s a physics professor, and he confirmed that, sure enough, you can join different objects moving at different speeds, and that’ll push and pull on each other and meet in the middle and form one frequency. That was the beginning of string couplers.  Initially, I sold them as a tuning aide, placing them on the speaking length of the string. And technicians just didn’t accept it. I had to concede and let that one go, so I repackaged the product as what it is today, which is a voicing tool used for matching bad bass strings and for cleaning up buzzing duplex scaling, and that’s how it’s sold now.

 

GC: At the SEPA chapter recently you did a voicing class.  It was a very thorough class; started from the very basic key-bedding, straight up through the strings, hammer matching and so on. You did something unique that I haven’t seen done before, which is voicing the hammer, I’ve come to term it as, “wet voicing”, where you, you put the key top solution, or lacquer, or whatever, in the hammer, and while it’s drying, you’re going ahead and needling that. How did you get to that point? Where did you pick that up?

 

SJ: Well, I can’t really claim that as a technique that’s mine, because I think that’s an example of the kind of thing, going back to when I was in the C&A shop, in Manhattan. A lot of our work was done in a real accelerated timeline. You don’t have much time, you have to get done, you have 5 or 6 parts of the piano moving along at the same time, and, if you think about it, you put a hardener in the hammer and now you have to wait, that’s an enormous time eater. If you really load a hammer with lacquer and pound it into the strings, can you ruin the damper? Can you leave a residue all over the string? And for the most part, I found the answer is, “No”. But I still recommend that people use some caution. I mean, I wouldn’t want to slug around a bunch of wet lacquer and get it all over the underside of the lid!!!  I’m glad you enjoyed that presentation. It’s a great thing to show. Acetone, flashes off so fast that the audience can hear it happen.

 

GC: So, when you voice, do you primarily use Keytop and Acetone?

 

SJ: I do,  It’s just for speed.

 

GC: So, you don’t use lacquer?

 

SJ: No, because the acetone based type of accelerated, fast voicing process; you can do it anytime, anywhere. It doesn’t have to be crisis level, you know, concert tuning in 15 minutes. You can do it on a Spinet piano that you’re tuning in somebody’s house. I guess the key there is using moderation of how much you apply to the hammer.

 

 

GC: Do you have any advice for people new to the business or young technicians?

 

SJ: When I was 24, just starting business, I knew I loved this work. If you love this work, it will come easily. And if that’s the case, dive in as deep as you can. If you don’t love this work, though, consider another job. I mean, frankly, you’re not going to make a fortune. It’s got to be a passion for creating something fantastic, creating a work of art in your work. And if you have that feeling, I don’t need to say anything else. That’s the advice in itself.

 

GC: What would you recommend technicians do, as young or new technicians, to get better?

 

SJ: Good question.  I would recommend, if you’re just starting in the business, spend a lot of time developing your aural skills. Now, nothing against electronic tuning, but half the battle is knowing what the piano is supposed to sound like. And I know I don’t hear pianos the way I did 20 years ago. I had to learn to hear pianos. And it’s a combination of tuning, and voicing, and all the skills and hand techniques, but more importantly, recognizing what you’re hearing, and letting your hearing guide your decisions.

 

 

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