Pianos nowadays are tuned to Equal Temperament, which divides the octave into twelve semitones of equal size, but it has not been always that way. Equal Temperament was known in theoretical form since the late sixteenth century, and was initially used in rudimentary ways on fretted instruments like the lute, mostly as an alternative temperament. Its influence grew in the late nineteenth century and eventually became the standard in Western Music in the twentieth.
Before that, early keyboards like organs, clavichords and harpsichords were tuned to Pythagorean Tuning in the middle ages, to Meantone in the Renaissance, and to Unequal Temperaments during the Baroque, Classical and Romantic periods, when they were joined by the piano. Each system has its unique features, suited to the music of its time, and they transitioned from one to another with long periods of coexistence, as did the styles that were associated with them.
In the middle ages, harmonising was a pretty simple affair with only Octaves, Fourths and Fifths being allowed. Pythagorean Tuning provided suitable resources for that, as it consists of a simple chain of pure Fifths like FCGDAEB, which form our familiar diatonic scale CDEFGABC. The resulting Major Thirds, beautiful for melodies, unfortunately are too wide and dissonant to use in harmony. When keyboards were expanded to incorporate accidentals (Bb first, followed by F#, then all others), another problem arose - enharmonic flats and sharps in Pythagorean Tuning have distinct pitches. They differ roughly by a quarter of a semitone, the Pythagorean Comma, and cannot be used interchangeably. This means that the last note of in a sequence of twelve is always out of tune with the first one, creating a very narrow "wolf" Fifth that cannot be used in musical context.
In the Renaissance, with the introduction of triadic harmonies, it became necessary to make those Major Thirds more palatable to the ear. Meantone systems tuned the Thirds pure by tempering (that is, deliberately detuning) a sequence of Fifths narrow. That is, in the chain FCGDAEB, all Fifths are narrow but the Thirds FA, CE and GB are pure. Later variations of Meantone had Fifths slightly less narrow, leaving Thirds a little wide, but in all cases a sequence of twelve notes still formed a wolf interval (wide this time) between the first and the last. Enharmonic notes were still mutually exclusive - a black key could only be a sharp or a flat, but never both.
As modulations started drifting to distant keys, new temperaments had to be devised in order to make all tonalities playable. Hundreds of variations of Unequal Temperaments exist, but in general they keep purer Thirds around the white keys, spreading purer Fifths around the accidentals. This progression between Meantone and Pythagorean sizes eliminates the wolf interval, turning the octave into a circle of Fifths. Enharmonic notes are interchangeable, with sharps and flats having the same pitch. More importantly, Unequal Temperaments feature Fifths and Thirds in various sizes, with each key having an individual character. This gradient of colours would be skillfully exploited by composers like Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin.
Eventually, the simplicity and uniformity of Equal Temperament pushed other temperament systems aside in the twentieth century. The identical semitones of Equal Temperament make all intervals out of tune - Fifths only slightly narrow, which is quite acceptable to the untrained ear, but Thirds remain too wide by around one-seventh of a semitone. Pianos have tonal characteristics that make those Thirds less offensive to the ear, and because they are all equally wide, we tend to get accustomed to them, to the point that some people think of pure Thirds as being flat. However, it is not an ideal solution by any means, and there are plenty of fine ears who dislike it. Its greatest contribution to Western Music, perhaps, has been to coerce instruments of all types to play using the same intervals, which was not always possible with other temperaments.
Concert Pitch, A 440Hz, is the current international standard for A4, the A above middle C on the piano. There is no intrinsic value or advantage in that particular number, and it does not relate to any specific pitch found in nature. It is merely a convention to encourage a common reference pitch, with some sensible consideration to what has been used in the last few centuries. It was regularly used in some parts of the world in the 1920s, and was internationally recognised as ISO-16 in 1955.
Historically, the pitch of A has fluctuated between 390Hz and 470Hz, roughly the equivalents of modern G and Bb. Period instruments are often tuned to 392 or 415 to suit the tensions they were designed for, and to enhance the corresponding tonal qualities. Combined with the appropriate temperament, the musical effect has little in common with what we hear on a modern piano in Equal Temperament.
Other curious pitches include Philosophical C, or Scientific C, at 256Hz, which is a power of 2. It is about a third of a semitone lower than the C261Hz found in Equal Temperament at concert pitch, and its A tunes at approximately 430Hz - also called Classical Pitch. Another well-known variety is the Verdi pitch, or A432Hz, which forms a Pythagorean chain of Fifths with Philosophical Pitch's C256Hz. Note that in any other temperament they do not coincide.
For those interested in C256Hz or A432Hz for their mathematical properties, it should be observed that they are only viable on instruments without inharmonicity, like the violin. As bowed strings constantly reset their partials (overtones), they match the natural harmonics without deviation, so the whole scale can be accurately adjusted to any reference pitch. On a piano, however, octaves have to be stretched, that is, tuned slightly wider than pure to accommodate inharmonicity, or else they will sound narrow. This alone will make all other 87 keys necessarily deviate from the one tuned to the reference pitch, defeating the purpose. It would be more beneficial to use the extra tuning on the piano at whatever pitch it holds, and improve its stability instead of upsetting it.
Electronic tuning devices (ETD) have been around for decades in one form or another, but their quality has improved significantly in recent years. They can be a valuable tool for tuners, and there are technicians who rely exclusively on an ETD for their daily work. There are also others who adopt a more purist approach and only tune aurally, and many more who use a combination of the two methods as they find convenient.
With proper software, even a mobile phone can be turned into an ETD. A number of questionable free apps are available, though reputable programs can cost more than some of the pianos they tune. Those are very accurate and certainly have their benefits:
•     Reduced aural fatigue by following the pitch in visual form.
•     Faster tunings, by going through notes individually without having to perform interval checks against other notes, which are necessary when tuning aurally.
•     Pitch raises take less effort with devices that estimate the over-pull needed to achieve the desired pitch in one pass.
•     A tuning pattern can be consistently replicated on another instrument for duets, or on the same instrument in a studio where material has to be recorded across different dates.
•     Useful when tuning in noisy environments.
•     Tuners can develop hearing problems throughout their careers and may need assistance with certain frequency ranges.
On the other hand, some technicians do not feel the need for the visual cue, do not like the additional visual distraction, or simply enjoy tuning by ear. Many fine concert tuners do not use electronic devices at all, and the quality of a tuner's work cannot be judged based on whether an ETD is used or not. Not all technicians tune the same way, and the choice to use a device is largely a matter of how much it somehow improves their work.
Besides mathematical accuracy, piano tuning also requires a touch of artistry. The aim of tuning is always to produce a musical result, and a tuner may make choices in that regard that can on occasion diverge from digital advice. Every piano differs from another, even if they are the exact same model. Listening to what the piano best responds to is part of the artistry involved in tuning.
Good quality ETDs offer a number of options for octave stretching (2:1, 4:2, 6:3, 8:4, 3:1) but tuning by ear allows the tuner to adjust stretching on an individual basis, and to make subjective decisions that involve tone as well as pitch. Fine tunings that favour certain intervals can result in a piano that sings beautifully, because of sympathetic resonances across the keyboard that can be individually tweaked.
For the finest levels of tuning, even the repertoire being played may influence the degree of stretching, so besides a good tuning ear, a technician can benefit from having an understanding of the musical context as well.
For tuners trained aurally, using an ETD normally requires some minor adjustments, whereas those trained with a device from the beginning may find it a little harder to move to aural tunings. Extensive practice is required to learn the aural skills, and one must develop and refine those skills through the years. Our own experiments with ETDs showed us that is rather easy to become reliant upon the little screen, as it offers little incentive to perfect the art.
Finally, it is important to remember that an ETD can only assist with the listening part of tuning. A finely-trained hand is needed to adjust the pin and string to a stable position, and that is actually a harder skill to master, with or without ETD.
As for ourselves, we do tune primarily by ear, as we have received excellent aural training. After many years of experience working this way, we prefer the result achieved by tuning aurally. We use ETDs occasionally, mostly to map out the overall pitch of a piano, sometimes for large pitch raises or in particularly noisy places. That is just our choice, we may change our minds in the future.
In any case, we always have a traditional tuning fork at hand. Besides the odd battery issue, electronic tuners can also get stuck with loud rumbling noises outside, like a concrete mixer in F#. We've had it happen before.
In order to care for your piano properly, one of the main measures to consider is climate control. Pianos are mostly made of timber and can be significantly affected by changes in the relative humidity (RH) in the air. Consequences vary from tuning instability in the short term to regulation issues and reduced piano longevity in the long run.
So important is the need to control the environment around the piano that some manufacturers will not honour their warranty if the piano has been exposed to RH levels outside 40%-60%. With high humidity, swelling forms compression ridges on the soundboard, strings rust, verdigris jams centre pins. Low RH can cause cracks as the timber dries and shrinks. Some of this damage can require very expensive repair.
Relative humidity is the percentage of water vapour that is present in the air, in relation to the total that the air can hold when condensation starts (100%). RH can vary with changes in temperature and pressure. Changes in temperature, unless drastic, are not a major concern for pianos, it is their effect on RH that can cause trouble, as RH increases when temperature drops and decreases when temperature rises.
In Bathurst, summers are generally warm and dry, winters cool and wet. During the day, temperature and humidity move in opposite directions, as you would expect. When the air cools down, the movement of air and water molecules is slower, so more molecules can fill up the space, resulting in a higher RH reading. As the air warms up, molecules get more agitated and need more space, so less of them will be counted in the room, hence a lower RH reading.
Seasonal changes push the ranges further up or down, but the pattern tends to remain the same. As a consequence, it is fairly easy to adjust the RH inside our workshop to a reasonable degree of satisfaction, by having good building insulation and controlling the temperature with a small heater or cooler. Other places are different - in Sydney, the sea proximity keeps humidity levels fairly stable, and pianos do not tend to behave as wildly.
Humidity (top) and temperature (bottom) in Bathurst, Nov 2019 to Jul 2020
In Darwin, on the other hand, the dry season is cool and the wet season warm (never mind the build-up!), so some form of control is usually necessary. Conveniently, most air-con systems dry up the air while cooling it down, so this could work well in warm and wet months, unless they are switched on and off frequently, which is often the case. It is also common for institutions to turn the system off at night and on weekends, accentuating the fluctuation. In the opposite season, with cool and dry days, only a dedicated humidifier can help.
The ideal solution for climate control anywhere is a system that keeps both temperature and humidity constant for the whole room at all times, but we normally find those in major venues only. Some places have a controlled small storage room for their finest pianos, which are only rolled out on stage just before performances. This works well as long as the piano is not left out for a week in an environment that is completely different to its storage room, otherwise again the fluctuation is exacerbated.
We built our new workshop in 2019 using insulated blocks, double-glazed windows and doors, and an air-cell lined roof. We installed sensors inside and outside in November to monitor the humidity and temperature variation, and despite the quality of materials used, the fluctuation was still rather high. Further investigation revealed that the roof was leaking much more heat than the rest of the building. Once we added an extra layer of heavy-duty roof insulation in mid-December, the change was noticeable.
Considering that the level of insulation we have in our workshop is above what we find in the average home, and that the benefit we get is just enough to maintain humidity and temperature within reasonable levels, it is easy to see the potential risk for pianos in rooms with no insulation at all.
Humidity outside (dark blue) and inside the workshop (light blue), Nov 2019 to Jul 2020
Temperature outside (dark red) and inside the workshop (light red), Nov 2019 to Jul 2020
As an extra layer of protection, there are dedicated humidifier and dehumidifier systems that can be installed inside upright pianos and underneath grands. Such systems can mitigate the RH fluctuation to some extent. They work by having a humidistat monitoring the RH level and adjusting it by either turning on a heating rod to dry up the air when RH is too high, or evaporating liquid from a container when it is too low.
As a safeguard measure, we normally have one of those installed on pianos while they are in our workshop. The instruments remain very stable, but we note again that conditions inside are already within an acceptable range to start with. Expectations should be realistic, as in a tropical home with louvres open 24/7, the piano is practically outdoors and results can vary.
These systems have their inconveniences, some models can cost in excess of $1,000 and they also need regular monitoring, requiring a manual refill every week or three. Missing the blinking light may result in an empty tank that can cause the humidity to drop even more sharply than if the device had not been there at all.
As an example of their potential efficiency, below are the average RH readings for a recent grand rebuild project that lasted three months:
• Outside Workshop: 89%
• Inside Workshop: 60%
• Soundboard top: 53%
• Soundboard underside: 46%
The fluctuation during daytime was occasionally fairly wide, even though RH peaked at 100% every single morning.
The difference between the top and bottom of the piano (7% RH) caught our attention, and may or may not be reason for concern in the long run, we do not have enough data for conclusions. As most manufacturers allow the device to be installed without affecting warranty terms, it should be safe to assume that it is not an issue.
Refills lasted between 16 and 30 days. Daily checks were required, given the uncertain duration of a refill, and away trips needed a regular visitor to feed the pet if necessary.
The effects of humidity swings can show up in the tuning in a matter of days. Piano soundboards are slightly crowned, sitting higher in the centre than around the edges. When humidity drops, the wood shrinks and the crown flattens. This downward movement releases some of the string tension, causing the pitch to drop. Conversely, when humidity rises the opposite happens, except that the upward pressure on the strings is not usually quite enough to reverse the slack created with the drop. So when the next cycle starts, the piano is already at a slightly lower pitch.
In many places, the scenario above happens every year with the change of seasons, and this is one of the reasons why a piano should be tuned at least once a year, even if it does not get played much or does not sound too bad. In certain places where summers are relatively dry, a rainy spell of several days can have a similar effect, resulting in a pitch change that would normally take a year to occur.
In addition, individual notes can have up to 3 strings of same speaking length (the vibrating section) but different overall lengths, so the rise and fall of the soundboard can affect them differently, causing unisons to shift out of tune.
Extreme weather events can have drastic effect on tunings as well. The humidity in Bathurst dropped to 11%h during the 2019-2020 bushfires in the Blue Mountains. Many pianos in the area had strings slipping over a semitone flat, as the shrinkage was so severe that the pin block could not provide enough friction to hold the tuning pins in place. Once RH levels were restored, tuning held up normally again.
For instruments that are exposed to wide swings of humidity levels, a floating pitch may be adopted, particularly if they are tuned several times a year. Maintaining the pitch at A440Hz requires it to be raised during dry periods and lowered during wetter spells. This, naturally, creates tuning instability. Considering that the pitch swing is seasonal and will gravitate around the average, it is often preferable to work within a window, say, between 439Hz and 441Hz. This will minimise both the need for adjustments and their magnitude. This is common practice in schools and other music institutions.
The ability to play with other instruments is affected less than one might expect, since octaves on a piano are stretched. When A4 is tuned to 440Hz, A3 is flatter than 220Hz and A5 sharper than 880Hz. By floating A4 up, A3 will be closer to 220Hz, and when floating A4 down, A5 will lean towards 880Hz, so the standard pitch benchmark is merely shifted up or down the octaves.
In general, we find that the benefits of pitch-floating for stability are far more significant than the inconvenience caused by the pitch variation.
Not all music educators are necessarily well-versed in asset management. If your institution does not have a dedicated asset manager, your piano technician can assist you with recommendations on how to keep your inventory of pianos in good condition.
Institutions can minimise degradation and devaluation of their instruments by adopting appropriate record-keeping, regular tuning schedules and a maintenance plan that includes refurbishment and replacement, taylored to their quality and usage.
For a more comprehensive document on this subject, we suggest a careful reading of an excellent guide prepared in the US by the College and University Technicians Commitee and published by the Piano Technicians Guild. You can find the original at the PTG website (https://www.ptg.org/caut/home). Below is a copy:
CAUT Guidelines for Effective Insitutional Piano Maintenance
In the meantime, as food for thought, we list below a number of points that should be considered for a better care of institutional instruments:
•     Piano replacement, rebuilding and maintenance must be built into the overall budget structure of an institution.
•     Pianos represent capital value, both as an initial purchase and ongoing maintenance, as their longevity often exceeds that of buildings.
•     To provide a musically satisfying experience for students and teachers.
•     To serve as a practical tool for teaching and learning.
•     To be a shared resource of a high quality that individually students and teachers may not be able to access otherwise.
•     Pianos that are not maintained to a suitable standard interfere with instruction, performance and the learning process.
•     Pianos are shared, lack of individual ownership often leads to neglect and abuse.
•     Lack of consistent and adequate replacement budgets leads to premature deterioration of piano inventories.
•     The physical environment of most institutions is unsuitable for pianos. Lack of humidity control leads to drastic tuning instability which is far greater than that observed in private homes.
•     Standard expected from instrument: high for performance spaces, medium for teaching, low for practice.
•     Type of instrument: upright, grand, concert grand.
•     Quality of make and model.
•     Age and current condition.
•     History of maintenance work done on the instrument.
Even if you have the best quality pianos, if they are old and worn out, they will not be functioning at a high percentage of their capabilities. A 40-year-old fine concert piano is likely to have many faults including lack of tonal control, loose parts causing rattles and excess action noise, and an increase in the amount of general problems that occur.
Concert instruments need to be refurbished after 15 to 25 years - or earlier, depending upon use and requirement.
The questions of how often to tune depends upon the requirements of the institution, the quality of instrument, the level of climate control and the usage level. Manufacturers recommendation state twice a year as a minimum tuning requirement.
•     Top level: piano is kept at performance level, tuned for every performance, tuning is not allowed to deteriorate. Voicing and regulation is kept to a high standard. Reconditioning on a regular basis. Suitable for concert instruments.
•     Very good: piano is kept at an acceptable musical level, monthly attention to tuning, voicing and regulation. Refurbishment as required. Suitable for light use performance/teaching instruments.
•     Fair: tuning may be allowed to deteriorate, 3 or 4 tunings per year, basic voicing and regulation standard.
•     Minimal: tuned once or twice a year, all keys working, no regulation or voicing.
We often come across neglected instruments in institutions, some of decent quality, that do not receive what is described above as minimal service.
•     Seasonal changes in humidity and temperature play a major role in piano maintenance needs. The more extreme these changes are, the more tuning and general maintenance will be required.
•     Effective climate control will greatly improve the cost effectiveness of all piano-related expenditures. Where climate control for the building is not feasible, humidity control systems can be installed in individual pianos - although they do require constant vigilance from staff to ensure they are monitered.
•     Some high quality brands will void the warranty on an instrument if it cannot be kept within a 20% humidity range.
•     Institutions should seek to purchase the highest quality piano available. Pianos of lesser quality require more maintenance, have a shorter lifespan, do not warrant major rebuilding and usually do not meed the musical needs of the institution. Because of the heavy use that institutional pianos receive, instruments of lesser quality are not a judicious investment.
•     If you buy top quality performance instruments, they can be refurbished at a fraction of the cost of a new one, essentially giving you an extra 20 years of high level performance.
•     Saving money by refurbishment performance instruments means money can be directed towards purchasing high quality upright pianos on a rolling basis.
•     Avoid the case where you have an aging inventory, meaning that many pianos will need to be replaced at once. Better to have a purchasing schedule over 10-20 years to upgrade and replace before instruments get too old to serve the primary requirement to provide a musically satisfying experience for students and teachers.
•     Technical staff should be involved in administrative decision-making relevant to piano maintenance.
•     The purchase of new pianos may appear to be a more tangible expenditure and is often easier to present in the budgeting process, but effective maintenance is also a vital part of an institution's piano investment.
Have the following in mind when preparing a long-term plan:
•     Strategy for ongoing replacement of instruments.
•     Schedule for regular major rebuilding.
•     Plan for ongoing maintenance at a standard according to need.
•     Project to a horizon of 20 years.
•     Accelerated 5-year plan to bring inventory to a suitable standard to maintain.
The following figures and timeframes are a good example from an existing client with 25 instruments:
Type of piano:
•     2 concert grands used for performance.
•     5 grand pianos used for teaching.
•     18 teaching/practice room instruments.
•     Concert instruments: 2, valued at $90,000 and $120,000, total $210,000.
•     Grand pianos: 5, valued at $60,000 each, total $300,000.
•     Good quality upright piano: 18, valued at $12,000 each, total $216,000.
Total replacement value: $726,000.
•     Concert instruments: tune for every performance, touch-up regularly when not in use, budget $2,000 p.a.
•     Teaching instruments: tune once or twice a term, budget $6,000 p.a.
•     Practice instruments in better condition: tune every semester, budget $2,000 p.a.
•     Other practice instruments: tune every year, budget $3,000 p.a.
Total tuning budget: $13,000 p.a.
Refurbishment and replacement schedule:
•     Concert instruments: new hammers after 5 years, new action after 10 years, new strings after 20 years, set aside $3,000 p.a.
•     Teaching instruments: new action after 15 years, new strings after 30 years, set aside $3,000 p.a.
•     Practice instruments: replace instrument after 30 years, set aside $6,000 p.a.
Total refurbishment and replacement budget: $12,000 p.a.
Adding up the cost, the annual maintenance budget ($25,000) turns out to be roughly the equivalent of the replacement value ($726,000) spread over a useful life of 30 years, a ballpark figure easy to remember. A timeframe such as outlined above is helpful for budgeting purposes, even if the actual work may vary to suit the quality, usage and need of individual pianos.
Understandably, not all institutions are able to maintain their pianos at a reasonable standard due to financial constraints, but it must also be noted that by failing to do so, they become liable to a larger replacement expense when the asset is no longer valuable enough to justify the maintenance cost. Or worse, having the asset decommissioned and not replaced.
We often see pianos of decent value neglected to the point where they need replacement at a higher cost than they could have been properly maintained for. This is not a desirable situation, as other crucial benefits are also wasted in the process - remaining in good condition for the entire duration of their useful lives, and retaining some of their market value for resale.
If your institution is large enough to have a Finance or Asset Manager, you should be able to obtain from them some general information on how to manage an inventory, or access to your organisation's policies for assets. Otherwise, if someone is in charge of maintaining buildings, vehicles or IT equipment in your institution, they might be able to share their knowledge and experience with you.
Tuning pianos is a beautiful way to earn a living. Listening to a recital by a world-class pianist on a concert piano that you have just tuned can be a proud professional moment. You get to meet young artists whose music you will end up following, or older ones who you have known all your life. And you will meet people from a wide cross-section of your local community on a daily basis. Music teachers, students and music lovers are some of the most interesting people you can come across, and many of them will become cherished friends after a while.
The work itself has its challenges, expectedly. Not all pianos are of concert quality (be warned!), in fact some are barely tunable. Regardless of your skills and effort, sometimes they will never sound good. Tuning can be hard on your ears, hands, shoulders, backbone, and you should expect to drive tens of thousands of kilometers every year for that. Running your own business also requires a number of extra skills which may not be your cup of tea - project management, bookkeeping, IT, marketing, customer care. Without previous experience, you will have to learn all of that as well, and quickly.
Big things aside, there are plenty of little things to enjoy in your working hours. Driving around to people's homes can take you to beatiful parts of the country that you would not have known to exist. After tuning over 200 strings, regulating 88 keys and voicing 88 hammers, sometimes you manage to turn a harsh-sounding clunker into a beautiful singing instrument. Teary eyes from owners who can have their music back after a long-awaited service are a beautiful reward at the end of a long day.
In addition, we go against the grain in an economy of disposables. Our work involves conservation, restoration, refinement and constant improvement, which brings another layer of satisfaction to what we do daily.
Lastly, if you are interested in tuning theory, there is a noble lineage of inquisitive minds who applied their efforts to the mathematical quandaries of tuning - Pythagoras, Archytas, Ptolemy, Aristoxenus, Mersenne, Galilei, Descartes, Huygens, Kepler, Newton, Euler, Ellis and Helmholtz, to name a few. You will be in good company.
There are more instruction books on how to train a dragon than on how to tune pianos, and possibly for a good reason. Piano tuners are a relatively recent profession, as historically most keyboard players (except organists) would have tuned their own instruments, like other musicians still do. It is said that JS Bach could tune his harpsichord in 15 minutes, and it was during his later years that the piano started to mature as an instrument and to slowly take the place of the harpsichord.
During the eighteenth century, improvements in steel strings and cast-iron frames steered the development of pianos towards the larger/louder end of the spectrum. The higher string tensions made the new instruments increasingly harder to tune, and by the early nineteenth century piano tuning became a separate, specialised line of work.
Initially, training was provided in factories, of which there were thousands in Europe (Paris alone had 3,000 makers at one stage). Not only tuning, but all aspects of piano construction and maintenance could be learned there. Fast-forward to the present and things have changed, with very few establishments offering that option now. Modern factories are mainly available to well-trained technicians associated with the brand to perfect their skills - anyone interested in learning the craft has to look elsewhere and there are fewer choices than ever. This is a little surprising, given that there is a general shortage of technicians and that the current generation is approaching the age of retirement.
In Australia, a small number of reputable courses were available in different eras, but neither of them was particularly long-lived. Today, many of the necessary parts to make the training system work seem to be missing: official recognition necessary to obtain funding (there is no such a thing as a piano technician, according to the ABS), master technicians available for teaching and mentoring, young students able to foot the bill without funding etc. A further decline in numbers looks likely, with retiring tuners not being replaced at a sufficient rate.
During recent years, online courses have appeared as an alternative, trying to fill the gap left by traditional courses that shut down. However, even for them, any chance of success still relies on a local mentor being available to provide some hands-on guidance to the students, as they can only achieve so much by themselves and on their own pianos. One of the benefits of learning at a university with a large music department, as we did, or at a factory, as many others did before us, is to have access to hundreds of different instruments to practice on. An online course obviously has no means to provide that.
People often think that perfect pitch is a requirement to become a piano tuner. In reality, it is not, and in all likelyhood will only make the job more difficult. Being a musician is not essential either, although it is most certainly beneficial, and even more so if you are a good pianist. To be able to understand from a practical point of view the context in which instruments, temperaments, tone and repertoire evolved into today's piano will give you a different appreciation for the work you are doing.
To study Piano Technology, we had to move overseas, interrupting degrees, jobs and spending a considerable amount of money on foreign universities. After graduation, with proper training and some experience in hand, returning to Australia to start a business had its difficulties, some more expected than others. Little support came from the industry, struggling with low numbers but unable to embrace newcomers. Much welcome encouragement and advice was offered by a few individual technicians, though, and we are very thankful that we could benefit from their experience and generosity.
Pathways for further training do exist, again mostly overseas and with limited access. We are fortunate to have international colleagues whose doors are always open, as opportunities for hands-on, face-to-face collaborations in Australia are few and far between.
That said, once business is up and runnning, a lot of learning takes place as we come across all sorts of situations on a daily basis. More recently, having the space to build our own dedicated workshop has provided us with a valuable source of professional growth and development. With the knowledge and experience we already had, being able to research and experiment with rebuilding techniques has been a real treat, and every piano we work on brings something new to the workbench.
Perhaps one day we will be able to take on an apprentice and pass on what we have learned so far. Interested, anyone?
Voicing is the process of changing the tone, or the voice of the piano. Over time the sound of your piano will change - it will get brighter and will seem louder as the hammer felt compresses with use. Using either needles or chemicals to soften, or harden the felt, a trained technician can alter the sound of your piano to allow for a more pleasant, singing and sustained tone.
You may hear people say "a Kawai sounds like this" or "a Yamaha sounds like that", but in reality it has more to do with the voicing procedure that was done on that piano, either before it left the factory, or by the technician over the years. A good piano technician can do wonders for an instrument over time, and extend its musical life if enough attention is given not just to tuning but to servicing the instrument properly.
Like a car, there are many other services that your piano needs other than just tuning. If you think of tuning your piano as an oil change for your car, then you can understand how much other work is required to keep a piano in top musical shape.
There are nearly 10,000 parts in a piano, roughly 2,000 of which are adjustable and must be regulated to very tight tolerances in order for the piano to function as designed. Not doing this will mean the pianist misses out on the full power and full control over the sound produced. Likewise the hammers must be well shaped and voiced to produce a pleasant sound.
In order to understand what is happening with the tone of your piano, we must understand how the piano hammer is constructed. The hammer is made of highly compressed felt that is wrapped tightly, and then glued around the wooden core of the hammer (see images 1, 2 and 3). Due to the extreme tension that the hammer felt is under after this process, a raw hammer will need to be voiced to achieve a full, rounded tone with depth and sustain.
During this voicing process, needles will be used in very specific areas of the hammer to release some of the tension in the hammer felt to encourage an ideal blend of partials within the tone. Sometimes needling the felt can be used to shift the tension within the felt to particular areas in the hammer to generate more power or sustain.
A harder hammer with more tension will project higher partials in the sound produced. When needles are used to create a partial absorbing cushion in the hammer, more of the lower partials come through, creating a different tone when played.
Voicing can only be done when the piano is well tuned and well regulated. If the piano is in a room that is unsuitable acoustically, voicing alone will not be able to fix the problem. The quality of the hammers currently on the piano needs to be high enough to respond to work being done on them. If the hammers are over 10 years old, chances are needling the felt to create more elasticity will not work as well - new hammers are often recommended in this case.
If you are finding that your piano sounds hard or nasal, is too bright or lacks sustain, your piano may need some attention. Similarly, but less common here in Australia with the types of pianos available, a piano may sound muffled or pillowy.
Hammers must be well shaped. If they have flattened with use over time, the hammers should be filed to restore the optimum shape with a small striking zone to the string. This will encourage a cleaner sound with less interference from rogue partials. Reshaping hammers can only be done a few times before new hammers are required.
Piano tone can be broken down into a few parts (see image 4). The attack is probably the most prominent - it can sound bright, hard and zingy. There can sometimes be metallic sounds. Prudent use of needles in very particular areas of the felt can address these issues.
Likewise, having a long and clean sustain is important for a piano that may need to project sound or for a pianist who would like a more singing tone. Again, using needles to release tension in certain parts of the hammer - and to direct this tension to other areas can create more more volume and sustain (see images 5 and 6).
If your piano sounds muffled, or is lacking in brightness in particular areas, we use an acrylic resin (Paraloid B-72) that we dissolve and inject into specific areas of the hammer to brighten the tone (see image 7).
Concert pianos are tuned before every performance. During this time the technician will also listen carefully to the voicing and tweak anything that needs addressing. As these pianos are used heavily the hammers will compress quickly, and the lifespan of the hammers is much shorter than that of the home use piano. It is not unusual to replace hammers after 3 years.
To address this fine voicing, rather than remove the action from the piano, a long brass rod with a needle attached is used through the strings to access the exact part of the hammer required (see images 8 and 9).
Voicing is a very refined skill, many years are required for the technician to develop the ear for tone and the technical ability to manipulate felt, needles and resins to achieve the desired result.
Lastly, the ideal tone differs from one musician to another, so it is important to ensure that voicing is an ongoing collaborative effort between the technician and the pianist.