Design & Decoration S02 ep12 : Wayne Stuart, Stuart Pianos, [Sydney]
Interview with Wayne Stuart
Wayne Stuart's love of the piano and his interests in technical and mechanical structures, culminated in a clear vision from a young age - to become a piano maker. Stuart studied piano technology at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and undertook postgraduate studies in both Japan and Europe with leading piano manufacturers. In 1983 Stuart developed and implemented a national training course for piano technicians at The North Melbourne Institute of Technical and Further Education. Over the following decade Stuart pursued detailed research and development which led to the building of the upright and concert grand prototypes. The piano project was re-located to the University of Newcastle in 1995 and was run as a research and development initiative of the University's Faculty of Music. Since 2001 the company has traded under Piano Australia Pty Ltd and is a partnership between Albert Investments Pty Ltd and Stuart and Sons Terra Australis Pty Ltd. This unique arrangement has inspired and enabled the construction of over 50 large grand pianos, the most pianos ever handcrafted by an individual Australian maker.
Stuart: To explain the Stuart piano in a nutshell, it’s an attempt to redefine the acoustic piano from
the 19th Century standard instrument that we’ve all grown up with.
Stuart: As far back as I can remember I was fascinated by the box that you saw in many, many
peoples’ home called a piano and then I became determined that I really wanted to learn how to
play them and also more about the instrument itself.
Stuart: I saw born in Tasmania and brought up on a farm. I wasn’t able to actually get to formal
lessons until I was probably 11 or 12 but I obviously picked up the instrument very quickly and
before that I was playing it a bit by ear. By the time I was early teens I had acquired enough skills
to actually play a lot of the old time dance repertoire and so various members of the family,
immediate and extended, we would tout ourselves around the hall playing for these old time
Stuart: By the time I was probably 16, I’d played you know probably 100 pianos and I had drawn
certain conclusions from this. Why some pianos were easier to play than others, why you had to
play two or three, or even four hours on some pianos and feel enlivened and on others you wanted
to take an axe to them.
Stuart: Although initially I approached the instrument by ear, I was enthralled with the sounds of
the instrument, so that was always a very big motivator in how I played the instrument. But I did
learn to read and reading became a fairly important aspect of playing because it’s the only way
you can access a repertoire.
Stuart: I managed to land a cabinet making apprenticeship. In my third year there was a newspaper
article talking about a piano technician course that they were about to implement at the City
Conservatory of Music. I think I jumped on the phone and I telephoned the Conservatorium, they
sent out the relevant information and within a week or two weeks I was on a plane and when I
stepped onto that plane I knew that I wasn’t going back to Tasmania.
Stuart: In 1975 I was very fortunate in winning an Australia Council study grant to go to Japan for
a year to study with Yamaha. I was thrust into the bowels of the largest piano maker of all time, I
mean they were building about 150,000 pianos a year at the time.
Stuart: It wasn’t until the ‘60s that Yamaha became interested in the concert platform and started
to build a full concert grand piano. When I went there in 1975, the focus to build a piano, a full
concert piano that really could challenge Steinway was in full flight and the concert grand
production area was separate from the main production area, the pianos were essentially hand
built, there was enormous effort and energy being pushed into the design and building of a
definitive concert piano.
Stuart: I knew at the time, without any doubt, that for me to have gone from Australia to Japan as
the first port of call post my initial training was the best possible course I could have taken in
developing my career because the Japanese had analysed the entire process so that they could then
communicate it to a peoples who had no idea about how to do these things and therefore you have
to have a very good education system in place.
Stuart: The sound that came from America during those periods had great clarity. The basses were
good and the, it had enormous power. It was a wholly desirable sound. It was a freer sound, not just
the Steinway but the American, the best of the American makers, during that period, produced
what I consider a modern sound. They were the most advanced pianos of our time.
Stuart: The frustration for me, between the New York Steinway and the Hamburg Steinway, was
one was definitely the dowager aunt and it had no lift, it didn’t have the lyricism, it didn’t have the
vitality or the brilliance. In effect, what had happened, the piano had been geneticised, it had been
made to sound like other German pianos.
Stuart: I then pursued my further training in Europe, I went to work with Steinways and with Bosen
Dorfer and Renner and for Adrian Steinbeck and Bechstein and so on and so forth. I got another
Australia Council study grant to go there for a year. And what the European experience confirmed
in me was that Japan was fantastic, that what it was doing was to technically drag the piano out of
the craft consciousness of Europe if you like.
Stuart: On the way back from Europe I dropped in to America but I didn’t have a great desire to
actually work in America because I was very aware of the skills standards in America, but I visited
the Steinway factory in New York. It was quite obvious at that time why the pianos sounded
differently, they used different materials, there were different techniques, but the focus was very
different. The people are a collective of the sum total and the instrument will be, as a consequence
Stuart: On returning to Australia in late 1979, I had to determine how I might go about establishing
a piano type facility or how would I build my piano in Australia. So after 12 years training people,
doing the research and development, bringing together the designs for an upright and a full concert
piano, I was ready, we had built the pianos, we had refined the ideas and we had determined, or
practically demonstrated that there was a new sound of the hand that I could actually build a sound
that would be more responsive to the vertical colour of sound to the physical properties of sound
that the contemporary composers had been writing into their works for really since the
Stuart: After the upright prototype had been sort of proven, put through its paces as it were, I was
seconded for a couple of years to build a full concert grand. You get one chance to do these things
and then it’s oblivion. If it doesn’t work. Is this real? Walking to and fro and then going away and
coming back, no, it’s not right, it’s not right, you can’t do it, you can’t do it, it’s just too way out
and the first instrument really was, it was an extraordinary piano and in actual fact it is still used at
the Conservatory here in Newcastle and many people still love it they think it’s, well some say it’s
the best piano I’ve made.
Stuart: When the prototype was built in Melbourne I knew that my time had come in that limited
institution but during the course of the year the University of Newcastle, Professor Robert
Constable, had been keeping an eye on me. He came down and looked at the project and I said
Robert I think we’ve probably gone about as far as we can go here, what’s next? So he said look
I’m very interested in this project and the implications for Australian music. We then started to
think about relocating the project to the next stage, putting it back into the Conservatorium where
we could then introduce it to the musicians and also, over a period of time, trial in all sorts of
contexts. So long story short, the whole project came to Newcastle and that’s why we’re here.
Stuart: With these pianos I’ve presented four pedals to the pianist. The three on the right side of
the box are the standard pedals you’ll see on a normal grand piano, the fourth, or the left pedal,
actually reduces, it moves the keys and the hammers in a vertical plane, the next pedal in moves
the hammers and keys in a horizontal plane. They influence the dynamic level of the piano and the
texture of the sound.
Stuart: A piano is nothing more than a Greek harp with a few more strings on it. That’s essentially
all it is. It’s an arrangement of stretched wire, covering eight, nine octaves, as many octaves as you
can make at certain tension and then you couple a speaker cone to it. The speaker cone being the
iron frame, weighs about 200 kilos, and then the cabinet that goes around it, has to be able to
support that, but the actual speaker cone or the thing that moves the air is the diaphragm, the sound
Stuart: During the course of the six years at the Conservatorium we just had a stream of pianists
coming in from all over the world, it was the venue for Music Aviva and I will never forget the
first night the piano was actually played by the Gunarie Trio, the piano had been delivered during
the afternoon and Professor Constable had indicated that it wasn’t to be put out for the evening
concert. So the trio came in and the pianist sort of played the Steinway and he said, and what’s that
over there? Because the piano was veneered in huon pine and so it was, there was no mistaking it
was a brilliant statement in cabinet work. Anyhow he went over and played on it and, I want this
one, the pianist took to it like a duck to water. Despite the protestations coming from Professor
Constable, the piano was wheeled in to centre stage and used for the evening concert. When the
audience came in, the lights were low and all of a sudden they were raised and of course this
brilliant golden huon pine piano just shone on the stage and the audience gasped.
Stuart: One day we had a phone call. It was revealed at the end of the call that he was ringing on
behalf of Rowan Atkinson. He’d like to come to the factory in Newcastle and have a look at what
we’re doing. He came to the factory and after spending the best part of a day talking with staff and
ascertaining what we do do, he commissioned the first 2.2 metre piano that we ever made. When I
visited the piano in the UK to service it after its’ delivery, the instrument was in the music room, it
was not necessarily on display, it was there as a workhorse, Rowan came in at the end of the day
and we had a glass of New Zealand chardonnay.
Stuart: I cannot forget the day that McArdie Campinella came in. He came to Newcastle
specifically to play this piano, he had heard much about it. The sound and the exploration of that
piano was just extraordinary. He gave a concert in the evening and the concert continued to 11
o’clock because he just wanted to keep exploring the piano and he apologised to the audience, that
you know this was his desire.
Stuart: To see the reactions, the extreme reactions in some cases, when you throw down four
pedals and eight octaves and how a musician has been narrowed down to three pedals and 88 keys
for their entire life, how they cope. Some cope very well, some don’t cope well at all. We had
players like Steven Huff coming in and he just fell in love with one of them and the sounds that
came from it, he could in no time at all grasp the overall concept of what the piano was, how to use
the pedals and so on and so forth, people who listen to what they play were the ones who really
immediately embraced this piano and that’s really been what’s driven it.
Stuart: The acoustic piano still is that quintessential exposition if you like of the western ego
exposed on a concert platform where someone walks out essentially alone, without a plug in their
hand to put into the nearest power socket, where they have to actually interact with a beast actually
and a repertoire that goes back for centuries and to bring life into this whole experience, but yet to
keep it vital, to keep it vibrant and the art or the role of the instrument maker is so intrinsically
linked with the performer, with the repertoire, with the experience if you like on that concert
Stuart: Underneath the great Steinway underneath the great instruments there are always
individuals like me who started those enterprises if you like, based on these sorts of dreams of
exploration, I would be appalled to think that in 150 years someone is copying the recipe that I
derived. I see no honour in reproduction or copying. I only see honour in creativity and
OFFICIAL WEBSITE: Wayne Stuart, Stuart Pianos, Sydney