The day after Thanksgiving I had the dubious honor of tuning the piano onstage for the tree lighting festivities at Pioneer Courthouse Square. This kind of events is always an interesting experience with lots of unknown factors for me as the piano’s caretaker.
The first disadvantage for this kind of event is the weather. Any outside event is going to present a tuning challenge. If it is cold or hot, or humid or dry, the piano will throw a fit and go way out of tune and in most cases, keep going out of tune as fast as I can tune it! This event was cold. High 30’s I think. And it was also wet! I had rain blowing in on me while I was tuning and even hitting the piano occasionally!
The next disadvantage for event tunings is you never know how much time you will have. I got there early and the performing group was warming up and testing the sound system. I was supposed to tune at 4:30 and they were still singing when 4:30 came and went. When I got on stage and started to tune, I overheard the group’s director talking with the TV newsman and learned I only had about 15 minutes to work! It normally takes about an hour to tune a piano in the best of conditions!
7′ Steinway B tucked in on the left. the NW Community Gospel Choir onstage.
You also never know what the background sound level will be when tuning for an event. I’ve tuned over sound checks, white noise (the worst), or even pressure washers! In this case the newsman was riling up the crowd and making them scream getting ready for his clip he was going to take in a few minutes. The bass player made eye contact with me and just shook his head.
So I had 15 minutes, the environment was horrible for the piano, and I could hardly hear to tune over the high noise level!
I just had to stick my head down inside this poor Steinway and work through the piano, tuning the worst notes until I ran out of time. In this kind of scenario, if they haven’t planned well for the tuner, I just have to do the best I can with the hand I get dealt! The piano sounded decent when I was done, but certainly wasn’t perfect. But, even if I had done a perfect tuning, within 20 minutes, there would have been notes out of tune just because of the cold!
Oh well. It was an adventure.
This video was from last year’s ceremony, but Pink Martini performed this year as well. I hope the piano sounded good for them!
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.
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!