Frequently Asked Questions
Q: How much is a tuning?
A: Money is important, but if you’re shopping for a new technician to take care of your piano, you should ask many more questions. Tuning is like putting gas in your car: it’s what it needs right away. But if that’s all you do for, year after year, eventually the deferred maintenance will result in an unexpectedly high expense. In my experience, pianos need at least an hour a year of service other than tuning. Just like your car, its moving parts need lubrication, cleaning, and adjustment to compensate for wear, like adjusting the parking brake. Parts left out of adjustment will wear out faster, costing you money in the long run.
I started out like many of us do by learning to tune pianos. I figured out a few simple adjustments, but if I ran into a double-striking note or a broken string, I had to call another technician. After my training full-time for a year at the North Bennet Street School, and with ongoing training through the Piano Technicians Guild, I’ve passed the tests to become a Registered Piano Technician, and I routinely handle all of these issues.
As a result, I’ve changed my servicing philosophy to “Total Piano Service“. This means when you entrust your piano to my care, I treat it as though it were my own. I work with you to plan out everything your piano needs to play and sound its best, and to make it last. When I started, I would itemize every invoice: so much for a simple tuning, so much more for an extra pitch correction pass, so much for a sticky key adjustment, and so on. It was a pain for me, and made costs unpredictable for my customers. And with a focus only on the price of a tuning, it became a kind of “race to the bottom”. I felt pressured to complete tunings as fast as possible and get out of the house to the next one.
My philosophy of Total Piano Service has turned things around, to the benefit of my customers, myself, and their pianos. For a routine annual maintenance, I promise you two hours of my time for a predictable flat rate. I’ll do everything possible in those two hours to improve your piano, including tuning of course, adjustments, and minor repairs. This way, over time, we can start to chip away at the backlog of deferred maintenance. These adjustments and repairs last much longer than the tuning. Naturally, this costs more than just a simple tuning, but I believe it gives you the best value in the long run. It’s the way I treat my own pianos.
Here’s what I mean by “treating your piano as if it were mine”. On a typical first visit, I disassemble and inspect your piano, to know what maintenance is needed, and to understand its current condition. If I have to track down an unusual noise, for example, this gives me a good starting point. Also, tuning adds as much as a ton of overall string tension; I want to make sure the piano is structurally in good shape. I then thoroughly clean the interior of the piano (including under the keys), apply various special lubricants, and tighten pinblock and other support screws. This often takes more than an hour! But now I understand the piano, and can tune it with confidence. On subsequent visits, I can proceed with other needed adjustments. Many customers have never seen the action removed from a grand, or the keys removed from an upright! I often retrieve old coins, guitar picks, and various slips of paper from under the keys.
Recently, I visited a customer for the first time in a beautiful home, with a piano that had been tuned regularly for 40 years. I noticed some of the black keys went down too far, so that you touched the neighboring white keytops. On my routine disassembly, I found an old mouse nest under the keys, with about half a cup of excrement! They had eaten some of the felts they could reach, under the front rail pins of the black keys; this is why they went down too far. While there were no current residents — everything had a thick layer of dust on it — you can be sure the owner was happy to have all this removed from her immaculate home! I bring my own special vacuum cleaner. This is just one example of simple tuning compared to Total Piano Service.
Q: I’ve just moved my piano to New Mexico. Will the dryness here damage it?
A: Possibly; it depends. Sudden changes in humidity can damage pianos and anything else made of wood. Even though it’s dry, the evaporative (“swamp”) coolers we use here can quickly add a lot of moisture to the air. Cycling between wet and dry is particularly harmful. Pianos may sound better at a constant 45% relative humidity rather than a constant 15%. This is both because dry wood shrinks, causing less tension in the soundboard assembly, and because felt hammers change in characteristics such as resiliency with humidity.
Any brand new piano should be okay here; manufacturers typically dry wood down to a lower level than we get here. But if a piano has acclimated to a more humid climate for a year or two, an abrupt humidity change may in fact be harmful; wood cracks when it dries quickly. It’s better if the change is slower. A way to avoid this is to use room humidifiers, or better still, to install a humidity control system right in the piano (see http://www.pianolifesaver.com). Contact me for more information on this. As part of my commitment to maximizing your piano’s useful life, if you intend to keep your new piano, I highly recommend these humidity control systems. I have them in my own pianos.
Q: Does moving a piano throw it out of tune?
A: It’s not the move, but the change of environment (humidity and temperature). When humidity changes, the piano will gradually adapt to it, taking at least three weeks to adjust to a new environment. You should wait that long before having it tuned.
Q: How often should a piano be tuned?
A: At least once a year. Depending on your piano’s use, condition, environment and your preference, it might need tuning two or more times a year. New pianos need two to four tunings in the first year, as the strings stretch and the wood adapts to the pressure.
Q: Do pianos need tuning if they’re not played much?
A: Yes. There’s a tremendous amount of tension in a piano, which is gradually released over time, making pianos go flat. Each string typically has 150 pounds of pressure on it. With 220 strings in a typical piano (two and three strings per note on most notes), there’s about sixteen tons of tension.
Q: Does it harm a piano not to tune it?
A: A knife doesn’t need sharpening, but chefs need sharp knives. Musicians need tuned pianos. If a technician sees it regularly, possible problems can be spotted early. If a piano hasn’t been tuned for several years, it will need two or more tunings over a period of months to stabilize back at standard pitch. Most pianos in home use do fine with annual service. If you have a swamp cooler, your piano might need an extra tuning each year, because the added humidity will throw it out of pitch.
For more information on piano care, please see PTG bulletins on piano care.