Fujii Piano Service
Testing the Boundaries of the Upright Piano with Granfeel Technology: Recreating the Touch and Expression of the Grand Piano in an Upright
The grand piano was born in the early 18th century as an improvement on the harpsichord, a keyboard instrument widely used until that time. Some 100 years later, the upright piano, in which the strings and hammers are strung vertically, was invented. Not only was the upright more compact than the grand, it was also relatively more economical, making it a hugely popular instrument. In present day Japan, upright pianos comprise some 90% of the overall piano market. And now, some 200 years after the first upright piano was created, a small Japanese company has succeeded in redefining the parameters of the upright through technology that brings it closer in functionality and touch to the grand piano. Yukimitsu Fujii, founder and representative director of Fujii Piano Service, is the developer of that technology, called Granfeel, which works by enhancing the functionality of piano springs.
In a grand piano, the strings and hammers are strung horizontally, allowing the hammers to use their own weight to return to their original at-rest position. This makes for smooth rapid note repetition, such as trills, expanding the potential for musical expression. In a vertical upright, however, the strings and hammers rely on springs to return to their original position, which limits the speed of note repetition, when compared to a grand piano. The foundation for Fujii’s technology is its ability to increase the return speed of upright hammers by making improvements to the springs, bringing the touch of the keys closer to that of the grand piano, and by extension, enhancing the sound and expression of the upright.
Looking back, Fujii’s career path has been quite unique. His first ambition was to become an automobile mechanic like his older brother. However, a former high school teacher who had retired from teaching and had set up a piano shop, approached him to ask whether he knew any mechanics who could repair pianos. The teacher convinced him that demand for piano repair would only rise, and at the age of 19, Fujii decided to switch his focus from auto repair to piano repair.
After training for 10 years as a piano mechanic, Fujii founded Fujii Piano Service in his hometown of Satsumagawa-shi, in Kagoshima Prefecture in the southern island of Kyushu in 1985. The main operations of the firm are piano sales, repairing and tuning, and providing piano classes.
When Fujii first started his piano classes, there were only a limited number of piano competitions, and the high-profile nature of those competitions made it difficult for Fujii Piano students to participate. To help such children expand their horizons, Fujii decided to start his own piano competition in 1989. During the competitions, Fujii witnessed how children who could play quite well ordinarily, tensed up and failed to realize their true potential. After pondering why this was so, Fujii came to the conclusion that it may have something to do with the instruments. In ordinary homes, children practice on upright pianos. However, during competitions, they are asked to play on grand pianos. How could children perform well on a grand piano when they could only practice at home on instruments that had a different kind of touch, Fujii wondered. Was there any way in which children could practice daily on grand pianos?
The answer to his question came during a business trip to Tokyo, when a chance encounter with a century-old, aged Bechstein Concert 8 provided him with the original idea for Granfeel. It was a first-class upright piano model, but it had become quite battered from disuse and lack of care. Fujii was somehow drawn to this piano, and on impulse, decided to buy it. It had been a while since he had overhauled such an old instrument and he found that compared to the upright piano of today, the Bechstein had a complicated structure. But as he tested each part while repairing the instrument, he had his Eureka! moment, through which the basis for Granfeel technology was born.
To protect the Granfeel technology and to continue manufacturing pianos by his own hand, Fujii obtained a patent for the technology in 2010 in Japan, and then in China, the US and Germany. Fujii is still personally involved in manufacturing new Granfeel brand pianos. However, possibly the most striking aspect of Granfeel technology is that it can be applied to existing upright pianos. In the last 10 years, the technology has been applied more than 1,000 pianos. The cost is around 200,000 yen (approx $1,800) and the overhaul can be done in around two days.
Given the high demand, Fujii is now focusing on training new technicians who can recreate the technology. So far, he has conducted training sessions for around 200 people nationwide and he ties up with dozens of those technicians who mastered the technology to meet the needs from the Granfeel customers across the nation. In 2015, he was also approached by the Bechstein company, and he now sells Bechstein pianos equipped with Granfeel technology.
There is a rapidly growing market for used pianos in China and Southeast Asia, where used Japanese pianos are selling briskly. While the potential demand for economical upright pianos with the Granfeel technology is expected to be high, Fujii remains focused on his original goal of providing quality pianos to people rather than pursuing profits. As long as there is room to improve an environment for piano players, he plans to continue working on developing new technology and training new Granfeel mechanics. Fujii remains a true mechanic with a sharp ear, a will of steel and heart of gold, whose products will continue to bring joy to piano players worldwide.