BQ Yorkshire Editor Mike Hughes finds himself very much in tune with the thinking of Adam Cox, owner and MD of Cavendish Pianos.
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I’ll start at the end of my conversation with Adam Cox.
His mind travelled away from the many thousands of pounds worth of polished piano perfection we had been talking about at his company’s saleroom and workshop at Bolton Abbey on the estate of their patrons, the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, to find the ideal advice for entrepreneurs.
“Go to a market town. Find what seems to be the busiest stall on the market and ask the person standing behind it if you can work there for free for a fortnight. You have to know both ends of a business, selling as well as making, and there is no better experience than being at the sharp end of selling, which can be a mysterious and mystical thing.”
Adam’s huge experience of the music market means pianists around the world want the stunning instruments his team of six make in the workshop, pleasingly scattered with tools, shavings, pots and rack after rack of components that come together to make the fifty or so uprights they make each year.
To one side is a Cavendish grand that is being shipped to an international trade fair. Its serial number is 70. These are treasured possessions going to a wide range of owners.
“Adult re-learners are quite an interesting category at the moment,” Adam tells me in the barn-like former forge tucked away behind a high hedge at the side of the A59. “They have probably dabbled with pianos in the past but for one reason or another - often a teacher who has rapped them with a ruler over the back of their knuckles – they have given up and then later on in life they seek that creative outlet.
“Once you recognise you are doing it for yourself and avoid this misconception that piano is played for other people, then it is extremely rewarding. Quite a lot of them will have started by buying something quite cheap and then might have played on a friend’s piano or one their teacher uses and they realise that they have been driving a pedalo while there are Ferraris out there.”
Adam is an accomplished pianist himself, having surprised his parents in Shropshire with a musical gene neither of them saw coming. “We only had two records in the house, but I always remember wanting a music instrument for birthdays,” he recalls. My dad was a vet, so I suppose there was a bit of disposable income, so I got a piano when I was six or seven.
“Even at university studying languages, I would always go off to some dusty old music room somewhere to play. I met my wife Charlie there and we decided to do something different, so emigrated to Bolivia where my brother was working as an ornithologist.
“I couldn’t take a piano with us, so packed a flute instead. Out in Bolivia, the weather causes it to gum up, so my parents sent out some replacement pads and I really enjoyed fitting them and looking after the instrument.
“When we came back to the UK I did a course in music technology at Leeds College of Music and we ran Headingley Pianos for more than 20 years, where we were the top seller for Kemble Pianos in Milton Keynes, who were already working with Yamaha.”
When Yamaha took over Kemble, there had been plenty of talk about retaining an element of British manufacturing, but it was not to be and in October 2009 the manufacturing of Kemble instruments – the last commercial maker in the UK - moved to Yamaha’s factories in the Far East. A far cry from the days when Edwardian London was the mecca of piano making and there were 147 companies in Camden alone.
“That was when we decided we would have a go and start up Cavendish. We were told it was a crazy idea, but I knew through 20 years of market research what we could do. I think that is quite unusual, for a manufacturer to know what it is like for a sales person and to have absolute insider knowledge of what sells and what doesn’t.
“I knew that if we could build to a certain price, we would have customers. We soldiered on with the Kemble side of things, but they had brochures with beautiful bucolic scenes on them - and they were manufacturing in Indonesia. Customers felt they were having the wool pulled over their eyes.
“It took us three to four years of sourcing what we needed, knowing how to assemble them and knowing what our end product would be. We do open days with Lincoln College and some training for their piano technology people on a four-year course and so we got their best and nicest people coming to us, providing a good pool of staff to choose from.
“When we made our first Cavendish piano and took it to the Musikmesse exhibition in Frankfurt, alongside the Steinways and Bechsteins. It sold to a London shop and found a home from there. The dealer, Fadi Hanna, is still one of our main outlets and has been a great supporter.”
Support for the Cavendish craftsmanship is widespread, from the Duke and Duchess whose family name is Cavendish, to high-profile players like jazz star Jamie Cullum The appeal of the brand is also a lot to do with its Yorkshire accent. With such a rich heritage in textiles and furniture-making comes the felt for the piano hammers from Hainsworth in Leeds, the wood from British Hardwoods in the Dales and the metal finishing from Silchrome, also in Leeds.
At the last Music Industries Association Awards Cavendish won Best Acoustic for its Contemporary 121, beating a strong shortlist that included Yamaha. “You will comfortably get 40 years’ wear from one of our pianos,” says Adam, who runs the business with his wife Charlie. “So people will often get it for themselves, but also with an eye to their children or grandchildren. It is a rarity these days to buy something with that sort of longevity, and the fact that there is British manufacturing is something people hold very dear.”
Adam’s metaphor is that Cavendish makes pianos with the same method as a builder makes homes. The builder doesn’t make the bricks and the floorboards, they source the very best of each and put them together. For instance, he has warm words for his supplier of piano cases, Bowman Fireplaces in Otley describing owner Chris Foxton as “drastically overskilled”.
As Adam says, it is not “all half-moon spectacles and chisels”, but they certainly help to build a unique piano for each home, saleroom or concert hall.
“Manufacturers like Yamaha have a machine that can install hammers in seconds, where it can take us two days,” says Adam. “They work to a margin, and all their pianos will be within that margin, but we can tweak and get the very best out of every material by spending time on it. It is all about lots of little things that make each piano unique.”
Pride has returned to this old Bolton Abbey forge. Where once it echoed to the sounds of bellows, flame and hammers on iron, Mozart, Beethoven and Rachmaninoff now drift around the room as the hum of work continues next door.
It is still a place to make things from components, only now they are prized possessions that sit happily in homes around the world. But still brought to life by craftsmen.