How long will my used or new piano last?

The life expectancy of a piano is a difficult concept for most people to fully understand. With prices usually falling within the range of an automobile, most people think in terms of the life expectancy of a car, plus maybe a little. I have had people say of a 10 year old piano: “It is getting pretty old isn’t it?” If this were a car, certainly we are closer to the end than the beginning.

So how long will a piano last? Let’s start by assuming a reasonably normal home setting, where a couple of the kids take a couple years of lessons and one takes 10 years of lessons and actually gets to some early advanced music. The top of the piano is used to display family pictures and the bench is used to hold years worth of completed music books.

Well, our bench is deteriorating rapidly and our piano is still in nearly like new condition. And we are only 10 years old. For the next ten years the pianos sits in the living room untouched except for an occasional holiday visit from the kids.

Keep in mind that the family has probably had three or four primary cars over this time period. And still the original piano sits in the living room.

After 20 years is usually when the piano will go into motion. Mom and Dad want it out of the house. If one of the kids wants it; they get it. If not, it gets sold to another family. Hopefully it will be moved by professional piano movers!

And the story is repeated. Typically, a piano will stay in a home for a generation. It is very rare to find used pianos less than 20 years old, because most are still in their original homes. Most 20 year pianos have had only a half dozen years of moderate playing on them. After two generations, we may only have had 10 years of steady use out of a 40 year age. There are certainly exceptions, some pianos receive very hard playing over decades and show great wear from this use; others virtually none.

So back to our question: How long will my piano last?

A great way to think of this is in terms of a home. When a home is brand new, the first couple of years are spent dealing with the various odd problems which may crop up. After that a home may be trouble free for decades.

If only two people live in the house and they are gentle in its use, things will wear out only very slowly. On the other hand if a large family of teenagers move in, the house is likely to wear much faster; the carpets wear out faster, the doors break sooner, and so on.

With reasonable care and normal wear, a house should last many generations. Certainly, at some point a portion or all of it may be rebuilt (just like a piano).

So, how long will your piano last? It depends on how much use and the type of use it receives. If the use is gentle it will last for generations; 60 – 80 years. If the use is heavier; it could last only 40 – 60 years before it will need to be replaced or rebuilt.

So a 10 year old piano in a normal use environment is a young child. A 20 year old piano is a very young adult with its best years ahead. A 40 year old piano is starting to show it age a bit (aren’t we all). A 60 year old piano is getting a little tired and may need a very thorough examination to determine its health. And an 80 year piano is in need of replacement or rebuilding.



Hermann Ebbinghaus, An Introduction

One of the very first studies in human memory applying scientific processes was published by Hermann Ebbinghaus in 1885 with the essay Uber das Dedachtniss (Memory, A Contribution to Experimental Psychology (English translation title)). Ebbinghaus used himself as the subject in his experiments in learning lists of non-sense words (from a list of 2300 words). Based upon his experiments he described three important theories which can be helpful today in understanding the learning process. They are: 1) interference theory in which earlier learning is covered over by later learning, 2) trace decay is where images or knowledge suffers changes which alter its character, 3) forgetting involves a “crumbling” of various components as opposed to a general obscuring.

Ebbinghaus used himself as the subject of his experiments because he wanted complete control of motivation factors and an awareness of any possible distractions from his experiments. After creating lists of three-letter non-sense words he would read them out loud at a steady rate of 150 per minute and consistent intonation usually emphasizing every fourth. He would continue to read the lists with periodic tests until he was able to reproduce the list without hesitation, a perfect reproduction of the material. He also controlled for external factors such as time of day and personal levels of distractedness. After doing thousands of tests, he performed statistical analysis on his results.

The ability of humans to store information is enormous, however the rate of retention, ability to accurately recall, and rate of forgetting varies greatly and is the area of greatest concern when we look at learning methods. Ebbinghaus examined the rate of rote learning he experienced with his lists. One question he sought an answer to was the effect of repetition on the rate of learning. What was the relationship between practice (repetitions) and learning; how did more practice effect the outcome? What happens when a list was learned a second time; what was the residual impact of initial work on subsequent efforts?

To find the answer to these and many other types of questions he employed lists of non-sense words and practiced them for 8, 16, 24, 32, 42, 53, or 64 repetitions. He would then relearn these lists the next day measure the results. “Learned” is defined as one successful performance of the material by memory. The use of non-sense words was to reduce or eliminate any associative characteristics with meaningful words. The purpose of the study was to look at the rote learning of non-associative and non-sense syllables.

After looking at the rates of learning 16 syllable sequences with 8, 16, 24, 32, 42, 53, and 64 reps he found an average saving of 12 seconds in the re-learning after 24 hours for each repetition. A single repetition of about 7 seconds of work saved 12 seconds of work the next day.

Ebbinghaus also looked at the rate of forgetting (his famous “forgetting curve). A 13 syllable list was re-learned after a 20 min break through 30 day interval. The forgetting metric is the difference between the numbers of reps for the first trial minus the number for the second trial expressed as a percentage of the first trial. The retention rate was found to be after 1/3 hr 60%, 1 hr 45%, 8 hr 35%, 24 hr 34%, 2 days 30%, 5 days 28%, and 30 days 25%. Most of the forgetting occurred within the first 24 hours and even after 30 days enough memory remained to reduce the time it took to relearn the list by 25%.

Ebbinghaus also looked at the position a word appeared in the list and the consequences of its serial position on retention and re-learning. There are two functions he found present. Recency is the recall of recently learned material and primacy is the recall of the first learned. First studied material benefits from the lack of conflicting material and increased rehearsal.

This is a study of purely rote learning of non-associative/nonsense information. It doesn’t show the retention of associative or meaningful material. It does however provide a baseline of learning. Rote learning is the most mechanical learning process and represents learning at its most basic level.

Ebbinghaus showed, through his careful testing of his most reliable subject, himself, a model of learning which still informs our thinking nearly 150 years later. We see the relationship between learning effort and forgetting and learning effort and retention.

In upcoming articles I will look at several aspects of his work which I found helpful in understanding some of the basics of human memory which were relevant to my study at the piano. I know that some of you may find this stuff as dry as dead bones, but I hope at least a few may share some of the AHAAA moments I had as I learned something about how I learn.



Man Plans and God Laughs

This old Yiddish proverb has rung especially loudly in my life of late. If you would have asked me a year ago if I would ever open another piano store I would have stared at you mutely for a minute and simply said: “NO!” I also didn’t plan on losing the use of my left hand and having to endure three surgeries, nearly two weeks of hospitalization, and weeks of infusion antibiotics.

As I talked over my plans to reopen my store, my wise brother-in-law, Richard Southworth, shared this Yiddish proverb with me. It struck me as also quite a summary of my life. As the inveterate goal setter and planner, I am used to most of my plans and goals coming to naught. I always keep getting tripped up by the unexpected and the mundane of life.

A number of circumstances came together to make it almost inevitable that we would reopen our store so rather than sticking to a plan which was not working we decided to go ahead and reopen.
The new showroom is located at 2749 Curtiss St. in Downers Grove, IL; just a few blocks west of our previous location. It is open by appointment only for now.

The more I thought about what Rich said to me I realized that this laughter of God is not in the context of mockery. When the three travelers told Abraham that he and Sarah would have a son, Abraham laughed out of joy and Sarah laughed in derision. However, when Isaac, (whose name means laughter), was born all the laughter came from joy.
It is easy to become discouraged when things don’t go our way and our plans are thwarted. I am sure that the lack of offspring was a source of great pain and frustration for Abraham and Sari for decades. For their entire lifetimes they watched as those around them had children, gave their children away in marriage, and bounced their grandchildren on their knees. This vital marker of a complete life, which they surely wanted as much as their next breath, had eluded them into their old age.

Yet, God brought laughter and joy to this yearning of theirs after waiting until they were very old, and out of this laughter came the salvation of the world.

When I was asked last year how I felt about closing the 8000 sq ft shop, I answered that I had mixed emotions: joy and happiness. And now that my plans have once more met with holy laughter, I must meet this new opportunity with the mixed emotions of joy and happiness.

If you know anybody who needs a good used piano give me a call… I have a few.

Andrew Remillard
2749 Curtiss St, Downers Grove, IL
630-852-5058



Should We Fix Grandma’s Piano?

“I just inherited Grandma’s grand piano. Her parents bought it for her when she was just 10. My mom also learned on it and so did I. I would love for my daughter to play it. But it is in such bad shape. The last tuner said he couldn’t tune it. Is there anything you can do?” So goes a typical phone call into our rebuilding shop. Sentimental value aside, how do we decide what is the best approach to these family heirlooms. Sometimes, money isn’t an object, but more often we need to figure out how to recreate a musical instrument inside a very dead carcass within a limited budget.

There are several hundred manufactures of pianos from the early twentieth century, some were cheaply made and it is a wonder they are still standing after a hundred years or more. And there is surprising number of completely unknown brands who were carefully manufactured; representing the great craftsmanship and abundant natural materials present in our country back then.

How can you tell if the dead piano in front of you can be rebuilt to service many more generations or should be sent to its final resting place? As a rebuilder of pianos there are certain structural elements I need to make for an effective rebuilding project especially if we are going to keep costs under control. Though it is possible to take a substandard structure and stiffen the frame, redesign a new soundboard, and redesign the action with brand new keys, the costs will add up extremely fast.

Some of the superficial elements anybody can see are such things as a substantial set of struts under the soundboard. These provide the structural support and stiffness to the frame. I have added these in some projects; this can be a costly, but important part of the rebuilding of a lesser instrument.

Another consideration is length, the longer the better. Small pianos are loaded with compromises in the scale and design. Once you cross the 6’ size these compromises become less noticeable even on lesser pianos.

The presence of agraffes through about 60% of the strings also suggests a better designed piano. Agraffes are located at the string termination closest to the player marking the near end of the speaking length of the string. Agraffes are made of brass and cost more to use than just a big piece of cast iron found on cheaper pianos. (Though some manufactures such as Chickering Bros (not Son’s) from Chicago developed a pretty sophisticated improvement in the big hunk of cast iron design.)

I really don’t care about what is covering the keys, but it is very helpful if the key stick is in good condition. If more than one or two keys have broken at some time, we really need to consider a new key set. If the wood used, the angle the keys were cut, or the angle of the grain were such that a few keys have broken, then this will be a very unreliable set of keys, prone to ever more breakage in coming years. A new key set can cost between $4,000 and $5,000. They can be well worth it, but it is an expense which is best to avoid if possible.

Every piano has a unique situation. In most cases, we are able to breathe new life into your old piano. Remember – it’s what we do! So if you’re ready to revive Grandma’s old piano or are curious about pricing out a fix-up, don’t hesitate to ask!

Andrew Remillard
President
ANRPiano.com



The Science of Practice, Intro

I recently re-read The Art of Practicing by Madeline Bruser. While the author occasionally would swerve into a more empirical mind set, much of the time was spent in what my great late friend Ralph Bus would have called the “ooo eee”. Being a bit more analytical and empirical in my thinking, I usually do not get much out of this “new age” approach to problem solving.

When I was much younger and feeling very intimidated by my classmates at college I asked “Why can they, and I can’t?” This question propelled me for most of the next 20 years to find the answer to that question. It was actually a very difficult subject to explore and find meaningful information. The vast majority of cognitive psychology research which I was able to find focused on language as a subject matter. The cognitive processes used in the study of music and the learning of an instrument are orders of magnitude more complex than learning a list of words. Only in the past decade or so has the field of music psychology begun to take shape. Yet, despite the difficulties in finding useful research which could shed some light on the learning of music, I was able to develop a pretty complex and nuanced understanding of the mechanics of learning music.

The human mind is a very complex electro-chemical machine and while most of its functions are still unexplainable,
enough is known to create a number of working models of the how and why of the human mind and memory.

Years ago I started to outline a book on this subject which I will use throughout this series. Some of the ideas I will present may strike you as too mechanical to be used in an artistic endeavor but becoming an efficient learner is no different than developing an efficient technique. We don’t hesitate to work on scales and etudes in the hope of having a better mechanical command of our instrument. It is very difficult to play artistically if you are fumbling around mechanically. Understanding how the human mind learns, retains, and recalls information will help us learn, retain, and recall our music more efficiently and effectively.

In the same way that concert artists often make very poor teachers because they often don’t fully understand how they do what they do or how they learned to do it, they may not be aware of how their learning processes may be unique to them, giving them a great advantage in learning literature. Through the course of these articles I will explore what science can tell us about how we learn, retain, and perform our music.

Andrew Remillard
President
ANRPiano.com




Rule 15) TWO HANDS AT A TIME, ALL OF THE TIME.

When I was a young student, my teacher insisted I first learn each hand separately and only then play both hands together. I found this more than a little frustrating. I always felt I had to start all over again when I put my hands together; all of the proceeding work with hands separate was a waste. Eventually in a pique of rebelliousness I quit playing with my hands separately, except for when I was asked to do so in a lesson.

I have often wondered about where the notion of learning each hand separately originated. I can picture a scenario like this: JS Bach tells CPE Bach he should pay extra attention to the right hand passage he continuously mis-plays. CPE tells his student he should play the right hand a couple times to fix a problem. Beethoven then tells his student Czerny that his right hand is very sloppy and he needs to fix it before the next lesson or he will use the ruler. Finally Czerny tells everybody to practice each hand separately.

So let’s break the cycle. The piano is a two handed instrument requiring a constant partnership between the hands. A good sight reader doesn’t run through each hand before playing, he just plays both hands immediately.

Now before you completely write me off as a crank, I will allow brief hands separate work but only in the interest of clarification of technical details and fingering. After that put them together!

Andrew Remillard
President
ANRPiano.com