Piano Tuning – What’s Under the Lid?

Guest post by Simon Reich

I have a recurring nightmare. It involves me and a piano…

I see the instrument from the other side of the room and then move stealthily, not too fast mind you, over to sit down on the stool waiting patiently for me. Everything seems like it’s going well up to this point. The horror only kicks in as I press down the notes for that first D minor 7 chord. The piano is totally out of tune with sticking notes I can’t avoid.

I’m sure some of us have also encountered this outside of our sleeping times, me included. Apart from our instrument, a piano tuner is our next most important point on our must have checklist.

With this in mind I decided to interview Nathan Winterbine, a piano tuner (based in Melbourne, Australia) who I only met last year, but instantly warmed to. His prompt service, fixed price and then excellent workmanship cemented him as my “go to” tuner.

I sat down with Nathan and plugged him with questions I wanted answered…

The Interview

Simon: Let’s start with the most obvious question. If a piano is kept in a home, studio or hall and is in good condition, how often should it be tuned?

Nathan: Generally a piano needs to be tuned at least once a year; however there are certain conditions in which tuning is required more regularly. I have several clients who have their piano tuned every 2 or 3 months.

Although temperature control can greatly affect a pianos tuning stability, the most frequent tuning is requested by musicians with the best ears who not only notice the changing sound, but appreciate the difference a tune can make.

Should you tune a piano, even if you don’t hear the instrument sounding “out”?

Like with a car, the piano is primarily mechanical, and in a similar way, if you wait till there’s a strange sound or obvious issue before having it serviced, the damage may already be done. Pianos are made mostly of wood which can be greatly affected by temperature changes. This means that the piano strings will be continually stretching and moving out of tune even if the piano is getting zero use.

A=440 is the standard tuning benchmark. Especially if you want to play along with other instruments. If you’ve left your piano for some years without a tune, can it be brought up to A=440 in one go? Or does it need a number of appointments to achieve this result? If so how many and over what time frame?

Bringing a piano back up to concert pitch is a difficult ask for any piano especially when it comes to older instruments (80 years+). The most common issue with raising the piano’s pitch is string breakage; there are many pianos which would no longer be able to withstand the extra pressure applied to the frame & soundboard.

When a piano is considered structurally sound, it generally requires a couple of tunes (in quick succession) to get it back up to concert pitch and then usually another one or two tunes over a period of months to keep it stable.

What do you like best about your job?

As a piano tuner, I love hearing the moment-by-moment transformation of a piano being brought back to life, one string at a time.

With that said, I think my favourite aspect of piano tuning is actually not about the piano, it’s how I get to make people feel. I’ve discovered that people are often emotionally connected to their piano, even if they don’t play the piano themselves.

I find many times that after bringing out the best in the instrument, it also draws out the best in people.

Have you had any “horror stories” in your career?

Over the past 22 years in the piano industry, I’ve dealt with my fair share of water-logged and mouse infested pianos, but in terms of one story that stands out? Let me see… Ah yes, my first piano restoration!

After many months of painstaking repairs, and hundreds of hours restoring this gorgeous old german upright piano, my “little treasure” was off to it’s new home. This for me was like seeing my child ready for his first day at school.

I’ll never forget as I watched the piano movers in slow motion, as they gently pushed my labour-of-love off the side of their truck ramp! Needless to say, the piano broke into a dozen pieces along with my throbbing heart.

What about some funny or heartwarming stories?

It seems that every old family piano has a history or particular story which is retold to consecutive generations.

I recall one such piano which the family had been told specifically was gifted to their grandmother by her then fiancé before their wedding. Whilst pulling apart this particular piano, I found the original purchase receipt with a little hand written note attached… “To my darling Audrey”.

What became apparent in the next few moments was that person who signed the letter and purchased the piano was not actually their grandfather as everyone had presumed. It seemed that this conservative Catholic grandmother had a previous mystery man that she had kept silent about for all these years. So with proof in hand, this little scandal apparently became a fantastic point of amusement around the family Christmas table for many years to come.

For those people reading this article, who want to move into employment in your field, what is your advice?

Piano tuning as a profession is not an easy niche to get into. However it can be a really rewarding career.

To begin with you’ll need to have an excellent musical ear and honestly, an endless supply of patience!

It generally takes a year or two of quality (full-time) training to begin in the industry and then another 3 to 5 years to build a reasonable client base. The best advice I could give anyone considering a piano tuning career is to talk with a local piano tuner about how much potential work is available within your region. Some places have a small ratio of pianos to piano tuners, whereas others have a massive demand for piano tuners. Do the math!

Have you ever had a situation where the piano is perfectly tuned, but the client is still unhappy? How do you resolve disagreements like this, or deal with difficult customers?

Difficult customers are rare. In most cases there’s simply been an unreasonable expectation placed on the piano by their owner.

Generally speaking there are certain limitations to virtually any piano. The tuning process is only able to make specific adjustments to the pitch of the piano, and won’t always improve a piano’s tone or playability.

Other aspects of how the piano sounds and feels can be greatly impacted by the instruments quality, age and mechanical condition. I’ve had a couple of times where clients have complained about their perfectly tuned piano, however (after further investigation and communication) the problems were just “normal issues” related to the pianos age and condition rather than something to do with the tuning.

With the advent of good quality digital pianos with weighted keys, have you noticed a drop off or reduction in your line of work?

Despite the popularity of digital pianos there still seems to be an appetite for the traditional acoustic pianos, especially among intermediate level students and professionals.

Has technology made any inroads into your profession, or is the process still similar to how it’s been for centuries?

With the rise of digital tuning devices and smart phone apps, there has certainly been a recent surge of piano tuners using these technologies to assist during the tuning process.

Despite this, the majority of piano tuners here are still very much in favour of using traditional methods of a simple tuning fork and a well-trained ear. The piano is ultimately listened to with our EARS not auto-corrected with our smartphones.

As far as tone, playability and ability to hold it’s tuning, what’s the best piano you’ve ever worked on?

I’ve worked on plenty of beautiful Steinways and Bosendorfer pianos, however my favourite piano to work on would still have to be my own piano at home. It’s an 1890’s Bechstein Semi Concert Grand which has been kept in immaculate condition and makes any piece of music sound amazing…

Then again, I might be a little biased!

Conclusion 

Well thanks so much, Nathan, for this in-depth look into the mysterious world of piano tuning. If I’ve been entertained by your excellent responses, I’m sure our worldwide audience will love it to. I’m sure we can revisit some more of your highly entertaining stories and expert advice in the future.

If you wish to contact Nathan via Facebook, here is the business page he manages.

You may also be interested in an App Nathan has created to find a piano’s age, value, origins and so much more. Check it out? It’s FREE to download here.

Simon Reich

Simon is a pianist and award-winning composer from Victoria, Australia.
Further information : Simon Reich Music

simon-reich-studio

Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs Keyquest Music - his successful independent music education business, private teaching practice and creative outlet.

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