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ASU keeps pianos at peak condition for student performers

ASU's pianos kept in peak condition for student performers.
March 25, 2022

Head technician cares for 185 pianos in School of Music, Dance and Theatre

Before a piano produces beautiful music on stage, the care and maintenance of its 12,000 parts is itself a complicated and delicate symphony.

At Arizona State University, Rick Florence has spent almost 30 years carefully coaxing the most perfect notes possible from the pianos as the head piano technician in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre.

Based out of his workshop in the basement of the Music Building, he — along with a part-time colleague, Keith Cannon, and student workers — maintains a schedule for all the pianos, which can range from simple tuning to completely rebuilding the interior every few years.

Over the years, Florence has developed a complex system to balance and “regulate” the instruments. He can remove the “action” of the piano – the keys, the hammers that hit the strings and the thousands of parts in between — like a big drawer and take it to his workshop.

Recently, Florence replaced the hammers and balanced the action of the John Lennon Imagine grand piano that was donated to ASU. That piano is being used in the recording studio of the Popular Music program at Fusion on First in downtown Phoenix.

White John Lennon Steinway piano

John Lennon's self portrait adorns the music desk of the John Lennon Imagine Series Limited Edition Steinway concert grand piano in its new home at a Fusion on First studio. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

“We try to make each piano as consistent and predicable as possible for the pianist,” said Florence, whose title is manager of keyboard technology and event services.

“A good pianist will always be able to adjust their playing, but they’ve studied and practiced for that recital, and they deserve a piano that’s in pristine shape.”

In honor of National Piano Day on March 29, the 88th day of the year because a piano has 88 keys, Florence answered some questions from ASU News.

Question: How did you become a piano technician?

Answer: I’m a third-generation piano technician on my mom’s side. Every month, the family would get together for a big meal and there was discussion ad nauseum about the pianos and I thought I would never do this. Never.

Then I went to college and decided to apprentice in my grandfather’s shop for a year to tune pianos to pay for college. I changed my major a few times and I was hating school. My tuning business was growing, my family was growing and I was enjoying it. I worked privately for 10 to 12 years when the job at ASU opened up.

When I arrived at ASU in 1992, I had a solid foundation of training and experience, mostly due to my work with Yamaha Corporation and training in my grandfather’s shop. I had no idea how little I knew. Working at a university, especially at ASU, is like working in a live-in laboratory. (The use of a piano for) one academic year is equivalent to closer to 10 years in a typical home.

The upside to this accelerated use is the ability to see, firsthand, how materials and procedures hold up, and make necessary adjustments. This has enabled us to develop action building and voicing and regulating procedures that have improved our ability to support the music program.

Rick Florence, manager of keyboard technology and event services for the School of Music, Dance and Theatre, weighs the keys of the recently donated John Lennon Imagine Steinway grand piano in his workshop in the Music Building. He rebuilt all the hammers of the piano. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Q: A donor recently gave ASU an exquisite John Lennon Imagine Steinway grand piano. How many pianos does the School of Music, Dance and Theater have?

A: There are about 185 pianos in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre. This varies year to year. The value of the pianos is just under $8 million if we were to replace them.

Piano donations are not uncommon. Someone donated a 1916 Steinway Model O that is now being restored to be used at Mirabella, which raised the funds to restore it. And we had an 1898 Steinway model A donated to Kerr Cultural Center, which was also restored.

Q: What is the difference between regulating a piano and tuning it?

A: When you have a piano tuned, you’re changing the tension of the strings. It doesn’t affect the other parts. Too often, pianos are just tuned. It’s like only putting gas in your car and doing no other maintenance.

We don’t just tune pianos, we’re always adjusting the voicing and regulation. On a regular basis, we pull actions down to the shop, changing parts if needed and making adjustments. At some point, we replace all the hammers and other parts.

Our performance pianos in Katzin Concert Hall are checked every day, and sometimes multiple times a day if there are many recitals.

Q: How do you regulate a piano?

A: Regulation is the adjustment of the mechanism of the piano – the action. There are 28 separate adjustments for each note – adjustments such as parts alignment, spring strength and key travel. Regulation is optimized when an action is first balanced. To balance the action, we use a system designed by David Stanwood, a piano technician in Boston. What the system does is removes friction from the equation while you’re taking measurements, and it pays more attention to inertia, which is huge in the way a piano feels from key to key.

An action is a collection of levers. They all work together to create one ratio, meaning for every millimeter the key goes down, how many millimeters does the hammer go up? It’s generally a 5 to 1 ratio, but it varies dramatically from piano to piano, and sometimes from note to note.

Think of 88 different seesaws of different lengths and weights.

We have incorporated this program into a spreadsheet, with the help of a brilliant past student worker, Robert Springer, and we take measurements of each piano part and it tells us the actual ratio. We can then change out parts, if needed, to optimize the ratio of the action. Then we go through and adjust the strike weight — the weight of the hammer and shank that hit the string — and then, based on the calculation of the program, we adjust the key weight.

Once we’ve done that, it’s done. We keep these records because the keys don’t change, but we replace the hammers quite often. We can reproduce that same feel of the action by reproducing the strike weight.

Video by Ken Fagan/ASU News

Q: Do you teach?

A: I teach a course for pianists, who typically are not informed about the technology of their instrument.

They show up and they’re expected to play a piano that’s not theirs. The violinist takes their violin, the flutist takes their flute. The pianists are at the mercy of the piano itself, the venue, the skill of the technician and things that are totally out of their control, but yet they’re being judged on how well they’ll play.

So I teach “Introduction to Piano Technology.” The idea is to understand how a piano works and how to communicate better with a technician.

I also have an internship class, and the students can work here in the shop for credit.

Q: Does the musical genre matter when you’re working on a piano?

A: Sometimes we voice slightly differently. For example, a jazz pianist wants a little more attack. And a classical pianist usually wants more color, so you can go from velvety soft to growly. Voicing includes manipulating the shape and flexibility of the hammers, which allows for the color changes that pianists desire.

Q: What’s changed in your job since you arrived at ASU almost 30 years ago?

A: In 1992, we supported about 350 events per year, and we now are over 500.

Over the last 30 years, there have been incredible developments in parts availability, both in terms of quality and improvements to geometry. We have been able to act as a beta tester for a number of parts companies as they have improved their materials and production methods.

Q: In 1990, the importing of ivory was banned in the U.S. Does the school still have any pianos with ivory keys?

A: Up until three years ago, our main concert piano still had ivory. It was from 1986 and it was one of the last ones with ivory keys, but the ivory got so worn out that we finally had to replace them with plastic. It was sad to do because ivory has a nice feel to it.

I have a set of ivory keytops that I bought pre-ban, from a manufacturer that was going out of business. But when the ivory ban came down, we couldn’t use it. It would be illegal for me to put it on a key.

Q: Why is this work important?

A: We would pay $70,000 to $150,000 for a new institutional quality piano. We can rebuild one for about 35% of that. And we can make it how we want it.

Our whole job is about sustainability. How can we prolong these instruments and not have to chop down old-growth spruce and maple trees to make new pianos?

It’s about preserving natural resources and our budget, one piano at a time.

Top photo: Rick Florence, manager of keyboard technology and event services for the School of Music, Dance and Theatre, works on the keys and hammers of the recently donated John Lennon Imagine Steinway grand piano in his workshop in the Music Building. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


Mother, daughter to present personal perspectives at ASU incarceration conference

The pair advocate today on behalf of affected families

March 25, 2022

Isabel Coronado was 7 years old when her mother, Sarai Flores, was arrested and later served one year at the Coffee Creek Women’s Prison in Oregon.

During this time, Coronado lived with her grandmother, and was only able to stay connected to her mother through a program that helps children and parents experiencing incarceration and teaches valuable parenting skills. A mother and father stand in a field with a young boy who points toward a setting sun. Photo by Luemen Rutkowski/Unsplash Download Full Image

At the time, the program, Girl Scouts Beyond Bars, sponsored by the Girl Scouts of Oregon and Southwest Washington, was the only one of its kind. There were no other resources available to support children with incarcerated parents in Oregon.

Today, Coronado is an adult, and she and her mother, Flores, advocate for parents experiencing incarceration and their families. They are among the featured speakers at a national conference presented by Arizona State University’s Center for Child Well-Being.

The goal of the 4th annual Children of Incarcerated Parents National Conference is to create more awareness and advocacy for the children impacted by parental incarceration.

Flores became a teen mother at 17. By age 24, she was incarcerated.

“I had all that stigma growing up around having an incarcerated mother,” said Coronado, who is now 25. “I never really talked about it before publicly until I was in graduate school.”

Flores and Coronado will speak April 13 at one of three plenary sessions at the conference, a virtual event to be held on March 30, April 6 and April 13.

Click here to register and for more information on the conference’s offerings.

This year's theme, “Leading the Future: Young People as Partners for Change,” focuses on elevating the voices of children, youth and families whose lives have been impacted by incarceration, said Miguel Vieyra, a clinical associate professor in ASU’s School of Social Work (SSW) and interim director of the Center for Child Well-Being.

Vieyra said the conference’s plenaries, panels, focused sessions and workshops — many of which include young people and those who have lived experience as children whose parents are or have been incarcerated — will be organized into three main tracks:

  • Understanding the effects of incarceration on children, youth, their families and caregivers.
  • Connecting children, youth and families during and after incarceration.
  • Supporting and centering the voices and experiences of children and youth.

More information on Coronado, Flores and other featured speakers at the conference can be found here

Flores said that while she was away, no efforts were made to deny her parental rights. At that time, Coronado was cared for by her grandmother, but not all such children have relatives willing to do the same, she said.

“I don’t know how Isabel would have turned out if she were adopted,” Flores said. “About 14% of children of incarcerated parents end up in foster care.”

Today a law school graduate and advocate

The experience motivated Flores to alter her life’s direction, she said

“While I was in there, I really, really wanted to make a difference and make different decisions in my life,” Flores said. “What my time there did was allow me to question my motives about things, whether what I was doing was right or wrong. … Prior to that, I really didn’t do that. I just lived.”

Flores made several life changes since. After graduating from law school in 2011, she has held positions with the Muscogee Creek Tribe of Oklahoma and the U.S. Department of Energy. She writes and speaks about the intersection between mass incarceration, disability law, civil rights law and criminal justice reform.

Coronado has spoken often with media and the public about children with similar experiences. She is active in efforts to pass the Finding Alternatives to Mass Incarceration: Lives Improved by Ending Separation Act (FAMILIES) Act, proposed federal legislation that would enable parents who might otherwise be incarcerated to instead serve their time at home with their children.

Flores said society needs to know the importance of the relationship between these parents and children, and for the children to be involved in any progress their parents make.

“Telling my story is really hard for me, and it’s hard to talk about it and be vulnerable,” Flores said. “But I think that it’s important for anyone who interacts with those who are incarcerated to be trauma-informed.”

More support and programming are needed to ensure the social and emotional well-being of children and their parents, Flores said, as well as further the bond between parent and child, which facilitates a more successful reentry for parents experiencing incarceration.

The conference isn’t only for social service providers, but teachers, librarians, school counselors, philanthropists, health care professionals, child care professionals and others who interact with children and families, because parental incarceration is a common experience in the United States, said School of Social Work Associate Director for Academic Affairs Judy Krysik. Krysik, an School of Social Work associate professor, oversaw the conference through 2021 as the Center for Child Well-Being 's former director. Both the School of Social Work and the and Center for Child Well-Being are based in the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

Conference aims to keep issue before public

Krysik said the center hosts the conference each year to keep this issue front and center and to encourage action, whether through policy change or the development of programs and services to better support children and families affected by incarceration.

“People should attend to hear, directly from those affected, what it is like to have a parent who is incarcerated, and what people can do to assist them,” she said.

Attendees should leave the conference with several takeaways, Krysik said:

  • Greater empathy.
  • Ideas for how to run a social support group in a school or university.
  • How to tailor physical spaces so that they are more child friendly when a child visits their parent.
  • How to use books to communicate with children and youth about the experience in an effort to reduce shame and stigma.
  • How to conduct parenting programs for women and men experiencing incarceration, and much more.

“Maybe most important, people can learn about the resilience of children and youth, and how so many have turned their pain into advocacy and service to help those currently and formerly impacted,” Krysik said.

Mark J. Scarp

Media Relations Officer, Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions