Piano Maintenance: Full Service vs. “Tune & Run”
Piano Tuning ≠ Piano Maintenance
I find that most people do not have a clear idea of what piano tuning is. A car tune-up typically includes replacement of a number of wear-and-tear parts that keep the car running smoothly such as air filter, fuel filter, spark plugs and wires in addition to a number of important adjustments.
What does piano tuning include?
By strict definition a piano tuning is simply this:
Tightening or loosening the piano’s strings until they sound in tune. Tuning a piano is not so different than tuning a guitar, the main differences being a piano has 220 strings (or more) and the tuning pins are difficult to turn and even more difficult to control. Tuning does not mean cleaning, making mechanical adjustments, or minor repair.
“My mother took excellent care of this piano! She always tuned it once a year for as long as I can remember”
I’ve heard this many times. And then open the piano to find cobwebs, sluggish and misaligned parts, hammers that are grooved, flat and hard, keys that are not level and square, pedals out of adjustment and noisy. Apparently all the piano tuner did over the years was take the front off the piano, adjust the tuning pins, put it back together, collect the bill and head out the door.
If you are calling around asking about piano tuning prices make sure you are comparing apples to apples!
A $95 tuning may sound like a great deal, but is it?
If your tuner is in and out in an hour or less – he is “tuning and running”!
Our service rate is substantially higher than other technicians “tuning rate”. However, our service is often a better bargain if you compare the results. Be sure to inquire if the tuning fee includes any additional work. Otherwise you may not be getting the value you think. I regularly come to pianos that have a tuning that is acceptable, but have distracting touch and tone issues. If I were to just tune the piano, the improvement may be barely noticeable to the client.
When the tuning is combined with voicing and touch adjustments the results can be dramatic. A more beautiful tone and touch will inspire more music making than just a tuning.
Perhaps your technician does not regularly practice full-service. Many are hesitant because it means needing to charge more for the appointments due to the extra time involved. They may worry that the higher rate will mean a quieter phone! If you are interested in the full-service appointment, be sure to ask your technician if he or she would be willing to spend an extra hour after the tuning to make improvements.
Many technicians take an a la carte approach instead of full service.
What this means is that if you want additional service beyond tuning it will be bid as a separate expense. Procedures such as cleaning, lubrication, hammer reshaping and voicing, and mechanical adjustments often have flat rates. There is nothing wrong with this approach. However we believe we offer a better value to our clients by including additional work in our service fee. This allows us to avoid nickel-and-diming our clients.
The 3 T’s to Good Piano Maintenance
Every piano service should include some work beyond simply tuning the piano. Most pianos are functioning well below their potential. When a client says “I would like to schedule a piano tuning” I interpret that to mean “I want my piano to be more fun to play”. Sometimes tuning is the main issue, but more often it is a combination of touch and tone issues as well.
Tuning is important but is just one aspect of the piano’s tone. It involves adjusting the piano’s approximately 220 strings to proper tension for the best musical sound. In order for the tuning to be stable the tuning pins and strings must be properly “set”. This skill requires proper training and takes many years of practice and experience. Manufacturers without exception recommend 2-3 tunings per year to compensate for seasonal changes in humidity. As the old masters say: stability is the most challenging aspect of tuning pianos. It is what sets apart highly skilled piano tuners from the average.
Touch refers to the feel of the piano. The keys should feel smooth and consistent and have the right amount of resistance. There is felt between every moving part of the piano’s mechanism. As the felt compresses and wears with time and use, the parts go out of adjustment. Each of the 88 notes has numerous adjustments to help compensate for wear in order to keep the piano’s action responsive. Regulating refers to these adjustments. A well regulated piano is more expressive. It will have more power and won’t drop notes under quiet playing conditions.
Tone is the voice of the piano and is greatly affected by the condition of the felt hammers and how they relate to the strings. Harder hammers yield brighter, sharper tone while softer hammer result in mellower, warmer tone.
The most pleasant tone requires that the piano’s felt hammers have proper shape and resilience. Voicing refers to the manipulation of the tone by working with the hammers with special tools and techniques. Tone should be balanced between the different areas of the keyboard and should be very consistent from note to note. Piano voicing is considered one of the highest arts in piano work.
List of common procedures included in full service appointments:
These are the types of things we do everyday when servicing our clients’ pianos. Every piano has a unique combination of issues. We begin our appointments with a quick assessment to determine what improvements can be made with the time available.
- Reshaping of hammers
- Making sure hammers are hitting their multiples strings simultaneously
- Improve alignment of hammers for better una chorda function
- Hammer voicing: Needling, ironing, or chemically treating hammers to improve tone.
- Removing dust and debris from soundboard
- Tightening of action screws
- Lubrication: key pins, hammer knuckles, action center-pins, keybed, pedals
- Adjust pedal free play
- Even up damper lift with pedal
- Remove excessive free play from keys (lost motion)
- Adjust hammers to disengage from keys at proper time (let-off)
- Adjust dampers to lift at proper time in the key stroke
- Adjust hammer to string distance
- Improve the leveling of the keys
- Adjust repetition spring tension
- Adjust pedals and fix squeaks and knocks
- Tighten wobbly bench legs
- Revive dead “tubby” bass strings
- Repin loose or wobbly parts
- Broken string repair
- Finish touch-up
- And more…
Of course not all these items can be included in each appointment! However, if each annual service call includes some combination of the above items, the piano will get better and better over the years. With just tuning, the overall performance of the instrument will decline.
The “All-day” Service
Some pianos can really benefit from a more substantial amount of work, yet doesn’t need a full restoration. An all-day service can do wonders for a neglected piano. An all day service typically goes from 9am-5pm and the goal is to improve the piano as much as possible in that time frame.
If you are thinking its time to upgrade your old piano, consider an all-day service. You may find that you don’t need an upgrade after all!
If the piano has serious issues such as worn out parts or needs soundboard repairs, case refinishing, or new strings then it’s time to consider restoring the piano. Please see our restoration/repair page for more info on this topic. https://pianova.net/repairs-and-restorations/