Meet Your Maker: David Stanwood

Rethinking centuries of piano-making tradition.

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The first annual Martha’s Vineyard Mini Maker Faire will take place this Saturday, May 7, from 10 am to 4 pm at the Ag Hall in West Tisbury. The Faire will showcase Island “makers” — beekeepers, swordmakers, robot designers, artists, musicians — anyone who comes up with a clever solution or a new idea. One of the “makers” you’ll get to meet is David Stanwood.

We met with David at his rustic studio in West Tisbury; he had just flown in from New Zealand, where he was teaching seminars to piano restorers and technicians. While somewhat sleep-deprived and struggling to align with the right time zone, Mr. Stanwood became energized as he delved into the theory of piano construction, and how his innovations are causing people to rethink centuries of tradition.

So David, what’s it say on your business card?

Stanwood Piano Innovations. I’m an innovator; I try to solve problems with the design of pianos.

How did you end up going down this path?

Even as a little kid, I’ve always loved pianos. If I went to someone’s house who had a piano, I’d just want to go over and touch it. But when I really got serious about it was in the late ’70s, when I enrolled in the North Bennet School in Boston and studied piano technology. That’s where I really learned the craft of tuning and rebuilding pianos.

People have been building pianos for hundreds of years; where did you find room for innovation?

When I was at the Bennet School I remember asking, If the action of a piano doesn’t feel right, how can I change it? And the answer was, Well, that’s really hard. But in the late ’80s I actually came up with an equation that unraveled a body of knowledge that was hidden up until that time. It was like the E=mc2of balance in piano actions. That actually led me to a whole new way of thinking about the action of pianos. One of the things that came out of that was the invention of what I call the Stanwood Adjustable Leverage Action, or SALA for short.

So what exactly does SALA do?

Every piano has its own touch or feel, and that’s determined by the piano’s action. SALA allows you to change the action of the piano with just a simple adjustment. So let’s say you have a Steinway grand in a concert hall that has a very light action, which might be great for a concert pianist. When a rock or jazz pianist comes in who wants a heavier feel, SALA lets him adjust the action so it fits his playing style. It means that there’s one less thing that comes between the musician and his music.

So how does SALA make that adjustment?

There are two knobs, one on either side of the keyboard; one controls the treble keys and one controls the bass keys. So simply by turning a knob, the pianist can set the action to whatever he likes. A half-turn produces a noticeable change — five full turns produces an astonishingly wide range of change. It sounds simple, but there’s a lot of technology behind it. I’m bringing a piano to the Maker Faire, and I’ll be able to demonstrate exactly how it works.

Who is the SALA intended for?

At present, SALA is geared to the piano aftermarket. We’re in talks with rebuilding shops and some of the premier piano stores around the country and around the world. As I mentioned, it’s ideal for concert halls, where many different people with different styles play on the same piano. It’s also ideal for recording studios or in a piano teacher’s studio where, similarly, there are a lot of different players. I’m even working on installing SALA in a private family’s piano. It turns out the father likes a very light action, and the son wants a heavier action, so this way they don’t need to have two pianos.

What’s the response been so far?

When pianists try SALA, nine times out of 10 it elicits the “wow” effect. It really affects them deeply.

Are you excited about presenting at the Maker Faire?

The Maker Faire is testimony to human innovation. Somewhere inside us, we all have an inventive nature, and that’s what’s being showcased. That’s why I’m excited about being there.