Piano servicing is considered to be a rather unusual occupation and during the course of my work I am asked many questions, some of which are raised time and time again. This section answers most of these questions. If there are still some aspects about the trade or about pianos that you are curious about, please feel free to contact me.
Q. My child wishes to take piano lessons, and I may even start up again myself. I don t want spend a lot of money unless she shows promise. Can I get by with a cheap older piano?
A. No-one wants to fall into the trap of spending a small fortune on a piano only to find a few months later that your child has given up, but he or she would be far more likely to give up through frustration on a cheap old one. As with most items, you should buy the best you can afford. The old saying goes No-one ever regretted buying quality . Of course, a new piano for many families is unaffordable and in the real world, considerable compromises must be made. There are reasonably priced used pianos for sale, that are in good going order and may have had little use during their lifetime. Keep an eye open at your local music store or in the newspapers. One important criteria with any piano is its ability to hold concert pitch. If a child is to advance with his or her learning, then it is vital that he or she is accustomed to the correct pitch at the outset. When about to make a choice, engage the services of a piano technician to check the instrument out. See Buying a Piano on my Articles page.
Q. We have an old iron frame piano, how does it differ from the modern ones?
A. There is little difference. All pianos manufactured in the last 100 years have iron frames which is vital for holding its tuning. The stress exerted by all the strings, amounts to 20 tons (even a steel string guitar has 1 ton!). Very old pianos have wooden frames which provide no tuning stability at all and while some of the little old cottage pianos seen around make lovely pieces of furniture, as musical instruments, they are virtually useless.
Q. Over strung and under damper . What does it mean?
A. This refers to a piano that has strings fitted diagonally into the piano to maximise the use of the piano s size. The bass/tenor strings go in opposite directions to the middle/treble strings, so they have to cross over. Modern pianos with this configuration also have spring operated dampers aligned just below the hammers allowing the strings to be dampened effectively. An instrument with these attributes is what you should seek to buy.
Conversely, a Straight strung over damper piano is the older type, where the strings are fitted vertically and the dampers are mounted on a beam above the hammers. When a note is played, the back of the key/action mechanism pushes up a wire causing the damper to lift off the string. When released, a lead weight allows the damper to fall immediately back on to the string. This system is not as effective at dampening the strings and the technician is hindered by the dozens of long wires restricting access to strings and many parts of the action. These pianos are called bird cages and a look inside one will immediately confirm why this name is given.
Q. I ve always wanted to have a baby grand piano in my lounge, and I have the opportunity to buy one. Should I go ahead, or keep my upright?
A. While many of us like the thought of a nice little grand in our home, check first that it is indeed a true grand piano. A technician will be able to confirm at a glance whether or not the piano has a true grand action. If is not, then buying such a piano could actually be a backward step. Many people have paid out a lot of money, only to end up with an inferior instrument. Get the advice from a piano technician before you part with your money.
Q. Can I put my piano on an outside wall? I ve been told that in more modern homes, this is not such an issue.
A. Pianos are very susceptible to humidity. If the wall faces south (southern hemisphere), then there s a good chance that dampness will affect your piano. Even with the cladding in modern homes, moisture can still be evident when a picture frame on the south facing wall is removed and the back of it is examined. Try where possible to position your piano on an inside wall. In most homes, there are only a few places where a piano can physically fit, so obviously a compromise has to be made. Having the chosen resting place for your piano measured for humidity is a good idea. Compare the reading with the ideal figure of 42%. Changes in humidity will affect tuning stability more than any other single factor. Do not if at all possible, store your piano down in a damp basement or a garage. Pianos hate these places!
Q. Should I leave the fall (keyboard lid) open or closed?
A. Open. This may assist ventilation and also, the appearance of the keys invites you to play!
Q. Is electronic tuning as accurate as tuning by ear and if so, then why aren t there people using these devices to tune their own pianos?
A. Many professional tuners still use the traditional method of tuning by ear without the aid of any electronic tuning device (ETD), but as in most fields of modern technology, these devices are becoming more accurate, reliable and acceptable than in the past. In fact strictly speaking, their pitch sensitivity is more reliable than the human ear. In the early days, ETDs despite their accuracy even then, were unwieldy devices that had to be plugged into the mains supply in the customers home. Their presence was looked on suspiciously by customers and, most tuners felt they were more trouble than their worth.
In recent times the advance of micro-electronics has allowed very accurate ETDs to be programmed to work on laptop computers. As at 2001, extremely versatile piano tuning programs have now been written to fit into a computer that is about the size of the palm of your hand. Features such as customised temperaments and octave stretching are now part of a standard package. Reliable accurate electronic tuning has now come of age and customers can have faith in the results, provided the devices are used in the right way by the right people.
So could anyone use them? No - the devices have to be calibrated to suit each piano tuned, which is a rather involved procedure. Further, obtaining the right pitch for each note is only part of the tuning process. It takes study, training and considerable experience to adjust the tuning pins and to set them so the piano will hold its tune. A novice would be extremely disappointed after spending $2000 or more for a good ETD package to see only a mediocre tuning result for such a large investment. Also, should a novice break a string while attempting a tuning (and it happens), what does he do then?
Many musicians use cheaper needle type devices when tuning up before a performance. These are very useful, but are limited in their use with pianos.
Now here s a question for you!
Q. What are your views of a piano technician tuning your piano electronically? Would you have faith in him/her using the device to get the best tuning for your particular piano, or would you rather still have it tuned the traditional way as he or she has always done?
A. Please contact me with your thoughts. Your identity will be kept confidential.
Q What is one of the worst things I could do to my piano?
A. Think carefully about this one and e-mail me for an answer!
Q What is the best polish for my piano?
A. First, determine the type of finish on your piano. If the actual wood is exposed, then you can feed it with any of the good polishing oils available. However, if your piano has a high-gloss lacquer or polyurethane, the application of any oil will result in a sticky mess. Instead, wipe down with a soft cloth and warm water. If the surface has become badly dulled, you can apply car polish to cut it back and then finish off with a soft cloth and window cleaner. If in doubt, look in a furniture shop and find an item that matches the same finish as your piano and ask the assistant what is recommended for that surface. However, a note of caution - some modern finishes can be very deceiving. Try going to Ask Jeeves on the Internet and type in furniture polishing . Some excellent suggestions are offered.
Preparation and care of wood surfaces is subject on its own. If anyone in that particular trade has any suggestions (or corrections!) they would be most welcome.
Q. How to I tell the age of my piano?
A. You can get a pretty good idea of determining the age of your piano by studying the casework. Pianos built around the turn of the last century are characterised by their turned legs and elaborate panels. They are often veneered in walnut and will have candelabra or at least evidence where the candle holders were once fitted. The 1930s and 1940s saw less elaborate panelwork on pianos and a consequent cleaner look. Many of the pianos I come across are from the 1950s and 1960s era and have a suprisingly modern look with simple casework and clean lines. The finish is nearly always semi-gloss. Pianos built from the 1970s to the present day have only slightly cleaner lines, usually with a high gloss polyurethane finish.
A much more accurate way to date a piano is to get the serial number off the inside of the casework or soundboard and match it against the numerous listings in the Pierce Piano Atlas which most piano tuners or dealers have. Failing that, go to the All About Pianos in my links page or http.//www.pianoworld.com/howold.htm and you will be guided from there as to how to determine a manufacturing date. Remember one thing - pianos are often much older than what people initially think!
Q Is it true that many piano tuners are blind?
A To follow!
Q. How does someone become a piano tuner?
A. As there is no apprenticeship or recognised training institution for piano tuners in New Zealand, it is difficult for anyone to learn the trade on a formal basis. Occasionally piano technicians in the main centres take on trainees and should this rare opportunity arise, anyone wishing to take up the career would be well advised to enquire further. There are several institutions in other countries, some of which offer very comprehensive courses spread over a number of years. The syllabus of one particular college in Europe covers far more than just pianos, extending into areas such as knowledge of all other musical instruments and music theory. Anyone graduating from this particular institution would be extremely well qualified in tuning and servicing pianos.
Correspondence courses are regarded as not being suitable for learning how to tune and repair pianos. There is no substitute for proper hands on training under the guidance of a competent tuner/technician. Opportunities to get one to one training should be sought by anyone intending to learn the trade. Correspondence courses can certainly be considered as an additional means of learning and much can be gained from them. These courses range from inadequate through to very comprehensive, the latter being The Randy Potter School of Piano Technology, based in the United States.
Q. How did I start?
A. I come from a musical family and for many years I played as a guitarist in a variety of groups. In the mid 70s I trained in a local music store repairing stringed instruments, mainly guitars and violins. In 1980 due to an increasing demand for pianos to be serviced in my area, I considered making the move to pianos! With five years of stringed instrument repair behind me and elementary study and training in pianos, I started my career in piano tuning and servicing.
Since then I have had training with various technicians in New Zealand and spent time during several visits to England, with the Woodchester Piano Factory in Gloucester. The factory is the original home of the well known Bentley piano. On my first visit, I underwent a tuning and servicing assessment to gain a very favourable reference from them.
In the late 1980s I enrolled part-time at Massey University to study towards a Degree. Of the 23 papers I completed, several of them were related to my piano work, such as physics and human psychological topics including perception of sound. In 1996 I graduated with a Bachelor of Science Degree.
Somewhat earlier than that, I obtained a Commercial Pilots Licence, which has absolutely nothing to do with pianos but I thought I would throw it in anyway.
So as to keep pace with improving techniques and standards, I have taken up opportunities to engage in further courses and gain extra instruction, plus the sharing of techniques with others in the trade. Regular attendance to workshops held by the NZ Piano Tuners and Technicians Guild has also proven to be of great benefit.
Q. Do you play the piano?
A. No (confession time). Like many tuners, I know only a couple of test pieces and that s about it. You might ask how I m able to know what musicians want when I tune and regulate their pianos. My answer to that is: Think of an aircraft engineer. He knows exactly the requirements of the pilot, even though he probably doesn t know how to fly the plane himself.
However, I am a well seasoned guitarist, having played in groups ever since my school days. I also taught the guitar for several years. Over the last decade, I ve been very much on again - off again with my playing. At the moment I m going through a resurgence playing along with commercially produced backing CDs and intend putting out my own album. The quality of these backing CDs is superb and allows you to get a very professional sound without having to get a group of musicians together.
I have an Ibanez acoustic guitar and a trusty Fender Stratocaster electric, which is hooked up to the usual electronic gizmos and amplification so as to get some real cool sounds. I play music purely for enjoyment and relaxation, not because I feel I have to!
This page will constantly be updated. The content has been compiled with great care and with reference to standard trade procedures. Technicians are invited to suggest additions and amendments/corrections that may be necessary. B.H