The day the baby grand piano arrived, 12-year-old Justin Elliott was captivated. His parents had purchased the piano mainly for decoration, but the youngster taught himself to play it.
When a technician came to tune the piano a year later, Elliott discovered he had an ear for tuning. He focused his curiosity on learning the piano's intricate mechanics and how to control its complex sound. By age 15, he was apprenticed to a longtime local piano tuner who marveled at his talent and ear.
Blind from birth in his right eye, Elliott speculates that his visual shortcoming may have contributed to his perception of sound, which he calls a gift.
"Servicing a piano isn't just the twisting of tuning pins to get it in tune," he said. "Controlling tone isn't something you can physically touch. It's feeling and sensing, as well as using your hands."
He got his first job tuning for a professional musician at 16 while working at the Clearwater Jazz Holiday. "I was still an apprentice," Elliott said, "but I got the job on my own." The musician: highly regarded jazz pianist and composer Chick Corea.
Now 26, Elliott is a piano restorer, designer-builder and master tuner. The Largo resident has toured as the piano technician for such artists as Elton John, Ramsey Lewis, Herbie Hancock and Alicia Keys.
However, it isn't for his ear, but for his eye, that Elliott eventually may be best known. He had a vision of a piano that would look different, and he decided to build it.
The irony is that in changing the look, Elliott also changed the sound, giving his piano a sound so clear that experts who have heard it are transfixed. Some are calling it the first major modification of the modern piano in 100 years.
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Pianos, from least to most expensive, all stand on straight support legs.
"It drove me nuts seeing the same legs day after day," Elliott said.
He wanted high-end pianos to have a more elegant, sophisticated look. "If you're going to spend $150,000 for a piano," he said, "you want it to look different from the $5,000 piano."
In 2001, while still a teenager, he did a sketch of a piano with curved legs. He hung it on the wall, telling himself he would build it someday.
During the next four years, Elliott fiddled with the design, trying to figure out how the curved legs could support a 1,000-pound piano.
"It simmered until I got to the point when I knew how to do it," he said.
In 2005, using wood imported from Europe, he made the first leg — sort of an upside-down triangle. It weighed 25 pounds.
He completed the modifications the following year and attached the legs to a concert Yamaha C7. In the final step, he made adjustments to the touch and quality of the piano's tone. He named it the Royal Ebony. Sleek black with gold trim, Elliott's design has an Art Deco feel. Its curved legs give it the style and beauty he had hoped for.
Then he played it.
"I noticed the sound was more bell-like, more pure and had a lot more clarity to it," he said. But he didn't know why.
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In 2007, Elliott was the tuning and voicing technician for Dick Hyman during the legendary jazz pianist and composer's recording of A Century of Jazz. Audio engineer Gary Baldassari, who has produced sound innovations for Disney films, directed sound for 18 Super Bowls and mixed live speeches for five U.S. presidents, was handling the recording of Hyman's work.
Elliott told Baldassari about his modifications and invited him to see the design and hear its effects.
"Justin was going for a cosmetic approach, but as soon as I heard it, my jaw dropped," said Baldassari, who is a classically trained pianist. "I said, 'Oh, my God, you just changed the resonances.' "
Last year, Elliott and a group of technicians headed by Baldassari conducted scientific tests on the leg modifications at the University of Tampa to find out how the legs had altered the sound.
The results showed that "the Royal Ebony design relieves the stress on the entire structure of the piano by diffusing the weight to a much larger support area," Baldassari said. "It opens the soundboard to breathe more freely. The harp and strings become more capable of resonating properly and the action gains an increased freedom and lightness as well.
"The piano," Baldassari said, "becomes a whole new instrument."
After the Royal Ebony made its debut in 2008, it was played by dozens of concert and jazz pianists.
Grigorios Zamparas, an assistant professor of music at the University of Tampa and an international concert pianist and recording artist, was one of them. He was the first to play a regular Yamaha C7 and then play it again after it had been retrofitted as the Royal Ebony.
"I was really shocked," he said. "The Royal Ebony had a fuller, bigger sound. Soft sounds are clear and distinct. The instrument is more alive, more expressive and responsive. It speaks to you."
Elliott said the custom modifications (legs, pedal lyre, music rack and bench) can be made on everything from concert grand pianos for $30,000 to around $7,000 for smaller high-end pianos. The concert grand modifications are handcrafted of exotic woods. The less expensive modifications use machine crafting.
Elliott has hired Eric Johnson to market the Royal Ebony. Johnson is director of Pianos of Europe and managing director of PerARTS industry marketing and advertising in New York City.
Johnson was in Tampa this summer to hear the Royal Ebony for himself.
"I came in with an open mind, but when I heard the first notes, I was stunned," he said. "That the shape of the legs could have this kind of impact on piano tone is mind-boggling."
"The legs look beautiful," Johnson said. "But when you add to that the dramatic acoustic changes, it's not just smoke and mirrors. There's really something here and it's quite exciting."
Christina K. Cosdon can be reached at (727) 445-4223.