I recently had the opportunity to tune an 1888 Vose & Sons upright. Its amazing to play an instrument that has so much history! My Great-Great-Grandmother could have played this instrument! This particular piano was shipped around the horn of South America (before the Panama Canal) and sold from San Francisco in the late 1880’s.
As interesting as old pianos are, there are plenty of tricks and risks when working with them. Most pianos made before 1900 weren’t actually designed to be tuned to our modern A440 standard of pitch. The combined high tension of 200 strings on a modern piano creates about 40,000lbs of pressure on the iron plate. Smaller, lighter metal plates and weaker (and often corroded) strings on old pianos often can’t hold up to that kind of tension. They weren’t created to withstand that amount, and they have over 100 years of wear on the original materials.
So when I start to tune an antique piano, I have to decide where to tune it. First I will check to see if there are any missing or replaced strings which would indicate a history of strings breaking. Then I will measure the pitches of several notes through the piano to find out approximately where the piano’s string tension currently is. If all looks good, no broken or replaced and no or minimal corrosion on the strings, and it is fairly close to pitch, I will carefully tune it to our modern A440. That way the piano can be played with other instruments and it helps the player develop a good sense of modern pitch. If there are broken, replaced or corroded strings, I will usually tune the piano to a lower standard, usually (but sometimes a good deal lower) A435 or A432.
Deciding what pitch standard to use is the most stressful and dangerous part of working with older pianos. If I choose incorrectly, strings could break which mean costly repairs and several return visits to tune brand new strings which go out of tune constantly while the new piano wire continues to stretch over 1-2 years.
Old pianos also have odd and non-standard parts which are often brittle and fragile with age. So not only do they break easily, but they are hard to replace or reproduce.
This well-built 1888 Vose & Sons had some replaced strings and was a good bit lower than A440. I chose A435 as a good place to tune and it sounded great when I was finished. I eased a couple tight parts to help the action move faster, and everything responded well to my work. The piano sounded and played much better when I was done! The owner was happy and I was satisfied in “doing no harm” and keeping a beautiful old piano working well for its owners.
The hammers are one of the most important parts of a piano. Their shape, density, texture and weight are all important to getting a good tone out of your instrument. Piano hammers are made of layers of dense felt over a core of wood. The top layers of felt are the softest, moving to harder layers towards the core. Over years of playing, the hammers, which start out rounded, or a little pointed at the strike-point, develop grooves where the strings contact, and eventually become flat. As the hammer gets more flat, the point of contact between the hammer and the string grows from a few millimeters to 1-2 centimeters. As that strike point gets bigger, your quality of tone decreases. In extreme cases, the grooves in the hammer become so deep, you can actually hear the strings rubbing against the walls of the grooves as the hammer hits and falls away from the string.
Piano hammers should be shaped several times through the life of the piano to maintain good tone and give the player good control. When I reshape hammers, I carefully remove layers of felt with different sanding paddles, working mostly on the shoulders of the hammer until I restore a focused strike-point. Since the inner felt is denser and harder than the outer layers, voicing is necessary after hammer shaping, or the tone will be much brighter than before, or in extreme cases, brittle or tinny.
Hammer voicing consists mostly of careful and judicious needling around the shoulders of the hammer to loosen or “fluff up” the felt. A hammer voicing tool has from 1 to 3 needles about 1 centimeter long.
The last step in hammer shaping is matching the hammer to the string. Most notes on the piano have three strings that all sound in unison. The hammer has to strike all three at precisely the same time to get optimal tone. If the strike-point of the hammer is a little crooked, or one string is higher or lower than the other two, not all strings will be struck with the same force. This can cause all sorts of odd sounds from a ringing echo sound to annoying buzzes or vibrations. So I will match each hammer to the strings to make sure it is meeting all three strings simultaneously, and if not, I will use my 1000 grit sanding paddle to shape the hammer to perfection.
This process can be done several times through a piano’s life if there is enough felt left on the hammers. Eventually the hammers will become too light to get a good sound, or will be worn down to the wood core, and then the hammers have to be replaced.
If your piano’s tone has deteriorated over the past years, it may need its hammers shaped. You can visually check for grooves on your hammers. If the grooves are getting long, or deep, you could be getting a better sound out of your piano with some hammer maintenance.
In an effort to make less expensive pianos that would fit into smaller spaces, piano companies started making the “spinet” piano in the 1930’s. The spinet is the shortest of pianos, usually around 37-40 inches high, and considerably thinner than other sizes of uprights. The defining element of the spinet is the “drop action.” The action (hammers and escape mechanism) usually sits right on top of the keys, so when you push down a key, it pushes the action parts up and propels the hammer forward. In the spinet, the action sits below the keys which a connecting rod (or “sticker” in piano technicians’ language) that reaches down from the key and pulls the action parts up instead of pushing. This makes it possible to make a piano cheaper and smaller, but it also decreases the performance and reliability of the action.
During the 60’s and 70’s, piano makers decided it was a good idea to use plastic parts in these spinet actions without properly testing them. Fifty years later, I’m seeing these plastic parts, usually the “elbow” that connects the sticker to the rest of the playing mechanism (see above diagram), getting brittle and breaking, which leaves the key disconnected from the hammer and totally useless.
The repair, while a little time consuming, isn’t that hard and can give new life to an otherwise well-functioning piano. I recently replaced 7 broken plastic elbows on this small spinet.
If you are looking at buying a spinet piano, I recommend taking off the lower panel and checking the action for plastic elbows. They will eventually become a problem and need to be replaced. Either stay away or plan on having me replace those parts someday! If you have a small piano with some keys that stay down and no longer play, its possible your piano has broken plastic parts that need to be replaced. Call me up and I can repair them for you!
After a good day’s work tuning, cleaning, voicing and regulating pianos at Reed College, I got to indulge myself a little and play around with their fortepiano, the modern piano’s predecessor. Working with a school often has its perks! I get access to their instrument storage room the the harpsichord and fortepiano. I spent a good bit of time playing, tuning and maintaining a harpsichord while doing my time getting my undergraduate at George Fox University, but I haven’t ever had access to a fortepiano like this!
So how is a fortepiano different from our modern pianos?
1. The fortepiano is much lighter and smaller than the modern piano. There are fewer and thinner strings, and there is no metal frame to maintain the high tension you find on a modern piano. This gives the fortepiano much less sustain, but more delicacy than the piano.
2. There are less keys. The fortepiano has between 4 and 6 octaves compared to the piano’s 7.5.
3. This fortepiano has reverse colored keys! The black keys are white and white keys are black (harpsichords are often this was as well).
4. The keys are hammers are much smaller and extremely light, which makes it easier to play very light and fast.
5. The hammers are covered with leather instead of felt, giving a very different timbre of sound. In fact, each register seems to have a more unique timbre, much less uniform than the piano.
6. One of the hardest things for me to get used to was the pedal placement! Instead of having a pedal lyre underneath and the pedals close to the floor for your feet to work, the “pedals” are right underneath the keyboard and are operated by your knees! Instead of pushing your foot down to depress the pedal, you have to push your knee up. Very counter-intuitive for me!
I’ll leave you with a link of a little video of me playing a bit of a Haydn sonatina I’m currently teaching one of my students. Bear in mind that I didn’t tune this instrument before playing here. 🙂
Here is a link of a great video where you can learn more about the fortepiano, or you can read about it on Wikipedia here.
I always enjoy tuning for piano teachers, partly because I know the piano is being used and enjoyed, and partly (being a piano teacher myself) because I get to see how another teacher runs a piano studio! I tuned for an excellent teacher in Portland this week with two pianos (in addition to the harpsichord). A newer Kawai 6′ grand, and an older, elegant Knabe grand of the same size. This teacher had an extensive sticker-based tracking system to keep track of which scales and arpeggios each student had mastered at different metronome markings. Three different charts! Some students probably had up to 100 stickers!! I was impressed. But I won’t be doing that. I don’t get along with stickers…
But this teacher is doing it right! She has consistently had excellent students completing, performing and composing in the Portland area since I was taking lessons as a teenager (at least). It was an honor to tune these pianos.
I’ve recently been tuning a piano for a play at the Portland Center Stage. The particular stage this play uses is very small and dim, with the piano behind a mesh-covered dividing wall. I came and tuned early in the morning and the main lights were on motion sensors that only stayed lit for about 5 minutes. So I tuned this Baldwin with only my LED mini flashlight as a light source!
Through the ever changing piano-dealership situation in Portland, I have been able to have a lot of hands-on time with brand-new Kawai pianos recently. Kawai, a long standing Japanese piano manufacturer has been making quality instruments for a long time at a price that people can afford. They come in a cut above the Chinese and Korean pianos, but are still much less expensive than European or the few American piano companies now left in business.
After new pianos are un-crated, I get to take out all the protective foam, makes sure all the screws are tight, the hammers are perfectly aligned to the strings, ease the keys to reduce any extra friction, the fine-tune the regulation so it will play its very best before it is shown on the floor. Pictures is a Kawai K-200 console piano with the case parts removed. The regulation is complete and I’m part the fine tuning, the very last step.
I recently tuned for a customer with a magnificent custom built home. The whole end of the main living area was devoted to two beautiful pianos, a 1973 Steinway B and a vintage 1939 Baldwin F, both around 7′ long. The room had wood floors, walls, and 20′ ceilings: great acoustics! I didn’t get a great picture, but you can see the glass wall at the end of the room. You can enjoy a view through the trees and over a deep valley while you play one of these wonderful pianos.
In preparation for Portland Piano Company’s Selections Sale, I have been tuning some of their finest European handmade pianos. The Fazioli piano came on the piano scene in 1981 with the goal of making the best piano in the world. Portland Piano Company is lucky to have the best selection of their pianos in America right now! They aren’t cheap, but they are beautiful and luxurious in every sense of the word.
Handmade in Italy, every step of the crafting process is carefully controlled by the small company to keep their quality the very highest. The visual beauty of the instrument is matched by the full and rich chocolaty sound produced by these wonderful pianos.
It’s a piano tuner’s dream to work on one these, and I got to tune two here in one day!
I had the privilege to tune one of Portland Piano Company’s rental pianos for Portland’s Monday Musical Club this week. Portland’s Monday Musical Club puts on concerts to raise money to give out in scholarships through the year (I received one of these scholarships myself as a teenager).
Their concert this week was a program of two piano music, so they brought in an additional Steinway B to match Reedwood Friends Church’s own piano.
My job was to tune the rental piano as soon as it arrived so it would be ready for their concert at 1:00.
After the piano was delivered at 10:00, I first checked the “home piano” and found out it was 7 cents (7/100 of a pitch) flat. And since these pianos were going to be played together, I had to tune the rental piano 7 cents flat as well to match the “out of tuneness” of the piano already in place. I touched up the unisons on the church’s piano and was on my way at 11:30. Wish I could have stayed for the concert at 1:00!
Two 6′ 10 1/2″, 760lb Steinway B Grand Pianos