Saturday, March 27, 2010

Piano Tuning Myths & Misinformation

Over the years, the piano owner has become misinformed about the care and maintenance of their instrument.

Myth: Pianos get better over time.
Fact: No! Can you think of ANY manufactured item that gets better over time? When you buy a car, you are advised by the car manufacturer to set up a maintenance schedule because your car will require yearly service. That's because over time, parts will start to deteriorate. Using the car analogy again, if you drive your car constantly, the tires will eventually go bald and lose the tread to grip the road surface. In a piano hammer, the surface must be very smooth to produce a high quality sound. Over time, from constant use, the hammers become heavily grooved and the sounds produced becomes very strident, loud and difficult to listen to. Only by re-shaping the hammers, can the surfaces be brought back to smooth oval shapes to produce the best sounds possible. So far, I've only talked about piano hammers. What about the thousands of other parts of the piano action that require yearly maintenance. Sadly, most piano owners almost never keep their pianos maintained. They usually call to have their pianos tuned (not realizing that they are actually calling the tuner to fix something!).

Myth: A piano tuner is the same as a piano technician.
Fact: No! Some tuners only know how to tune and have no formal training in repair or maintenance. Again, it comes down to trade papers. Are they qualified or are they not?

Myth: All tuners who advertise their craft are qualified.
Fact: No! Piano tuning is NOT a regulated profession. ANYBODY can buy tools, a tuning machine and go out into the public domain and work as a 'Professional' (only means that they take money for their work) Piano Tuner. One of the most glaring examples I saw was a very large yellow page ad in the phone book. The person advertised themselves as a professional piano tuner and could not even set pitch (A440). They had no knowledge of how to set a temperament either! Please check for trade papers and if those are not easily available, recommendations (word of mouth) from recording or music (piano teacher) studios or concert venues.

Myth: Tuning by ear is the only way! Electronic tuning machines are no good! 
Fact: Not necessarily. It depends on the qualifications (trade papers) of the tuner. A major advantage for the customer is being able to see, electronically, if their piano requires a pitch raise or not. Without seeing visually where their piano is at, the customer must take the word of the piano tuner (and pay more) and cannot dispute a pitch raise suggestion!

Myth: The piano tuner used a machine! This tuner does not know how to tune.
Fact: Not necessarily. If the piano tuner served an apprenticeship and has trade papers, they certainly know what they are doing.

Myth: The piano tuner used a machine and tuned from the lowest note in the bass to the highest note in the treble without checking intervals. They do not know what they are doing!
Fact: Wrong! The tuner was probably doing a pitch raise or a pitch lowering in order to stabilize the piano at A440. The actual fine tuning would be done immediately afterward.

Myth: Moving a piano completely puts the piano out of tune.
Fact: If pianos are moved small distances very carefully in stable environments, there is actually very little change. By far, people use moving as an excuse instead of not tuning their pianos for a great many years!

Myth: Piano teachers are fully trained in piano inspection.
Fact: Teachers are very useful in playing and hearing the tone of pianos but almost always have no piano technological background. They have no tools for inspecting piano defects. All the teachers I know call me first to inspect pianos for their students.

Myth: It is more expensive to tune a grand piano than an upright piano.
Fact: It should not be! When tuning a grand the tuner usually sits on the piano bench and can rest his/her arm near the tuning pins. When tuning an upright the tuner must either stand (in an awkward position) or sit and has to have the tuning arm above the head (which is not very comfortable and more strenuous on the body). Also, it is much easier to set a temperament in a well scaled grand piano than a smaller upright.

Myth: It is easier to tune an upright piano than a grand piano.
Fact: Not necessarily. Generally speaking, I find it much easier to tune grand pianos because it is much less stressful on my tuning arm.

Myth: Blind piano tuners are superior to sighted tuners.
Fact:  Not necessarily. Fully qualified blind tuners are equal to fully qualified sighted tuners.

Myth: Piano tuners who cannot play do not know how to tune.
Fact: Some of the best piano tuner technicians in the business do not know how to play - at all!

Myth: My piano only needs tuning.
Fact: If pianos are used regularly, they ALWAYS need additional work. Using an analogy, let's talk about your car. Does it only need gas or oil and nothing else - EVER? What about engine maintenance, windshield washer fluid, air in the tires, headlights, tail lights, wheel balancing, etc.

Myth: The piano tuner finished in under one hour, they did not do a good job.
Fact: Some tuners (very few) are extremely fast at their craft. You might ask if they completely checked the piano for sticking notes or regulation problems. Most tuners I know take 1 1/2 hours per visit.

Myth: Should I put a jar of water inside my piano?
Fact: Nowadays, humidity is well controlled by piano humidifier and dehumidifier systems. Depending on where you live, it would be best to have a Registered Piano Technician service your piano several times during a year or two to document any idiosyncrasies of your piano. If there are wild swings of pitch, your technician may suggest purchasing a humidity control system.

Myth: My soundboard has cracked, my piano is ruined!
Fact: Not necessarily. Some pianos have soundboards with many cracks and they sound just fine. However, there is no question that the value of the piano will be less because of the noticeable visual defect.

Myth: Piano tuners require perfect silence when tuning.
Fact: The piano tuner requires reasonable (not complete) silence in order to do their work accurately. The vacuum cleaner is the piano tuner's worst enemy!

This list will be continually updated. For additions, contact paulbrn@telus.net

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