Upright piano. Free. Belonged to my grandmother but we don't have room for it anymore. Just needs a tuning.
Seller: Four hundred bucks for the junk removal people to take it to the Sechelt dump? Yikes. I'll just give it away. Then I don't have to spend a dime.
Buyer: Four hundred bucks (or thereabouts) to move a piano? What if I get it here and call Andrea to come tune it and she tells me it's not even tuneable?
Cracked soundboard, detached bridge, loose pins, water damage to hammers, strings that will all break if you try to bring them up to pitch ... just a few of the problems you can find in an old piano.
So a "free" piano still costs money, and those looking to acquire a piano on the Sunshine Coast are wary of sinking money into something that will prove to be nothing more than a gigantic plant stand. (Please note: It is never a good idea to place plants on top of your piano!)
That is the story here in on the Sunshine Coast, anyway. An old Heintzman upright will be purchased for over a thousand bucks in Whitehorse, for example, where they still have to be dragged over the Chilkoot Trail. Okay, not really, but still. It's a long way from the land of piano plenty.
People often call me when they are looking to acquire a piano. They want to know if I know the piano, if it has any issues and if I think it's worth the cost of moving. Sometimes it's true that I've tuned the piano, but I just can't remember anything about it.
Recently, one person contacted me with a piano to give away. He'd had the piano listed for a while, for free, and still no one was interested. This is where the "You can't even give them away" adage comes from. But he needed to move it. Time was running out.
Before recommending the piano to anyone, I'd certainly need to check it out, but driving from Langdale to Lund looking at pianos for free isn't a great way to earn a living. I delayed getting back to him, trying to think about how I could offer this service in a way that made sense--who is the customer?
What makes the most sense is to offer an inspection service.
For a minimum service call of $60, I can inspect a piano that you are looking to sell or give away. You will receive a checklist with an assessment of the condition of the soundboard, action parts, pin torque etc. If some of these parts require repair for the piano to function, this will be noted as well. One of two things can happen next:
1) Piano is in sound condition. You can list it for sale for at least $60 in order to recuperate the cost of inspection and a piano buyer will confidently make that purchase, knowing exactly what they are getting before spending a small fortune on moving costs. (Remember, it's not the cost of the piano that deters people, but the cost of moving the piano.)
2) The piano has problems. It will be expensive to repair and the money on repairs would be better spent on a newer piano. You may decide to take the piano to the dump. So that $60 will be a sunk cost, right? Not really. You will have peace of mind: You'll know not only that Grandma's piano truly was at the end of its life and it is okay to say goodbye, but that you didn't just unload a lemon on some poor family whose kids are just starting piano lessons and who will now have to quit because the family has just spent all their money on moving the piano and then moving it again to the dump and sorry, little Timmy and Sally, you're just going to have to take up the spoons.
I returned this person's call a couple of days later, but it was too late. He'd taken it to the dump. It just so happened that I had been at the dump earlier that day. "Oh, that was your piano I saw there."
Good decision? Bad decision? We'll never know. Difficult to try it out when it looks like this ...
I regretted not getting back to him sooner to look at that piano.
There is a program on CBC I keep hearing about, explaining that it is the end of the upright--or the end of the piano! While it is true that a piano is no longer ubiquitous in middle-class homes, it is still one of the most sophisticated, versatile and beautiful instruments ever made. The piano will always be here.
But the old Canadian uprights are in their twilight years. You can't give them away. Dime a dozen. Ending up at the dump, yeah yeah. But if you've got one in decent condition, look after it with an annual tuning and maintenance. (If you're a fan of the antiquing shows, you may consider that your old Mason & Risch will be a rarity not too many years from now...I hear even cigarette garbage has reached collectible status.)
Oh, and as for "no room" for a piano ... Here is a picture of my living room:
Would it be nice to have more than a two-seat sofa to sit on? Sure. Does it stress me out when my partner invites four people over for hot-pot? Of course! Does even the cat have more upholstered seating options than I do? Um, yes.
What was my point again? Oh yeah. There's always room for a piano.
Sometimes people ask me where I learned to work on pianos. A better question is where I learn to work on pianos--any technician will agree it's an ongoing education. I usually tell people that Ken Dalgleish has taught me. Ken has been servicing pianos the Sunshine Coast for nearly forty years and I met Ken just as he was seriously beginning to consider possibly maybe retiring (that is a process too!). They say timing is everything. I also attend workshops and seminars, conventions, as well as longer course such as the Renner Academy grand action regulation course in Arizona.
Many technicians learn from a mentor--often a parent, usually a father. Others graduate from piano technology programs, which are typically one or two years in length. These are becoming much less common, however. To my knowledge, there is currently only one one-year certificate program in Canada, through the University of Western Ontario. Schools in the USA are few and inaccessible in terms of cost (by Canadian standards, anyway). The piano technology school for the blind in Washington state closed recently, and there are a handful of correspondence courses.
This is where the RPT designation comes in. The Piano Technicians Guild offers three rigorous standardized tests to assess the skills of a piano technician. A technician who has successfully completed these exams earns the designation RPT: Registered Piano Technician.
I don't know what percentage of technicians are RPTs. Certainly not all by a long shot, which does not mean that a technician without the designation is not as skilled as one with such a designation. All it means is that those skills have not been assessed by the Guild.
I resolved some time in January of this year (you know, that new year's resolution thing) that I would take the RPT exams over the next two years. The three exams include a written test of knowledge, an aural tuning exam, and a technical exam which includes regulation and repair skills. The written component is the first part. I'd heard it wasn't too difficult, so to prepare, I studied and studied and studied--there is no better way to fail an exam than to assume it will be easy. I'm good at taking tests--I've never had problems with nervousness or self-doubt in an exam situation, so I was surprised about an hour before the written exam to feel my stomach turning a little. Maybe it's because tests of empirical technical knowledge are outside my comfort zone? While in university, most of my exams involved writing essays, examining a work of literature or historical events. Now I would be quizzed on proper key dip, the behaviour of wood, the cause of inharmonicity or regulation sequences. Anyway, enough suspense. I passed with flying colours. Exam 1: Check!
Next up is a mock aural tuning exam later this summer. (The exams require a lot of time and money, so to prepare, it is recommended to first have skills assessed by an RPT.) The first part of the aural exam is setting A-440 using a tuning fork instead of an electronic aid. That's the one aspect of aural tuning I haven't practised... Apparently, one is supposed to hold the fork upside down below the key bed--so it's against the wood, ringing--and play the A with the thumb of the same hand, while turning the pin with the hammer in the other hand (along with other checks). Only problem is my hand is too small to both hold the fork and reach the key with my thumb! I suppose whoever came up with that technique did not have short women in mind. No matter! I will figure something out for that one.
I have met enough technicians without the RPT designation to know it is a good thing to have. There is a kind of self-doubt that can plague someone who has not received the validation of their skills that the exams offer. It's why I decided at age 26 to begin a college education, and to obtain a bachelor's degree. At that time, I'd been teaching ESL for two years abroad, but was unable to secure a job doing the same thing in Canada because I lacked a degree. I didn't want that missing credential to be a barrier to me any more. So I went and got a degree. (The great irony is that by the time I finished my degree, it had become impossible to get an ESL-teaching job in Victoria, an incredibly educated city where a graduate student can look forward to any number of fabulous positions in customer service).
Being self-employed, the missing RPT credential isn't a barrier. But that designation will bolster my confidence. Plus,having letters behind a name looks cool.
Pianos come in variety of colours. You've got your black satin finish, shiny black polyester (most new pianos), natural wood finish, white (not so popular these days, but was cool at least when Garth Brooks played one, paint splashing on the keys and seeping from his pant legs).
A well-made piano is already a work of art, but some manufacturers go further, releasing one-of-a-kind "art case" editions. What do you think of these?
Clocks instead of legs? Finally! Only problem is you'll want to play every piece at 60 beats per minute... But never mind that. This one-of-a-kind Steinway can be yours for just 2.5 million dollars (USD. That was your next question, wasn't it?)
The harder something is to move, the better is sounds. This must have been the thinking behind this Bosendorfer, which supported by an aviary of bronze peacocks (with top bird perched on the music desk). How many peacocks can you spot?
Here's a more dressed-down nineteenth-century Steinway. Naked children hold up the piano. Why not? These days you can hardly tear them from their iPhones.
This Steinway D was hand painted by Haida artist Jay Simeon using acrylic made from ground argillite, a stone found exclusively on Haida Gwaii. It's not Sunshine Coast, but the North Coast is close enough for me to show a little West Coast bias and declare this my favourite art case piano. I saw it in person at Tom Lee music. I didn't get a chance to play it before being politely ushered out by the salesperson, who accurately sensed my eight-year-old nephew and I weren't really in the market for a new Steinway D.
You may not have a one-of-a-kind art case luxury-brand piano, but whatever your piano, it can sound better with regular maintenance, such as tuning once or twice per year. I am happy to tune your Craiglist freebie or 2.5 million dollar art case Steinway--all pianos go out of tune! Whether you live in Gibsons, Sechelt, Garden Bay or Powell River, contact me by phone or email to book a tuning today.
Oh, and in case you're now trying to think of the name of that Garth Brooks song ... "The Red Strokes." For a trip down mid-nineties memory lane, you can watch the video here. I gotta say, twenty-three years after the video's release, the whole thing strikes me as a little gory. What do you think?
I attended a workshop this past weekend in Seattle on voicing.
What is voicing?
Most people think of voicing as altering the sound of a piano in order to make it mellower or brighter. To talk about piano tone only with those two terms is like limiting your wine vocabulary to "oaky" and "fruity."
Can you imagine a wine steward presenting you with a bottle of the finest red, madame. This red offers an oaky taste, a perfect pairing for your dinner there, which is also tasty and pairs well with oaky-ness. Oui, oui. But I'd prefer fruity. Ah yes! The fruity. Very nice choice.
Is that not the lamest conversation about wine? I used to date a fine-dining waiter who'd stick his nostrils right into the glass, snort in the bouquet, pronounce a touch of onion, dirty socks--in complete seriousness--hints of mint, various stages of flavour from first whiff to ebbing aftertaste. Okay, it bordered on the ridiculous--but maybe not! What do I know from wine?
Keith Akins taught the voicing workshop, which was held at LightHammer Piano near Seattle. Keith began the class by commenting on how impoverished our lexicon is when it comes to discussing piano tone. From there, we moved on to listening, comparing the voices of five baritones singing the same excerpt from Mozart's "O, Isis und Osiris." I thought this was a smart way to begin--the human voice, regardless of how many pianos one tunes, is more familiar than any other instrument. Having devoted my youth to classical singing, I found it easy to pick out my favourite and identify why. Kurt Moll performs with the passionate restraint required of a Mozart aria. His tone is round and full-bodied--buttery, was the word that came to mind. It is relaxed but not uncontrolled. I could visualize the shape of the mouth, one of the factors affecting vocal tone. Not too bright, not to dark, that porridge was just right.
From there we moved on to listening to pairs of violins and comparing the tones, then finally to pianos. "Brightness" and "Mellowness" is certainly an element in voicing. A tone sounds bright when we the higher harmonics--or partials as they are called in piano work--at greater volume. But there are other aspects to consider, commonly known as "bloom" and "sustain."
The sustain is perhaps the easier concept to consider. It means how long the sound continues after the hammer strikes the string (and before releasing the key, which would of course dampen the sound). A beautiful piano will have nice sustain, not just decay the instant the string the is struck. Sustain is more difficult to achieve as you work your way up the keyboard, to those shorter strings, which typically has more to do with soundboard limitations than anything else.
Now, imagine a time-lapse video of a flower opening up. That is bloom. It means, when the hammer strikes the string, does the note sort of open up? Does it have a shape to it? Does it bloom? (And not in the way out-of-tune unisons do...)
Some words that come to mind while thinking critically about piano tone are woody, metallic, pinched, wet, muffled, harsh, underwater, and of course oniony with a hint of dirty socks.
Voicing is something that can be done to a piano with each visit--concert pianos get touched up before every concert. But generally, the pianos I encounter have not had regular maintenance and doing a thorough voicing job would require several hours. To address all the factors contributing to a piano's tone, I would have to tune it, level the strings, seat them at their bearing points, reshape hammers, then mate the hammers to the strings. The piano should also be properly regulated--poor regulation can have a big impact on tone as well. Needling the hammers would be the final step in the piano's ultimate spa-day package. And the piano would also need to be tuned a couple more times following this work.
This was Keith's advice too. However ... when pressed for time, he did demonstrate some techniques for making a big improvement to tone in a short period. It wouldn't be the text-book solution, but perhaps the more practical approach for many piano owners here on the Sunshine Coast, given budget constraints. As Ken, my mentor, says, you can always make a piano sound better.
Incidentally, most of us at the workshop really hated the piano in an early Glenn Gould recording. "Are you kidding me?" was one person's comment. I don't have those recordings to share with you here, but below are Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations in two different recordings, on two different pianos. Youtube videos aren't the ideal way to listen carefully to a recording, but I think you can still hear the differences. Which one do you like better?
Well, it's been another beautiful day of slush-rain. You know, that stuff that falls from the sky, heavy blobs about the consistency of bird crap? At least it's not sticking any more. There was about six days when I couldn't even get my car up the driveway. Of course it doesn't occur to a West-Coast girl like myself to shovel the snow. Why would I do that?, we ask ourselves. It won't stick. It'll melt by noon! By five o'clock we'll be firing up the barbecue, breaking in this year's Teva sandals as we fill the neighbourhood with the aroma of charred salmon. Oh yeah, it's great to live on the Sunshine Coast.
Indeed, I recall many-a-March, my dad squatting outside by the hibachi on the porch of our Fort Langley home, bragging to no one in particular about what fine, mild weather we have here in southwest BC.
It's been difficult for us West-Coasters, eh? Nobody cares, though. They just don't get it. We're not like you, we tell them. We don't have ice scrapers and snow shovels and long undewear! That's for the ROC, man. (Rest of Canada.)
My partner is from Montreal and she wears gloves in March! Can you believe this? Crazy-making. I can't do that. That would require I give up living in denial about the weather.
What does this have to do with piano tuning on the Sunshine Coast? Well, if you're piano is anything like mine, it's probably sorely out of tune following this unseasonably (or maybe it is seasonably) weather we've been having. Yes, changes in humidity are the devil. Forget tritones -- an out-of-tune piano is the most sinister sound around. Let me exorcise it from your home! If the past is any kind of teacher, then we should accept we still have a bit of winter left for staying inside and brooding over the ivories, plodding along in minor keys, something evocative of the "Song of the Volga Boatmen" perhaps. You know, to reflect our struggle here, our yo-heave-ho-ing along despite the hardships of slush-rain. There's something in this song about singing to the sun, but I assume the sun is behind clouds and they are just trying to get it to come out, you know, to stop the slush-rain.
At any rate, perhaps it is time to polish our barbecue tools. Have hope! Persevere! Ayda-da-ayda!
Thank you to everyone who completed the survey I circulated, asking you about your piano needs. I wrote all your names on little pieces of paper, closed my eyes, shuffled it all up and selected the winner of the free tuning. And the winner is .... Steve! If you're name is not Steve, you did not win. If your name is Steve and you just received an email from me telling you, Steve, that you are the winner, then you DID win. Yay!
I hope you've all had a grand ole December with relatively in-tune pianos, something which is actually a bit of a tall order this time of year. It snowed, it was cold, we stoked the fire, kept the wood heat burning all through the night, drying out our homes and consequently throwing pianos noticeably out. Ken said he measured the relative humidity in his wood-heated space and it was down to 38% (unlike our usual Sunshine Coast relative humidity of 110%?),
These changes in humidity don't just affect the tuning, but the touch, and can even cause structural damage if the change is dramatic enough. Here is a link to what Yamaha says about caring for your piano: http://ca.yamaha.com/en/support/caring_for_your_piano/
Yup, not only do pianos go out of tune, but they also go "out of touch." Changes in humidity and wear on felt and leather, even tiny amounts, can cause a piano to go out of regulation. You may have noticed your piano just doesn't feel as smooth as it used to, or is harder to play softly. Maybe you just feel like you have less control. I can help restore the touch of your piano. If one of your resolutions this year is to play more, treat yourself to an instrument you can really enjoy spending time with.
Best wishes for 2017!
Do you find it challenging to play those super-wide intervals in Chopin's music? Well, now you know he had a little help with that ... Let the brilliant Janina Fialkowska take you on a tour of an 1848 Pleyel grand piano. The piano in this clip is the same make and model as the one Chopin had in his apartment when he died.
Want more? Here is Idil Beret playing the piano that was literally Chopin's piano. How do you think it sounds? With a shallow key dip and narrow keys, it certainly would feel very different!
It's already December 10, but it's not too late to get your piano tuned before Christmas if you book soon. It may be raining slush here on the Sunshine Coast, but at least you can enjoy the sound of in-tune Christmas carols (or the grandchildren's version of "Heart and Soul" and other unavoidable classics).
I recently completed the Renner Academy's Grand Action Master Course. The course took place in Scotsdale, Arizona, and included a visited to the Renner USA headquarters.
"What is this course about?" you ask. You'd think I'd come away from a course called "Grand Action Master" with superior skills in kung fu for film and television, but this course was all about grand piano action regulation -- optimizing the touch (and subsequently tone) of a grand piano.
How many steps to regulation? Some say 37. Some say 100. (No, I'm not talking about the temperature of Scotsdale.) However you slice it, you gotta do all of it to make the piano the best it can be.
In this course, we started from scratch with new action parts. Before anything can be regulated, the parts much be prepared. This primarily involves measuring and adjusting the amount of friction at all the joints (flanges). In the top left photo, I'm "repinning" a repetition lever flange. Without the right friction here, it would be impossible to regulate the repetition properly, making it difficult to control how quickly you can repeat one note while playing. In the top right photo, I'm getting a demo on how to measure the friction by moving the spring out of the way by a super-famous piano technician named Rick Baldassin. He wrote the book on aural tuning (at least one of the best ones). At a convention earlier this year, I sort of jokingly asked for an autograph, and he said yes. I realized right away it was not such a funny request -- he gets this all the time. It only seemed funny to me because I used to work in publishing, editing a literary magazine and doing marketing and promotions for an independent press, and so I associate book autographs with literary who's-whos, not technical books. But that was silly of me. When you're the top of field, you're the top, whatever the field is! Not only that, but Rick has a beautiful, syrupy bass voice. Despite his talent and innovative thinking as a piano technician, he may have missed his calling as a news anchor or voice actor.
When replacing wippens (the thing I'm holding in the photos above), you can generally find a match for the piano you're working on from the various wippens manufactured by Renner (which are made in Germany) or other companies. But when it comes to hammers and shanks, there is a lot more to it. The action geometry and touchweight must be measured carefully to calculate the necessary weight of the hammers and other specifications to optimize leverage. The hammers must be bored at exact angles or the touch and tone will be compromised. We took all of this into consideration when preparing our hammers for boring, then piled into super classy SUVs to bore and shape our hammers at the Renner USA headquarters.
It was mercifully cool the morning of this activity and the doors were open, giving us respite from the dead quality of air conditioning. Instead, we got to breath in palm trees, desert breeze and the smell of oak and maple.
In the photo on the left, I'm boring the hammer, that is, using a drill press and a tool (the white plastic jig) to drill a hole at exactly the right angle for that hammer -- the angles change. In the centre photo, I'm shaping the hammer -- sanding it so it has that pretty curved (this is actually several steps, but I figure one picture of me sanding something is sufficient). The guy to the left of me is Michael Spreeman, who makes Ravenscroft pianos, which are complete works of art. I got to play one. "Like butter," was all I had to say about that. In the photo on the right, I'm drilling the side of my back action model. I won't describe all that stuff because the post would be so long, but mostly wanted to include a photo of me because I actually posed for this. Don Meyer, the brother of Lloyd Meyer, who owns Renner USA, was there all week taking pictures of everyone for use on our websites. (Thank you, Don!) He didn't get a chance to take my picture at this station, so we just re-enacted the compelling drama again.
In Part II, you will see how hammers are "hung," and "travelled." These hammers are endowed with a lot of personality, aren't they?
Now I'm off to tune a piano in beautiful Gibsons, BC. It's overcast today on the Sunshine Coast, but I'm hopeful the sun will peek out, giving me a nice view from the top of Soames Hill later on.
(If you're wondering what is up with my weather report, I like to mention that I tune pianos on the Sunshine Coast, BC, so that you can find me when Googling this. There's probably a more discreet way to do this ...)
To better understand the piano needs of Sunshine Coast, BC, musicians, I've created a short survey. There are just ten totally fascinating questions and by completing the survey, you could win a tuning for you or a friend. Thrills! Excitement! Daring! Yes! Online surveys have never been better!
You're input is greatly appreciated!
A decaying house, dust sheets on the furniture, creaking floors and a pigeon suddenly bursting from the rafters, or something like that. Something bad is going to happen in this movie -- you can tell because there is a very low sustained note. And then, the distant sound of a sorely out-of-tune piano. Where is this sound coming from? Is there a ghost in the attic, tickling the ivories, which are literally ivories because the piano would definitely not be a recent model?
Yes, terribly out-of-tune pianos sound creepy, but you can only know for sure if you're piano is haunted after you tune it.
There is no hard and fast rule as to how often you should tune your piano, but a well-maintained piano is generally tuned once or twice a year. Concert pianos are tuned before every performance. In fact, a keen player may detect their concert piano slip out of tune during the performance – as the audience fills a small venue, and hot stage lights shine down on the strings, the combination of increased humidity and heat is enough to affect the tuning. Not significantly enough for anyone to notice anything but the virtuosic performance, of course.
Rick Baldassin, RPT, is one of the piano industry's most honoured technician. He says, “The piano must be nearly in tune before it can be tuned.”
So what happens when the piano is not “nearly in tune”? How near is “nearly in tune”?
Piano technicians talk about changes in pitch in terms of “cents.” The distance between one note and the semitone above or below it is 100 cents. So half a semitone is 50 cents, a quarter is 25 cents and so on.
From spring to fall, it is not uncommon for a well-maintained piano to drop 3-5 cents in pitch. (This is the result of changes in humidity – in spring and summer, without heaters on or fireplaces roaring and with the windows open to let in our Sunshine Coast seaside air, humidity is significantly higher in our homes than in the winter months.) Unfortunately, the pitch does not drop the same amount for every string. Typically, the pitch shifts much more in the middle of the piano. The result is a piano that is out of tune.
When tuning a piano, we check how many cents flat or sharp it is as this will determine whether or not the piano requires a pitch-raise before tuning. If the piano is significantly flat, we must bring it up to pitch first. It is like making a bust: you can't begin detailing the eye until you've shaped the blob of clay into something resembling a head. Once the pitch-raise is complete, the technician goes through the piano again, this time tuning more precisely.
In Mario Igrec’s comprehensive book, Pianos Inside Out, he writes, “A piano can be considered ‘under pitch’ when it is more than 5 cents too low. A discrepancy of as little as 3 cents can be destabilizing enough to merit treating the tuning as a pitch raise.” This is not to say a piano can’t be stable when raising the pitch 5 cents. In fact, I’ve encountered some strange pianos that seem stable after raising the pitch as much as 20 cents! This is not typical … spooky, right? Right?
But given how much a piano can change from season to season, just imagine what happens to the pitch after three years, five years or even ten years without a tuning!
If it’s been so long since the piano was tuned that you can’t remember if your kids were in high school or kindergarten at the time, the piano, without a doubt, requires a pitch raise as well as follow up tunings before stability returns. After ten years without a tuning, I would not be surprised to find the piano 30 cents or more flat. If the piano is 50 cents or more flat, Mario Igrec advises that you “re-tune the piano twice within 1-6 weeks.” If less than 50 cents, you will still want to have it re-tuned once more in that space of time. If it continues to sound great after raising the pitch 50 cents and no follow-up tuning is necessary, well, then you have a haunted piano.
Now, was that helpful or what?
Scary video, right?