Beyond Piano Tuning


Preservation Through Maintenance

Atrophy is a fact of nature. Inevitably, all pianos -- newly restored pianos as well as pianos emerging fresh off the assembly line -- face a predictable tendency toward disorder. Certainly, expertise in rebuilding work, original design, quality parts and ideal climate go a long way in helping resist and offset the need for modifications and adjustments. Nevertheless, even the most expensive, highest quality pianos in the world cannot escape the eventual need for professional care that goes beyond a regular tuning.

Each piano is unique, like an existential entity with its own habits and quirks. And situations vary, but usually somewhere between four and six years after the piano has been restored or purchased new -- that is, after weathering about twenty seasons -- your piano will need some form of regulation and readjustment. Strings stretch as they age, hammers become impacted from use, felts become moth eaten, bridle tapes break, pedals start to rattle, dust collects in hard to reach places, keys and shanks warp from climate change; the list goes on.

Many piano tuners lack the experience and expertise required to do more than a simple tuning. In fact, it's common in the field for novice tuners to suggest the purchase of a new piano because they misdiagnose problems that can be easily and readily solved with regulation and periodic maintenance. For example, an amateur tuner will often ignore the need for a pitch raise and tune the piano anyway, in its flat state. The result, of course, is a disservice which leaves the piano effectively unplayable with other instruments -- flutes, clarinets, violins -- without strain and dissonance.

Below is a condensed index of the most common situations that call for work beyond a typical tuning.

We also offer Piano Maintenance Packages that fit budgets and busy schedules.

Regulating the Piano's Action

The technician's proper adjustment of key height, key level, key dip, hammer letoff, touch and after touch allows the pianist to play music without thinking of the piano itself. Since piano performance is as important as the sound, the experienced technician goes beyond the task of tuning to make sure the action is in perfect working order. The goal is to eliminate the possibility that the action would stumble in any way during a performance.

In regulating a grand piano, the action is actually removed from the piano cabinet. In doing so, there are many incremental steps to the process that help bring the piano back into focus, steps that would otherwise be ignored. For example, the plate, cabinet, rail and damper lever flange screws are all retightened, the keybed is lightly rubbed with steel wool, cleaned and vacuumed, keys are squared and properly spaced, and the pedals are adjusted. If the hammers are grooved, they are carefully reshaped. The key frame of the action itself is also rubbed with steel wool and if there are slots for the repetition lever springs, these too are thoroughly cleaned.

Once the action has been removed from the piano, the technician checks and repairs any parts that are not working properly. This can include loose and wobbly hammer shanks, sticking dampers and binding hammer knuckles. The technician adjusts each jack and repetition lever so that they are free from minute obstructions. The whippens are carefully removed in order to clean and polish the spring ends. For this, as well as for the capstans, the front rail pins and the balance rail pins, the use of a high quality silver polish enables smooth and exact positioning. At this time, also, the hammer knuckles are inspected for warps. If any obstructions are detected, they are filed and cleaned, and graphite is applied to the leather or cloth.

While the action is out of the piano, the technician makes sure that the key frame is properly bedded. This eliminates the possiblity of the front rail knocking or rattling when the piano is played. The key frame glides are also adjusted to the perfect height. This makes sure the glides do not bounce or sit too tightly against the keybed. At this point, the keys themselves are checked. If any keys slant to one side or the other, they are brought back to their center position and spaced evenly. Then the white and black keys are exactly leveled, an adjustment that every pianist notices and appreciates. Once the keys are leveled, the technician makes minute corrections to the key dip, the hammer height, hammer spacing, hammer drop, hammer letoff and the hammer travel. These adjustments will guarantee that the hammers strike the strings as they should, both with and without using the soft pedal. Before the action is placed back into the piano cabinet, the dampers and repetition springs are also regulated.

Pitch Raising / Pitch Lowering

A piano that isn't tuned on a regular basis will eventually go flat. Pianos that go sharp are usually exposed to extreme changes in room temperature or exposure to wide humidity swings. In dry climates, the cause is usually temperature swings; in wet climates, the cause is usually a combination of temperature swings and humidity. Other disintegrating factors can contribute to changes in pitch, such as new strings that stretch, rusted strings, loose tuning pins, or a cracked or broken plate.

A piano that is tuned regularly by a professional piano technician will be much less prone to pitch swings, but even with regular tunings, it is almost certain that during the extended life of the piano, circumstances will arise that cause the piano to go flat or sharp. Typical situations include prolonged wet and/or dry spells, windows left open, turning off the heat and/or air conditioning while away on vacation. There are many possible reasons.

Flat Pitch

Whether it's a whole step, a half step, or even a quarter step low, every musician knows that a flat piano will not fill the room with living, spirited sound. A flat piano is a piano that sounds thunky and dull. The sound does not shine or sparkle. To tune the piano in its flat state is to merely prolong its lackluster condition. The end result will disappoint both the tuner and the owner, and send fellow musicians looking for another piano to play. The solution is a pitch raise.

According to how long the piano has been flat and how flat the piano has become, the procedure required to bring a flat piano up to pitch is much different than a regular tuning. Due to the added tension applied to the frame and plate, the technician must begin in the middle of the piano, raising the pitch somewhat higher than the desired A-440, then working up the treble and down the bass in such a way that the frame and plate ease into the increased tension. The process often requires three or more repetitions before normal tuning can commence.

Sharp Pitch

Sharp pianos are also annoying to the ear. The sound is shrill, piercing and discordant. Such pianos also require special handling, although releasing tension on the frame and plate is less demanding on those particular parts of the piano. In this case, the technician begins in the middle of the keyboard, lowering the pitch a precise level below the desired A-440, working up the treble and down the bass, allowing the frame and plate to adjust to the lower pitch. The technician then tunes and retunes until the correct pitch is achieved.

Voicing the Piano's Hammers

The experienced technician voices the hammers of the piano to achieve an even, consistant sound quality that matches the type of performance the piano is expected to fulfill. Different performance requirements call for different approaches to the process of voicing. For example, if the piano is a concert stage piano in a large hall, it will need to be voiced such that the sound will fill the entire chamber. If the piano is in a small living room, that same voicing would produce sound considered to be too loud or too bright. The living room piano would call for a different voicing, one that would produce a sound that's a proper fit to the smaller space.

The hammers themselves, whether new or reshaped, have a certain hardness or compactness that produces a brightness or brilliance that is adjustable. Except in rare cases, the expected result is a slightly softer hammer. The procedure requires special voicing tools that help the technician adjust the surface texture of each hammer. This process conditions the hammer's contact point with the string or strings. The process itself takes skill and experience, and some patience since voicing is achieved in small stages so as to avoid producing hammers that are too soft. The incremental stages require the technician to remove the action, work on the hammers, then replace the action over and over again until the proper compression is achieved.

Over time, simply from playing the piano, the hammers become grooved and compacted. At that point, they need to be reshaped and then voiced again in order to reachieve the sound quality that is both desired and fitting for the piano's particular musical roll.

Re-Twisting the Bass Strings

There are two types of piano strings: treble strings and wound strings. Both are made of high quality steel wire, but wound strings, which are almost always used for the bass section of the piano (and sometimes the low treble section) have a hexagonal core wire that is wrapped, usually in thick copper winding. The reason why the wrapping is necessary is because the copper coil adds weight to the string that helps lower the pitch without lowering the tension.

When the string is new, as the technician attaches the string to its hitch pins, the technician gently twists the string in the same direction as the copper winding. This tightens the copper winding much like coils on a rope. A perfect tightness insures a clear, pronounced pitch.

The need for re-twisting arises because as the wire breaks in, it stretches, and thus the coils relax. The result is a distorted sound. Rather than the desired pure, articulate pitch of a tightly wrapped string, the relaxed coil delivers something akin to a swooshing sound, a cymbal crash, a buzz, and as it continues to relax, sometimes the string will begin to produce a false beat, like a wah-wah pulse. A normal tuning cannot fix this problem. Thus, the need for re-twisting.

The Meticulous, Painstaking Effort

Arthur A. Reblitz, author of the technical text, Piano Servicing, Tuning, & Rebuilding, suggests a regulating checklist with 34 interrelated steps, many of which have been touched upon here. To conclude, Reblitz has this to say about piano work beyond tuning, particularly with respect to the action in a grand piano:

...do not expect to fine regulate a grand piano by going through it "once over lightly". The uniform response necessary for fine playing (and the pianist's satisfaction with a piano) are in direct proportion to the amount of time taken to regulate the action properly.

What this means and how it translates at Sweeney Piano is that we understand what it means to have a piano respond in a uniform way. We understand the physical reasons why regulation and maintenance extend the life and quality of our client's pianos. And we understand how important it is to our clients that we provide such care.

We completely guarantee our work, and since we take an extended, long term view towards the health of the pianos we maintain, we only suggest work when such work becomes necessary. To ignore the piano's needs is neglectful. To suggest unnecessary work is unethical. Both would be a disservice to our clients, to the pianos we are determined to preserve, and the musicians who play them.

Source for the quote: Reblitz, Arthur A. Piano Servicing, Tuning, & Rebuilding. The Vestal Press, New York. 1976. 79. Print.

A Note About Work Performed

As a part of the Terms of Service at Sweeney Piano, it is good to know that all diagnostic judgments made by Michael Sweeney and other qualified employees of Sweeney Piano are based upon the fact that each piano is unique with its own particular, individual and exclusive needs. This is to say that because each piano calls for differentiating judgments based upon its literal and factual origin, its design and architecture, its quality of parts, its present physical condition, its environmental history, its maintenance history and other incidental factors, the judgment for and determination of the exact plan and sequence of technical procedures to be performed will differ from piano to piano. Because each piano is unique, Michael Sweeney guarantees a prescribed repair, restoration and/or maintenance plan that matches your piano's particular needs. Be assured that your piano will not receive unnecessary work, nor will you be billed for work that is unnecessary.