Piano Maintenance

As a new school year approaches and lessons start again, we wonder “Where did the summer go?” It seems as though the season just started and, poof, it's over. Time does that: as we're paying attention to something else, it just keeps on ticking away.

And it's not just humans who are affected by time's march. Our pianos age and change, just as we do. And just like the summer slips away without our noticing, so does a piano's tuning and regulation.

When a piano is new, all the parts are in their best condition, and all the mechanisms move and work as they were designed to do. The hammer hits the strings at the optimum moment in the perfect spot with the correct momentum, and beautiful sounds come forth. All is well with our musical world.

But with time and age and playing, things change. Hammers erode from hitting strings; strings corrode from humidity; woods cracks from lack of humidity; parts change shape, and nothing works quite as it did.

One of my favorite metaphors as a piano technician is the frog in the sauce pan. The story is that if you put a frog in a sauce pan of cold water and set it over low heat, the frog will be cooked before it even realizes that the water is hot. The change is so slow and steady, the frog doesn't notice.

Pianos are like that, too. They are so wonderfully designed and built, so massive, such resistant pieces of engineering... that under normal conditions, they change slowly and consistently, and we don't notice. We adapt. We adjust our playing to the piano's vagaries. We hear what we expect, rather than what the strings actually say. We get so caught up in the playing that we forget about that one key that doesn't work quite right....

And then, one day, we realize that the tuning is pretty bad. The tonal color is getting tinny. We notice that our hands, wrists, arms hurt when we practice. We're working too hard and enjoying it less. Something is wrong with the piano!

The good part is that, as pianists, we know when there's a problem. And we know what to do: call the technician, get it tuned and regulated. Take it easy for a day or two. Get back to playing.

But we can also be a lot more proactive. Be sure your piano technician checks the regulation and voicing, as well as the tuning, at every visit. It only takes a few minutes to go up and down the keyboard, listening and feeling for things that aren't quite right.

If you notice problems when playing, make a list. And be sure to include details so your technician can duplicate the problem. We can't fix what we don't know about—and even the best tech might not notice something that you think is obvious.

Don't just settle for an annual tuning. A thorough check-up every year can keep you (and your piano) out of hot water! Talk to your technician about ways to maintain your piano in better condition. You'll be glad you did.