How the first African-American piano-maker became the official brand on Empire
“Piano construction is by now a rather conservative area … indeed it is possible that some contemporary piano buyers might actually be suspicious of pianos that are made differently from the older kind.” —from Wikipedia, “Innovations in the piano”
It might seem the height of journalistic laziness to start a cover story with a Wikipedia quote, but there it is, and given the coming subject matter, there are reasons to its inclusion. Firstly to behold that any encyclopedic article would begin by bidding caution to the prospective entrepreneur, or otherwise virgin to the piano-making community’s academic (yea, Masonic) mien, that a den of lions awaits to gnash your engineering dreams and dignity to bloody ribbons, is breathtaking. Just imagining how many assaults at a hammer voicing tool’s needle-point, kneecaps split with tuning forks, dank basement renditions with piano wire —or just outright message board trolling— led to the necessity of that warning must wrinkle the passive onlooker’s brow in a what-the-fuckian fault line of bemused hilarity.
SHADD Pianos, USA, founded by Warren M. Shadd, is a new company; by tech startup standards ancient, but as piano manufacturers go, so new that the industry may still be whipping its radar around trying to find the blip of what looms on the horizon. How do you create a piano company from nothing? “I tuned pianos ‘till I was blue in the face,” says Shadd, laughing as he recollects, “No matter how many setbacks, no matter what tries to sway you from your course, you have to believe, really believe that you can do this. That goes for any creative endeavor.”
From idea’s inception in 2003 to first marketable product in 2012, the production of his original concept piano, the Hybrid Interactive — grossly put, the lacquered lovechild of a bespoke 9-foot concert grand, high-end digital audio workstation and personal music teacher — was met with intermittent friction, from skeptical audio engineers to reticent patent attorneys; Shadd recalls, “And if they said, “Aw, that’ll never work, it’s impossible, it never worked before, it’ll cause all types of feedback!” I said OK, I’ll get someone else.” A trundle through the comments section of past articles featuring Shadd reveals similar nuggets of unfounded incredulity:
“Looks like a stock Hailun piano with a different logo on it.”
“Where is their FACTORY? (sic)”
“Has anyone checked to see what patents he’s actually filed?”
Considering everything which must fall into place, mechanically and financially, in making a piano, which comprises upwards of 100 individual parts per key, and was refined into its modern form by real geniuses at the turn of the last century, anyone who can build one that works is in my eyes, at least, a winner. But the vigor of this skepticism, though understandable for the above reasons and more, loses usefulness outside the realm of strict scientific inquiry. Piano making is both science and art, but the frontier is pegged not by technological exploration but by structural aesthetic and musical taste—or “because we like it that way” (a general attitude which has been dominated for nearly a hundred years by one nameless company.) Can we be reminded, in the spirit of Charlie Brown under the proscenium arch, just what are pianos all the fuck about?
Too Much Forte in my Piano
Dynamic range. In musical terms piano=soft, forte=loud; put them together and you get exactly what the original one-man orchestra: the harpsichord, cannot do, which is modulate between the extremes.
Now since Bartolomeo Cristofori invented his first ‘pianoforte’ in the early 18th Century, the design evolved to better serve the increasing expressiveness of Western Classical music. New piano makers are still stiffening, tightening, lengthening and deepening, and pushing the dynamic range and durability of the instrument—even making examples that passively resemble the aircraft terminals of Eero Saarinen in some cases, but little has changed on the inside since 1899. And why? The recipe works. The big players are so deep in the black, general relativity cannot touch them.
Shadd, a child prodigy drummer, rose to become a successful bandmember and bit-player while studying at Howard University in Washington DC, all while honing his piano-tuning and rebuilding skills until finally inheriting the family business, Shadd’s Piano Hospital Service, at his father’s death in 1992. The late James Shadd’s position as exclusive piano technician for DC’s famous Howard Theatre put him squarely in the service of everybody who was somebody in Black American music in the mid-20th Century that passed through the nation’s capital, an experience which gave young Warren an invaluable view of the playing field—an insight into how band members at the expert level work with each other, and how their ability to improvise was reflected by their ability to hear each other (and themselves.)
By the turn of the 2000s, Warren had played for many years, with enough A-list acts ranging from the iconic jazz organist Jimmy Smith to his own aunt, the indomitable vocalist/pianist Shirley Horn, and tuned and rebuilt enough pianos to be able to peer through the piano-making industry’s dense, relativistic fog, to read the writing on the wall, and revisit a nagging problem. Says Shadd:
“Musicians are at a disadvantage when playing the piano. You have a lot of competition in a band environment; in a church environment you’re in competition with the organ, and the drums, guitar, bass and choir—in a symphonic environment the piano is engulfed by strings, horns, etcetera, and [the pianist] is sitting in the middle of this, so God help them if they can hear themselves.”
And so they end up playing excessively hard; think of how you instinctively solidify your voice when your ears are plugged. All forte and not enough piano, or as Jake LaMotta might say, “it defeats it’s own purpose.” But pianos are plenty loud already, right? Even at pianissimo, a concert grand’s wavelaunch is as big as Bruce Wayne’s dining table.
To Shadd, the issue wasn’t with the soundwaves reaching the audience, but how much is directed and reflected back to the pianist: “They’ll take their lead from the concert master or conductor, but are often left in a situation where they cannot hear themselves play, notwithstanding that they have a wedge monitor on the floor next to them, which is at least three to four feet away from the pianist, but it’s not in their face, not in their ears.”
Shooting from the H.i.P.
Even though he wrote ideas about how to enhance the volume of acoustic pianos, long since stored away during the mid-nineties, Shadd’s inaugural experiment was to develop an interactive hybrid-acoustic piano, enhanced by loudspeakers. With adjustable pickups built into the soundboard, it transmitted sound to the piano’s various drivers, underneath, in front of, and aimed directly at the pianist, including a subwoofer in the bench, “Very important for deaf musicians,” says Shadd. It amounts to a feeling of being inside the piano as one is playing, able to hear, and to feel even the softest measure, with 14-band customizability of the sound’s character. “So I started with that initially, and having added the audio, I just said, “Let’s keep going!””
Since the first prototype was created in 2006, Shadd expanded the interactive concept, adding a 24-inch touchscreen, and optical sensors under the keys, enabling performance keylogging and seamless transfer from acoustic to MIDI. There are individual webcams for each playing hand and pedals, separate screens to display the footage for classroom viewing, real-time language translation and SMPTE time-coded streaming of said footage (also via Internet,) and exclusive software to control it all. Piano instructors, such as at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, where one such unit was installed for 2 1/2 years, can effortlessly teach one or several classes, anywhere in the world, at the helm of Shadd’s piano.
If it reads a bit kitchen-sink to have the full list of the Hybrid Interactive’s capabilities shotgunned at you all at once (and that would require a novella), Shadd’s team has worked equally as hard on the user-friendliness of the electronics —with video walkthroughs instead of instruction manuals, for example— as well as making an acoustic piano that begs to be played, from the feel of the keys, to its cosseting, immersive soundstage. And the burgeoning potential of the Hybrid Interactive Piano (H.i.P.) as an important educational and artistic instrument for those with special needs, made Shadd Inc.’s push into medical science almost inevitable.
Partnering with Dr. Phillip L. Pearl, Director of Epilepsy and Neurophysiology at Boston Children’s Hospital (and classical & jazz pianist), Shadd and Pearl tested the H.i.P. on deaf, blind, and autistic children for a year, refining the software’s interactive lessons and apps to facilitate their learning process, with the piano itself acting as teacher in a situation where having a person sitting next to them would be a non-starter; says Shadd, “The [autistic] child feels uncomfortable with the close proximity, and in general a fear of the unknown. Their character is to repeat, in constant repetition of the known. And so in using our piano, they played the hell out of it, without any mistakes.” Shadd and Pearl culminated their partnership by collaborating on a dissertation of their study in assistive technology for enhancing the lives of the autistic, blind, and deaf, which was subsequently published in the IAMM’s Music and Medicine Journal.
Shadd’s larger humanitarian goal is to take his interactive keyboards —smaller, portable versions of the H.i.P— and spread them throughout impoverished areas, both domestically and in the Third World. “We’re connecting the world to music, in real time, and in sync,” says Shadd, who believes that providing students tools of musical expression with interactivity, will lead to the inclusion of greater numbers of creative minds in this wirelessly connected civilization, than with just computers alone.
Feeding the Cookie-monster
Piano-making means going for broke; with a highly exclusive market atmosphere, and high-budget items that take a long time to build under extremely low tolerances, in which tens of thousands of individual things can go wrong (tonal distortion can indeed creep in that many ways), you enter this field to make the best damn piano you know how. Following the recipe is difficult enough. Shadd, nevertheless, aspired to use those ideas he filed away nearly twenty years ago to create a similar immersive effect in his line of traditional concert grands and uprights, this time without speakers: “Whereas the sound used to travel straight up [or to the right], we’ve patented technology so it now travels down toward the pianist, and even blows past their ears. We’ve had pianists get up and say, “Is it the room?”” Shadd says, laughing as he goes, “It’s a very well/non-kept secret. But this comes from knowledge of what musicians want.”
With no outside investors or endowments to pull from, Shadd had to build his own capital, tuning, repairing and rebuilding pianos. But the lack of cushion led to a time-sensitive situation in which the pianos had to get known, fast. Renting units out to concerts and getting the pianos in front of as many artists as possible has become a powerful form of advertising, allowing Shadd’s craftsmanship, and sound, to speak for itself. (Well, his pianos can’t speak in print, but artists such as Stevie Wonder, Gospel artist Richard Smallwood, and leading keyboardist and music director Michael Bearden, have spoken glowingly on their behalf.)
New instruments becoming such a tactile success with so very many fingertips in a short period, is not common. Even Shadd is flabbergasted looking back, “You have to understand that a musician has to become comfortable with the feel and sound of a new instrument. But everytime we’ve rented a piano, it has garnered us a phenomenal response.” Accolades don’t come greater, or rarer, than this inspired line from Herbie Hancock, describing the Hybrid Interactive as, “The piano of the 25th Century,” which still has Shadd splitting a jovial gut.
Visits came from 20th Century Fox, first to nab a Shadd piano for onstage use on American Idol, and soon after that, producers from a show called Empire came to relieve him of the six acoustic pianos in his Maryland showroom; “They said they wanted them all, and who am I to object? And we built two extra.”
Starting with the debut of the second season, look forward to seeing one or more examples of Shadd’s acoustic pianos in each episode, and hopefully later this month, the worldwide television debut of the Hybrid Interactive Piano.
Despite being slower to penetrate the American market than abroad, Shadd’s pianos, manufactured out of The Bronx, nevertheless continue to find themselves in an increasing number of high places, including New York City’s #1 luxury hotel, the Langham Place, the Strathmore Concert Hall in Bethesda, Maryland, a permanent installation as the official concert piano at the Vatican, and under the hands of performance artists like Esperanza Spalding, Monty Alexander, Common, Patrice Rushen, and Harry Connick Jr. Now thanks to the absolutely panoptic exposure granted by Empire’s record-breaking audience, and recent branding partnership with Rolls-Royce, that market ennui is likely to change.
It would have been story enough that Warren Shadd is the first, and only African-American piano maker in the world, and the only African American manufacturer of large-scale musical instruments, period. The gold block SHADD logo was designed with an nth degree of conspicuousness, not for his own ego, but out of his respect for the legacy of the name, whose history in music precedes Warren by three generations, and whose dignity weathered the punitive slings from when black talent and economic ambition was cautioned not to make itself conspicuous.
Shadd in his own time has had brushes, but he’s no longer interested in making light of them. He started this adventure wanting to give musicians not just a better piano, but one that allowed them to be better bandmembers by hearing themselves play. Along the way, he has allowed deaf musicians to become better composers by letting them for the first time, feel their melodies as they play them, and helping to connect special-needs students with exactly the teachers they need, no matter their location. Now Shadd seems aimed at finishing up by connecting whole societies, in particular, enriching the social lives of those who find it difficult to learn or communicate, using an interactive musical instrument to break the ice.
Looking down from above the panopticon, Shadd doesn’t seem to have changed the recipe in an overtly revolutionary fashion, so much as spiced it up with something we didn’t know we couldn’t live without. And thanks to the right patent lawyer, he got there first.