The End of a Tuning Era

If you are still reading the occasional blog updates that pass through this space, you know that I have spent the past 6 years studying and working to become a piano technician. While it’s definitely been slow, I have been persistent, despite having two children during that time. I’ve been tracking my tunings with blogs (and am woefully behind on posting about them). It’s with a lot of sadness that this part of my life is coming to a close. I am actually very close to having completed 100 tunings (just finished #94 recently). I do feel a need to explain my sudden departure for the few people who will care to read about it, since this is a completely different direction than what I had been planning on and working towards this summer.

Last Spring I hurt my hands to the point that playing and tuning pianos was impossible. I powered through a concert that I was accompanying and then completely stopped. My thumbs hurt all the time: while driving, writing, typing, pushing on my kids’ car seat buckles. Slowly the pain lessened, although it flared up again any time I played piano. I’ve been playing since I was 6 and based my whole career (as limited as it is at this point) on piano so this was terrifying. The hand doctor said it was just an isolated incident that would heal over time. So I waited and played even less.

This fall my number of tunings resumed as weather changed and rehearsals began again on pianos unused for the summer. The same pain came back immediately. Not all tunings were the culprit, just specific angles un-avoidable on specific pianos. I know I could learn another way to tune as clearly other technicians do not have this problem, but that would take more time and investment while trying to preserve my hands for something I love much more: playing piano.

I’ve found that trying to pursue learning piano tuning, finding accompaniment work which fits around a homeschooling schedule, teaching lessons, and keeping a household running is all too much for me right now. My first love is playing piano, my second love is teaching piano, and my third interest (which never really turned into the love I wished it to be) is tuning. As much as I love working, my first priority is actually not any of those, it is tending to my home and my family, which currently includes very hands on homeschooling.

And so I think it is time to bring this chapter to a close. It’s time to focus on the things I do want to invest more time in and stop hurting my hands for the sake of pride. Stopping now is now is a not a decision I come to lightly. I desperately want to be able to take them apart without a haunting fear regarding my ability to put them back together again. Maybe someday when my kids are grown and I have time to tinker, I will be back. My tools are certainly not going anywhere as I have my own piano to maintain! But for now, it is the end of tuning for me.

Thank you to the few fearless people who let me experiment with their pianos at the beginning, and those who have trusted their pianos to me in more recent years. Your support has been deeply appreciated.

Piano Technicians Guild Annual Conference: Lancaster

Late last year I learned that the Piano Technician's Guild was having their annual conference close to where I live. I'd been thinking of joining the Guild but my chapter's meetings are on a night that I already work so it wasn't a high priority. However, I jumped at the chance to go to the conference at a discount and soon my Guild membership packet was in the mail. I am now an Associate Member, meaning I have not passed all their rigorous testing, but can attend classes and meetings to make progress on my skills. 

The conference was a week long event, but I traveled to Lancaster for just two days of it. There were more than 600 attendees, including piano service specialists, manufacturers and suppliers from around the world. All week there were classes, hands on demonstrations, and concerts. Many piano technicians play piano along with a plethora of other instruments.

I tried to make the most of my time there by attending classes that would give me hands on experience. One room was completely devoted to this with over 12 stations set up to practice different piano technician tasks. Some people spent all day going from station to station, having their work checked and signed off by master technicians. I didn't devote all day to this, but I did make it to four stations. I adjusted hammers to make sure they hit the strings squarely. I learned about adding tiny pieces of paper to various points in a piano action to adjust how a key played. I worked at one station learning how to bend damper wire for a grand piano so that the damper would sit just right on the strings (represented by a nail and damper head below).  The wire was straight when I started and I had to use my hands to put the right bends into the middle of the wire. It is going through a hole in the top piece of wood, then feeding down into another hole in the action part below.  I was using a hair straightener to get the dowel out of a hammer head when they had to close the room for the day.  


Bending Grand Damper


I also had a one on one lesson on tuning with a former Piano Technicians Guild president. He gave me some new tips to try out to better my tunings and train my ears to listen more accurately while tuning. He recommended I try out a different kind of tuning hammer, which I picked up later with some other new gear.

I am amazed every time I talk to master technicians with how many household tools they use (like a hair straightener for melting wood glue) and what a craftsmanship skill piano tuning really is. I am hoping that I can get to know my area chapter and start learning more from them this year. 

If you want to see my new impact tuning hammer in action on your piano, send me an email through the contact button!   


Counting to 100: 50-59

counting to 100 pianos.jpg

(If you're new to this series, I am writing about my tuning journey, counting my first 100 tunings. Check out previous posts here: 

#50: I made it to the half-way point in documenting my tunings! It has taken much longer than I anticipated to get here, but having two kids and being the primary stay at home parent will do that. In the past few years as I've been whittling away at my goal, I have gotten better and faster at tuning pianos. I still have much to learn, especially about taking them apart and fixing things. 

This tuning was particularly exciting because I finally managed to fix an issue that had been bothering me for a while. This piano is a friend's spinet. I knew there were several hammers that were "bobbling" or double striking and had tried a few things to adjust them. The hard part is that spinets are notoriously hard to take apart and put back together and I didn't really want to tackle that yet. This time so many of the hammers were terrible I began to suspect there must be a bigger problem. After checking a few things I found that the entire hammer rail that holds the hammer close enough to the strings was loose and not screwed on properly! Once I got it back in place and screwed on well the difference was miraculous. 

#51: My own Cunningham Piano needed another tuning only 3 months after I had last tuned it. Those three months were the difference between using A/C in our house and turning the heat on. Since my piano is currently not living in the best of locations (right under the A/C unit) I should not have been surprised by this need for another tuning so soon. 

# 52: Another Baldwin Acrosonic spinet that I have seen often.

#53:  A Young Chang upright piano.  This is a piano I play regularly and now tune regularly as well. This piano and location was an upgrade for me from a rehearsal in a restaurant back room playing a 5 octave keyboard. However over the years it has started to show signs of needing regulating. One hammer is rubbing on another, a few keys don't strike evenly or have a clear tone. I am taking some time to do research on the various ailments to prepare to fix some of them when I tune it next. It helps I see it each week so I have an idea of what needs to be done. 

#54: Lester Spinet. I did a pitch raise on this piano during the summer and should have come back to see it a few months sooner than I did. However, this time it was 11 cents flat- an improvement on last time. If it's been a while since the piano was tuned and you decide to go back to having it tuned regularly, one pitch raise often is not enough. It takes an extra tuning or two that first year until the piano strings stabilize and hold their pitch better.

#55: Kawaii Grand piano. The pianist at this church left me a note that one of the dampers was not working properly. Thankfully I had just watched someone else take the action out of a grand a few weeks prior so I was willing to take it apart and take a look. On a grand piano all the action is under the strings so you can't fix much without taking the action out. I oiled the damper and by the time I was done the tuning it was working well again. I actually took the action in and out a few times because I found a problem with the middle pedal after it was all put back together again the first time. It took a bit of searching to find the one loose screw in the inside of the piano that was making the pedal click and not catch correctly. 

#56: Lester Grand piano. Three strings broke while I was tuning this piano and I found two notes that had long been missing a fourth treble string. I replaced one of the strings but two others were on the understrung portion of the piano. On most pianos there are sections where the bass strings cross over the treble strings, hence the name "understrung". This makes it hard to reach the treble strings to take them out and replace them. They really just needed to be spliced but I didn't know the piano tuners knot yet. I had to leave the job for another day and assistance.  I did go home and teach myself how to make a square knot in piano wire the very next day so that I will not have this issue again. If for some reason you are like me and think that you are supposed to be able to twist these knots into piano wire with no assisting tools and therefore never learn because that is ridiculously hard- check out some videos. I made eight good knots in two hours after learning to use vice grips.  More of the story: don't be dumb, use youtube, watch videos. 

Left: Good knots                                                                                    Right: rejects

#57: Baldwin Spinet. This was a new piano for me, another case of an old piano needing a pitch raise. There were several pedals not working correctly but nothing a little screw tightening couldn't fix. When I was finished the piano was still an old spinet but sounded much better and all parts were functional. 

#58 Young Chang Upright: This is a piano I see all the time because I play it every week. I was aware that some notes were knocking and some keys were sticking, so I was able to come prepared to take it apart and with some fixes researched in advance. I took out the action, tightened a lot of screws, pushed some pins back in place, then put the whole thing back together again. A few months later, I can tell that some of the pins are working loose again, but the screws I tightened are not having any new issues. 

#59 Wurlitzer Spinet: A friend asked me to come tune his spinet. He told me in advance that it was playing a half step lower than it should be, so I knew to expect an extreme pitch raise. This spinet turned out to be an example of piano that should not be tuned and really should not be played anymore. Many of the pins were not holding, making a few notes completely unplayable. I told him it really wasn't worth the work, but he wanted to be able to use it a little, so I did what I could. If your technician tells you to trash a piano, please trash it and don't list it for free on Craigslist instead. 








Counting to 100: 41 - 49

counting to 100 pianos.jpg

(If you're new to this series, I am writing about my tuning journey, counting my first 100 tunings. Check out previous posts here: 

(Piano Tunings 41 through 49 all happened during the summer months - if anyone is following along, I'm playing catch up again) 

Tunings 41 and 42 were in Maine. I tune a few pianos there every summer when I am visiting family. This is the third year I've come back to these pianos, which gives me a good look at how I am doing better and what I still need to work on. In general I tune a lot fast than I did when I started. Most jobs take me less than two hours now. Tuning #42 is a piano that has one broken part. I've pushed it back into place before, but that isn't cutting it anymore. I'll need to see if I canibring a part and replace it next time.

Tunings 43 and 44 were two grand pianos at a church in PA. Tuning grands is similar to uprights, but different enough to make it take a bit longer for me. The strings and tuning pins are vertical instead of horizontal, there tend to be more strings, and there is usually a better tone making it easier to hear accurate pitches on the lower and higher notes.

Tunings 45 and 46 were both pitch raises. The pianos had not been tuned in some time and both were about a half step flat. I had to go through the tuning sequence several times to pull the string up to pitch. I will need to visit these pianos again soon. Getting a piano back to stable tuning takes a while and several tunings. 

Tuning 47 was a piano I've tuned before, now in a new home. It was nice to see it still holding up well. If you sell or give away a piano, let the next person know who your technician is so they can receive continued care. 

Tuning 48 is a friend's piano. I've seen this piano many times now as well. 

Tuning #49 was my own piano. This is a new Cunningham piano that I purchased in the last year. It's last tuning was done for free with purchase price, so I was surprised to find it fairly sharp when I started tuning it. I don't know how much of that was environment, or the previous tuning. I bought the piano right before we started some renovations so it has been living under an AC unit. (NOTE: This was foolish. Do not buy a brand new piano right before ripping up the room it is supposed to live in and then stick it under an ac unit. Buy the piano AFTER the room is done. However, we didn't plan for this to happen- does anyone?  I do love my new piano very much and am glad I didn't have to wait another year to purchase it.) 





Counting to 100: 31-40

(If you're new to this series, I am writing about my tuning journey, counting my first 100 tunings. Check out previous posts here: 

With two kids keeping me busy, finding time to rehash every tuning I do just isn't happening. Here's a review of the last 9 for anyone who may be keeping track with me. You might remember that I finally got an electronic tuning device (SAT I - it's a really old school one) to help me! It has definitely helped me improve my tunings and my speed as well. 

Piano Tuning #31: Our church's Baldwin upright with the SAT.

Every piano is slightly different in the way it needs to be tuned because of a lot of different factors (pianos are pretty complex). I consistently had trouble getting some of the G#'s and B's to fit when tuning this piano. Having the SAT helped me get them set in just right to fit the scale. I'm not sure why they were so much more tricky on this piano than others, but I was glad to finally start fixing the problem.

Funny note: I am pretty hyper aware of slightly out of tune B's because of my own struggles with them. Our church recently got a brand new grand piano and due to contract obligations it was tuned by someone else. I noticed immediately that a few of the B's weren't quite where I would want them. It makes me feel better that I am not the only one with this B tuning problem! 

Piano Tuning #32: a friend's Kimball spinet

  This piano has a double hitting problem, but because it is a spinet it is not an easy fix. Every time I tune it I look into it some more and try to fiddle with it to fix the double hitting. But I suspect I need to take it apart to really solve the problem. Since I am tuning it as a favor to a friend with both our little kids running around, I usually don't have the time to give it my full attention. Someday I'll take it apart and see what I can do. 

Piano Tuning #33: a student's Baldwin Acrosonic Spinet

These little pianos are workhorses. They don't always sound the prettiest, or play the smoothest, but they seem to last forever and hold up to abuse well. If you are looking for a used piano for your kid's lessons, a Baldwin Acrosonic spinet is not a bad choice. 

Piano Tuning #34: a friend's Kranich and Bach upright

This piano is old and not holding up well. The top notes were slipping this time that I tuned it. Sometimes pegs and pegboards just get worn out and won't hold a pitch as well anymore. That is a sign it is time to get a new piano.  

Piano Tuning #35: my own piano again. 

Yes, I tune my own piano, although it is a little like the cobbler's children. It is hard to schedule my own work in my own house. 

Piano Tuning #36: a Schumann upright

"Schumann" is not a quality name for a piano like it is for composers. This piano had several strings that were untunable, a broken flange, and badly needed a pitch raise. I did the best I could for it but advised them their piano did not have much life left. If your tuner ever has to tell you that, don't shoot the messenger. I understand it is disheartening to hear. However, better they tell you, than you continue to  pour money into an instrument that is just going to keep getting worse. 

Piano Tuning #37: Otto Altenburg spinet

I did a pitch raise over the course of 2014 when I first started tuning for this family. Now this piano is holding well and serving their needs perfectly. A little TLC for a piano goes a long way. 

Piano Tuning #38:  Kimball Upright 

This piano has been moved several times in the past 2 years and not happy about it. It takes a few weeks (or even longer) for pianos to stabilize after being put in a new environment. This affects pitch and necessitates more tunings for a time. 

Piano Tuning #39:  Back to my friend's Kimball spinet

This piano is still double hitting. I have several notes on it and I am going to make time in a few months to check it out more thoroughly. Since we have a special tuning arrangement, I haven't spent too much more time working on it.  

Piano Tuning #40:  Young Chang professional upright

I accompany a community choir and we hold our rehearsals and concerts at a local church. The church primarily uses an organ, so the choir hired me to tune the piano before our concert. I love being able to tune AND play pianos. Did you know that a lot of technicians don't actually play piano themselves? 

Phew I am almost up to date for this year. Stay tuned for pianos 41-50, coming in the next month or so.