By Stephanie Chase
Guest Columnist
New York, NY, USA

In an era of tweets, “new and improved” consumerism, and brief attention spans, it is a life-affirming experience to know Rodney Regier, who is one of the world’s foremost makers of keyboard instruments based on examples from the 17th through 19th centuries. He combines an engineering background – from MIT, no less – with a breadth of historical knowledge about the instruments and the music composed for them plus a variety of artisanal techniques. Among the myriad materials involved in their making are cow bone, ebony, spruce, oak, walnut, and various metals for strings, with the occasional nod to a more contemporary material, such as Delrin and carbon fiber. Each aspect of these instruments’ design and fabrication is critical for its appearance, sound, response and stability, and with one assistant, he produces about two per year.

Instruments by R. J. Regier are found in concert halls, conservatories, universities and colleges throughout the United States and Europe, and are featured on recordings by prominent artists.

"Carnaval" Prelude by Robert Schumann
played by Chi-Chen Wu on an R. J. Regier piano

STEPHANIE CHASE: You made your first instrument back in 1975. How did you come to this unusual profession?

RODNEY REGIER: Genetics, inherited aptitude, and breathing music. I grew up singing, playing the piano, working with my hands, and wanting to know how things work. People in my family make things: clothes, woven fabric, games, house knickknacks, their homes … you get the idea. My parents, both from the Midwest, were also both musical. With his Nebraskan reticence, my father and I didn’t have intimate conversations. We bonded instead going to small, country sawmills, where he’d select lumber for the furniture he made in his home shop, and I’d assist. After service in Europe during WWII, he became a music teacher in Baltimore, where he was eventually to head the entire public school music program. He also directed different church and school choirs. He conducted the choir at the Preparatory Division of the Peabody Conservatory, where I took Saturday morning piano lessons for seven years. I’ve also always enjoyed design, mechanical intricacies, puzzles, and math – and learned at high school mixers and dances not to answer the question “what is your favorite subject” with “calculus.”

Rodney Regier

Woodworking and music came to their natural marriage during my undergraduate years [studying engineering and water resources] at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, when I was introduced to the renowned harpsichord maker William Dowd and hired to work part-time in his shop. Available to students at MIT was a woodworking shop, where I made my first harpsichord. It’s been downhill from there!

STEPHANIE CHASE: You probably know that my husband also apprenticed to a harpsichord builder named John Challis, who used some nontraditional materials – like aluminum – in order to improve their stability, although I would imagine that they are affected tonally as well.

Would you briefly describe the history of the fortepiano and harpsichord, and how they differ?

RODNEY REGIER: A harpsichord has a mechanism that plucks the string. A piano, old or modern, strikes. With a harpsichord, you hear quicksilver; an early piano, wood; a modern piano, steel. They are all melodic instruments, but a harpsichord, because its strings are always plucked with the same force, requires that dynamics be finessed, implied. The piano permits literal touch dynamics, although this was introduced with the much earlier, but bedroom-size clavichord. A harpsichordist simulates piano and forte by density of texture, uniform or rolled attack, and duration of sound. A good pianist also does all of this but can as well play softly or loudly. The harpsichord is an ancient instrument. The earliest reference to the instrument we know as the piano was in 1700. The transition between the two instruments took much of the 18th century.

Fortepiano by R. J. Regier

STEPHANIE CHASE: What kinds of special effects were possible with the fortepiano, as opposed to the harpsichord or clavichord, for example?

RODNEY REGIER: It’s like comparing counterpoint and chordal writing. Linearity vs. shimmer. An engraver’s burin vs. oil paint. Portraits by Van Dyke vs. Lucien Freud. To me, part of the magic of the early piano is witnessing how composers and performers created a new idiom for the new instrument. It’s a fascinating period that saw a revolution not only in musical style but also in technology, artistic patronage, manufacturing technique, and society. Beethoven’s life spanned the development of the wood-framed piano, from a 5-octave compass to 6 ½-octaves, a period the instrument not only grew in size, but its tone became rounder, less astringent. To make a stringed instrument more powerful requires larger strings stretched more tightly, which requires correspondingly heavier, more robust actions parts and a stronger frame. String tension on a little Italian harpsichord can be as little as 500 lbs., on 18th century Viennese grand piano over 3,000 lbs., on a modern piano 40,000 lbs. I think a violin has about 60?

STEPHANIE CHASE: According to my husband’s research, it’s probably slightly more, but that’s close.

RODNEY REGIER: Liszt’s life spanned the development of the modern piano, from an instrument made entirely of wood, to one reinforced with separate iron braces, to one built around an integral cast iron frame.

An R. J. Regier frame under construction

STEPHANIE CHASE: Wasn’t he rather notorious for ruining pianos through his heavy-handed, virtuosic playing? I would imagine that this may have been a factor in making them stouter instruments. And were some of these developments associated with musical trends?

RODNEY REGIER: By the Liszt died in 1886, in fact by the late 1860’s, pianos were being made that are little different from those today.

There were ample false starts during this transitional period, such as the introduction – and abandonment – of mutation stops: multiple exotic effects including the ring of Janissary [a musical style associated with the Turkish military] bells, boom of a padded drum stick hitting the soundboard, or snarl from brass strips or buzz of rolls of parchment dropped on the strings when playing. These stops are the source of debate. They require planning by the builder, are very expensive to make, and common in more lavish early 19th century pianos. Yet, composers refer to them rarely, only implying their use in such popular works of the time as Kočwara’s Battle of Prague. I’ve always conjectured they were nothing more than crutches for players who needed gadgets to mask not-very-good fingers.

"Papillons" by Robert Schumann
played by David Kim on an R. J. Regier piano

STEPHANIE CHASE: I often play for a chamber music series in Houston where we have historic keyboard instruments at our disposal, including a Michael Rosenberger fortepiano from 1810. Among its special effects are a bell and drum, operated by foot pedals, which means that the pianist has to pay attention and not hit them by accident, which could be quite ruinous to the music! Incidentally, we’ve never played anything that required these special effects.

RODNEY REGIER: Because of that peril, I’m almost always asked to disconnect the Janissary pedal before a concert!

A new device that did become integral to piano performance was the damper pedal. Mechanisms to sustain sound by lifting all dampers appear in early pianos, but in the form of hand stops, knee levers, or pedals at the corners of the instrument, incarnations that are awkward for the player to use.

STEPHANIE CHASE: My understanding is that, depending on the mechanism, the player might have to stop playing in order to engage or disengage these. And there’s recent controversy over what Mozart had available in his piano, which has some strong musicological implications.

RODNEY REGIER: Surviving early pianos document the movement of pedals to where today we expect them, comfortably centered in front of the player, where they can be incorporated in performance.

STEPHANIE CHASE: Although pianist today often rely heavily on the sustaining pedal, I find it interesting that Czerny noted that Beethoven was able to produce a legato sound through his hand alone.

RODNEY REGIER: Agreed. Too much pedaling by a pianist, or vibrato by a violinist, becomes a crutch instead of a color and eliminates an entire palette of expression.

STEPHANIE CHASE: Even Mozart and his father, who was a noted violinist, complained about excessive vibrato, which proves that it was used during their era.

You make a variety of historically-informed pianos and other keyboard instruments – are these rigorous reproductions of original models or do you make some changes in design, building techniques or materials?

RODNEY REGIER: I work closely from surviving period pianos after playing them, measuring them, and playing them again, repeatedly, attempting to become familiar not only with specific instruments, but to gain a sense of a broader historic and regional style. I’m as interested in the bouquet as the individual flower.

North American and European wood species are related, but as cousins, not siblings, and they differ in mechanical and acoustical properties. The prototype instrument in a new design is invariably closer dimensionally but farther musically from its antecedents than later instruments I make from the same plans, modified so their priorities are sound and touch rather than dimension.

Rodney Regier working on a keyboard

STEPHANIE CHASE: Ultimately, it’s the sound and response that matter. Do you have a favorite kind or make of keyboard instrument, and why?

RODNEY REGIER: My preference is to avoid listening to a ukulele. Within my home are a harpsichord, differing numbers of fortepianos depending on what’s in the shop, and a Steinway M studio grand. I cherish playing them all.

STEPHANIE CHASE: How closely are these instruments and the music composed for them intertwined?

RODNEY REGIER: That’s a better question for a player than an instrument maker, but on a scale of 1 to 10, I’d say 8. Good players are good players, regardless of their performance circumstances, and demand instruments that are reliable, supple, and responsive. Yet, the instrument can make a difference, particularly in works for smaller ensemble and voice. The wood-framed piano’s lighter tone, sharper attack, and quicker decay create a balance with its counterpart instruments that can be informative, even revelatory. It is simply impossible, say, for a performance of the “Trout” quintet [by Franz Schubert] to turn into a piano concerto accompanied by strings, or for a pianist to overwhelm a singer in a Schubert cycle.

"Fantaisie, Op. 17 (first movement)" by Robert Schumann
played by Chi-Chen Wu on an R. J. Regier piano

STEPHANIE CHASE: I played the “Trout” last season on original instruments and find that in playing works with fortepiano that are of the era, there is a naturalness that is really gratifying; articulations, tempos and balances are generally not a problem. I’m also convinced that the introduction of a more sustained sound – which coincided with the development of a style of bow that also improves sostenuto – helped bridge the transition from the Classical to Romantic style.

RODNEY REGIER: Yes, and for the same reasons – and limitations - of early piano voice, performances of works with full orchestra require great care. Mozart concerti, for instance, with early instruments almost become chamber music, skillfully written to feature a soloist. I find today’s conception of balance is often unrealistic, driven by recordings of modern instruments in which the soloist is exaggerated to heroism, and the listener hears every noodle instead of a texture.

Rodney Regier adding the final touch

STEPHANIE CHASE: A basic of music performance is dynamics such as forte and piano – rather than just “loud” and “soft,” I think these markings should also be interpreted as characters, such as “noble” and “confident” or “uncertain” and “delicate.”

What are the advantages of a reproduction instrument over an original?

RODNEY REGIER: The owner of a well-preserved original is steward of an invaluable musical touchstone for any player, listener, or maker. It would be unwise, even immoral for certain instruments such as a fortepiano with original action materials, particularly leathers and cloths, to be subjected to the wear and perils of regular concert life: hot stage lights, dry wintertime halls, careless handling, and the tendency for musicians to put their instrument cases on any available flat surface, such as a piano lid. I occasionally lease my own wood-framed pianos. They have been dropped; not unloaded by air freight handlers, landing an instrument destined for St. Louis in Los Angeles instead; and dented, the worst time ever by a hard cello case – containing a priceless Goffriller! There would be tears first, but unlike an original, one of my instruments could be replaced.

STEPHANIE CHASE: As a violinist who frequently uses an 18th century instrument, I am very mindful of the need to protect it.

What are you working on now?

RODNEY REGIER: I’m about to return a 5-octave fortepiano I made over thirty years ago. It’s always gratifying to see that an instrument has been played a lot, is maintained in good condition – and that my glue joints have remained tight. On my helper’s workbench and mine now are two more 6 ½-octave instruments, fortepianos of the style used by Chopin, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Beethoven in his later years.

Rodney Regier with an R. J. Regier Fortepiano

STEPHANIE CHASE: Finally, since the late 1970’s you have lived in a lovely farmhouse in Maine, surrounded by fields and woods, with the barn as the workshop where you build your instruments. It is about as far removed from being a “factory” as can be imagined – do you take inspiration from your surroundings?

RODNEY REGIER: Certainly. A household joke has long been that forestland is cheaper than a therapist. Space, calm, and introspective response are luxuries today, but so very necessary for creative focus. I greet each day’s sunrise thinking how fortunate I am to be at my old farm.

STEPHANIE CHASE: It’s a wonderful place to visit, too! Thank you so much for so generously sharing your time and expertise with us.



Stephanie Chase is internationally recognized as “one of the violin greats of our era” (Newhouse Newspapers) through solo appearances with over 170 orchestras that include the New York and Hong Kong Philharmonics and the Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta and London Symphony Orchestras. Her interpretations are acclaimed for their “elegance, dexterity, rhythmic vitality and great imagination” (Boston Globe), “stunning power” (Louisville Courier-Journal), “matchless technique” (BBC Music Magazine), and “virtuosity galore” (Gramophone), and she is a top medalist of the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. In the Summer of 2018 she was featured at music festivals in Newport, RI, Mt. Desert, ME, and Martha's Vineyard, MA, and made her debut in Vietnam, where she performed in Hi Chi Minh City and Hanoi.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.