By Dave Conte, RPT, CCT
Owning a piano is much like owning a fine car. Careful, diligent maintenance will ensure that either one will perform at its best and last longer. Conversely, neglect will allow deterioration of performance aspects and often leads to breakage and failure.
Here are some guidelines to help you keep your piano healthy, so it can be enjoyed now, and kept in good condition for future generations:
Tuning on a regular basis is the first step. Not only will keeping your piano in tune make it sound musically correct, but it helps avoid the panic to find a good technician on short notice (the best technicians stay booked well in advance), so your piano is always at the ready, even with the unexpected presence of a player among your guests. It also allows your technician the opportunity to see the piano regularly and detect small problems before they become big and costly. In addition, keeping the piano at the pitch that it was engineered to maintain is simply healthier for the instrument, and avoids sudden gross changes in tension which are very stressful.
Top manufacturers officially recommend that a new piano be tuned four times in the first year, and twice a year thereafter. Here in north central Texas, this is very good advice. Consider that we have two extreme seasons here – sauna and dry tundra. In the summers with high humidity, pitch rises. The opposite is true in winter when we draw already dry air into our homes and dry it out even more through the furnace, causing the piano to dry out and drop in pitch.
Regulation of the action, dampers and pedals are also a critical points of maintenance, but most often they are not taken seriously. The fact is that many piano owners believe that if the piano still makes a sound when the key is pressed, it is fine. If your piano doesn’t seem to play or respond well, or not like it used to, having a loss of control and inability to play softly with any reliability on touch; has a loss of tone and sounds ugly or less beautiful as it once did, regulation is the culprit. By this time, the function of the action parts is already out of operating specification, and wear and tear is increasing. The vitally important process of regulation compensates for the effects of settling and compression of the cloth, leather and wood from aging and use that comprise the moving parts of the action. This is akin to a car needing periodic tune ups, filter changes, new brakes, new tires, new shocks, and alignment. It is sad to have seen some pianos that have gotten very worn out, when it was easily avoidable. No sensible motorist would drive a car that was in so poor a state of maintenance as often seen in pianos. Unfortunately, not all piano tuners are interested in doing this kind of maintenance, and don’t mention to their clients the need for it. Make sure you have a good technician that will keep you informed of the piano’s condition, just like your doctor would of your own health condition. Ignoring problems does not make them not exist.
Voicing is one other area that is under valued. Like regulation, it can and does have a huge impact on the tone you piano can produce: from harsh and bright to dull and lifeless. This is mostly a factor of hammer shape, density and resilience, which determines the character of tone. Careful manipulation of tension of the hammer felt can change the entire sound of the piano. Piano strings also play a role. When they are not properly seated, have some defect, or are not in a level plane so that the hammer can strike all three strings of a note simultaneously, extraneous noise and significant loss of tone and clarity result. Like with the other processes above, regular attention to this detail is much more efficient than having to make large changes when badly needed.
Care and Placement
Most of us have heard many times never to put a piano near a window or door, or on an outside wall. This is still generally true, but with advancements in home construction today, it is not as critical. Attention should be given to proximity to heating and A/C ducts. Heated or cooled air blowing directly on the piano is not good. Obviously, care should also be taken not to place a piano very close to a fireplaces or heaters and stoves.
The question often comes up – at what temperature and humidity would be it best for the piano to be kept? This is an important question and carries serious consequences if not observed. As and example, on a recent trip to Amarillo College for which I was hired by a manufacturer to inspect 31 pianos, I found that a startling number of them had severe climate related failure – soundboards that had many cracks, failed bridges, pinblocks and even frames. We are fortunate that our local climate is not so constantly dry. This was a real eye-opener for the staff, and part of their investment in pianos will be in a central humidity control system. The short answer is: if you are uncomfortable, so is the piano. A temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit and relative humidity of 42% is optimum.
If the room where your piano lives is enclosed, simply using an accurate hygrometer for you to read the relative humidity, and adding a good quality humidifier and dehumidifier to regulate it, is easy. More new homes, however, have big open spaces. Trying to control so much cubic footage of air is a challenge. Adding a humidity control system to your central HVAC is a good solution that will not only keep the piano more stable, but your entire house as well (walls, door casings, hardwood floors, exposed beams, etc.). If that is not an option, there are humidity control systems which feature a heating element to help keep the piano dry in humid times, and a moisture adding feature, that can be installed directly on your piano and is automatic provided you keep the system operating properly and water tanks filled.
Remember, pianos are not only a financial investment, but an investment in the future, both for the owner and the music student, which, with proper care, may outlast even your home. No Cadillac or Ferrari has yet helped anyone learn how to play the music of Mozart or The Beatles.
Dave Conte, RPT, CCT has a Piano Technology degree from the University of North Texas College of Music, Certifications from various piano manufactures, and teaches at many institutes and seminars and also teaches Piano Technology at Tarrant County College, NE Campus. Dave Conte Piano Service provides Certified Concert and Artist piano tuning and preparation, recording/studio piano work, advanced level private tuning and maintenance as well as comprehensive action work and piano rebuilding services including acoustic enhancement and redesign. See the listing in this issue for further information.