Piano Tuning

Old fashioned craftsmanship. Concert-honed skills.
TUNING FEE $130.00
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The simple act of turning a piano tuning pin is complicated because the strings are under such a high tension. The force required to turn piano pins is about 10 times greater than turning a harpsichord pin. Some of the force intended to turn the pin ( torque) will also be causing the pin to lean, compounding the task a great deal. Dan Levitan, the auther of a new book on piano tuning, came up with a unique shape for the tuning wrench. This “C” shaped wrench allows the tuner to control the turning forces (torque) without introducing any unintended bending. The result is a piano tuning that is much more stable, and that means the piano stays in tune longer.

Concert Tuning

The actual tuning of the piano is the least important skill that is required for this job.
The pianist will be expecting that the technician knows how to tune, rather like passengers boarding a commercial aircraft expect the pilot knows how to fly a plane.

Tuning stability is the big skill required of the concert tuner. A string pitch is defined by the speaking length between the front of the bridge and the front termination (agraffe or in treble the capo bar). Besides the speaking length, there are two other lengths of each string, the part in back of the bridge and the part attached to the tuning pin called the front length.

Tuners adjust tension on the front length (turning, twisting bending the tuning pin), which has an effect on the speaking length pitch. If that was easy, anybody could do it. A highly skilled concert tuner can get the pitch correct on the speaking length and leave the front length slightly sharp (it does not sound, but it is slightly tighter). On a hard blow, it is almost impossible for the speaking length to change. On the other hand, If the tuner has left the front length flat, then on a hard blow, the slack tension will be transferred to the speaking length in a dramatic way. It goes horribly out of tune, right in the concert. Everybody hears it right away.

Temperature has nothing to do with piano tuning except that it effects how much water vapour ( humidity) is in the air. People feel this, but pianos actually change size. Every change in the equilibrium moisture content of the soundboard wood causes it to get wider or narrower , across the grain of the spruce. Since it is securely glued down on it’s edges to the piano rim, it can only expand into more or less of a crowned shape, which creates an up and down movement at the bridge. There is more motion in the middle of the soundboard than at the edges, which explains why the piano doesn’t go uniformly sharp and flat.
That’s why pianos in humidity controlled buildings require 1/2 the maintenance, and explains why specially controlled piano storage areas in concert halls just insure the piano will be changing to it’s new environment WHILE you are using it.

VOICING
Voicing the European Steinway hammer is summarised by many as a method for taking a hammer that is too hard, and softening it with needle voicing until it is just right. The process is often as programatic as a 12-tone composition, and bearing little if any ” art”. The approach that I use does not completely abandon the programatic “pre-voicing” procedure, but I completely reject the idea that the process in itself can be applied with optimum results in every case. The rules need to be broken.

If you have started with a hammer that is too hard and systematically made the lower and upper shoulders of the hammer softer and more resilient, there is no way you can know when to stop. In fact, you will never know that you have gone far enough until you go TOO FAR. Technicians who fear this often stop well short of reaching the true potential of the piano.

My method is to purposely go past the point where most technicians fear to tread, making the European hammer too soft, and then building it back up with hammer hardening solutions, as we learned to do at the New York Steinway Academy. Traditionally, this is done with lacquer, but over the years, various hardners have been popular. They can be classified by their drying times. Acetone and ether are the two fastest solvents, but the fast evaporation will draw a lot of the hardening agents to the surface of the felt, adding an unmusical element to the sound. Slower evaporating solvents will leave the hardening agents deep in the felt, and until now, only shellac has had this quality. I have discovered that an acrylic called B-72 is soluble in ethanol alcohol and have been using it to voice hammers, achieving acclaim. I am really just breaking the rules, getting into trouble, then finding my way to a sound that is otherwise unobtainable. So far, I have very few followers, but pianists have recognised new quality in pianos that they have previously rejected. Nothing succeeds like success.

Tuning for Colleges and Universities: Recommendations from 13 years at Northwestern University.

The first order of business is to formulate a plan for how the work is to be done. Just starting right off with doing the work that needs doing will quickly overwhelm the technician, as there is always a lack of resources ( too many pianos for the budget slotted for taking care of them). There has to be a plan.

The technician must decide if all of the pianos will receive an equal share of the budget ( like equal temperament); or if the most important pianos receive most of the resources, leaving some pianos neglected ( like a well-temperment). The advantage of the later is three-fold. First, it heaps attention on the pianos that will be most noticed, like performance pianos and piano professor studios. Success on this will easily counter any complaints about neglect in less important areas.
Second, it allows the technician to work at the highest level, without compromise. This is much more satisying.
Third, when complaints come in about the neglected pianos, administrators will ask for an explaination. This forces the administrators to acknowledge the deficit and forces a decision between providing more resources, or cutting maintenance to pianos that are in critical use. ( not likely if you have success in the first place. )

MAKING A PLAN:
Each room is used for some particular purpose: concert venue, piano studio, large ensemble spaces,voice studio, wind studio , piano major practice rm, voice practice rme, wind instrument practice, etc.

Each room should be assigned a use-catagory, and a criteria should be established for the minimum quality and condition of the piano that should be in that room. At this stage of the planning, pay no regard to the pianos that actually exist in the rooms. This is done as though the rooms were empty, and without regard for a budget for obtaining or maintaining instruments. A stratgic plan should represent the ideal situation. It will guide the necessary decisions and compromises that will follow.

THE QUALITY/CONDITION SCORE
As technicians, we may have an intimate knowledge of a piano’s quality of manufacture and physical condition , but faculty and administrators need a non-technical discription. For this purpose, the pianos can be given a letter grade that rates the quality of manufacture, and a number score for the condition. As an example, a Steinway grand would receive a letter grade of “A” for it’s quality of manufacture ( any teacher knows this is very good), but if it was in poor condition, it might have a number score of 70 ( any teacher knows this is not good). The combination score “A-70” tells the story at a glance.

A detailed discription of the Combination Score:
Letter scores for quality of manufacture can be loosely based on Larry Fine’s book, THE PIANO BOOK, or other means of grading the quality of this manufactured product. As long as the technician and the faculty agree in principle, the manufacturers can be rated and assigned a letter score.
As an example, NU rates the following manufactures grade “A”:
Hamburg Steinway, bosendorfer, Stewart, NY Steinway, Fazioli, sigurou Kawai, s-series Yamaha

Grade B: Mason&Hamlin, C series Yamaha grands,

Grade C: Boston verticals, Yamaha & Kawai verticals

Grade D: Most Pianos manufactured in China (although this is changing).

The number score is assigned by the technician. The score is a total of points given for the following Categories:
UTILITY: the ability to be tuned and All notes playable. Only two scores are possible because eithber a piano has utility or it does not. zero or 50 are the possibel scores.
BELLY: scores the condition of the soundboard, pin block, strings. 0-20 points.
ACTION: scores the action, dampers pedals. 0-20 points
STABILITY: Scores the dependability 0-5 points
APPEARANCE: scores the case 0-5 points

Returning to the stratgic plan idea, every room is assigned a use catagory, and a minimum combination score for that use. Concert instruments might have a minimum score of “A-98”, piano faculty studios might have a minimum of A-95.
This stratgic plan is first worked out by the technician, and then shared with faculty and administration.

CONDITION SURVEY REPORT:

Now that a stratgic plan is in place, a detailed examination of the existing pianos must be carried out, and the resulting scores compared to the exceptable scores for each catagory.

THE EXAMINATION:
Gathering the data for a complete report will be easier if there is a list of the information that you need to gather, keeping a consistant order and mot leaving critical information out This list will also be the names of the FIELDS FOR THE COMPUTERIZED DATABASE.
Equipped with this list, a digital camera and a voice recorder, visit each piano and record the information. For each room, Photograph the room number on the door, the fallboard, an overall shot, and any details about the condition you want to remember. The picture of the room number will seperate the piano pictures, which often look exactly alike Using the list to keep consistant, use the voice recorder to record your spoken commentary during the examination. Back at the computer, fill in an information sheet on each room, including the details of the combination score, and a comparison of the minimum COMBINATION SCORE AND THE ACTUAL COMBINATION SCORE. This can be done in the computer database so that the information can be sorted and organized in different ways. Alternately, this can be done on printed forms, with each piano on a seperate sheet so that they can be sorted in various ways by hand.

THE DATABASE
The computerized database is the essential record of the inventory. It should be kept current and a failsafe backup should exist on a different computer. Any database program, such as MS ACCESS OR APPLE’s FILE MAKER PRO.
will do, as long as the longterm backup storage is consistant.

NAMING THE FIELDS
The primary field should be the piano serial number, as this will never change. The other fields are:
Building name;
room number (rooms with two pianos designated door or window according to their placement and proximity to the door. ;
use ;
manufacturer; type; model; size; age;
Combination Score (color code)
Minimum score (Color coded)
Replacement value; current value.
Maintenance details such as:
Tuning schedule for year
Date last tuned
Date for next tuning
Maintenance record
Suggested work
Flag for immidate action
Assigned technician

DATA BASE REPORTS
Sorted by assigned technician
Sorted by use
Sorted by next tuning
Sorted by manufacturerer; type; model

WRITING THE REPORT

(Build the report backwards. Do the detailed data sheet first for each use category . Use that to write the summary for each use category. Then use the collected summaries to write the executive summary).
Armed with all the necessary information, a report can be generated that will be intended for admistration and faculty. It is up to the technician to provide digestable information and recommend specfic course of action. With the support of faculty, it is up to administration to authorize and fund those actions.

The report should begin with an executive summary that is about one page long, but write this LAST. In this one page, avoid boring details and focus on the big picture. What is the current state of things, and what needs to be done.

The next part of the report provides an orderly presentation of the facts so that administration can draw conclusions of their own.

Set up a binder with dividers and labor each divider with the names of your USE CATAGORIES. Each section will contain the database print out, filtered to show only pianos in this use catagory. This should contain the details of the MCS.

NEXT, a GRAPHIC CHART indicating each room in this use catagory, name of professor, size and manufacturer of piano, and the QCS. Highlight pianos with a red color when they are not meeting minimum standards.

SUMMARY OF PIANOS CLASSIFIED FOR THIS USE.
This includes the GOAL for these pianos
Current condition compared to the goal
And theACTION THAT IS PLANNED.
HOW MUCH THAT WILL COST

REPEAT THIS FORMAT FOR EACH USE CATAGORY. Now, your breifing book can be summarized in an executive summary page at the front. A chart showing the goal and actual condition for each use is handy.

EXAMPLE:

This SCHOOL OF MUSIC owns 200 pianos. Half are uprights ( mostly Yamahas) and half are grands. The grand pianos are in critical use areas.
53 are Steinways, 24 are vintage Mason & Hamlins, and the rest sre mostly Yamaha.
81% of these grand pianos are rated at or above the established goal for quality and condition for each catagory of use. *note: the quality/ Condition score system is discribes on the last page of this report.

The upright pianos are mostly in use in practice rooms, class rooms and in some faculty offices. 70% of these uprights meet the established condition level , and The budget for better maintenance levels on these instruments is inadiquate to allow for regular tuning.

The Keyboard Maintenance Workshop
Is currently rebuilding 10 grand pianos that have been in storage for the last 12 years. These pianos will offset the need for 50 new pianos for the new building. The cost of rebuilding each piano is about $ 15,000, saving considerably on the $30,000 cost of outside rebuilding, and on the $60,000 – $80,0000 cost of a replacement piano of equal quality.

CONCLUSION AND RECOMMENDATIONS:

Here is the place where the technician requests an increase in the budget. But since this is unlikely, any ideas that do not involve an increased budget may be accepted.
As an example, existing funding for a part-time employment position might be converted to pay for a contracted tuner who only works when the need is greatest. Or, Decreasing the active inventory of pianos through the sale of older instruments ( uprights) is another suggestion that balances the budget by decreasing the need. Innovation is often appreciated. The important thing is to maintain the important instruments first, and leave the deficiencies in plane sight. There is always a level at which the hightst standards can be maintained, but it is seldom in a range that could possibly be covered by the existing budget.

Following this general statement would be a breakdown pianos by use.
CONCERT USE:
The University has 3 concert venues, with 6 concert grand pianos. All 6 of these instruments are maintained with weekly tuning, and all have a Quality/Condition score of A-98 or above. Goals are being met and there is no plan to upgrade these pianos.
Following this would be a detail which listed each piano by serial number and with it’s current Quality/Condition Grade.

PIANO TEACHING STUDIOS:
There are 5 studios, each with two 7- foot Steinway grands. All 10 of these Steinway grands are rated A-95 or above, and are tuned and maintained on a bi-weekly schedule, with weekly inspections in each studio. Goals sre being met and there are no plans to upgrade these studios. Following this would be a detail which listed each piano by serial number and with it’s current Quality/Condition Grade.

THE MAINTENANCE:

The plan for maintaining the pianos is a process of subtracting time in the calendar each semester. It starts with a meeting with a meeting at the concert activities office. Time for concert tunings, stand-by services and regular weekly maintenance is subtracted from the concert venue calendar and the keyboard maintenance calendar well before the beginning of each semester. Time is also subtracted from the calendar for regular maintenance in rehearsal rooms and class rooms with reserved schedules.

Following this meeting, a routine can be developed for each week of the semester, starting with the most important catagories of use, and ending when there is nothing left to subtract from.

FLEX SCHEDULES allow the technician to flex the hours of the week into an irregular schedule, working hours that allow for free access to rooms that are in normally in constant use during regular hours. Days off may fall in the middle of the week, and work hours may start very early in the day. Work hours may also be compressed into a shorter work week that allows for more outside work for the technician.

EXEMT VS NON-EXEMPT
Colleges and Universities may have their own names for this, but there is usually a distinction which is made between an employee who is paid by the hour, termed Non-Exempt by the US DEPT OF LABOR, and employees that are paid a set salary which is not based on their work hours, termed Exempt because they are exempted from being paid over-time pay for working more than 40 hours in a work week.

Outline
Book
Reports
Survey
Progress
Rooms
Class of Use
Minimum Score
Color code
Pianos
Scoring existing
Quality
Condition
Color code
New Purchase
Administration
Faculty
Tech Staff
Employees
Director
Contractors
Inventory Management (Director)
Placement
Maintenance
Rebuild

Ken Eschete …..
Email: Ken.Eschete@gmail.com