Robert Estrin - piano expert

EXTREME Instrument Restoration: What is a Conservator?

Discussion about music conservators

In this video, Robert goes in depth about piano conservation.

Released on April 14, 2021

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hi, I'm Robert Estrin, this is The question today is what is a musical conservator? Have you ever heard of that term before? I hadn't, until a few years ago, when I got to meet one in Los Angeles and it was an enlightening experience, let me tell you what happened because it was really shocking and I didn't even understand the process until it was explained to me and I thought you'd be interested in this. Now, of course, there are people who restore instruments. For example, in the piano, there are piano rebuilders, technicians who take pianos, older pianos, and they'll put a new pin block, they'll refinish the case. They'll put new parts, and they actually can rebuild all the thousands of parts of the piano to get a high-level performance on an old instrument. So if there's an old, let's say there's a 1912 Steinway B, they might go through and try to make it fresh and new.

Again, what a conservator does is quite different, even though the end result could be similar. If they have an old instrument, let's say that same old Steinway B, instead of just putting on new parts on it they will go to painstaking lengths to preserve as much original on the instrument as possible. For example, if the pins are loose, usually what a rebuilder will do is remove the strings, remove the plate, and put a new pin block in. That's the piece of wood underneath the plate that has the hole for each tuning pin. And they're drilled to tolerances of thousands of an inch at precise angles. So when the pins are banged in and twisted in, they'll hold. But a conservator will do something quite dramatically different. If they're meticulous enough, we'll torque each and every pin to see how much strength it takes in order to turn a pin and record each and every one.

There are over 200 to 220, perhaps more, strings on a piano. I saw these charts on graphs on every single, the amount of torque on every pin. And then each pin was, was labeled, which pin came from, which hole. And then going through hole by hole, filling in the holes with the proper amount of wood to be able to get the torque out of each hole, rather than just putting a new pin block in.

The finish. What about the finish of the piano? How do you preserve that? Can you believe scraping the finish off and then liquefying it and reapplying that finish. There are all sorts of techniques. If the hammers are worn out, typically you can just get a new set of matching specification hammers, but no, a conservator, believe it or not, will take felt and rebuild each and every hammer one by one, putting the missing felt back on each hammer.

This just gives you an idea of the absolute tedious process of a conservator restoring an instrument. You might wonder, why would they go through such extraordinary lengths because it would be far easier to replace these parts. Wouldn't it? Well, in truth, yes, much easier. Is it to save money on those parts? Absolutely not, because the labor is so intensive. The reason is, if you have this old Steinway from a specific year, let's say it's a 1912 Steinway. And at some point in the future, if nobody ever does what I described, bringing that instrument back to its original state, painstakingly. At some point in the future, we won't know what a 1912 Steinway was. And when you think about it in museums particularly, when you see historical keyboards, old fortepianos from the 1700s, obviously you don't want to rip out those parts and put in other parts because it's not even that instrument anymore.

So this is what a conservator does. It's a completely different methodology. A different mindset. Has a different purpose. Yet, either one can get great results in the hands of masters. I thought that'd be interesting for you. I know I was flabbergasted when I learned about this. What is possible in the restoring of instruments in this fashion?

I hope you've enjoyed this and keep the questions coming in. I give preference to my Patreon subscribers, but all of you are welcome to contact me any time again. Again, I'm Robert here at, your online piano resource with lots more to come. Thanks for joining me.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Fulvia * VSM MEMBER * on April 14, 2021 @6:55 pm PST
The patience of these conservators must be infinite! I didn't know about this process.
Robert - host, on April 15, 2021 @7:54 am PST
I have the patience to memorize and refine pieces of music. But there's no way my temperament would be suitable for intense instrument restoration!
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