A Piano Technician's
I am coming from over 45
years of servicing pianos as a full time professional piano tuner tech.
I must first establish some of my personal defined terms. I am not an expert....
I am a professional, meaning.. that I am experienced and good enough to
make a living doing this all the time.
To me an expert means that
you are the “sum total of all wisdom and knowledge on the subject” only
one person fits that definition... Almighty God.
I have stopped counting many
years ago, how many pianos that I have tuned in total when I got to 10,000.
( I have a current Database with over 5400 customers)
You know what...? I still
from time to time come across a brand name of a piano that I never heard
of, and I have to look it up to check out the age, and origin. So I am
not an expert.
I have seen most.. but not
all of the things that happen to pianos from damage caused by neglect,
bugs, rodents, fire, water, sunlight, shipping damage, poor construction,
strange repair work, pure abuse.. as in spilled drinks, vandalism etc.
(ever see what a studio piano looks like after it was pushed off a Jr.
High School stage.......’aint pretty).
Piano Tuning is a unusual
occupation. It took a long time for me to figure out ‘the business’. It
was a lot of hard knocks and some bad mistakes like any other person in
business experiences. I had my tuning and repair skills developed early
on, but not the business aspect until years later.
We are generally classified
with the ‘knife and scissors’ sharpeners of old... groveling to make a
living, grateful if someone cast an eye in our direction with a job for
us. The image of the “Maytag repairman” sitting by the phone, breaking
out in a cold sweat and getting an 'adrenaline rush' when the phone
rings. (To be fair..there are some tuners out there in that position, either
because they are new to the business and still building a clientele, or
new to an area, or they may not be quite ‘right’ in the way they
conduct their business..if the shoe fits.........).
Many people think too 'highly'
of their pianos and expect more from their instruments than they ought
to. Lets take tuning ‘longevity’ for example. Did you ever guess that just
shampooing your carpets or painting your walls can throw a freshly tuned
piano right out?!!
A fresh piano tuning is
a very delicate thing. There are many factors as to how well a piano tuning
'hold'. The condition of the piano, the way the piano is
played, the age of the piano, the service record, moving and environment,
how well the tuning was applied, the size, the brand name. I'm sure I am
forgetting something, but this is a good beginning.
Starting with condition.
Obviously, if the piano
is sick, be it loose tuning pins, bridge trouble, structural troubles,
there is a point when the piano is not even worth tuning in it's present
How the piano is played.
Take a powerful
Artist playing Beethoven, Chopin or whoever, with fervent
emotion and power, (you know, the FFF Cadenzas...) compared to
a elderly church lady playing out of the hymnal; Take a guess which piano
will sound fresher after an hour?
The harder you play the
piano the quicker the decay of the tuning. Listen to this short mp3
of a Concert Artist (Gary Graffman) giving a 9FT Steinway I tuned, a powerful
The age of the piano.
A brand new piano or
one that has just been rebuilt will have internal string stretch.
A piano that is mature and 'broken in' will be more stable. A very old
piano will be feeble.
(sounds like a human
The service record.
‘I am going to blast
some anger into
the air for a second.’
When you call up a Piano Tech and Question
his or her ability a day... a week... after your piano has had it's ‘heart’
jumped started with ‘piano CPR’ because of years of
neglect or because it is a brand new instrument and then you
say “You did a bad job... the piano went right out of tune, it sounds
awful, you need to come back and fix it....Thinking... for
no charge”...That is ignorance.. Gone to Seed.!!!
Ok, I feel better now.!!!
I did not call any names so don't take offense..but... If the shoe fits........
of us Piano Techs have the same circumstances.
The poor tech who
first tunes the overdue, neglected piano is the loser in the eyes
of the piano owner since his tuning went 'out' right away.
The next tech did a better
job since it 'held' longer than the first , but the next **Tech** that
tuned it is the 'champ' since it 'held' better than the last two techs.
We all experience that unfortunate ladder of ignorance and
any day we can be on the bottom rung or we arrive to find ourselves on
the top rung!!!
Many piano owners will also
go through the phone book or online to 'find someone' that will make their
piano sound like the one's on 'TV' or recordings..they try one after another
thinking.. 'is there anyone that has the 'skills' to do a good tuning'?
problem is, that they are unaware that their piano is not up to what they
have been told..(usually a brand name..or a good sales pitch). A poor piano,
'levels the playing field' for every tuner..since usually the quality of
the sound is so cloudy..that it will hide most errors in a poor tuning
and frustrate a skilled tuner trying for excellence ...the more higher
quality pianos that are pure and crisp.. will reveal the talents
of a good tuner and are satisfying to work on..but on the other hand expose
a poor tuner...
The pianos that are
professionally, in concert, are usually tuned before each performance....
The same goes for top professional recording studios.
If the piano is featured
for the whole evening, in many cases it is expected to be checked
and touched up during intermission. It may not sound bad at all,
but an intermission checkup is looked at like insurance. I
tuned a 9 ft Concert ‘D’ Steinway four times in a
24 hr period for a number of performances at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts
Center's ‘Grand Gala’ opening.
The piano needed less attention
as each tuning was performed, but each new audience was guaranteed a fresh
piano, courtesy of the Management of the Center, and at the request of
Did you ever wonder why
the pianos sound so good on recordings? Now you know. Most everybody
knows about piano tuning recommendations. Most piano web sites will
tell you what they recommend.
Steinway use to push quarterly,
most others twice a year, Hey, every 10 years is no good! ....................simple!
Moving and environment.
Yes, most of the time when
a piano is moved it will do something to it. To move it a few feet in your
living room.. no problem. A rough ride across the street or across the
nation you figure...
The stability of the atmosphere
is a BIG factor.
It is the fluctuation
of moisture and temperature that will also ‘knock out’ a tuning.
I have been tuning
pianos in Florida for over 30 years after tuning pianos in Connecticut
for 10 years. I was able to get a good demonstration on tuning stability
in the different climates.
To sum it up, I have found
that pianos last longer and stay in tune better in Florida.
Yea, I thought the same thing as you just did. ‘It is so humid down
there’. Well, I am no scientist, but I have studied about humidity
and have hands on experience with pianos in both climates. The humidity
is what preserves the pianos. Dryness loosens screws, hardens felt
and leather, turns glue joints to powder, rubber grommets get hard then
brittle, it cracks sound boards, loosens tuning pins, center pins loosen
and work themselves out from shrinking wood......not good!!
In Connecticut, at least
where I was (on the SW coast) is humid during the summer and sometimes
it got even hotter than Florida during heat waves in July.
Many older homes have wall air conditioners and the newer ones are climate
controlled. The deal is, when a piano takes on moisture after it has been
tuned, it will go sharp mostly in the treble bridge. When a piano loses
moisture after it has been tuned it will go flat, again mainly in the treble
bridge area. This is due to the sound board expanding and pushing against
the strings a little harder, or shrinking and contracting causing a string
tension drop. The average piano is under 18-20 tons of presser from
string tension and about a 1000 lbs of presser pushing against the sound
Moisture increase, what
I call, ‘hydraulics’ the sound board and causes enough force to push back
against the strings just enough to change the pitch. With the windows open,
the pianos up north may for a time sit in high humidity. In the winter
time up north it is a different story.
To spare you the science
of it, if you do not have a way of putting humidity in the air during the
winter months, the air that is heated in the homes in the cold country
can get so dry that if you have a hygrometer, it will read in the single
digits and guess what .....that is the same as the Sahara Desert!
You wake up in the night with a dry mouth, walk across your rugs and get
you touch each other, or as I use to do... zap
cat ears,...and the skin drying and chaffing...oh yes I have spent
many cold winters up north.
The dryness is real tough
on pianos.Then 6 months later the piano is ‘bloated’ with high humidity.
That is the big reason why a tuning every 6 months is the
to do, knowing the facts. Now in warm climates as in Florida, I would say
90% of the people that I service have central air conditioning, and it
is run like you would run the heat up north. There is a time in the Spring
and Fall when some will open windows. In the Winter down here in the ‘Sunshine
State’ we do get some ‘cold snaps’, but the heating is very limited,
only a few nights and then things warm up till the next
What this means to the piano's environment here is a very mild curve in
the humidity levels. Most people in Florida don't sit and fan themselves
in their living room ..unless they didn't pay the Power Bill. The
pianos have an easier time in general going from season to season. Now
a piano placed in the sun, or in a ‘shotgun shack in the jungle’ with
no air conditioning will have some problems! But over all, the old timer
uprights, many are still holding up because they don't get that Winter
beating and turn into ‘Saltines’. I have not seen many pianos damaged
by humidity except those put outside or stored in garages. The bugs get
them worse. I have thousands of 'active customers' in my database and they
are doing fine when I see them, some..... sooner than others.....
but we are not a ‘State of Rust Buckets’ as many would think.
If I lived up north,
or out west I would get a room humidifier and a hygrometer to keep
my piano healthy and stable. (during the winter months).
How good is the Tuner
Well, the best way to judge
a piano tuning is when the tuner gets off the bench and declares that the
piano is done. If the piano is a ‘good one’, and it has some kind
of recent ‘steady maintenance’, The tuning should sound sweet and
up to A-440 pitch (That means, the ‘A’ above middle ‘C’ should measure
440 cycles per second) This is measured with a good (calibrated) tuning
fork, or an electronic device. (again calibrated).
The unisons should be pure,
the octaves should be clean and slightly expanded, the 4ths should be slightly
expanded, the 5ths should be slightly contracted, the 3rds should graduate
as well as the 6ths. There are other intervals that are also checked, but
these are the main concerns.
Expanded and contracted
means that in an interval, like an octave, fourth, or fifth, you have a
pure point where you can tune either in the dead center or on the
sharp side or the flat side and still remain
virtually ‘Beat less’.
(the sound 2 strings in this case make when they are close in pitch but
not exact, it is a pulse, beat, or wave sound).
by ear vs machine
The purpose of all of this
is to establish an equal temperament, or making the intervals equal
to each other by giving and taking from each other. The human ear likes
to hear a controlled ‘out of tune’ piano. That means a piano treble
that is sharp by a machine's measurement, sounds
to the human
ear. There are two ways to piano tuning. There is tuning by ear or tuning
by machine. I can do both. To tune by ear one needs to be trained
(I went to school myself... see bio page). There is a lot of practice
involved to learn to tune by ear.. I prefer to tune by ear since I can
go faster and give each note repeated attention to check for string equalization,
and sound board compression. When customers hear me tune they must
wonder 'why is he going so fast'? It is not being careless..
I find that multiple passes when tuning a piano that has been neglected
helps stabilize the tuning better. Going slow does not nessarily
mean a better job...you hire someone to type and they just plunk away in
slow motion..or watch a bank teller count money as if their hands were
cold...does that demonstrate 'skilled experience'? You ever watch
someone who is good with playing cards?...Shuffling and dealing? Or how
about our Military 'Special Forces' pulling and shooting weapons real fast
and hit the target everytime? These examples demonstrate highly practiced
& polished skills .The tuner that uses a 'machine..device'
usually cannot tune a piano as fast as one by ear since they are looking
at a meter or lights while adjusting the string and that takes more time
than using one's trained ear..it is like an artist copying lets say, a
popular cartoon characture, he has to look at the photo image to see and
then goes to the sketch pad to draw it..then back to the image..while an
actual cartoonist can draw the image from inside, very quickly..
A tuner also needs to know how to 'set' the string and pin so that it holds..many
'machine' tuners just stare at the device while pulling and pushing the
tuning pin until the machine indicates it's in tune..but tuning pins need
to be 'set properly' to hold that tuned string, and for most pianos....
that is after a quick rough first pass which takes more time for
a 'machine tuner'.. This is where an extra charge appears for 'double
tuning'...I can tune and raise the pitch a 1/4 step on most pianos (2-3
passes) in a little over 1 hour. The machines are very accurate..but
not many users can't transfer that accuracy to the piano..Check against
the machine right after the piano is 'tuned' and quite often it does not
The collective force of
all of the strings push harder on the sound board after the first pass...
pulling on all of the strings which can number over 200 in an average piano.
Most pianos need a double tuning since they are usually low when we get
to them. I have developed my tuning method and speed to do a double tuning
routine. I find that only the well maintained
pianos can be
single tuned and the focus of the tuning is 'cleanup' rather than
When I am finished, I can
take out a tuning fork that I did not use for setting the starting pitch
and it will be right on with the piano. I also, (in most cases)
can check myself against a machine, and it is so close that I choose to
tune by ear.
When the Tuning is done and
has been checked and approved on the spot... The Piano Tech. is free
of responsibility as to how
fresh that piano is in a
hour, or a day, week or month etc. We have no control as to how hard it
is played, the change in temp and humidity, moved around, and the past
service record which again are all
factors to tuning
stability. Now if the piano tuning is ‘bad’ when the tuner
is done, then that is the time to get something corrected. There are instances
when a string will shift position like roll or jump. A new string will
go out fast, loose tuning pins should be pointed out by the tech.
I don't waste the time tuning a sick piano myself. There are some pianos
that just don't do well, I wish I knew the reasons. Everything seems to
be ok on the surface, but there is an internal problem that sometimes
is not obvious, pin blocks that are not seated well, structure weakness,
hidden plate faults.
HEY MR. PIANO TUNER!!!???
You don't go to a car wash,
out and then come back in a
few hours and point out a ‘speck’
one of the rear tires. You don't go to the bakery and buy fresh baked rolls,
then bring them back to the bakery shop in 2 days, pound the counter
with a hard roll wanting another. How many people drive back to the garage
after a 100 miles on an oil change and want another 'on the house' since
the oil got dirty real fast! In fact... if you don't change your
oil and filter every 3000 miles faithfully it will get dirty black... real
quick... that is a way to verify that a car has not been taken
care of...... mmmmm'?
Any Tuner that can guarantee
a piano tuning, I would wonder. All you have to do when it was just tuned,
is open your door and allow the ‘neighborhood kids’ to have fun
and imitate Jerry Lee Lewis for an hour shoulder to shoulder
the piano over in a nice sweet gentle manner.’ Then call the tuner
back and complain that it is guaranteed and it needs a touchup!.
It would be interesting to see this exploited and how long the Tuner would
put up with that policy?
makes a piano good ?
You can start out with the
name, as to what direction you are going in, but that is no guarantee.
There are some brands of pianos that as soon as I see them I know that
they are in the ‘Dog realm’, meaning that I never saw a good one
yet. I will not name names as to not hurt anyone or get myself in trouble.
I tend to measure pianos in their ‘class’. A true piano needs
to be 9ft long. If you notice, you don't see a 15ft piano on the concert
stage.The laws of physics call for the best sound and volume in approx
a 9ft lenght. New Concert grands run any where from $50,000.00 to over
This is the "Alma-Tadema"
sold for $675,000.00
As soon as you shorten
the piano's length you begin to compromise the tone and volume. The 7ft
size is still a fine sounding piano only the depth of the bass just begins
to diminish. As you cut down the size even more, you have to add 'mass'
(thickness) to the bass strings to compensate for the lost lenght. In the
late 1930s, (in my opinion) the real 'dumming down' of pianos began,
when someone came up with the
ulimate compromise.... the
'bright idea' of cutting the piano down to 36 inches high! Giving it an
affordable price tag, a pretty cabinet with a
sweet sounding name...
"Spinet" and eased them on the market. They really caught on in the post
class’ (spinets and console) pianos are the most common today. Now
those old uprights (70-100) years ago that stood level with ones' shoulder
really had a bass that 'growled' and a full rich tone over all, even during
the 'Great Depression', the sound of upright pianos and singing filled
the summer nights all across America. It is just sad and aggravating to
accepted standards slump like most everything else in this
age........it seems that the things that were once
now bad and what was once bad is now good!!??
How did I learn what
good' and what does not? Well, when I was a ‘brand new tuner’ and when
I was exposed to the big professional Concert grands and 7ft models
of various brand names. I saw a common thread that the 'Professional
musicians' regarded as a
‘nice sounding piano’. It was a full bass
and tenor, a clear bright mid section and a clear, clean bright sparkling
sustaining treble, (minimal false beats) and of course, fine tuned,
meaning pointed unisons and an expanded treble. This type of expected
sound is what the 'Pros' want in the 7ft & 9ft models. Of
course there are personal preferences as to the brand, but I am talking
about a ‘common ground’
that I found in selected pianos that the
artist ‘raved’ over. You can hear another sample of Gary Graffman (concert
artist) performing on a 9FT Concert Steinway I prepared. This is what a
'piano' should sound like....mp3.
One of the aggravating things
for me is being limited with pianos. I am talking about not being
able to really 'shine' and use my skills to the maximum. There are only
a handful of instruments that rate in my book as top class pianos. (A small
sound sample can be found on a few of the artist grands that I have tuned...all
wonderful instruments in my 'Hall of Fame' page) Most pianos are
consumer level which does place limitations to 'how far I can go' with
The best analogy that comes
to my mind is taking a top experience 'Professional' race car driver and
giving him your 'nice' family car, putting him on the pole position at
Daytona Raceway and have him compete with the other race drivers in their
'high performance' race cars. When the race is over the driver of the 'family
car' is the last car over the finish line. Should the driver take the blame?....Or
another way to look at it ..take a piece of plexiglas that is all
scratched up and 'frosted looking' and then spend hours with a glass cleaner
and soft cloths trying to 'make it clear' ..it can be real frustrating.
But take a dirty, cloudy pane of glass and with the right cleaner and skill
you can make it clean and sparkling...pristine without streaks..
I will now tell you at least
for me one of the most aggravating things that a piano tuner faces. They
are called ‘false beats’. This is when a single string puts out a pulse
or wave which can be almost invisible up to a blatant flutter.
It basically sounds like two strings out of tune.. like a bad unison. Each
string should ring clear when sounded, like a ‘bell’... pure. The ‘cheaper’
the piano the more strings that have the false beats. The false beats are
found mainly in the treble section of the piano. They begin their fluttering,
starting around the last 2 octaves. There are some bass strings that have
this problem also but it's a problem of poor design or wrong size bass
strings installed or simply a bad replacement. The nicer the piano,
the less false beats are found and with less intensity, and they
are found higher up the treble end. The large ‘name brand’ Concert pianos
cost a bunch of money ($100,000.00 or more) because of the design efforts
and manufacturing standards that they have developed. Scale design is a
very complicated undertaking. I looked at the fringe aspects of it and
the things that are involved include string diameter, speaking length,
tension, down bearing, strike points, all centered around the desired
pitch of a note, not even considering wood selection and secrets learned
through years of manufacturing. The treble section of a piano is more critical
since the string length is very short and you have to be ‘right on the
money’ in all areas to get a clean top end.. not much room at all
When a piano is
of tune it will hide false beats... why?, because out of tune unisons
create real beats or waves that sound like false beats or waves. This is
why you do not purchase a piano (a good one,
real big money on the table)
without having it 'properly tuned' ( not a ‘touchup tuning’) but a real
good tuning by a 'real good tuner' will show what the piano ‘really has’
. Do you buy a ‘high performance’ car, that when you take it out on a test
drive, it stalls once in awhile and the engine runs a little rough and
‘misses’ at high speed and you are promised that when you buy it, "bring
it in for a tune up and then you will see what it really has...?" You could
be in for a big disappointment in both cases!
A piano with false beats,
will sound like the tuner ‘forgot’ to tune the last 2 octaves. The piano
will sound great up to the last top quarter, then it sounds ‘cloudy or
diffused’ not pointed and clean like the rest of the piano. Oh..
I can't tell you how many times we (piano techs) are blamed for being ‘poor
tuners’ since we ‘failed ‘to do a ‘good job’ on the the top end. “ I
have a ‘good piano’.... that tuner just cannot do a good job”. .....
There is not much you can
do about false beats. Sometimes you can push the string contact points
on the bridge or shift the string under the presser bar or try to replace
the string, which is not really practical since it may not get better
and possibly worse, then you have to suffer with a string that will go
out of tune faster for a year or so. That is the main difference between
good piano and a ‘regular’ consumer piano that most people
There are only a handful
of pianos that will ‘turn my head’ a second time so to speak. To
sum it up, the ‘good’ pianos have in my opinion, a sparkle all the
way up to high ‘C’, along with the full rich bass, and even tone.
and MINIMAL FALSE BEATS!!!
Voicing a piano, (also called
tone regulation) is basically taking the natural quality of a piano and
refining the tone and making it ‘even’ from note to note. This should only
be done after the piano is fresh tuned and
regulated, which is simply
adjusting the ‘action’ or mechanism to the factory tolerances and specifications.
The harder the hammer the ‘brighter’ the tone, the softer the hammer the
‘warmer’ or ‘mellow’ and softer the sound. I tend to shy away from voicing,
many times folks expect more from it than you can do. I consider it a specialty
in itself. Voicing is a matter of taste and also it depends on room size
and the acoustics of a concert hall. A piano used for recording will have
a different type of voicing than one that will be used without microphones
or amplification in a concert hall with a full Orchestra behind it.
To sum up this message...
A Tuner will only be as good as the piano...but a piano will sound only
as good as the Tuner.
I hope that this information
will help answer some questions. I realize that some of this is subject
to opinion. ....................................Jerry Mead
(Arrogance: undue claims, exorbitant claims of dignity,
estimation which exalts the worth of the person to an undue degree;...)
(Confidence: The firm belief in one's abilities, or capacities:
The state or quality of being certain:)
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