Sarah Nicolls turning 130 years of history inside out with new piano
Brighton-based entrepreneur and pianist Sarah Nicolls is using aerospace engineering to make the classical instrument so light and portable it can be picked up and easily carried upstairs. Her ‘Standing Grand’ has gained backing from big names in music and the UK government.
Aiming to be the biggest revolution in the instrument’s design for over a century, Nicolls is raising £40,000 via a Kickstarter campaign to build a prototype. This will weigh less than a quarter of a traditional Grand and occupy the same floor space as a standard piano. “We are using technology and science from the aerospace sector to upturn centuries of piano history,” she says. “Our version of a grand piano, an instrument which traditionally weighs about as much as a baby elephant, instead weighs the same as an average sized man. This is going to be the biggest change to how a grand piano has been made in over 130 years,” she adds.
“Anyone who has ever had to move a grand piano will know that it is not something you want to do very often. I want to play and gig more and it would be a lot easier for pianists like myself if our pianos could be moved around and were smaller. When I was a student and lived in a flat, it took up so much space I had to sleep under mine.”
The idea came when Nicolls was leaning over to “play the strings” on the inside of a traditional grand piano. She conceived of a new kind of grand piano, which points upwards, making it lighter, more compact and able to fit into a small room.
Nicolls made some early attempts to design the new instrument by sawing apart traditional pianos and rebuilding them upright with the strings on the outside.
“The sounds you can get from playing the strings are magical and need to be heard more. I was so determined to get to them that I ended up sawing up my old piano,” explains Nicolls.
Her company Future Piano Ltd gained £60,000 from Innovate UK and she recruited aerospace veterans Tim Evans and Christophe Vaissiere. They’d invented a new super-strong, lightweight composite beam originally intended for the construction industry.
Nicolls spotted their patented invention and realised the beam could be used to replace the traditional cast iron frames and wooden braces that usually hold the 30 tonnes of tension created by tuned piano strings. “It’s incredibly strong. You could use it to lift six double decker buses. Funnily enough, so far, my piano is the best use they’ve found for it.”
The Standing Grand acoustic piano will weigh just 82kg and will have the same footprint as an upright piano. The company has also recruited acclaimed piano builder David Klavins, the extraordinary piano builder of the UnaCorda and M450 piano, and has worked closely with Keechdesign UK to create an image of how the piano will look.
So far, Nicolls’ Kickstarter campaign has gained celebrity backing from record label boss Ahmet Zappa, son of rock musician Frank Zappa and from the Oscar-nominated sound designer on Bladerunner 2049. Others who pledge £250 or more can join Zappa in having their name on one of the new piano’s 88 keys.
“This will be the biggest transformation since Steinway perfected the grand piano in the late 19th century,” says Nicolls.