Guide to Piano Maintenance, Costs, Checklist

Posted: March 8, 2012 in Piano

Every once in a while (every ten years) your piano needs an “oil change”. Piano techs refer to this process as an “action regulation”, but I am retiring that name because it is too difficult for pianists to understand. It is just piano maintenance.

Here is what to expect.

1. Check keys for level, key height, and key dip (distance down).

If the keys need to be leveled, the action will be pulled and taken to the shop.

2. Clean and lubricate

Eliminate friction. Remove dust. Lubricate all moving parts. Tighten screws.

3. Adjust

Check distances, align, adjust.

Now the action has to be returned to the piano. The tech regulates the action to factory specs in the shop, but all of those adjustments must account for very fine variations in the piano. The action will be removed and returned many times until this step is completed.

4. Voicing

Some of the hammers may need to be voiced. This also requires the removal of the action many times.

Here is what to pay
  1. Prices vary from town to town. The best techs deserve the most money. Market factors tend to make it difficult for the best techs to charge high prices. (I charge $150 for the first tuning. There is a guy on Craig’s List who advertises $60. For what I do, I probably deserve $200, but market factors keep me from charging that amount.)
  2. Pay the tech substantially more than he charges. If $350, offer $500. If $400, pay $550, etc. You want the technician to earn what he thinks he is worth, not what the market says he is worth.
  3. Offer the technician water each time he goes to your house. (80% of my clients do not do this.)
  4. Prepare and present a small token of appreciation at the conclusion of the maintenance call. A plate of cookies or a loaf of home-made bread is nice. (99% of my clients do not do this.)
Why pay more?
  1. Your technician is not the “cable guy”. He doesn’t work for the phone company. He is a very rare and unappreciated tradesman who is practicing a craft that started over 300 years ago.
  2. You want to demonstrate to your tech that you are willing to pay for his best work. You are among the 20% who are thoughtful enough to know that a technician might need a drink of water, or the 1% of customers who punctuate their appreciation with something from the oven.
  3. Piano maintenance occurs on intervals of ten years. This is not a time to be cheap or thoughtless.
How long does this take?
  1. It could take a couple of hours or a couple of weeks. The technician will let you know.
  2. Whatever he says, you respond, “If it takes longer; that is fine.”
  3. No pressure. Rushing a tech is like saying, “I have no idea what you do, nor do I care.”
What will I play while my piano is at the shop?

If you practice every day and you MUST have access to a piano, then you have a few options.

  1. Rent a piano.
  2. Find an available piano in your community. (Church, school, friend, piano studio, dealer).
  3. If your technician works for a piano dealer, you may be able to get a “loaner” piano. This would most likely only apply at the dealer where you purchased the piano. If you did not purchase from the dealer, you might be able to get a rental for a reduced price.
What if I am not satisfied?

It happens. There is a process you can follow.

  1. Relax. The technician wants you to be happy. He can “fix” whatever you do not like.
  2. When the tech is done, get a notepad and pen. Sit down at the piano and do the following.
  3. Play each key slowly and listen intently. If a note sounds unusual, just mark its name on the pad. Do not say anything; just write down the note and continue playing. Low A is A1.  Second octave is A2, etc.
  4. Don’t talk! When the mouth is open, the ears don’t work. LISTEN. Record. Report.
  5. Check voicing – play piano, then mezzo piano, then fortissimo. There should be three distinct variations in the tone.
  6. Check consistency – Start at C2 or C3 and play 4 slow sixteenths chromatically.  Check for evenness of tone and touch. Start on Db and repeat. (That adds a top note each time.) Do this slowly in several areas to test overall tone and touch. Play some scales, slowly. If you “sense” inconsistencies, test additional areas. Locate areas that seem excessive.  See step #4
  7. Last, play a prepared piece that spans the range of the keys. Arpeggios are fine too. This isn’t a concert.
  8. Mark the areas that give you concern. (There won’t be many.)
  9. The technician will review his work in the specified areas.
  10. Do not recheck his work. Give him the cookies, say thank you and goodbye.
What if it is still not right?

Play the piano for two weeks.  Some of the adjustments may sound unusual to you because you were accustomed to the poor state of the piano.  Get used to the new voicing and improved touch.

After two weeks, if there remain areas of concern, call the technician and schedule a time for “fine adjustments”. There is absolutely nothing wrong with doing this. There is something very wrong about not paying for that service call. Offer to pay for his time. He may say no. He may decide that you are being too much of a perfectionist. Perfectionists pay more.

And there is nothing wrong with having high standards. If you expect more, you should pay more. The only exception is if the technician really made a mistake. He or she will know this and will attend to it without additional charges. However, it is not too unusual that a few adjustments will be necessary after two weeks of play, especially in the voicing. You should pay for this. The change in the voicing is not due to something the technician did not do. It is due to the nature of your piano.

That seems like a very inconvenient maintenance requirement for me.
  1. I tried to include everything in this report.  I included everything that might go wrong. Most often, things go right. It is your responsibility to hire the best technician in your town. If you do that, then this maintenance will seem to be much easier and will not inconvenience you as much as my writing might lead you to believe.

Show this article to your technician. If he or she disagrees with any point made, or adds anything — listen to your technician. He probably knows more than me.

 

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Comments
  1. Wow. This is a really helpful, thorough post. Thank you for taking the time to write it!

    I will now go and back a plate full of cookies for my technician that I deeply appreciate.

    -Erica