What is the Best Place in my House for my Piano?

My answer to this question will come shortly, but first let’s consider some issues commonly found in answering this question.

It is often heard that you should not put your piano near a window. This rule of thumb was more true say in 1913 than in 2013. Windows in 1913 did not seal as tightly as modern windows do and homes were much less air tight, particularly around windows. Subsequently, there was more air movement and climate variability nearer the windows than on the inside walls. While the inside wall may still be more stable today, the difference is pretty negligible.

However, sun light, whether it is from 1913 or 2013 is pretty hard on a piano. But in 1913 you were much more likely to have heavy drapes around the windows both to dampen the air movement and block out excess sunlight. Today, we just let the sun pore in, we even will put in sky lights if possible. All of this high powered light will heat your piano, especially the ubiquitous black pianos, causing as much tuning instability as the 1913 walls and windows. Sun light will also fade the color out of any wood finished furniture and flooring.

What about the basement family entertainment area? Modern basements are certainly drier than those found in older homes however by their very nature the humidity levels are higher, sometimes much higher than those found on upper levels of the home. I have a friend who has a newer home and his basement flooded in this spring’s heavy rains. He was able to get his guitars out of his basement, but if his piano has been there he would have lost it. As a general rule I would assume any piano which has been in a basement for more than two years as little to no economic value left. Yes, some will still be fine, but most suffer from mold and animal and insect infestations you can’t see from the outside.

Some modern homes with open floor plans will have large sitting areas on their second floors which make for great, out of the way, places for their pianos. Don’t try to do this on your own! That turn you walk so easily through every day can be nearly impossible for a 500 pound upright to navigate except on its side. Heavy pianos will also destroy those beautiful wood stairs you just had refinished. Let the professionals do it and don’t just go with the cheapest quote, pay the extra for the best movers in town.

OK, so sunlight is bad, windows, as long as they are shut are less bad, and basements are deadly, where can I put my piano?

Where ever you want to! My first rule on piano placement and use is to enjoy it! I can fix everything else. If you like to play by the windows flung wide open in your 100 year old, original condition house, go for it! I personally love to play with the windows open and fresh air flowing all around me. You just may want to tune your piano more often, that is all. If your kids love to jam in the basement with their friends and the pianos gets all moldy, so what! Who would trade that experience for anything?

Put your piano where ever you want and enjoy it for the rest of your life, otherwise why bother.

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.

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

How Do I Know When My Piano is Out of Tune?

Let’s first address the issue of definition. Piano tuning is a process of adjusting the relative pitch relationship of 88 different pitches. As with politics and religion – everyone has a different opinion as to what “in tune” means, even among professional piano tuners. To add to the difficulty of defining “in tune” is the inherent instability present in all pianos. Piano tuners who are honest about their work say they abandoned a tuning – not finished it. There comes a point in every tuning where further work doesn’t achieve any more noticeable improvement in the tuning. Further work at this point may actually decrease the stability of the tuning. This doesn’t mean that the piano is “in tune”. It just means that it can’t be made any more “in tune”.

Tuning is analogous to cleaning. If the room is very dirty, a preliminary cleaning is the first step to bring order and cleanliness to the room by removing clutter. A second and third cleaning may follow which may begin to clean the dirt and dust to that which is typical of a reasonably clean room. You can continue to clean away but it makes no appreciable difference to the overall cleanliness of the room. Does the dirt still present make the room “unclean”?

So what defines the “dirt” of tuning? In the simplest of terms, it is inappropriate “beats”. Beats or waves are generated by the interference between two pitches. These beats can be present at various speeds and between different notes. Tuning is a process of arriving at some optimized level of these beats.

You can sometimes hear beats within a single note. Play a note in the middle of the piano. Hold it down and listen for a wave or undulation in the pitch. If you hear any movement in the pitch, it is out of tune.

Play perfect 4ths and 5ths. Hold the notes and listen for the waves or beats. You should hear some movement between the notes. Generally, the 4ths will be ever so slightly faster than the 5ths. Their speeds though will depend upon their location on the keyboard.

How long a tuning lasts depends on the environmental stability, amount of pitch adjustment needed, condition of the instrument, and most importantly your standards. A piano can be tuned two or three times a day in a concert or recording setting. One time Sting rented one of our pianos for rehearsal purposes and I tuned it every morning for a week.

So the answer is, yes, your piano is out of tune right now, even if you had it tuned yesterday.

Andrew Remillard

Everything in Balance

Ever wonder why some pianos say “play me” and others, well, you can’t imagine why anybody would ever want to play them?

Even if a piano action is regulated to an absolute perfection there can still be unevenness from one note to another. Regulation refers to the correct mechanical settings for various functions to occur, but it does not take into account one very important criteria to a smooth and even touch. The weight of various components has a profound impact on the touch of a piano. If you were to weigh each hammer and chart the results you would have a picture closely resembling the movement of the stock market!

How could the touch be even when one hammer weighs 1 gram more than its neighbor? You might think that one gram is not that big of deal, in fact you are right. A gram is equivalent to 2 ½ medium paper clips. Yet when that small amount of weight is acted upon by the leverages found in a piano action it becomes at least 5 grams at the end of the key.

With the typical down weight (the weight needed to depress the key with the damper pedal depressed) about 50 grams, a 5 gram difference represents a 10% variation! That is noticeable.

Difference in hammer weight also has a profound effect on the tone a hammer generates. All things being equal, a heavier hammer produces a darker, mellower tone and lighter hammers will give you a brighter tone.

All weight variations are evened out when a Custom Action Balancing is performed. In addition to hammer weight variations, key weights are also evened out and all leverage problems and inconsistencies are corrected. If you would like your piano to say “Play me” give me a call at 630-852-5058.

Andrew Remillard

My Soundboard is cracked!! My piano is ruined!

This is another great myth of the piano. While cracks, or more accurately: breaks, are unpleasant cosmetically, they usually are meaningless musically.

But before we go any further we must be sure we all know where and what is a soundboard and why it cracks. If you look under your strings in a grand piano or at the back of your upright behind the posts you will see the soundboard.

This mysterious piece of vegetative product is the most misunderstood part of our favorite instrument. The soundboard is made up of fletches of quarter-sawn sitka (usually) spruce. Traditionally tight grained spruce is preferred but with the loss of such old growth trees wider grain spacing has been used more in recent years and increasingly multi-laminate wood products (plywood).

The function of the soundboard is to take the energy from the string through the bridge and transduce that energy so that enough air is moved we can hear the sound. It doesn’t amplify the sound. Amplification implies energy being added to the system. The soundboard actually increases the rate in which energy is used. Without it, the string would vibrate softly for a very long time, slowly using up its energy. The soundboard uses the energy given to the string by the hammer at a faster rate allowing a large enough mass of air to be moved to produce an audible sound.

The soundboard has three primary components; the bridge receives the energy from the strings and provides contact with the soundboard. Underneath the soundboard panel are the ribs which move the energy across the grain of the panel and support the crown or upward bowing of the panel.

There are two methodologies for constructing a soundboard, for today’s purposes we will ignore the more modern method and look at the traditional method of soundboard construction. Traditionally the soundboard panel is dried to a level between 4% and 5% EMC (equalized moisture content) which is simply a measure of the water present within the wood. The panel shrinks in this process. The ribs are then glued onto the panel, perpendicular to the direction of the grain. As the panel absorbs moisture it expands and literally bends the ribs. The ribs prevent the panel from expanding across the grain on the bottom of the panel. The top side is freer to expand and expands more. The effect is the crown of the soundboard. The crown provides the soundboard positive resistance to the downward pressure of the strings.

Both the top and bottom sides of the panel will be in a permanent state of compression. Through the normal environmental swings the levels of compression will rise and fall with the relative humidity. Two things will occur over time from this situation. The first is compression set. While initially the wood fibers expanded and contracted within their compressed state, eventually they will take the compressed state on permanently. After being compressed one too many times during a damp season, during the following dry season the soundboard will release its excess moisture but because the wood had suffered compression set, instead of relaxing intact it breaks along the compression. Sometimes you can feel a compression ridge on your soundboard. This is a grain of wood which has been pushed up during an excessively high compression period. It does relieve some of the compression but you are looking at next winter’s crack.

So that is where cracks come from, what do they mean? Initially they mostly represent just a loss of surface area on your soundboard. In most cases we are talking about a .1% loss. In other words it means nothing. As more cracks develop the soundboard will lose more if not all of its crown which usually sounds like a warm, long sounding piano without much punch. Even a very bad board will still act as a transducer.

However if the ribs break off of the panel, you can see this as a gap between the rib and the board from the bottom or a raised portion along a crack on the top, you can develop some very loud buzzing as the rib, panel and glue residue vibrate against each other. This condition is very repairable and the soundboard can continue in service for many more years.

If you have any questions about the condition of your soundboard or piano, just drop me a note.

Andrew Remillard

Dear ANR #2 …

“Should I wait until the air conditioner gets turned on to tune my piano?”

The corollary would be waiting until you turn the heat on. Both reflect the futility of trying to time the tuning of your piano to some magical point in the seasons. The question does swerve toward the truth in recognizing that climate and environment have an impact on tuning.

There have been many studies done looking at the impact of various climatic and environmental changes upon the tuning of a piano. From my own experience I can tell you that tuning a piano for a concert without the hot stage lights on for an hour is a futile effort. As soon as the lights come on the radiant heat will quickly knock the piano out of tune. The heat is not affecting the moisture content of the wood in the soundboard as much as heating and thus lowering the tension of the strings. The soundboard will dry out some but this is a much slower process than heating the strings and harp.

If your piano is placed in the direct path of your HAVC air flow, especially if it is the air delivery vents, then every time your furnace or air conditioner comes on you will drive your piano out of tune.

It is not so much that a particular part of your climate control system is running, it is all a matter of stability. If you keep your piano out of direct sun light, and minimize the presence of sun light in the room itself, keep air movement across the instrument to a minimum, and maintain a constant humidity and temperature, your tuning will remain relatively stable.

However, one of my primary rules for the care and feeding of your piano is that you enjoy it! If that means putting in front of the window and playing with the sun in your eyes and the window open because that is what you enjoy, then by all means DO IT!! Enjoy your piano, we can fix everything else!

Andrew Remillard

Escapement, Getting Out From Under

Recently we had the rare opportunity to have an 1860’s Erard in the shop for a brief period. These are exceedingly rare pianos and this one was in fantastic shape. It had been rebuilt and restored to original condition by a very conscientious rebuilder. I was very excited to open the piano and examine the action which dates from very near the invention of the double escapement action built by the inventor of that very action, Mr. Erard. His action design is what all modern grand actions are based upon.

The term “double escapement” refers to the mechanisms ability to “reset” the hammer jack relationship without having to return the key to the fully upright position. You can re-strike a key on a grand piano after returning the key to about the ½ way point. On almost all uprights, and the 1897 Broadwood grand we had in the shop not too long ago, you must allow the key to fully return before it will play again.

The double escapement allows for a much faster repetition and much more subtle soft playing. This is accomplished by a second lever, sometimes called the “balancier” which is attached to a spring. The spring applies a positive lift to the hammer knuckle and when the key is released and the hammer is freed from the back check it is able to lift the hammer, allowing the jack to slide back under the knuckle before the key has fully returned.

There are a few examples of “double escapement” like upright actions. Fandrich & Sons has developed an action with an extra spring connecting the hammer butt and jack which pulls the jack back under the butt, allowing for a quicker repetition. And as the preacher said: “There is nothing new under the sun.” We are just finishing the complete rebuilding of a 1912 Mason & Hamlin upright with a spring designed to push the jack back under the butt also. If you want an upright which plays and feels like a grand… here you are! The Mason & Hamlin will repeat with even less key return than a grand piano. You can get the key to re-strike with the key less than ½ way returned.

Andrew Remillard

Dear ANR

“I have been told by me teacher that I should only use a tuner who uses a tuning machine and I have been told by another person that I should only use a tuner who tunes by ear. What is the truth?” Pat

This is a great question.

Here is one way to consider the answer. I play a great sounding 7’ Steinway and Sons grand piano that I rebuilt to my own specifications. It has a huge bass and clear treble. Now, with this tool, I can play beautiful music effortlessly and I will never make a mistake. Right? Of course not! The piano is simply a tool, a very good one, but still a tool, just like a hammer. It is up to the user to use the tool adequately and with skill to be successful.

Whether a piano tuner uses a Electronic Tuning Device (ETD) or they tune with only their own ears and mind, their success has less to do with the tool they use than the skill they bring to the tool. I have seen tuners who were using an ETD execute a beautiful stable tuning and others who I wished they hadn’t touched my pianos. I was left wondering if they actually listened to the mess they made of the tuning.

The same goes for aural tuners. Virgil Smith was one of the finest aural tuners I have ever met; people would fly him all over the country to tune their pianos. Other aural tuners would be better off with an EDT. It is more important to check the tuner’s skill and experience than to look for any particular tool in their tool box.

Andrew Remillard