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Complete Piano Care

What you may or may not know about the care your piano needs.

Pianos are musical instruments, made primarily of wood and felt. Over the course of time, climate changes and normal wear will cause these materials to change shape. When the parts change shape the functionality of the instrument is also affected.

Climate Instability
Climate instability is the biggest influence on your piano’s condition. When the relative humidity goes up, the wood and felts absorb moisture from the air. The soundboard pushes up against the strings and the strings go sharp in varying degrees throughout the scale. Your piano is now out of tune. This can happen as quickly as within a few hours in some settings and as slowly as a few months in other settings, depending on the efficiency of the climate control in your home, church, or school.

When the relative humidity level goes down, the reverse happens. Moisture is released from the piano’s soundboard, allowing it to shrink, and the force from the strings causes it to sag. The pitch of the strings will then be flat, and your piano is out of tune.

Generally, we associate high humidity with the summer months and low humidity levels with the winter months when we turn on our heating systems. But this is not always true. Often, quick changes in weather patterns can cause equally brief changes in inside climate. This is called deep cycling of humidity. In a school setting, where Federal law requires a constant exchange of outside air, relative humidity levels can change by as much as 25% within a period of about 24 hours. Depending on the efficiency of the home air condition system and how well your home is insulated, the degree of these changes can vary. The piano is now permanently out of tune. It may return to some acceptable degree of sounding in tune, but it will never return exactly to the tuning your piano technician left it in.

Changes in humidity levels can also affect the performance of the piano’s action. High humidity levels can cause parts to swell, which will affect the regulation of the action and can cause the parts to become sluggish. In periods of low humidity, the parts will shrink, sometimes to the degree of allowing screws to become loose and clicking parts can also develop. Also, the action may not function optimally.

A high degree of climate control can be afforded by installing and maintaining a Dampp-Chaser Piano Life Saver System designed specifically for your piano. It may seem like an expensive investment, but it is an investment to not only stabilize the tuning and functionality of the piano, but also to extend the life of your instrument, thereby easily paying for itself over the years. Contact me for more information about a Dampp-Chaser climate control system for your piano.

Normal Wear
Over time, if you are playing your piano and enjoying your investment, the felt parts will become compacted. The force of the hammers against the strings will create grooves in the hammers. The various contact points will become compacted and the action will become more difficult to control as action is no longer functioning to its full potential. This can cause the pianist to find it difficult to develop proper playing technique, and may create bad playing habits.

Regulating is the process of adjusting the various contact points in the action to compensate for these changes caused by wear. This is done initially in the piano factory. It may be repeated again at the dealership before you purchased your piano, but this is not always the case. Piano factories are generally under a rush to manufacture pianos, and sometimes the optimum adjustments don’t have time to be made before the piano is shipped out to dealerships. If your local dealership does not carefully go over each new piano to ensure the piano is as it should be when new, then there is the opportunity for an unregulated piano to be sold. This is called dealer set-up.

The felts will go through their most drastic changes due to compaction within about the first year or so, depending on how much it is played. Therefore, you should have your piano technician regulate your piano action after about the first year or so, and then about every 3 to 5 years afterward to keep your piano’s action playing with the touch it is designed to have. You may find that as you develop a relationship with your instrument and as your playing technique improves, that you may want to have this performed more often.

Tuning is the process of adjusting the tension of the strings of your piano until they are all at the correct pitch. While there are usually 88 keys on a piano, the majority of them will have three strings per note. A marked smaller number will have two strings per note, and usually no more than about 15 with single strings will be found in the low bass. Generally, this means there will be somewhere between about 230 and 250 strings in your piano!

Each string is held to a very high tension of between 160 and 200 lbs each. On one end the string is either tied to or looped around a hitch pin. On the other end, each string is wrapped around a steel tuning pin which is held very tightly by friction in the pinblock or wrestplank, very much the same way the pegs of a violin are held by friction in the pegbox. However, with the piano, a special tool called a tuning hammer or tuning lever is required to turn the tuning pins with very exacting movements. CAUTION: NEVER ATTEMPT TO TURN YOUR TUNING PINS WITH PLIERS OR ANY OTHER TOOL. THIS WILL CAUSE PERMANENT DAMAGE TO YOUR PIANO.

The process of adjusting all of the tuning pins and strings until the whole piano is in good tune can take anywhere between about one hour and three hours, depending on the condition your piano is in before the tuner begins tuning, and depending on the tuning speed of your piano technician. If you keep your piano regularly tuned, each tuning should take the minimum amount of time, freeing your technician to be able to possibly perform minor adjustments your piano may require.

Optimally, your new piano should have been tuned at least five times over the course of its manufacture. Additionally, it should be tuned again at the dealership on a normal basis while on the floor, just before it leaves the store to be delivered, and once again post delivery after a period of acclimation to the piano’s new environment.

After this time, the amount of tuning your piano will require will vary, depending on the condition of the instrument, your climate situation, and your personal requirements. Most manufacturers agree that a new piano should be tuned a minimum of four times the first year you own it, and a minimum of two times per year thereafter. The reason a new piano requires more frequent tuning is that the strings are still going through a stretching process and the joints and wooden parts are still “settling” in to the tremendous tension the piano is under. It is also acclimating to a new climate. In the case of vertical pianos, it is also adjusting to a different degree of floor level than it had been accustomed to wherever it had been before you had it delivered (this applies to any vertical piano – not just limited to new ones).

My recommendation for tuning a brand new piano is as follows. The piano should be tuned approximately one month after it is delivered. Then, two months after the first tuning, it should be tuned again. Then after three months, and every 3 to six months thereafter. Follow this regimen strictly if you want your brand new piano to develop tuning stability. If you allow too much time between tunings, surely tuning stability will suffer and it will take an even longer time to develop stability.

I then recommend a minimum of two tunings per year after the first year. Then, depending on the use of your piano and the increasing development and discrimination of your musical ear, more frequent tunings may be needed.

A concert piano must be tuned prior to each performance, and before each dress rehearsal. A violin, guitar, or any other musical instrument is tuned each time it is taken out of its case. Likewise, even a harp must be tuned every time it is played. In a university setting, such as the University of South Carolina School of Music, there are daily recitals and concerts, sometimes with multiple performances each day. This means that the performance pianos in an institution such as a school of music will be tuned as often as daily. Throughout the year, our primary recital piano will be tuned approximately one hundred times!

A piano teacher’s piano may need to be tuned as often as once every month or two to keep it in good tune. The piano student’s piano may require from 2 to 4 tunings annually, so that good musical ear training is possible. If you simply play your piano for your casual enjoyment, once or twice per year would be a minimum to avoid major tension adjustments each time the piano is tuned.

I also recommend the installation of a Dampp-Chaser climate control system. While it will not altogether replace the need for tunings, it may reduce the frequency of tunings and will greatly reduce the effects that deep cycling of humidity can have on the tuning and function of your piano between regular service appointments.

Ultimately, the amount of service your piano will require will be determined by you, the person who owns and enjoys the instrument. There is no hard and fast rule which will work for every situation. No two pianos are exactly alike, even if they are exactly the same model produced side by side in the factory, for the reason that the felts did not come from the same sheep, the wood parts were not produced from the same tree, and the strings and plate were not forged from the same sample of steel or iron. Each piano has its own distinct perfections and imperfections, and thus, its own identity. Likewise, no two piano owners or environments are alike and therefore you should consider the advice of your piano technician which pertains specifically to your instrument and come to a mutual understand of what you require of your instrument and what your technician needs to do in order to meet your needs.

Please call (912) 278-8911
in Georgia or South Carolina to schedule an appointment.