A lifetime of loving the piano, four years of research and development and two years of crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s on the paperwork, and West Tisbury piano innovator David Stanwood now holds a U.S. patent for a mechanism that allows pianists to customize the feel and sound of a piano in a matter of seconds.
This patent — # 7,915,509 — is in Mr. Stanwood’s words “a movable pivot bearing for changing key leverage in stringed keyboard instruments.” The Stanwood adjustable leverage action (SALA) mechanism is installed so that by turning two knobs in the front of the keyboard a pianist may alter the way a piano performs.
Mr. Stanwood explained that in a normal piano there are small discs of felt that sit over pins creating a pivot point and each of the 88-keys rock back and forth. The pin holds the key in place. The SALA mechanism makes the pivot point moveable so that it becomes heavier or lighter as the pianist wishes.
The mechanism allows a pianist to select one of five unique keyboard settings and so customize the settings for a Bach symphony or a Chopin concerto, for example. The SALA mechanism “changes the personal relationship, changes what the piano is to the pianist. It changes the relationship and that has a huge value. It increases the quality of the performance, the joy of playing and the possibilities of the music,” Mr. Stanwood said.
“It allows the pianist to be their best in a way that was never possible before. They can actually tune these knobs and find their ‘sweet spot’ where they really start to kick and feel something special. Quite often before this it was a question of technique which not everybody has. So it really broadens the availability of a perfect instrument,” he said.
The mechanism may be retrofitted into existing pianos or built into a piano as it is being originally constructed. To date nine grand pianos have been custom-fit with the mechanism and, Mr. Stanwood said, another five customers are waiting for the installation. Concert halls and private owners of high-end pianos are his customers to date. The mechanism costs $10,000 to install.
Mr. Stanwood installed the first SALA mechanism in a nine-foot Steinway concert piano owned by Brandeis University in Waltham. “We wanted to start somewhere that was not a major conservatory. We wanted to test it someplace small to make sure everything is working. ”
Brandeis University PhD student Jared Redmond, age 25, is the first pianist to play a SALA-retrofitted grand piano in a concert setting and first performed with the SALA on September 12, 2010. During a telephone interview with The Times, Mr. Redmond said,” From my perspective the most remarkable benefit is that all of a sudden one piano becomes many pianos.”
Few concert pianists are able to bring their own half-ton piano to a concert setting. Instead, they must make-do with what the concert hall and an on-site tuner make available.
“Now with the SALA, suddenly you have a huge measure of control of the piano you are working with. Now the quality of the piano experience is up to the taste and control of many musicians rather than the ‘this is how it is and live with it’ of the concert situation,” Mr. Redmond said.
He also noted that for those studying the piano, the SALA allows the pianist to practice a piece repeatedly changing the touch of the keyboard and as a result learn to hear how their own touch impacts the quality of a performance.
For Mr. Stanwood, who began taking piano lessons at age seven, “This is kind of the ultimate invention which draws upon all of my skills. This is the pinnacle of invention — this adjustable leverage action. ”
At his company Stanwood Piano Innovations, Mr. Stanwood works in what was once called a piano rebuilding shop. “In recent years I started to call it a piano laboratory because we do research and development of innovative products for the piano to increase the quality of the experience of the piano not just for the pianist but for everybody,” he said.
Located on Lambert’s Cove Road, Mr. Stanwood credits the local community for helping him to innovate. “I have to give a lot of credit to the environment on Martha’s Vineyard. The Lambert’s Cove area in the off-season creates the environment for creating and inventing,” he said.
Mr. Stanwood spent nearly $10,000 in the process of completing the patent application that includes a written description of the mechanism, claims to its uniqueness as intellectual property, and drawings. Filing for international recognition with the European Union as well as the United States lengthened the patent application process.
“What you really have to make sure is that it is something you are going to sell. And then you run into problems because people are going to want to steal it. A patent gives you the right to defend yourself,” he said.
For other would-be inventors, Mr. Stanwood advises that success is, quoting Thomas Edison “ninety percent perspiration, 10 percent inspiration. The light bulbs do not go off without all the dedication, a lot of passion, and trying a variety of options. Then the miracles happen.”