‘Extraordinary Lives of Ordinary People’

A conversation with David Stanwood.

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David Stanwood with a piano key mechanism model, alongside his giant-size version, used to ring the brass bell at the old fairgrounds. — Lynn Christoffers

On Sept. 30, the third “Extraordinary Lives of Ordinary People” conversation was held at the West Tisbury library, an event sponsored by the library in collaboration with The MV Times. The conversation featured piano technician, pianist, inventor, sailor, shepherd, and self-proclaimed advocate for peace and quiet David Stanwood, and was conducted by Geoff Currier of The MV Times.

The idea for “Extraordinary Lives of Ordinary People” came from Alan Brigish, who struck up a conversation with a stranger on the ferry one afternoon, and was amazed at the stories the man had to tell about his life.

If Brigish happened to sit next to David Stanwood, he could have heard stories all the way from Woods Hole to Vineyard Haven, then back to Woods Hole, and back again to Vineyard Haven. Stanwood has had that kind of extraordinary life. The theme for the conversation at the library was “Undaunted,” a word that characterizes Stanwood’s approach to life, a quality he displayed from an early age.

“When I was 7 years old, I wanted to take piano lessons,” Stanwood said, “so I asked my mother to call the piano teacher, and the teacher said I had to be at least 9.” Stanwood knew he could play just as well as his older brothers who were taking lessons. His mother called back the teacher and held the phone out to the piano. He played a tune, and she agreed to give him lessons — an early example of Stanwood not taking no for an answer.
Another example of Stanwood’s dogged determination came when he was fishing as a boy. “I was fishing off the rocks in West Falmouth,” Stanwood said, “I cast my lure out, and got a horrible backlash. It was the proverbial Gordian knot.” Someone with less resolve would have cut the line out, but Stanwood spent about 40 minutes untangling the mess. When he went to reel in the line, he thought he snagged a rock, but it turned out there was a fish on the other end — it had been stuck behind a rock, and it was exhausted. Stanwood’s perseverance paid off with a 15-pound bluefish.

Stanwood admits to always having been fascinated by knots. “Tying knots taught me how to solve problems,” Stanwood said. “There’s an analogy to the left side of the brain, the mathematical side. Knots are like an algebraic expression that’s been reduced to its minimal form, so a knot is very algebraic, and I always got an A in algebra in high school.” But Stanwood’s real fascination in high school was a room down in the basement. 
There was a machine shop in the basement of Wellesley High School, where Stanwood went to school. “There were lathes, milling machines, welders, things for casting metal — all things I wanted to learn about, so I went to the guidance counselor and asked if I could take machine shop five days a week. The counselor said, ‘No, you can’t do that.’” Stanwood was on a college track, and machine shop wouldn’t allow him to get the right course credits. So, undaunted, Stanwood figured out that he could take college prep courses in summer school, freeing him up to be a machine shop major. “I was the first machine shop major at Wellesley High School who went on to college. For graduation, they awarded me an electric drill.”

Following high school, Stanwood went to Rochester Institute of Technology, and majored in engineering. After two years, he could see where his track was heading — to work for Xerox, Kodak, or a career in the CIA. None of these choices much appealed to Stanwood’s soul. While standing in line for registration after his second year, he both literally and figuratively stepped out of line and told his advisor he was taking a year off. Never to return.  From there he worked at a boatyard in Maine, and shipped out as a first mate on a 60-foot sloop and sailed down to the West Indies for a year. “I did this and that, I tried all sorts of different things,” Stanwood said, referring to his life after college. But underlying all his various pursuits, Stanwood always had a passion for pianos.

One cold winter afternoon, Stanwood walked into a piano showroom in New York City. He sat down to play a shiny black Bösendorfer grand, and up until that time, he never realized how good a piano could be. He felt like he was channeling music through his hands; “I felt like I had put on magic gloves,” he said.

Back in Boston, Stanwood would occasionally stop into M. Steinert & Sons, the Steinway dealer in town, to talk with Paul Murphy Jr. about sailing and to try out the pianos. One time he asked Murphy, “How does someone learn to tune pianos?” and Murphy’s face lit up. Murphy told him that the best piano-tuning school in the country, maybe even the world, was North Bennet Street School, and it was located right in the North End of Boston.  Stanwood checked out the school, and decided this was for him. He went home and told his father he was going to be a piano tuner, and his father’s response was, “Why don’t you do something with your life!”

“I could have been daunted,” Stanwood said. “I wasn’t angry with him, I just thought, He doesn’t get it, but he will someday.”

Stanwood bumped into Paul Murphy on the Island a couple of years ago, and Murphy told him that back when Stanwood was applying to North Bennet Street School, Stanwood’s father had asked Murphy to write a recommendation for David. “He really stood up for me,” Stanwood said, “and never told me.”

I asked Stanwood when was the first time he visited the Vineyard. “I came down with a friend when I was in high school,” Stanwood said. “We drove down to the ferry and waited to board, and the ferry took off. I asked the attendant why it left without us, and he phoned the ferry and the boat turned around and picked us up.” Those were the days!
Years later, Stanwood was tuning pianos and living in Wareham. He asked around about tuning on the Vineyard, and people told him, There’s nothing out there. “That was all I had to hear.” He checked it out, and discovered a wide-open territory in need of a piano tuner. “The Vineyard welcomed me with open arms,” he said.

He was tuning a piano for Ann Parker up on Indian Hill Road, and she told Stanwood that she had just met the most amazing person — Rudolf Serkin [a pianist widely regarded as one of the greatest Beethoven interpreters of the 20th century]. “Ann told me that she had met Serkin at a music festival in Marlboro, Vermont,” Stanwood said. “Then and there I resolved to show Serkin my experimental piano action I had been working on, to see what he thought of it.”

Stanwood packed up his nine-foot concert grand and brought it up to Marlboro. To make a long story short, Stanwood ended up sitting across from Serkin at a potluck dinner. After dinner, Stanwood introduced himself to Serkin, and Serkin said, “No one told me you were coming; please come back next year.”

Stanwood left, but could feel his big chance slipping through his fingers. So he went back in and said, “Mr. Serkin, I know you have other plans, but I think if you change them you’ll find it worthwhile.”

Serkin said that would be impossible, but asked Stanwood, “What’s so special about your action anyway?”

Stanwood could feel the adrenaline coursing through his brain, and time slowed. He thought to himself, don’t tell him what it does technically but tell him what it is meant to do for the pianist: “It decreases the feeling of the mechanism, and increases the perception of the stroke,” Stanwood said.

Serkin was speechless for a brief moment, then said somewhat cryptically, “Bösendorfer makes the best action in the world … thank you very much. Goodbye.”

Apparently Stanwood’s words had done the trick, because as he was getting ready to pack up the piano, Serkin called out to him, saying, “Mr. Stanwood, I changed my plans. Is there still time to play the piano?”

“Of course,” Stanwood said, and Serkin commenced to play. When he finished, Stanwood couldn’t believe what he said: “It was like a Bösendorfer but better — you’re on the right track.”

“This was at a moment in my life when if he said it was terrible, I might very well have been daunted, but instead he took me in the other direction, and it gave me this huge impetus to keep going and help make all pianos have that magic glove feeling.”

Fast-forward some 40 years to last summer, when Stanwood was inducted into the Piano Technicians Guild Hall of Fame. “It was for a whole body of knowledge that I contributed to my trade,” Stanwood said. “When I first came up with these ideas, people said, ‘What are you, crazy? It’s not done that way!’ But gradually I kept working from the fringe to dead center, so 40 years later, here I am with this award. It’s a great honor.”
Stanwood concluded our conversation with an anecdote he felt epitomized the concept of “Undaunted.”

In the late 1980s, he had a booth at the Ag Fair at the Old Grange Hall to raise money for a public space called Meeting House. Stanwood had a giant model of a single grand piano key (which he demonstrated for the audience) and attached to it was a 20-foot wooden mast. A golf ball sat in a cup at the bottom and when the key was struck by a felt-tipped axe handle, the golf ball was propelled up the mast. If the ball reached the top, a bell would ring loudly. For a dollar people could get three cracks at ringing the bell.

“On Saturday night an imposing, muscle-bound, bald-headed man with a handlebar mustache stepped up to try his luck,” Stanwood said. “He spit into his hands and rubbed them together and let loose with a mighty swing. No bell. Two more times he tried, still no bell. Enraged he yelled, ‘Rigged!’ and stormed off.”

What the strong man didn’t realize was that the giant piano key acted similar to a real piano key. If you hit it too forcefully, energy is stolen from the stroke. It takes technique.
Next up was a 12-year-old girl. “She had her own snarky attitude,” Stanwood said. “She spit on her hands, rubbed them together, and took a mighty swing. The bell rang out loud and clear. The crowd roared.”

Stanwood said, “Now that girl was undaunted.”

To hear the whole conversation, watch “Extraordinary Lives of Ordinary People: A Conversation with David Stanwood” on MVTV.