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Friday, 26 September 2014

Kemble Pianos

Kemble Pianos was established in 1911 by Michael Kemble in Stoke Newington. Details about the history of Kemble pianos are hard to find - even on the Kemble website, the ‘history’ page is confined to 9 bullet points. 

And yet, Kemble Pianos, having survived both the war periods and the consequent economic hardships, went on to build good, quality pianos and attract the attention of the giant Japanese piano maker - Yamaha. 

Examples of early Kemble pianos must survive but as a tuner in the SW of England, rarely does one see a pre-1920 Kemble. During the post, First World War years, reestablishing the momentum of sales must have been particularly difficult. 

A 1960s Minx
When the ‘minipiano’ became so popular, Kembles Launched the ‘Minx’. The Minx was a neat, small piano with a full keyboard - probably the best of the minipianos on offer. As an overstrung piano and yet being so short, the design of the Minx was all about getting a small piano to perform as well as, or as close to what is expected from a standard upright piano. The distinctive Minx remained in production for 30 years!     

Under Robert Kemble, in the 1950s Kemble Pianos moved to a factory in Bletchley, near Milton Keynes. It must have been around this time that the The Kemble ‘Classic’ was designed, built and launched - another small but full 7 octave piano - taller than the Minx, but a very slim, 47 cm from front to back.

In 1968, Kembles began a joint venture with The Yamaha Corporation of Japan and, a few years later, Yamaha-Kemble Music (UK) Ltd. was formed. In 1985 Kemble and Co. started making some of the Yamaha range of pianos to be sold in the UK market. The Kemble pianos now reflected the Yamaha influence and used the high quality Yamaha actions in their pianos.

Kemble pianos, since 2009, are now made in Yamaha's factories in the Far East but the Kemble name - quite deservedly, lives on!

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Monday, 22 September 2014

Memoirs of an Apprentice Piano Tuner #1

At the start of my apprenticeship - back in 1973, pianos were still being made in the UK. In those early days I was bewildered by the sheer number of piano names. When the older apprentices talked about these obscure and odd-sounding names, it was almost like listening to a foreign language. Strange how quickly one makes sense of these things and it was not long before I could at least understand what the conversations were about!

There was an unofficial rating system of the pianos in the shop - rated by the accumulated experience of young apprentices! From memory, the order from the preferred to the unfavoured was something like: Welmar,  Knight, Kemble, Monnington & Weston, Eavestaffe, Barrett & Robinson, Zender, Bentley. (This order might be disputed by others.)  

I do not remember seeing new European pianos in the shop other than the Zimmerman - but down in the workshop among the apprentices, these were not liked at all. 

The nearest piano factory to where I lived was Bentley's at Stroud. We occasionally passed it while en route to Cheltenham on the A46 but because the Bentley pianos of the 70s were not that great, their factory at Woodchester never particularly captured my interest.

Our workshop was beneath the grand Georgian streets of Bath. We sometimes referred to it as the crypt. The workshop itself had plenty of daylight - about half the area of roof/ceiling was of glass which was likely to leak when the weather was bad. On summer afternoons, while still working, we would gently cook in the sun's heat which was magnified through the glass.

The warehouse/store next to the workshop had no natural light at all and was poorly lit, dusty and full of old pianos in for storage or repair. The air was thick with the smell of bone glue, piano felt and dust - a unique blend of aromas which belongs only in piano workshops.

On my very first day, I was given a job cleaning action parts. The foreman was an older local guy who talked with the broadest accent I'd ever heard. He asked me a question which even in my extreme effort to be polite I could not decipher, so I had to say "Pardon?" A little annoyed, he looked at me suspiciously and said very slowly and clearly, "So you think you've got good ears then!" I gave the only answer a young boy who wanted to be a piano tuner could give: "Yes!"  


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Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Challen Pianos

The beginnings of the Challen piano company are a little sketchy. The start date, claimed by some is 1804 but the earliest record of piano-making under the name of William Challen is 1835. The Challen family was involved in building pianos for nearly 100 years! 
Frank Challen (1862 - 1919) had piano-making blood in his veins but after a family dispute in 1907 he left the family firm, taking his natural talents to work for J. & J. Hopkinson Ltd. His improvements to the Hopkinson range of pianos quickly attracted universal approval and when Hopkinson’s merged with George Rogers & Sons, the refinements were applied to the Rogers range of pianos too. Even today, if these pianos are in good condition, you can still hear something of the very classy sound they made when new.

After the First World War, conditions were difficult for the industry. The trade price for a Challen Baby Grand was £103. and by 1920 the price had risen to £138. To make matters worse, the importing of better pianos began. By 1922, a 5’ 6” Bosendorfer was sold to the trade for only £93. Challen production sunk to about 10 pianos per week.   

About 1927, the company was taken over by Willie Evans. From very unpromising beginnings, by 1929, he had turned the business round. In one year he had doubled production. 1932, he moved to newly built premises in Middlesex. Better management brought about a significant reduction in the sale price which resulted in more sales. 

At this time, Challen mostly made baby grand pianos. These neat and elegant little pianos ranging from 4ft proved a very desirable addition to the typical middle class home. 

In 1931, Broadwoods approached Evans about taking on the manufacture of Broadwood pianos. Using Challen designs but bearing the Broadwood name, these pianos were produced side by side with Challen pianos throughout the 1930s.

1936, the the B.B.C. were looking for suitable pianos to use in their broadcasts. The Challen piano was selected and this of course meant more positive publicity and even more sales. In the year 1937, Challen produced just over 3,000 pianos! 

In 1959, Evans sold the business and sadly, following the general decline of the British pianos industry, the Challen name changed hands a several times until 1984, when the owning company was declared insolvent.

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Thursday, 4 September 2014

A New School Term... same old pianos!

Working in a school this week - preparing the pianos for a new term. This particular school has a vibrant music department and for 20 years or more, has been encouraging young people to higher and better things in the world of music. It is a pleasure to have just a little stake in the overall impact of the music in this school! 

A thriving music department in a school will generate positive benefits for the whole school community. Given the right environment, music acts like a miracle seed - bursting with the essential characteristics thought to improve intelligence and social harmony. This is well documented and widely accepted by educationalists. Unquestioningly then, a music department deserves particular notice and investment!

Somewhere in the large and complicated structure of a school's decision-making, policies and procedures, one may or may not find scribbled notes mentioning the maintenance of the school pianos. The distance between the finance office and the condition of the practice room pianos can seem like a thousand miles - if the spending committee has a more 'interesting' project on the go.   

Funding restraints dominate the minds of the school's financial thinkers and decisions makers - these are the people who determine how to spend the money in the kitty so that the school can function smoothly. Inevitably, certain individuals decide about things they neither understand nor appreciate.

Tough realities are difficult to overcome - but the equipment used in music lessons - pianos in particular, are much closer to the heart and purpose of schools than are the plush offices of the admin people who are good with figures!

Rant over for today. Normal service resumes tomorrow.


Tuner's Journal

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