Everything You (and your students) Should Know About Pianos
by Clarence Zeches
Mr. Zeches began the session by taking a quick survey to find out in what setting each of the attendees teach – collegiate, high school, private studios. In his 30+ years of tuning pianos, he has been surprised at how little most pianists know about their instrument, especially in comparison to most instrumentalists. He asked if we would know what to do if all of a sudden before a performance something was to go wrong with the piano.
He shared about a university that decided to save money one year by turning off the heat in the music building during Christmas break. When classes resumed and the heat was turned back on, all the pianos went crazy! Some were found to be 30 cents flat. A half step on the piano is 100 cents. Temperature fluctuations can drastically affect a piano.
Mr. Zeches continued with a history of the piano. It was invented approximately 300 years ago by Cristofori. Originally called the pianoforte, it was different from the harpsichord in that is used a hammer action as opposed to using a quill that plucked a string. How much tension is there in an average piano? About 36,000 pounds! A concert grand Steinway has approximately 39,000 pounds of tension. If a harpsichord had that kind of tension, it would implode.
He periodically gets calls from people who have dropped pianos while moving them, to see if they are able to be salvaged. Sometimes this is possible, if the cast iron plate in the piano is not broken. He went on to discuss another common complaint from pianists:
Rattle in the keys – check for paper clips, coins, pencils, etc. These often fall into the piano when an item is placed on the fallboard and then the fallboard is opened. Usually you can remove the fallboard to check for lost items (don’t, however, try this on a Steinway, because it is screwed in from beneath).
Pianos used regularly for performing should be kept close to concert regulation. The more pianists can learn to recognize problems they observe with their pianos, the more effectively they will be able to communicate with their piano technician. Things to watch for:
Sluggish Action – play several keys simultaneously, then watch the response of the hammers to see if they function congruously.
Bleeding Dampers – ringing sounds; dampers that are bleeding often cause notes in the harmonic series to play.
Mice in Piano – place course steel wool to cover openings under the pedals and casters.
Heavy action may be the result of humidity that is causing every one of the pivot points to slow down a little bit. Technicians can use a procedure called, “weighing off an action” to determine how heavy the action is and figure out how to deal with it. Some technicians have received special training on changing the geometry to take weight off the action.
As a general rule, Asian pianos are brighter than European and American pianos because the hammers are harder. Technicians can use a voicing procedure to needle the hammers (inserting needles into the felt hammers to release some of the tension). There are certain places on the hammer that technicians insert needles to address specific problems. Technicians also commonly use lacquer to make the hammers harder, thus creating more brightness. It’s advisable to wait at least until the instrument is in its permanent location to make changes to the voicing. Some technicians recommend even waiting 2-3 years to give the piano a chance to settle.
Audience members asked a variety of questions related to maintenance and care. One question was in reference to humid climates and full humidity control systems for pianos. The main advantage to these systems is consistency. It prevents the soundboard from rising and falling. 42% is the ideal humidity for a piano. If you can consistently (less than 10% fluctuations) keep your house at 50-52% humidity, though, it will probably be okay. You must ensure that this is installed properly in order for it to be effective (there are horror stories of pianos growing green stuff under the soundboard because of improper installation of humidity systems!).
Piano Technicians appreciate having the pianists express problems they are experiencing so that they know specifically what to look for as they work on the instrument. Mr. Zeches concluded his session by recommending Larry Fine’s book and website that contain a wealth of information about purchasing new and used pianos.