A Piano Technician's

Frustrations !!




Tuning by ear vs machine

What makes a piano good

The 'ladder of ignorance'

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 


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 should '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 state. 

How the piano is played.

 Take a powerful Concert 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 file of a Concert Artist (Gary Graffman) giving a 9FT Steinway I tuned, a powerful work out.
 

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 being)

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........

All 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'? The 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 played 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 the Artist. 
Did you ever wonder why the pianos sound so good on recordings? Now you know. Most everybody really 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 board. 
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 zapped when 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 logical thing 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 cold snap. 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 evenly 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). 
 
 

Tuning 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 ‘ok’ 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 line up!
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 as routine. I find that only the well maintained pianos can be single tuned and the focus of the tuning is 'cleanup' rather than recovery
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, drive out and then come back in a few hours and point out a ‘speck’ behind 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 ‘working 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? 

What 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 $200,000.00! 



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 WW2 era. 
  These small ‘upright 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 see the accepted standards slump like most everything else in this 'enlightened' age........it seems that the things that were once good are now bad and what was once bad is now good!!??

 How did I learn what ‘sounds 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 refined tuning.
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.. 

False Beats

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 for error. 

 When a piano is out 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 a good piano and a ‘regular’ consumer piano that  most people own. 
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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