Archive for October, 2011

What do the Left and Center pedals do on my piano?

Here’s another good question and the answer will vary slightly depending on what type piano you have and who the manufacturer was.

 

GRAND PIANO PEDALS

Typically, on a grand piano, the left pedal is a soft pedal, the center pedal is usually a sostenuto pedal, and the right pedal is always the sustain pedal.

 

Soft Pedal.  The left pedal is typically a soft pedal.  On grands, it most always works by shifting the entire action to the right just a fraction of an inch to the right.  This allows the hammers to hit only 2 of the 3 strings in the treble, and one of the two strings in the tenor.  The bass, having only one string, will still sound since they are wider strings and the shift isn’t enough to move the hammer off the string.  It will hit the hammer striking surface a little off center, but that allows the string to contact the hammer at the part of the hammer head that should have softer, less compacted felt, resulting in a softer sound.

Note: some lesser expensive grand pianos may not have this feature.

Interestingly enough, I’ve been asked by customers to remove that extra space at the far right end of the keyboard between the last key and the cheek block, (not knowing of course what it’s purpose was) but this space is there on purpose in grands so that your shift pedal (soft pedal) will work.

 

Sostenuto pedal. The center pedal is usually the sostenuto pedal, and found mainly on good quality grands as well as professional grade uprights.  It is a pedal that is not often used except maybe in certain types of classical music.  It sustains ONLY the notes you just played, but not the ones after.  So, for instance, if you played a C E G major chord and held the keys down, then press the sostenuto (left) pedal and hold it, the chord you just played will still be sounding while all the other dampers are down on all the other notes of the piano.  Now, while that chord is sounding, you can go on and play the piano as usual, even using the sustain pedal, and even playing the notes of that same chord.  What it amounts to is that it holds up only the dampers of keys that were played, and will keep only those up as long as the pedal is depressed.  The regular sustain pedal will still operate all the other dampers as usual.

Note: some lesser expensive grand pianos may not have this feature, even though they have a center pedal.  In that case, it will likely just raise the bass dampers which mimics a sostenuto, but really it’s not a true sostenuto (like you find on most uprights, as will be explained later).

 

Sustain Pedal. The right pedal is the sustain pedal and is the most used pedal on the piano.  Simply, this pedal raises all the dampers off the strings to allow them to resonate freely, even after the key has returned to it’s rest position.  Any number of notes can be sustained at the same time since all the dampers in the piano (using this pedal) all lift at once.

 

 

UPRIGHT PIANO PEDALS

Typically, the left pedal is usually a soft pedal, the center pedal is either a “faux” sostenuto pedal (will explain later) or a practice pedal (extra soft lock-on), and the right pedal is always the sustain pedal.

 

Soft Pedal.  The left pedal is typically a soft pedal.  On uprights, it works by either lifting the hammer rest rail closer to the strings to shorten the distance the hammer must travel, thus softening the blow, or it will lower a felt rail between the hammers and the strings to muffle the sound.

You may notice that when the hammer rail is moved forward, lost motion is introduced in the action making it more difficult to play and control.  This doesn’t happen with the felt rail mufflers, although, they will certainly wear over time.

 

“Faux” Sostenuto Pedal. The center pedal is usually a “faux” sostenuto, or fake sostenuto.   That’s what I call them, anyway.  True sostenutos, like you would see on most grand pianos and some more professional model uprights, are too expensive to include in most uprights.  Therefore, they opted to make a split damper system that would mimic a real sostenuto (although it doesn’t do well at it at all, in my opinion).

 

Most upright center pedals will lift only the bass dampers off the strings, allowing you to play the rest of the piano (mid to upper section) as normal. This causes the chord tones you play while pressing the pedal to ring sympathetically in the bass.  Again, this is not a true sostenuto.  Refer to the grand sostenuto function above.

 

Some of your more expensive uprights DO have a true sostenuto systems.  To check, lift the lid and watch your dampers as you press the left pedal.  If the bass dampers lift off the strings but the other half of the dampers in the piano don’t, then you do not have a true sostenuto.

 

On other uprights, the middle pedal is a practice pedal (with a locking option) which makes the sound extremely quiet beyond the standard soft pedal. This is often achieved by dropping a felt cloth between the hammers and the strings when the practice pedal is depressed.  So on these pianos, you would have two soft pedals, the left pedal (probably which moves hammers closer to strings) and the center locking pedal (which lowers a felt rail between hammers and strings).

 

Sustain Pedal. The right pedal is the sustain pedal and is the most used pedal on the piano.
Simply, this pedal raises the dampers off the strings to allow them to resonate freely, even after the key has returned to it’s rest position.  Any number of notes can be sustained at the same time since all the dampers in the piano (using this pedal) all lift at once.

 

 

My Pedal doesn’t seem to do anything!

 

You may be absolutely right!  Sometimes you will have a pedal that actually is for looks and has no function.  Really.  Less expensive pianos sometimes put “dummy” pedals on for looks and selling appeal.

If one or more of your pedals doesn’t seem to work, it could a “dummy” pedal, as mentioned, or it may have been accidentally disconnected, or maybe it was forgotten to be reconnected when the piano was serviced or moved. You may be able to remove the lower board on your upright and visibly see if any of the pedal dowel rods are disconnected.  They aren’t hard to reconnect.  Or, mention it to your piano technician and they’d be happy to fix it for you, probably for no charge if done at the time of a regular tuning.

 

If you still have questions about the function of your pedals, have your technician explain to you how your pedals function on your particular piano.

 

Until next time….make a joyful noise!

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Are “free” pianos really free, and are they OK to learn on?

Are those “free” pianos that are offered to you really free, and are they usually OK instruments to learn on?  That’s the questions I’d like to address in this segment.

 

The answer to both is typically “no”, however, there are always exceptions.  First let’s look at why those seemingly good bargains, those too good to pass up offers are sometimes just not worth it.

 

Free pianos are not always free!

 

So, you’re considering getting that free piano to fix up…or maybe you just got that free piano anyway and want to fix it up because you know that your child needs a good piano to practice on.  Well, in short, unless you really get lucky and receive a piano that is not terribly old and is still in good shape, that “free” piano might likely wind up costing quite a bit of money by the time all is said and done.  I’d recommend instead, save up the money that you would be using towards pitch-raises, repairs, rebuilding, regulation work, and put it toward a piano that does not needs as much of that at this stage of it’s life.  Yes, all pianos need those things from time to time, but older pianos usually need much more work done on them than younger pianos usually do.

 

Think you’re getting a great deal?  You might be….great deals are out there, I’ve seen them.  On rare occasions I’ve found myself commenting to a client on the good shape their piano is in, only to hear from them, with a great big smile on their face, that they got the piano for free.  Really?  It does happen, however, that is usually the exception…not the rule.

Many times I’ve had to tell a customer (after they’ve spent hundreds of dollars to move an old upright piano to their home, up a flight of stairs, down a hallway, around the corner…well you get the picture…) that this old piano that had been graciously given to them for free was virtually beyond repair, (at least as was practical or feasible for them).  I always feel terrible for them since I know that not only were their hopes of getting a great deal dashed, but so was any thought they may have entertained of saving money!

My goal here is not to knock free pianos or make anyone feel bad for having taken one home, but my goal is really to try and prevent someone from going through the frustration and letdown of going through all the work and effort of moving a piano only to be told it has no real value left in it. 

To be quite honest, I’m a bit baffled, but also kind of chuckle at the thought of just how many free pianos get passed around, like the unwanted Christmas fruitcake!  It’s interesting to me how someone who would never consider accepting a free car that was on its last leg would say “yes” to a free piano with the same type issues.  Why, I’m not really sure, although I have some ideas about it.

I don’t have any numbers to back this up, so this is just my speculation, but something I find interesting is that millions of cars have been produced worldwide, and millions of pianos have been produced world wide, we see junkyards for cars all over the place, but I’ve never seen a piano junkyard.  Per million produced, in comparison, I would bet that a much higher percentage of cars get ditched after they wear out than pianos.  There are lots of reasons for this, and that could spark a whole other discussion, but I think the point here is that people, for whatever reason, just hold on to pianos as long as humanly possible.

I’m sure much of it is because people seem to bond with their pianos like it’s another member of the family.  This makes sense if you stop to think about how the music that comes from a piano moves our spirit, unlike ordinary furniture in the room.  It seems to sing to us, speak to us, it stirs us emotionally….so we become emotionally attached…therefore, we cannot bear to see it go to the landfill, even when we know that it’s at the end of it’s life and that”s exactly where it needs to go.

With that said, that brings up another issue, where to take it…how to get rid of it when it does die?  So…rather than facing the music (no pun intended), we send the old piano down the road for someone else to babysit for a few years.

Let’s go back to the free car analogy for a moment. We all know that there are a lot of free, or cheap, cars floating around out there that you, or I, wouldn’t dare take ownership of, for any reason…even as a gift….because we know that if it’s free…it probably has some issues that are gonna cost….big time!  It may need new brakes, a new motor, it may have leaking oil issues, it may have a rusted out frame, it likely needs new tires, the radio may not work, etc, etc, etc…..you know the ones.  You may have one of them.  I guess there’s nothing wrong with an older car if it gets you from one place to another without breaking down or costing too much money, but by the same token, I’d never purchase an old Ford Model T to commute down the highway to work. Forget for a moment it’s historical value and just consider it’s function.  It may get me from place to place, it may have been cheap to purchase from a junk yard, it probably will take some money to get it at least running, but it will never perform like the rest of the cars on the highway.  It was great for it’s day, but it’s day is gone.  Similarly, an older piano that can’t be sold, but is usually given away may need similar things done to it. It could have a bad pin block (loose tuning pins), a cracked bridge, loose glue joints, broken and misaligned parts, mice chewed and/or stained wood, felt, and rusty strings.  A piano with one of these issues may indeed be a candidate for fixing up, but often times an older piano may have all these problems and is just too costly to repair.  In addition, an old piano, like the Model T, even fixed up sometimes has a difficult time comparing to a modern piano in sound, tone, and function.

My point is, most times that things are given away for free, there is a good reason….it’s too costly to own, impractical, low quality, or whatever…or they’d keep it themselves.

I’m not saying that all free pianos are bad news.  Not at all.  If you wanted to give me a free Steinway B in perfect shape, very well…I accept!  Probably not going to happen, though! Why, because it still has a lot of value, both musically and monetarily.  Most free pianos have very little value left of their own without putting something in to them to bring back some of their value.  Most pianos, can be reconditioned or rebuilt, for the right price, but just like a “totaled” car…even though it might be brought back to working order in the hands of an expert rebuilder…new doors, new motor, new frame, new tires, new this, new that….the next thing you know you have spent near what a good used or new car costs…but you still have an old car with new parts.  Pianos work a lot the same way.  Once they’re “totaled” you can put money into them, at your own risk…many pianos have been saved from “the heap” that way, and many pianos have gone on to lead useful lives for many more years.  My hats off to the many piano rebuilders who do just that every day of their lives.  We owe a lot to them.

Again, I am NOT saying that old pianos should not ever be rebuilt, not one bit.  I am NOT saying that you are not wise by putting money into an old piano.  You have every right to do what you would like.  The CAUTION is to consider these things before accepting that “free” piano, and then being disappointed when you realize what you’ve inherited, and that once you fix it up, you quite possibly won’t get that price back out of it if you decide to sell it.

 

What I AM saying, is that basically, you’re not going to get something for nothing.  Don’t expect to take on a free piano and “only have it tuned”.  It’s probably not going to happen.  If you are going to accept that free piano, it would be a good idea to know what you’re getting into so that you don’t have that shocked look on your face when I have to give you the bad news!   Accepting that free piano sounds so tempting, but take some simple advice and do your homework before you do.

 

Free pianos are not always the best to learn on!
I am often surprised when I hear a parent reason that they “are getting a piano for free, even though it’s in pretty rough shape, to see if my child will like it and stick with it before investing any money into a better piano.  After all, they aren’t practicing to play at Carnegie Hall, or anything like that, so it really doesn’t matter.”  I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard this. Really though, what kind of reasoning is that?  I understand not wanting to spend money on something the child may give up in a year or two, but the way I see it, you are setting him up to fail.
Certainly, if your first experience with an instrument is a run-down, shoddy instrument that barely plays, the chances of you falling in love with the music it produces (or doesn’t) is slim to none!  While it is a risk you take to get a decent piano and keep it maintained, that investment will likely pay off in the long run…and if it doesn’t, you still have a nice piano that has value that can be sold if you need to.
This goes for adults too.  Anyone learning to play the piano needs a good, decent, well tuned and regulated piano from which to learn on.  “Why.” you ask? Because your ear is being trained to hear differences in sounds and pitch, as well as the differences in expressions.  If the piano is not tuned and voiced well, you will begin to recognize pitches incorrectly, the piano may not respond to your loud or soft playing correctly, and you could learn improper finger techniques as you attempt to compensate for poor, uneven touch, loose and wobbling keys, and such. We seem to think that younger students won’t notice, or that they at least won’t mind, but the fact is that they do notice.  Every time they go to their piano lesson play on their teacher’s well maintained piano (we hope), they are reminded when they get home that their piano for some reason doesn’t sound or feel like their teacher’s piano.  It is for this reason, many times whether the student knows exactly why or not, that many potentially great pianists have given up at a young age.
What makes things worse, I feel, is when the parents are not musically inclined (not THAT they are not musical, but because they are not musical).  When the parents don’t have an ear for music, or are not pianists themselves, it makes it much easier for them to justify starting out with a less than stellar instrument, because they honestly don’t know the difference.  So reasoning with them about how really important it is for the student can sometimes be more difficult.

Here’s how I see trying to get little Johnny or Suzie to learn to play on an old clunker.  Think about this…would you WANT to learn to play golf, and would you learn to play WELL, on a set of hand-me-down clubs that had all the club faces all nicked up, where the wood clubs were dried and split, where the handle grip tape was all gummy and falling off, some of the clubs had bent shanks, and all your golf balls had deep cuts in them from years of use.  Absolutely not.  Granted, we usually cannot afford the best set money can buy, just like everybody can’t go out and get a Steinway & Sons grand piano to learn on, but at the same time, I would never try to learn golf on a set of clubs that I’ve described, nor would I try to learn or practice piano on a very poor piano.  It may have been good in its time, but time and wear have rendered them near useless.

 

Today’s post was not about bashing old pianos given for free.  As I said before, there are many of them out there still making plenty of great music.  My hope is that armed with this knowledge, you will be prepared to either say “no” to that offer and make plans to search out a decent piano to learn on, or that if you say “yes” to that free offer, that you will be either prepared to spend some money fixing it up properly, or you will be prepared for take your technician’s recommendations, whatever that may be.

 

Until next time…..make a joyful noise!

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Why do I need to tune my piano even if I never play it?

Another great question that I mostly addressed in my second post in the section titled:

Shouldn’t a good “master tuning” last for several years?

That article gives a good explanation of what is happening inside the wood when it is subjected to moisture changes.  However, in addition to the information there, I want to focus in this post on some practical evidence of humidity change, as well as give some “real world” examples why the idea of a “forever tuning” doesn’t exist, except in our dreams! 

 

I’m pretty sure that everybody that owns a piano secretly wishes for “the tuning” that would last forever.  (For the record, we piano tuners don’t, by the way!)  Ok, let’s turn the tables for a minute….whenever I leave the doctor’s office, I always secretly wish that it would be the last time….though I know it won’t.  I guess we’re all wired that way.

 

Anyway,  back to pianos….IF pianos went out of tune just due to use, then it would make sense that if the piano were never (or rarely used) that it would maintain it’s tune until it had been played enough to “bang” it out of tune again.  Unfortunately, that is not the case with pianos.  In fact, I don’t think that’s the case with most things in life.  Our world is in a constant state of change.  Consider the weather, the water cycle, the rock cycle, the human body, the seasons, and the list goes on.  With all this change going on all around us, both in things we see, as well as within the microscopic world that we cannot see, it only makes sense that the objects around us are also in a constant state of change.

 

If you stop and think about all the things in life that change, move, or shift because of aging, vibration, humidity, dryness, sun’s radiation, etc, we could fill several books listing the many things that don’t stay constant in life….yes, most everything!  Some simple examples: A bolt, unless rusted on, will usually loosen over time if subjected to heat, cold, vibration, and such.  Doors once oiled will begin creaking when the oil seeps out of the hinge and/or dries up (even if the door was never used).  A child’s swing-set sitting out in the yard will begin to fade and the metal will rust over time, even if it was never used…ask me how I know?  I have a package of assorted rubber-bands in my desk drawer right now that I’ve had there for many years.  Many of them are still good, but some of them have dried out to the point of breaking with one use.  So, you can see that natural forces are constantly at work on the objects around us, and our pianos are no different.

 

Practical Effects of Humidity (moisture) on Wood:

 

The piano, being primarily made of wood, is susceptible to the effects of humidity.  The wood will move, swell or shrink, even before our very eyes if given enough moisture or dried quickly enough. 

 

Try this: soak a large wooden tongue depressor in water for a few minutes, lay it out on the table for a few minutes and see what happens, then dry it with a blow dryer.  I haven’t done this, but I can only imagine the warping, curling and such that would likely be evident.

 

What about a piece of cardboard?  We all know what a nice, new piece of cardboard looks and feels like.  We also all know what a wet, warped piece of cardboard looks and feels like.  Furthermore, after that wet cardboard dries out, it will never be the exact shape it originally was before it got wet.  I like to paint sets at our church for church plays, etc.  I’ve learned that if you paint only one side of the cardboard, when it dries it will curl considerably toward the painted side.  My nice straight cardboard walls become bowed looking walls that don’t stand up straight anymore.  All from the effects of humidity.

 

If you’ve never done this, it’s kind of fun.  First we need to agree that paper is wood, correct….very, very thin, but made from wood no less.

 

Now, next time you tap your restaurant drinking straw on the table to take the wrapper off, be sure you’ve scrunched the paper up pretty tightly like an accordion before taking it off the straw. Now, lay the scrunched paper down on the table, take only a drop of water and place it on the wrapper.  It will begin growing and stretching out like it is alive.  While this is a fun little experiment that shows the effect of moisture on paper, it may seem a little overly exaggerated as it relates to the actual parts of a piano, but here again, maybe not so much.  The little drop of water had a huge effect on the wood fibers in that little piece of paper, yes. Now what would happen if you had a whole ream of paper and the same drop of water?  On the flat surface of the ream, probably not a huge effect, but on the end of the ream where it could penetrate in a little, I think there would be a noticeable change. This same drop of water, in reality, could have a significant effect on a wooden piano part much the same way.

 

Again, for a detailed explanation on humidity, refer to post #2.

 

Just because we don’t see water in the air, doesn’t mean it’s not there.  Case in point.  Our church runs a dehumidifier in the fellowship hall.  On most days when the humidity is above 50% or so, that dehumidifier can pull more than a gallon of water out of the air in a single day.  Note, that that’s just one dehumidifier running, almost non-stop, and still not bringing the humidity down to proper levels sometimes when the room humidity is high.  Therefore, a couple dehumidifiers would probably pull out twice that much or more.  That’s a lot of water in the air.  Remember, now that the wood cells are tubular like a bundle of drinking straws, just waiting to absorb that moisture.  When it does, the wood moves, and when the wood moves, things go out of adjustment…including tunings.

 

I read about a funny story (true story by the way) about a technician who was called to repair a string on a piano, but according to the customer, he “had to replace the string without turning the tuning pins”.  When the technician asked why, the owner said that the piano kept going out of tune so often that they hired a “master tuner” to do his best “master tuning” on the piano.  Then when he left, they poured superglue around all the tuning pins, thinking that they were “cementing” that tuning in place once and for all.  The customer was wrong on two accounts…1) the super glue will not cement the pin in place permanently, and 2) even if it would, the soundboard and bridge are both made of wood, and they swell and shrink more than the pin block, and are the main reason pianos go out of tune due to humidity changes anyway.  The tuner, I’m told, waited until the customer was gone and proceeded to replace the string as normal (by the way, there is no way to replace a string without moving the tuning pin!)

 

So, just because you don’t play your piano much doesn’t mean it won’t need a tuning now and then.  As sure as the seasons change, your tuning is changing too.

 

You ask, what do you do to combat the humidity changes in the piano?  While there is no perfect, low-cost solution, here are a few things that can be done help control humidity.

 

Dampp-Chaser Humidity Control System (system installed in piano)

– Room humidity controlled (not just by house system, although those can sometimes help)

– A humidity controlled storage unit (like some schools or other performing arts buildings  have back stage)

– Use a cover over the piano when not in use, and an undercover (especially when used with a Dampp-Chaser Humidity Control System.

 

In summary, there are no “forever tunings”, so might as well make friends with your local piano technician, you’re gonna need him!

 

Until next time…Make a Joyful Noise!

 

 

 

 

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How often, and what time a year should my piano be tuned?

Generally, your piano should be tuned about once or twice a year.  That said, the real answer is …it depends.  For example, a once-a-year tuning would never do for a brand new piano, teacher’s piano, practice piano, or concert piano.

 

How often you decide to tune your piano depends on several things, such as: humidity fluctuation, how particular you are about how your piano sounds, how often it is used, how it is used (for practice, for performance only, teaching, etc), and of course finances play a role too.

All these factors really need to be considered and discussed with your piano technician for you to come to the proper conclusion regarding how often to service your piano.

 

As a starting point, I’d recommend tuning your piano no less than once a year.

 

If you wait any longer than a year, then the overall pitch and tension of the piano will begin to change, usually going pretty flat.  This is not only hard on the piano, but you’ll pay for it later in pitch raises (also known as pre-tensioning, pre-tuning, or pitch adjustments) trying to get it back to pitch and trying to get it to hold it’s pitch again.  If you have a piano that is being rarely used, the piano is not used for teaching or practicing, and you’re not really particular about how perfectly it sounds, then once a year is usually just fine.

 

If the piano is being used in a school or church type setting, you are playing your piano regularly practicing for lessons (or maybe you just love to play), then I would recommend twice to four times a year, again, that depends on things such as humidity, how hard you play, and personal preferences.

 

If the piano is used in say a recording studio, then the piano might likely need to be tuned weekly if not before each recording.  Again, this depends on the piano (how well it holds it’s tune) and how stable the humidity is where the piano is located.

 

Now, if the piano is used for concerts, then it will usually be tuned for rehearsal, and then fine tuned again just before the concert, and sometimes “touched up” during intermission.

 

So, you can see that there is really no one answer that I can give you, and even the recommendations above are just that…recommendations.  Each piano and situation varies, and that is something you will have to talk over with your piano technician.

 

Generally, the more a piano is used and the more public the piano becomes for entertainment, teaching, concerts, recordings and such, the more frequently the piano will need to be serviced.

 

Don’t forget that like anything, your house, car, etc. that pianos too will require more repairs and regulation also the more they are used.

 

What months are best to tune my piano?

 

What we’re really asking is: “what time of the year is the humidity stable enough to tune my piano so that I can keep my good tuning for the longest amount of time possible?”

 

You will hear it said over and over that HUMIDITY CHANGES are the primary reason pianos go out of tune.

The following excerpt is from my FAQs page on my website:

When choosing a time of year to have your piano tuned, some
believe that fall and spring are the best times, being
right after major seasonal changes. True, that is when the
Relative Humidity is most ideal for a piano, at 43% or so.
However, January and July are the best times if you want the
longest period of time without major fluctuations, even though
the humidity during those times are not always ideal. If your
home or establishment maintains it’s temperature and humidity
rather well, or if your piano has a Dampp Chaser or similar
humidity control system installed and functioning regularly, then
this is not as much of an issue. While there is never a “perfect”
time, it is always better to have it tuned than it is to wait and risk
forgetting. Pitch adjustments are costly and hard on the piano! I
would suggest that whatever time(s) you decide, that you stick
with it.

 

So, in the Spring and Fall (April and October) about 2 weeks after the heat or A/C is turned on, are typically recommended times if you decide to tune twice a year.  The humidity at these times of year are closest to 43% on average, which is what the piano needs.  Generally, these are good times of the year to have your piano tuned.

 

However, another good time is January and July.  While the humidity may be a little higher or lower than desired at these times, humidity levels hold pretty steady for a longer period of time during and immediately following those months.  So, with a January/July tuning, in some places, your piano should stay in tune a little longer than with an April and October, Spring/Fall tuning.

 

IMPORTANT: Keep in mind that I live in Missouri, and other parts of the country may have different recommendations.  Please always consult your local Piano Technician for his/her local recommendations.

 

While there may seem to be no absolute perfect time to get your piano tuned, (and if there were, everybody would be calling us all at once and we piano technicians would be swamped with hundreds or thousands of pianos in one week or month, and have no tunings the rest of the year), it helps us to at least aim for the “better” times of the year when we can maximize our tuning stability.

 

My final recommendation, though….whatever you decide, pick a time and stick with it.  Get your piano tuned, and then keep it tuned.  It will be the best for your instrument, the best for your ears, and the best for your neighbor’s ears too!

 

Until next time…make a joyful noise!

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Does my piano tuner have to play so loudly when tuning?

“Does my piano tuner have to play so loudly when tuning?  Is he deaf?  Can he not hear what he’s playing, for crying out loud?  Is he going to hurt my piano by playing so hard? Maybe I ought to call someone else who can hear better and tune more softly.”

 

These are great questions that I’ve never actually been asked before, but I have see the quizzical looks on the customer’s faces at times and have gone ahead and answered those questions for them to put them at ease.

 

The answers are…

“Yes” the piano keys needs to be played really firmly while tuning.

“No” your tuner is likely not deaf.  He can hear what he’s doing, but there is a real purpose to why he is playing so firmly.

And “no” it doesn’t hurt your piano.

 

Each string of a piano passes over, under, and around several friction points as it makes its way from one end of the piano to the other, from the tuning pin to the hitch pin.  This creates a situation where you now have the “speaking length” of the string, and the “non-speaking lengths” of the string (see pictures below).

Speaking Length of string (green line)

The “speaking length” is the longer vibrating part of the string that makes the sound when you play.  If you tightly stretched a rubber band between two fingers, then plucked it…the entire rubber band would be vibrating and sounding (except the parts touching your fingers). The vibrating, sounding part of the rubber band is the “speaking length”.  The part touching your fingers does not vibrate and sound and therefore is “non-speaking”. Notice the green line in the picture shows the “speaking length” of that string.

 

The “non-speaking lengths” are at each end of the string and are the little sections between friction points that are not usually part of the sound when played. In the picture above, it is all the parts of the string to the left and right of the green line. The part of the strings that go from the tuning pin to the pressure bar/capo or “v” bar/ or agraffes, as well as at the end (or bottom of the piano) between the stagger pins on the bridge, and from the bridge pin to the hitch pin.  All these sections are considered “non-speaking lengths” of the string since they aren’t the part of the string responsible for making the music.

stagger pins

The picture you see here is a close up of the hitch pins (far right) and the bridge pins (or stagger pins at left).  The section of string to the left of the bridge is the “speaking length” and is the main part of the string.  So, again, all of the string from the time it enters the stagger pins at the left, and goes around the hitch pin at the right and comes back through the stagger pins is all considered the “non-speaking” length of the string.

 

So, what happens when a note is played loudly during tuning?

What happens during tuning is that the string is being stretched and pulled through all of the friction points.  Because of friction, it may pull all the way through some of the friction points, and not so much on others, leaving the tension at different amounts along the length of the string.  A practical example of that would be when you tie your shoes.  If your laces are really loose to begin with, as you pull on the laces, it will sometimes tighten some sections tighter than others. You have to get in there with your hands, usually, to kind of pull each section to about the same tightness before going ahead and tying them.  The tuner has to do that also in the piano.  He does that by playing a firm blow.  All the energy from that firm blow rushes up and down the string, through the friction points, and allows all the sections of the string to equalize their tension, thus making the tuning more stable.

 

If your tuner didn’t do this, the tuning would be very unstable.  It might sound good for a little while, especially if played very softly, however, soon after the tuner leaves and you began playing a loud piece of music, the strings would equalize their tension, causing everything to go wildly out of tune.  So, we are equalizing the tension along the full length of the string when we play loudly during tuning.

 

Does it hurt the piano when the tuner plays loudly?

While it may make you feel uncomfortable during the tuning process, under normal circumstances, the tuner’s loud playing will definitely not hurt your piano.  The piano is built to withstand quite a firm blow for pieces of music marked ffff.  However, it is not beyond the scope of possible for something to break, especially if the piano is extremely old and the parts are pretty dry and glue joints are brittle.  Even at that, it is extremely rare for the tuning process to ever damage the piano by playing firm tuning blow.

 

So, next time you call your tuner, get your earplugs if you need, but be rest assured that your tuner is doing what is necessary to ensure you have a piano that stays in tune as long as possible.

 

Until next time…..make a joyful noise!

 

 

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