Caring for your piano
A well-prepped piano, the foundation of pianism
The piano can be a very mysterious instrument. Pianists, whether they are amateurs or professionals, learn a great deal about how to manipulate the keys and pedals in various ways to make music. But very few have more than a vague idea of what is inside the piano, how the mechanism works, how it should be prepped and cared for, and what constitutes the difference between a "good" instrument and a "bad" one.
I vividly remember the first time I played on a truly refined instrument, some forty years ago. I was a senior in college and was asked to turn pages for my teacher at a venue with a brand new Bösendorfer Imperial Grand. She invited me to try the instrument. It was an amazing experience. Suddenly I could play pianississimo with ease, and I could achieve all of those nuances I had been sweating blood to master. But the next day, when I went to practice on my usual instruments, the struggle returned: sometimes things worked, sometimes they didn't. Frustration reigned.
What was it about that Bösendorfer that was so special?
At the time, I thought that there was something unique about the brand itself, perhaps something inherent in the design or manufacturing. But later I played on pianos of that same brand that were not nearly so nice, pianos that were hard to control and had a less than pleasing tone. Over time I discovered similar differences among pianos of different brands.
"Suddenly I could play pianississimo with ease, and I could achieve all of those nuances I had been sweating blood to master."
I'm sure you've noticed that different pianos, whether they were made by different manufacturers or come from the same brand, can vary widely in how they respond, how "easy or hard" they are to play, how well they project sounds, and how responsive they are to nuances of touch. Some pianos almost seem to play themselves, while others make us feel as if we can't do anything right.
Forty years later, after more than thirty years as a piano technician (having continued to pursue playing the piano professionally at the same time), I've gained a detailed understanding of the elements behind those experiences. To put it briefly, that first Bösendorfer was well prepped, while the other pianos I practiced and performed on were not.
Demystifying piano prep
When a concert grand is to be prepared for a special concert or for a competition, a concert technician will expect to spend two to three solid days of concentrated work on the instrument, even if it was already in good condition.
". . . when the piano is 'chaotic' it will be far more difficult to make music on it. . ."
This work consists of meticulous steps to bring hundreds of details into a harmonious whole. The resultant change to the piano's sound and touch is akin to a blurry image being brought into sharp focus.
Evenness and consistency
One of the most important results of this work is a high degree of evenness in both touch and tone. The piano is now controllable and consistent, so that the pianist can count on a predictable range of tonal response from each key, and so that each key feels and behaves in the same way.
A number of elements go into this, usually classed under the headings of regulation and voicing, but there are some ancillary adjustments (known mostly to experienced concert technicians) that can make an enormous difference in how a piano "speaks." These minute adjustments ensure that each hammer moves reliably straight on its path toward the string (without any little wobbles) and strikes all the strings of its unison simultaneously.
When this is done, the tone quality becomes more focused, and the change of tone color from pianissimo to fortissimo becomes even and reliable. When a piano lacks evenness, consistency, and controllability—in a word, when the piano is "chaotic"— it will be far more difficult to make music on it, and, perhaps more importantly, it will be impossible to develop a refined technique by practicing on it. Light playing will be unreliable, and the overall dynamic level will have to be higher simply to be certain that all notes sound. Many delicate or virtuosic effects will be impossible to produce. Crescendos and decrescendos will be uneven and unpredictable. In general, it will be difficult to play musically and create artistic nuance.
Most importantly, when you are working with a troublesome piano, the chaos in the system will be reflected in your technique. Because of lack of consistency, you will never know quite what to expect: will a pianissimo note sound this time? Will this crescendo be even? Will the prominent melodic notes ring out consistently above the more coloristic notes? Uncertainty leads to tension and inhibits the development of a natural and fluid technique.
What does this mean for readers of this magazine? Most of us are probably unable or unwilling to pay a concert technician to spend two to three days on our instruments. For that matter, a technician with concert-level skill may not be available, and the piano in question may not be worth such a concentrated investment.
There are, however, many gradations between a neglected, "chaotic" instrument and one that has been meticulously "concert prepped." Often the investment of even an hour or two of work can make a significant difference to the instrument and your satisfaction as an artist.
If a fairly regular tuning is the extent of the service your piano receives, you might want to consult with your tuner about what could be done to improve the piano's sound and feel. Many tuners today offer what they call "comprehensive care," in which a normal service call will consist of tuning plus half an hour or so of additional work, to maintain the instrument in top condition. Initially it may be necessary to do more extensive work in order for this kind of regular comprehensive service to be effective.
Nearly any piano can become more satisfying to play if it is given some basic attention on a regular basis. A neglected piano will become less and less capable over time and will tend to lead the player to frustration and disappointment. Regular service performed by a competent piano technician is simply a necessary part of owning a piano.
The following facts and frequently asked questions are presented as a useful primer on the most important aspects of caring for your piano.
Voicing and regulation:
A pianist's perspective
by George F. Litterst
In the early years of my adult life, I was hesitant to engage a piano technician. I had little money in my pocket, and it seemed as though whatever I earned was quickly consumed. Out of necessity I did have my piano tuned periodically, but I shuddered at the cost. The cost was reasonable, but any expense at that time was a challenge.
Although I tended to postpone tunings, there were times when a broken string or unglued ivory key tops caused me to schedule a more substantial visit from my technician. My technician was (and still is) a very personable individual who always explained what he was doing. On the occasions of these more substantial visits, I enjoyed asking a lot of questions and learning something new about my piano.
In 1980, I had the opportunity to purchase a 1926 Steinway "L" that was in remarkably good condition. The piano served me well, and I was very lucky to have acquired it.
Interestingly, after a few years of heavy practice and teaching on this instrument, I noticed that its sound had deteriorated. The piano lost its lovely round tone and became more brittle. The hammers developed deep grooves, and the felts were compacted. I no longer had the ability to get a really lovely sound out of it. I realized that I had to bite the bullet and arrange for serious work on the instrument. I hired my technician to undertake a voicing job that included filing and reshaping the hammers as well as regulation. What a difference this work made!
During subsequent years, I noticed that the instrument repeatedly went through a tonal cycle. With use, the piano would gradually get brighter and brighter until it required tonal attention. I would then schedule a voicing job after which the piano was usually a bit on the dull side, requiring me to play it in. After a few weeks of heavy playing, it would once again become the instrument that I previously knew and loved. And then the cycle would start to repeat itself.
This experience taught me that a piano may present vastly different musical personalities based on its current condition.
In the early 1990s, my technician purchased a personal computer for his business. He did not find the computer to be easy to use and sought instruction from me. Thus began a new era in the life cycle of my pianos.
From that point forward, I traded computer services for technical services. Since I was not laying out cash for regulation and voicing work, I eagerly accepted a lot of technical work on my pianos in exchange for computer lessons. At different times, I owned as many as four instruments, all of which benefitted from regular expert voicing, regulation, and tuning. Of course I was paying for the work with my own time—giving computer lessons— but somehow that circumstance didn't seem as onerous as writing a check.
This experience trained me to appreciate the benefits that come from properly maintaining an instrument. My pianos have an even touch and a lovely tone, and even if I have to lay out cash, I eagerly look forward to extended visits from my beloved technician!
— George Litterst
- A pin block, which is a slab of laminated wood with holes drilled for tuning pins, which are held by friction.
- Tuning requires refined physical and aural skills:
- The ability to adjust each string and tuning pin with precision, and leave them all in a stable condition.
- Focus, patience, and attention to detail.
Why do pianos go out of tune?
- Temperature can be a factor, though usually temporarily. A hot or cold breeze over the strings will make them go flat or sharp. -- Bass strings are particularly sensitive.
- There is a range of answers from "before every concert" to "every few years." A precise answer to this depends upon environmental stability, the role of the instrument, and your personal standards.
- Climate plays a large role. When there are large, regular seasonal changes, a piano will more or less return to being in fairly close tune after a year (though it may have gone drastically out of tune during the other seasons of the year).
- If a piano is unused, it is unnecessary to tune it more than occasionally to "keep it up."
Myths and old wives' tales:
- A piano needs to be tuned when it is moved.
- A piano should be placed on an inside wall.
- If you don't play a piano, it will stay in tune.
Basic information about piano hammers:
- Wool felt consists of dense material with interlocking fibers.
- During manufacture, the felt is bent under tremendous pressure around wooden moldings. An entire piano's worth of felt is bent at one time, and it is then cut apart into individual hammer heads.- The felt can vary as to its initial density and thickness, and the pressing of the hammers can also vary according to the application of pressure and heat.
- The density and thickness of the wool will also affect the weight of the hammers, which will in turn affect the tone and the heaviness/lightness of the action.
- Raw hammers need to be worked over by a technician in order to function well. The basic aim of voicing is to have an even and increased range of tone color.
- The first steps of voicing are preparatory: Each hammer must travel as straight as possible toward its strings and strike all of them simultaneously. The adjustment procedures involved are called traveling, squaring, leveling strings, and mating.
- Once the foundation has been laid, the individual hammers are addressed.
- Denser hammers will need to be needled, with needles inserted deeply into the shoulders of all the hammers, to create a consistent gradient of density in the hammer.
- Hammers that are not as dense may need to be hardened, usually by applying thinned lacquer, and then needled to adjust the tone quality.
- Voicing is an ongoing process: playing a piano changes the hammers, packing the felt and making the tone brighter and generally uneven.
This term refers to adjustment of the mechanical parts of the piano so that they will function as designed.
- On a grand piano, a well-known procedure is made up of thirty-seven steps for each individual key. On an upright, the number of steps is fewer, but substantial.
- There is a small range of geometry within which a piano will function adequately.
- There is a much finer range within which a piano will function very well.
- Regulation done at the factory during manufacture is temporary.
- Felt and leather is used between parts to reduce noise and wear, and these materials compact with use.
- Wooden parts may twist and warp, and even very small changes of this sort can be significant.
- Evenness and control are the goals.
- One of the most important parameters is escapement, which must occur as close to the string as possible for control of dynamics.
- Other parameters affect repetition and the feel of the action.
- All dampers must lift simultaneously with the pedal, and must damp quickly and reliably when they return.
- To achieve an even feel, the dampers must be lifted by individual keys at a consistent point in the keystroke.
- Touch weight is an important consideration. This is especially true of grand pianos.
- The weight of the hammers themselves, together with the ratio of the action design, will determine what can be done during regulation.
- In many instances, hammers that are put on rebuilt pianos are too heavy, resulting in a very heavy touch. This has to do with the fact that hammer weights have increased gradually during the past 100 years (as they did during the previous 100 years as well).
A technician should have a wide variety of skill sets and experience. Depending upon your needs, a technician should be capable of offering the following:
- Home service, consisting mostly of tuning and minor repair.
- Rebuilding (from replacing action parts to soundboards and refinishing).
- Comprehensive home service, including regulation and voicing.
- "Concert-level" service.
Tuner/Technician demographics in the United States:
- The average age of a Piano Technicians Guild (PTG) member is over fifty.
- 90% are male; 10% are female.
- For many technicians, particularly new technicians, piano service is a second career.
Education Initial training could include any of the following:
- Factory training (once predominant—now rare).
- Trade schools, which typically offer one- or two-year programs. There are three major schools in the North America that graduate as many as twenty students a year.
- Organized apprentice-like programs conducted by individual technicians as well as more informal apprenticeships. - Correspondence courses.
- Continuing education:
- Local PTG chapters, where members share their knowledge and experience.
- Regional and national seminars that take place annually.
- Online discussion groups on technical topics.
- Formal, intensive training seminars.
- Factory seminars, which are becoming rarer now due to economic problems in the industry. At this point NY Steinway, Fazioli, and German and Japanese manufacturers are the main sources of factory seminars. Many of the best technicians will have taken advantage of opportunities at more than one factory to refine their skills.
Testing and Certification:
- PTG has a testing program that covers tuning, general repairs, and basic regulation. Those who pass the tests are certified as Registered Piano Technicians.
- There are other certification programs outside the United States, notably the German program, which leads to the title of Klavierbauer, and Kawai's Master Piano Artisan.