The Weekend Australian - Arts - Sept 7, 2002

Survival is a grand struggle for Australia's two fledgling piano manufacturers, writes Anne Lim

Ron Overs looks disconsolately around his dingy workshop in a nondescript row of shops in Concord, in Sydney's west. Two grand piano cases lie tipped onto their sides, covered in plastic. The cast-iron plates destined to provide the pianos' stable foundation are against the far wall, sentinels to a tarnished dream: "I don't think much of where I'm sitting right now," he says.

Lately, Overs has been wondering whether it's all worth the trouble. It has been tough keeping alive his vision of designing and building the first all-Australian piano with a patented action that reduces friction by half and makes the key much more sensitive to touch.

Twelve months ago, he believed he could do it. He was on a high after returning from a piano technicians' conference in Reno Nevada, where his demonstration model, No. 3, was hailed as "unique", "a dramatic advance" and a "beautiful and superbly crafted masterpiece".

The plan was to build and sell his fourth and fifth 2.25m grand pianos by Christmas, incorporating refinements developed over 12 years of rebuilding concert pianos. They are to be 70 per cent Australian-built, using imported rims and iron frames, but using the new Overs action, which gives pianists more control and allows them to play for longer without getting tired.

Then work was to start on an all-Australian instrument, a 2.8m concert grand, using a locally made rim and an iron frame cast at a Sydney foundry, with a cabinet crafted from Tasmanian blackwood. He reckons he could have done it if he had been successful in applying for an Australia Council grant.

But, disappointed by the rejection of his grant application in March and crushed by his failure to make a sale for a year, Overs's back is against the wall. "We're just about to receive an order now but we've been 12 months in limbo," he says.

If the expected order does come through, Overs will get back to work on his No. 4 and No. 5 pianos, giving the buyer their choice of instruments. But he will still need to do some serious regrouping.

Three years after developing his new action, which repositions the relationships of the levers to halve the level of friction, he has sunk A$200,000 into the business, is in debt and faces a cash flow crisis. He is so short of funds that he intends to let his patent lapse. The provisional application, lodged in 2000, needs to be renewed on September 14, but Overs can't afford the A$70,000 necessary to take it to the next stage, which requires a full specification in Australia and applications in overseas countries. He plans to sell his demonstration instrument, after its appearance at the Tyalgum Music Festival this weekend, to raise some working capital. Then he needs to start looking around to raise A$500,000 to commercialise his piano action.

"Just recently I've been wondering whether it's all worth the trouble," he says. "I mean it will be if we come through it eventually, but there's so much to do before we actually build the next version, the all-Australian piano. There's a lot of work there and it needs serious money . . . I just have to play it one day at a time right now."

How different Overs's despair seems to the jubilation and rezzamatazz that attended the opening last month of the Stuart & Sons piano factory in Newcastle - heralded as the resurrection of an industry that died in the mid-1970s, when Beale and Davies closed their doors under a rising tide of Japanese imports.

Wayne Stuart is certainly streets ahead in terms of manufacturing, exposure and financial support. The factory was bought with federal government funds of A$300,000 to diversify industry in NSW's Hunter region after the wind-back of steel production by BHP, and a A$1.5 million capital injection from Sydney music publisher J. Albert and Son.

Stuart is building five of his new line of 2.2m grand pianos, including one ordered by a well-known figure in British comedy. A spin-off from the original 2.9m concert grand, they were developed with the assistance of A$220,000 from the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust on top of an A$80,000 grant from the Australia Council. State government money has assisted the purchase of Stuart concert grands for several institutions, including the Sydney Opera House, the Sydney Festival, NSW University and the Powerhouse Museum.

NSW Premier Bob Carr "takes every opportunity to promote [the Stuart piano] as a personal thing", says a spokesman. For example, during a 1988 trip to New York, he handed out as gifts the CD set of Beethoven sonatas by local pianist Gerard Willems recorded on the Stuart.

In reality, though, the two stories are not as different as they seem. Both makers face an uphill battle against the cultural cringe, the high cost of micro manufacturing in Australia, and the entrenched conservatism of a piano fraternity that considers Steinway the gold standard of piano building. The Stuarts just happen to be a bit closer to the front line.

With Steinway claiming 97 percent market penetration in concert halls around the world, achieved and retained with the help of a huge marketing machine, there's a dispiriting conformity among international pianists, who almost invariably choose the Steinway sound. (Of the 42 recitals given in Sydney in 2001, 39 were given on Steinways, two were on Stuarts and one on a Yamaha.) Stuart was reluctant to put an instrument in the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall out of fear that it would not be accepted by pianists and become a white elephant. These fears were realised when it was placed in the Studio, the Opera House's small multipurpose venue, where it was stored between two air-conditioners, which dried out the wood. The pianists who played it made disparaging comments because of the poor acoustics, so it was moved to a rehearsal studio. Finally, it found a nice home in NSW Government House, where it is used for recitals.

Stuart has gone out on a limb in creating a design that drags the piano out of the 19th century and into the 21st century. "There's no one else anywhere in the world except for Fazioli in Italy who can stand up and say: 'Look, we need to develop new ideas, and we need to start taking our musical instruments down more modern lines of intellectual and industrial creativity,' " he says.[see footnote - which is not part of the Weekend Australian article]

With its innovative bridge agraffe that anchors the strings to the sound board in the vertical plane, the Stuart piano sounds radically different - cleaner, brighter - from the traditional piano tone. The Stuart also looks different, with its eight octaves, nine extra keys and extra fourth pedal, and its casing made from fine timbers such as Huon pine and Australian red cedar.

Stuart has sold 10 concert pianos in Australia in the past two years, representing about 1 percent of the 932 grand pianos imported into Australia in 2001-02, of which 45 came from Germany and 770 from Japan.

The Stuart's company, Piano Australia, turned a small profit last financial year and hopes over the next five years to expand production to between 10 and 20 pianos a year, for the domestic and international market. Stuart believes this will be done by growing the market for grand pianos, with his expanded production unlikely to take market share away from Steinway. Ultimately, he hopes to develop a small upright piano, which would put a prestige instrument within the grasp of more people.

Although some people welcome the Stuarts new voice - Ian Munroe, for example, loves the instrument for its "directness, the purity of the different colours" - others find the instrument unsatisfying to play and mutter that the extra notes and the forth pedal are gimmicks. Pianist Gerard Willems says the subject has sparked a controversy in the music world. "People are having big dinner party discussions about 'Oh yes, well Wayne Stuart's piano is not worth a crumpet because I hate the sound, I hate all that clarity, I hate all that brightness'. And yet, someone else will say: 'Oh yes, I'm getting my feelings through that instrument just so right.' "

The Stuart polarises people, says pianist Andrew Robbie, because "pianists are used to every piano they play on doing the same thing for them, so they're often quite threatened by the amount of tonal variety that's available on the Stuart and the different way that it responds to your touch".

As a former piano technician who came to piano design through years of rebuilding pianos, Overs has an evolutionary approach that has found favour with pianists as diverse as British Liszt specialist Leslie Howard and jazz singer-pianist Janet Seidel, who recorded a CD on the Overs No 3 with Don Burrows and Kevin Hunt, Don't Smoke in Bed.

Pianist David Bollard lobbied Monash University, where he is senior lecturer in keyboard, to buy an Overs piano and was disappointed when the director of the music department came home from Hamburg with a Steinway.
"Steinway has a huge tradition behind it and the problem with any manufacturer of a new product is to get known and to win people's confidence, and I believe Ron's piano is very, very much on the right track. I think it deserves wide recognition but it is an uphill struggle, there's no doubt about that."

Willems relishes both local pianos, describing the Stuart as transparent, like fine riesling, while the Overs is like a rich red burgundy. He believes the Stuart is ideal for classical repertoire, such as Beethoven, with its "clarity of tone and the beautiful separation of the registers", as well as its dynamic power, while the Overs with its "incredibly beautiful warm centre sound" is wonderful for playing the later romantic repertoire.

This is why Scott Davie chose the Overs for a performance of Rachmaninov's Variations on a Theme of Corelli, which is to be released by ABC Classics later this year. Davie believes there is room for both pianos in the market and is delighted by what he sees as a "glorious renaissance" in Australian piano building.


Ron Overs would take issue with Wayne Stuart's claim that only Fazioli and Stuart are developing new ideas. Several piano designers from around the world are thinking about new designs. In the case of the new Overs Piano, innovations include;

  • The new low friction Overs action
  • A de-tuned front duplex system, complete with specially shaped and hardened capo' and front duplex bars (for a cleaner treble - without the usual 'cash register' accompaniment)
  • Tuned rear duplex system for the top two string sections. This system was used by Steinways in the late 1800s, but has since been discarded by that manufacturer (presumably for reasons of economy - the present rear duplex system as used by Kawai, Steinway and Yamaha does not allow for the rear duplex system to by tuned, since the rear blocks are cast in groups). Fazioli, Mason & Hamlin and Overs use the individual rear block system. The Stuart rear system also is untunable.
  • Loop and eye stringing combined with individual bearing blocks for the tenor string section only, to improve the lay of the back scale string segments for improved tonal uniformity and slightly improved unison string tuning stability.
  • Modified agraffes, with hardened electroless nickel plating, for improved speaking length termination
  • A specially profiled and hardened pressure bar in the second string section.
  • String scale designed for improved tuning stability, better impedance uniformity and improved matching of inharmonicity across the compass of the instrument
  • Specially trenched sound board panel perimeter (at the rear) to lower impedance and increase sound board flexibility, for an improved low bass response
  • Double pin-block location flanges with an epoxy fitted pin-block, for improved tuning stability


    Originally published on the Weekend Australian website at;
    The Weekend Australian
    Published in the Weekend Australian, September 7, 2002
    First published on Overs Pianos website, September 11, 2002

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