Caring for That Marvelous Instrument—Your Piano
WHAT a marvelous instrument! Yet, so often the piano is just taken for granted. We play it. We sing to its music. We hear it fill out the tones of a great orchestra. We may thrill at recitals where this one instrument can provide the source of a splendid evening’s entertainment.
But for most of us, our contact with the piano is not in a great auditorium, but in our own living room. In the United States alone more than 21,000,000 people play this instrument, and over 200,000 pianos are manufactured each year.
If you own a piano, it represents a major investment. After your home and your automobile, it may be the biggest investment you have made. So it would be worth your while to know more about your piano and how to give it proper care.
The Marvel of Your Piano
The piano is in a class of its own—it is both a stringed and a percussion instrument. Its strings contain inharmonicity, which means that the partial tones of a string are mathematically sharp out of tune in relation to the fundamental tone of the string. Strictly speaking, a piano string does not have harmonics, it has partials, which are not in exact harmony with the fundamental tone. This fact gives the piano its unique tone.
The modern piano has about 240 wires, called strings. Long thick strings on the farthest left are wound with copper to make them heavy enough to produce the deepest tones—with the lowest note, A, vibrating at 27-1/2 cycles per second. The middle left tones are produced by two copper-wound strings, and the middle and high tones by three not wound. The highest note, C, vibrates at 4,186 cycles per second. Each string has a tension of from 160 to 200 pounds (73 to 90 kg). That means that a piano has an average internal tension of about 20 tons—enough to lift a four-bedroom house off its foundation!
Your piano has about 9,000 movable parts—thousands more than an automobile. When you strike one of its 88 keys, you set in motion a marvelous chain of events. A damper lifts from a string, allowing the string to vibrate. A capstan raises a support lever, which causes a felt-encased wooden hammer to strike the string faster than your eye can see. The string’s precise vibration produces a tone as soft as a whisper. This “whisper” is beautified and amplified by a wooden soundboard into a splendid and sometimes spine-tingling volume that can fill a concert hall.
Does such an instrument, made of relatively fragile materials such as wood and felt, need maintenance and care? Though many piano owners ignore this fact, the obvious answer is yes. What is surprising is not how often but, with proper care, how seldom it needs special attention.
Not to Be Tampered With!
The tremendous internal tension of the piano is sustained by a massive, carefully engineered metal structure called the plate or metal harp. This structure is securely anchored by many bolts and screws to an equally substantial wooden framing much like the main structural beams that support a building. So now a word of caution: If the plate, being under 20 tons of tension, were to detach from its frame and break, it would create an explosive “slingshot” effect strong enough to catapult parts of the plate and piano through a house roof. Such explosive effect has actually happened when the piano was tampered with by a novice, or where there was a flaw in construction. For the novice, dismantling a piano would be like dismantling a time bomb. Each string’s hitch pin could be like a bullet, the plate like flying shrapnel. The experienced piano rebuilder is well cautioned to wear goggles or, better yet, a protective visor when restringing a piano.
Is your piano safely placed? A child could be crushed by a grand piano caving in on him while he is near or under it. Such collapses have occurred due to a leg giving way because of faulty installation after a move. When the piano is moved, will the stairs sustain its weight? When it is placed, will the structure support it? Your precaution may prevent serious injury.
Preserving Your Investment
Your car and many home appliances have a maintenance manual. So does your piano; but, frequently, the manual gets lost or is not even delivered—and so is never looked at. Among those who know best how to preserve your piano are the manufacturers. They communicate regularly with service personnel through conventions, seminars, workshops, and so forth, attended by factory representatives, dealers, and piano tuner-technicians. Helpful maintenance literature is readily available, usually free, from the manufacturers, the dealers, and, in America, the tuner-technicians’ organization—The Piano Technicians Guild, Inc., International. Over 20 of the world’s leading manufacturers, representing most makes of pianos, have compiled a helpful maintenance booklet entitled “YOUR PIANO and Its Proper Care—Authorized Guide to the Maintenance & Preservation of the Piano.” It is published by the National Manufacturers Association of America, Inc., 435 North Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60611. Dealers and tuner-technicians will probably be glad to supply you one free. It tells you what care your piano needs and how best to provide that care.
When it comes time to have your piano tuned, or to have other work done on it, you do well to get in touch with someone who really knows what he is doing. If he has been well trained for his job, and has kept himself up-to-date, you will get the benefit.
An old piano has old-piano problems; a new piano has new-piano problems. Any new string goes out of tune rapidly from molecular creep along its length and lateral yield where it bends at any bearing point. So it is advisable to tune a new piano four times the first year. During that time it is rapidly settling, just as a new house settles. After the first year, it should be tuned as often as necessary. The manufacturers recommend a minimum of twice each year.
There is a difference between tuning a piano and regulating it. Tuning adjusts the tension of only the strings, about 240 in all, whereas regulating involves timing, spacing, and adjusting most of the nearly 9,000 movable parts of the piano. Regulating can be minor, at little or no cost, or it can be a major undertaking, taking one to three days at a high cost.
Make the best of your investment in your piano technician’s service visit. Save his time for the actual work to be done. Have the piano cleared of all articles. Keep the area quiet while he is working. Your tuner is not listening to tones that you hear, but, rather, to whisper-soft “beats” emitted between tones. So try to make it quiet enough that a whisper can be heard across the room. Avoid such noises as from a vacuum cleaner, dish- or clothes-washer, running water, and others in the house and yard. Even silently walking through the room creates, to the tuner’s ear, a “Doppler effect” that combines to confuse the “beats” for which he listens. So when the tuner visits—quiet is the word.You’ll likely get more for your money.
Mothproofing of the thousands of piano felts is done at the factory, but your technician should check this point on each visit. You may leave the keys uncovered and, if you wish, the piano open at all times, except when working or vacuuming around it or when strong cooking odors are present. Close the piano at such times.
Humidity and Your Piano’s “Tensions”
There are two major factors that determine how frequently your piano needs service: First and foremost, the amount of atmospheric change, especially humidity change—with emphasis on the word change. Second, and surprisingly a less important factor, the amount of use. Now let’s consider these and see how you can save yourself some money.
When your piano goes out of tune it does so largely due to shifting tension brought on mainly by humidity change. It goes out of tune in much the same way as your body ‘goes out of tune’ with certain atmospheric or humidity changes. You know how a weather change can cause an ache in your elbow, back, knee, or some other weak spot. Well, with the piano this is also true. It has certain “weak spots,” unstable areas. That’s right, the whole piano does not go out of tune evenly with a humidity change. Quite to the contrary, only certain parts of it go drastically out of tune, while other parts remain stable. The stable areas include strings having a high tension-to-mass ratio and a low ratio of speaking length to mute length. The unstable areas include strings having the reverse in high-low ratios. The unstable areas shift flat with a humidity change toward dryness, and they shift sharp with a change toward dampness.
This seasonal pitch drift you will find most noticeable at the tenor-bass break, where the upper bass strings stay quite stable but where the low tenor strings shift drastically. Furthermore, in this unstable area the three strings of the unison of one note do not shift evenly within the one note; but, rather, the one shortest from tuning pin to hitch pin shifts most, the middle string less, and the longest string even less. So not only intervals shift, but unisons do also.
Now a word of caution: Tuning the piano in an adverse humid or dry condition will help the piano only for a few weeks at most. What is needed is to correct the humidity situation in your home. First, be careful where you place your piano—away from any heat vent and definitely away from direct sunlight. Such dryness could cause it to go out of tune within minutes. Also, keep it away from an air-conditioning vent. Humidity causes rusting, sluggishness in the action, bursting case parts, and so forth. So you may want to consider installing an electric humidity-control device. This may prove to be, as one author stated, “worth its weight in gold.”
When you have the humidity controlled, have your piano tuned. The humidity-controlled piano tuned once a year stays far better in tune throughout the year than the piano in uncontrolled humidity tuned four or more times a year.
Before You Invest—Investigate!
A wise buyer, when purchasing expensive items, will often arrange to retain a professional consultant. If you contemplate buying a piano, you should be able to hire a consulting technician at about the cost of a tuning fee. Investigation may save you the grief of buying a piano that looks excellent and even sounds excellent but has a hidden flaw that could require a very expensive repair or rebuilding job, or could render your piano unusable. Your consultant can estimate the cost of whatever work should be done—repairs that would, of course, affect the purchase price.
So, ask yourself: Can I afford the initial investment? Can I afford the maintenance? Before you invest, investigate. Then, if you own a piano, take good care of it.