Archive for the ‘Piano Regulation’ Category

I am replacing the bushings on my piano keys. The piano is a 1928 Lester Grand. Today I am checking the level of the keybed. As I view the wood of the keybed, there are many clues that can help me learn the history of the piano, what has happened to it over the years of its life, and the impact the keyframe has had upon the wood. I have placed photos on this page, and very large photos on another site, so you can see what I am looking at here in the shop. Below, the keyframe (containing the action and the keys) have been removed. I am sitting on the bench looking into the piano. The wood you see is called the keybed.

Photo A: Keybed Left


D is the edge of a water mark. So is E. F and G are indentations in the wood. C is an area that has several watermarks. B (upper left) is the word area where the back of the keyframe meets the keybed. A (far left) is a discoloration in the hardwood frame of the keybed.

A close up of areas F and G is shown below.

Interesting? What would have caused these indentations? They are not equidistant, so I’ll assume they were made by single blows to the keybed by an instrument. They are all similar depth, so I’ll assume the same force was used in each blow. I also notice a darker color to the interior of the marks which matches the color on the very front edge, and towards the upper portion of the photo. If  a light coat of varnish was applied to the keybed, it was applied after the indentations were made. If true, then the indentations were made prior to the varnishing step, which would be a final step in the construction of the keybed. Therefore, the tool which was used to make the indentation would be among the tools that are used prior to the completion of the keybed. the edge of a chisel would make a mark like this. Also the claws of a hammer.  Why were these marks made though? How odd!

Photo B – Keybed right


At H (bottom left) the indentations continue and form a pretty straight line. They are not as deep. F is a stain with a dark residue. D is a drop of something resembling the varnish found on the piano and at the very right edge of the keybed. C is a stain which conforms to the shape of a rectangle. A is a watermark. B is where the keybed meets the keyframe. At C then, a contained rested on the piano for a short period of time. The bottom of the container was either wet with a liquid prior to being placed on the keybed, or it contained a liquid which caused condensation on the container which leaked onto the keybed, or the container itself has a small leak, or for some other reason. Area C is under the pinblock, which would not be an ideal area to place a container that was being used to complete a step in the construction of the piano. it may not have been a container – it may have been a piece of cardboard or paper.  It may have been placed there to get it out of the way temporarily, or as a rest for the varnish brush. There is enough wear to the wood on the right side that I remain curious to know if at least the frame of the keybed was varnished.

I will inspect the keys and pinblock to see if there are any watermarks which line up with the watermarks on the keybed. This will tell me more about how the watermarks were made.

Photo C: Keybed center

Again, you can see the long line of indentations at B toward the bottom of the photo. Area A (top center) is where the keybed meets the keyframe.  The remainder of the marks were shown in the other photos.

I determined that the keybed is level by using a level. A good flashlight was used to project light under the edge of the level to see if any light was able to move under the bottom of the level. The surface of the keybed is smooth to the touch.

It is tempting to light sand the surface to make it more attractive to the eye. However, sanding will not increase its functionality, but it will alter the appearance and make it more difficult to identify any existing marks in the wood – which may later be useful in identifying clues that may not seem important at this time. Sanding the keybed only eliminates evidence that may later prove to be helpful troubleshooting a future problem. The keybed is level, so there is no reason to alter its surface. I can proceed with the rebushing of the keys.

The Point of the Exercise

The piano technician views your piano differently than you do. Every single mark on your piano, inside or out, is potentially evidence that might be helpful in determining why a problem exists, what can be done to repair the problem, how the problem originated, how the piano has been cared for over the years, and what conditions have had an impact on the piano.

I will post links to the larger photos after I built the HTML page necessary to display them. Then I will post links here.

Until then, enjoy your day.


People want to read something real. I sense this from the responses I get to this blog. I should write about pianos of course, but after writing a hundred blogs on that subject (and listing the index to each on my website), I feel at ease to write about what I really want to write about.

Something real.

As a people, we are the benefactors of much consideration. When the media reports the daily events, the editors first consider how readers are likely to respond. The news is tempered. Crowd control editing, I call it. The masses cannot be trusted.  Government leaders speak in generalities because specific details invite specific disagreement.  I’ll sleep eight, work eight, eat two, and waste six.  If I’m lucky, I get an hour of real.

April of this year will mark thirty years since I met my wife. That is real. We remain inseparable.  In May, my daughter will graduate from college, probably summa cum laude.  That’s real. I’m going to rip the action out of my grand piano and find out why the touch is not exactly the way I want it.


Every photo of piano maintenance should be labeled with a warning: “Do not try this at home.” This is hands on. This is hours and hours of hands on. Yes, this is real. If you want to see more torture, visit the link on that photo.  Lots of “real” going on in that shop.

I bought a book on philosophy at the used book store. When I got home and thumbed the pages, a student’s notes fell out. I have no idea where the book is. The notes were real. I still have them.  The notes have more import to me than anything written in the book. The words on the note pages were written by a real person, someone who was engaged in learning what was written in the book. Sure, the book was written by a person too, but the notes seemed more intimate. I bought the book. The notes were a gift.

Real is intimate. Real is getting your hands on the work. Real is putting your hand into your wife’s hand. Real is giving your daughter a helping hand, or a round of applause. Real is reading what another hand has written.

There is a lot of real out there. Go get you some.



Remedies for a Shabby Piano

Posted: October 1, 2011 in Piano Regulation
Upright piano from ca. 1900 (A. Jaschinsky) , ...

Image via Wikipedia

Do you have a shabby piano?

Ah, well… a bad piano is better than no piano at all.

How can you improve a shabby piano?

There is hope. First I would need to know what is “shabby” about it. Is the case ugly? Well, put your worries to rest. The condition of the finish has nothing to do with the quality of the sound. The action, keys, soundboard, pinblock and piano wire are the major areas of concern.

The Action

At the very least, remove the dust from the action. Wear a mask if you plan on using an air compressor or vacuum blower attachment. A significant percentage of dust is composed of dead skin. No need to inhale that if you can help it. Use a clean paint brush if you will.

Watch the hammer as it moves toward the piano wire. Depress the key very slowly. The hammer will go forward, but not touch the wire, and then it will fall back just a bit. Every key should advance to the wire the same distance and fall back the same distance. Compare adjacent hammers. If there are severe differences, the action needs to be regulated.

Check the ends of the hammers — the part that hits the piano wire. Are there deep grooves in the crown of the hammer? They can be reshaped by a tech. That will improve the tone a bit. Do the hammers meet the piano wire squarely? That adjustment is part of the regulation procedure. You may need new hammers if the piano is over fifty years old. That will cost $800 or more. Do you have notes that are brighter (or duller) than others? The hammers can be voiced so the tone is even.

The Keys

Do the keys move side to side? Pinch the end of the key and move it gently left to right. The movement should be ever so slight. If it is sluggish, or if some keys move more than others, you need new key bushings. They are cheap. Run your fingers across the keys and see if the keyboard is level. If one or two keys are higher or lower, the keys need to be leveled. This is also very cheap to have done.

Are any of the keys cracked or broken? That is an easy repair. What about the keytops? Do you have old cracked ivory with broken ends? New keytops can be installed for $300-$400. No, the ivory is not worth saving.

The Soundboard

Does the piano emit any odd sounds, like a buzz or a deeper overtone, when you play certain notes? You may have a cracked soundboard. The wood in the crack may be vibrating at certain frequencies. Buzzes in the piano are more often related to loose parts or foreign objects. A technician is needed for this repair. Budget max $150.

The Pinblock

Does the piano go out of tune frequently? Are there a couple of notes that are always out of tune? The pins at the top of the piano, where the wire is wrapped, rests in a plank of wood that is behind the cast iron plate. (In a grand, it is underneath the plate).  A new pinblock is an expensive repair, but there are several effective methods to tighten pins. The repair is not too difficult but it can be tedious. Call your technician.

The Piano Wire

Do you have any broken strings? Have them replaced. Some strings may develop false beats. Your technician knows a few techniques to get rid of false beats. A false beat in a piano string will keep any note from playing with bell tone purity. But in most cases with older pianos, a string with a false beat does not completely ruin the sound quality. It is not advisable to install new strings unless you are rebuilding the entire piano. Exceptions may apply, so consult your technician.

The Case

Clean a polished ebony finish with an ammonia-based cleaner. Easy does it.  Clean the keys often, for goodness sakes! If the furniture surface has scratches there is nothing you can do to remove them. For scratches in wood finishes, use Old English sparingly. It stains, so wear old clothes and be careful around the furniture. On unsightly gashes, deep scratches, banged up legs and such, use a magic marker to stain the wood in the gash. For water marks, I will not advise you on that. The remedy depends on the type of finish. Water marks do not affect sound quality, so I would just leave that alone for now. If your casters are broken or missing, have them replaced for no more than $150.00.


If you do just this much to a shabby piano, you may be able to enjoy a significant improvement in the touch and sound. If you realize an improvement (and it is unlikely that you will not), you will feel better about your piano and might stop referring to it as shabby.

However, if your technician hesitates when asked, “Is this a really bad piano?” he may be searching for words that will not result in his immediate expulsion from the premises. If you have a really bad piano (and you know that it is bad, stop trying to fool everyone), here is my suggestion on what to do.

Wait until late at night. Go to your neighbor’s house and dig a large hole in the front yard. Drop the piano into the hole, return the dirt, and then run back to the safety of your home.

When the police knock on your door the next morning, you will tell them, “I have absolutely no idea where that piano came from Officer.” If you can say this with a straight face, then you might consider becoming a piano technician since we often have to say, “No, I think your piano will last for years and years,” with a straight face.

Dig a hole and throw that piece of junk away. If it holds sentimental value, take a picture of it, hang it on the wall, and then throw that piece of junk away.

If neither of those ideas makes you happy, then come tomorrow, get into your $35,000 car and drive to the piano store and buy a $35,000 piano. The car will last about ten years. The piano will last for 75 years.

Do the math and adjust your budget accordingly.

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No Caption Required

Posted: September 29, 2011 in Piano Regulation

Temperament in Piano Students

Posted: September 29, 2011 in Piano Regulation
The Cube of Heymans is a description of a pers...

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Ten years ago I was a fan of temperament testing. I followed the method explained by David Keirsey in his book, “Please Understand Me II”.  That first book led to more reading. I acquired testing material from Myers-Briggs along with a power point presentation of the material. I was particularly drawn to the typelogic site. The information there led me to read Lenore Thompson’s book “Personality Type: An Owner’s Manual” and several other books listed on that site.

David Keirsey focused on how people communicate. Lenore Thompson focused on how the brain works. Together they provide a contrasting approach to temperament testing. Myers-Briggs centers on improving work relations within a company or group environment. It is more of a guide to practical applications.

Many people do not like to read or talk about type testing. That is a feature of their temperament.  So if you are an S type, and you have not already stopped reading, I understand that you need to move on to something else. I wish you well. SJ‘s will receive all the wisdom contained in typology through administrative directives, forms, policies and mandates. SP‘s will abandon the reading as soon as they figure out they will not derive a direct benefit.

But for those NTs and NFs who remain with me, lets move forward.

After I acquired a layman’s understanding of typology (for lack of a better word), I wanted to put it to the test. Together with a elder friend at church, and with the minister’s approval, we designed a unique course that had incredible results.

Sixteen participants showed up for the first of six weekly meetings. Everyone was given a test to complete and then an overview of the subject of typology was discussed. The test results were compiled and the class was divided into four groups, SJ, SP, NT, NF which are the Keirsey groups.  That was the end of the lesson for the first week.

In subsequent lessons, half the class time was spent introducing key concepts. The other half was for an exercise and discussion. An open ended question was put to each group. Something like, “A colleague at work seems to socialize way too much and for the past two months has been late to work repeatedly.  Discuss how you feel about this person and what action should be taken to alter the social behavior and tardiness.”

Each group would discuss the topic. A spokesperson for the group would be chosen by the group members and their answer would be given to the whole group. Wow! Talk about FIREWORKS!

Two observations emerged. Each sub-group was able to create a clear consensus on the “proper” action that should be taken. Second, none of the four answers were in agreement.

The result of the discussions which followed gave people a chance to confirm their own views (within the sub-group) and also hear the reasoning given by each of the other three groups. There is more I could tell you about what happened in that meeting, but I want to shift to the impressions the experience made on me.

I observed that people of similar type use the same words, share similar values, evaluate information the same way, as others in their group. They differ in the way they make decisions. They differ in how they take actions. But they do agree on principles and values, and they convey their ideas in ways that are very clear to other members of similar type.

The conclusion is haunting: people  are very similar. People are predictable. People aren’t as unique and individualistic as we have been led to believe by our own cultural values. When an analysis of a population can be reduced to a matrix of 16 types of people, you learn that understanding people isn’t quite as hard as you might have thought.

How might this apply to piano students? I think most trained teachers already know the answer because the knowledge gained from years of research into type-testing has long influenced the design of curricula, the presentation of materials, and all other aspects of teaching. The first kernel of truth is that different types of students learn in different ways. The second addresses the need to use different approaches to material for different types of students.

If a teacher uses the same method for every child, those who respond well to that method will succeed while those who do not respond well will fail to succeed. That is a simplification of the lesson, but the point is made.

Consider for a moment how many students have walked away from music lessons for no other reason than because the teacher did not discover the best way to present the material in a way that it could be understood by that type student.

The conclusions of typology are quite simple. Everyone wants to be loved. Everyone wants to be understood. Those are foundational truths. A teacher can build a program on that foundation. The key is to understand the student. You must understand the student before the student will ever understand you.

Now think about your students for a minute. Which ones “get you” and which ones don’t? Which ones do you “get”? Why do you like some students more than others? When you become confounded as to why some students excel while others seem lost and unmotivated, evaluate their progress in terms of your own sincere understanding of who they are.

To reach a student, you must first understand the student. You must understand how the student communicates, evaluates new information, makes decisions, and you must discern the primary attitudes which guide the thinking of the student. Typology can help you do that.

The NT type will want to know exactly how this works. The NF will relate to not being understood. (Deal with it. NFs are never understood. It is through understanding others that the selfless NF realizes that it is not important to be understood. It is only important to understand others.) The SJ will wait until the Teacher’s Association approves the method, and the SP will cooperate with policy, but keep an eye out for a golden opportunity for self aggrandizement.

People.  If you understand them, it is a whole lot easier to teach them.

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How Muscle Memory Deceives You

Posted: September 28, 2011 in Piano Regulation
Action of a circa 1907 upright piano

Image via Wikipedia

Muscle memory is a big deal in the world of musicians. It addresses the athleticism of musicianship. Yes, we are athletes. We do warm-ups, stretches and cool downs. We endure sports related injuries too.

Muscle memory deceives us too.  Let me explain.

Unless you have an uncanny sensitivity to the touch and feel of your piano, your muscle memory is unable to discern the small changes in the regulation of your piano action over time.  Although you will agree that over the period of say, five years, the normal wear and tear on piano action parts will cause changes in the touch of the piano, your muscle memory won’t register the changes. Your piano’s touch will feel “good” to you as it continues to slip into decline.


Your piano action needs to be regulated from time to time. A tuner will do small adjustments at each tuning interval, but you should welcome the day when your technician tells you, “It is time to regulate the action.”

You probably know what regulation is. It is far less likely that you know what a full regulation entails. There are two principle activities involved in regulation; parts alignment and movement adjustments. Alignment ensures the parts of where they are supposed to be.  Movement ensures the part do what they are supposed to do.

I want to provide a list of steps that your technicians follows during the regulation of a piano. Each step is not necessarily performed, but each must be checked to ensure there is no need for adjustment or repositioning. After reviewing this list, I leave it to you to realize that while “regulation” is a simple word, the process is not simple.  For my source, I am using Danny L. Boone’s book, “Regulating Grand Piano Touch and Tone”.

  1. Reshape the hammers
  2. Check the sostenuto system
  3. Inspect hammer tails
  4. Recondition the knuckles
  5. Recondition the wippen cushion
  6. Tighten the action rail screws
  7. Check action centers
  8. Travel the hammers
  9. Check rotation angle
  10. Lubricate repetition spring and groove
  11. Center jacks and repetition levers
  12. Clean, sand and lube key frame
  13. Check shift lever contact point.
  14. Check key frame felt
  15. Polish capstans and key pins.
  16. Check key leads
  17. Fit action stack to key frame
  18. Recondition backchecks
  19. Check key bushings and balance pin holes
  20. Vacuum piano
  21. Clean, sand and lube the key bed.
  22. Check damper system
  23. Check pedals
  24. Tighten case bolts, screws
  25. Seat the strings
  26. Check hammer strike point
  27. Fit key frame
  28. Set key height, square, level keys
  29. Align hammers to strings
  30. Align wippens to knuckles
  31. Align backchecks to hammer tails
  32. Check hammer height
  33. Check key dip
  34. Prelim adjustment of backcheck and spring tension…
  35. jacks to knuckles
  36. repetition lever height
  37. Check drop
  38. Determine key dip, blow distance and aftertouch
  39. Set hammer line
  40. Adjust jacks to knuckles
  41. Adjust repetition lever height
  42. Recheck hammer line
  43. Set key dip
  44. Set jack escapement
  45. Set escapement; repetition lever
  46. Adjust backchecks
  47. Adjust repetition springs
  48. Refine aftertouch
  49. Adjust damper lift
  50. Check damper alignment
  51. Check damper voicing
  52. Adjust damper pedal.
  53. Adjust sost pedal.
  54. Regulate tone (Voicing)

And the last step, voicing, has its own list of steps. But let us say there are 54 steps in the regulation process. Now multiply that by 88 keys. No step is difficult to perform, but the 54 steps of regulation of 88 keys means 4,500+  little things that can be just a wee bit out of alignment or adjustment. The steps are not difficult to perform but the whole process is tedious and time consuming.

Muscle memory will deceive you. You will play year after year thinking how much you love the touch of your piano, until one day — the piano starts to creep beyond the limits of the tolerances. When that happens, you are leaving the zone of “regulation” and entering the zone of “repair”. Periodic regulation can save you money on repairs. Just keep that in mind.

After your piano is regulated, it is going to “feel” better, but also different. Your muscles will not be used to the new action. Your muscles will want to conform to their memory. The regulated action, by comparison, will be conforming to the original specifications. You should notice more responsiveness. Your muscle memory will yield in time and abandon the deception. Your action will feel better, perform better, be more responsive to your command, and the sound of the piano will be optimal.

A regulation is just a ‘tune up’ for your piano. The next time you have your piano tuned, get an opinion about the general health of your piano and be pro-active in your attitude towards regulation. It isn’t something to regret; it is something to embrace.

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Johann Sebastian Bach

I had two good piano teachers. The first one was me. I must have been fifteen the first time I played a piano. I still have the memory of opening Book 1 of a method book while sitting at our old Shaw upright piano. I had made a decision to learn how to play and literally picked up the book, opened it, and started reading. The first illustration showed the hand and which numbers were assigned to each finger. From band instruction I knew how to read treble clef so I read each assignment in the method book, played the exercise, and turned the page. I had to learn bass clef. Once I made the commitment to learn it, it did not take too long. After reading through Books 1, 2 & 3 my first piece was “Melody in F”. In our home we had the first five volumes of a graded collection of piano pieces, copyrighted 1902. At 3:00 after school each day, I would come home and play piano for several hours. I would start at the beginning of a book on my level and read song after song in order. I never studied technique unless there was a comment in the book. Within six months I was playing Beethoven’s Pathetique, and other pieces at about a 6th grade level. I remember that my mother made an arrangement with a piano teacher to trade piano lessons for French horn lessons. I was first chair in band and the teacher’s daughter was in middle school. I taught her a horn lesson and then I would take a lesson from the teacher. This lasted for about six weeks. I learned how to play Mozart’s Sonata in C Major, the fingering for major scales (only those used in the piece) and the fingering for the chromatic scale.

I did not take piano lessons again until I was thirty. After serving in the Air Force and then working as an organ salesman, I returned to college at age twenty-eight. As an organ salesman I had learned to play chords and had memorized hundreds of songs. I was required to demonstrate the organ by playing for hours and hours each day in front of the store without music. My right hand technique (using what little I knew about fingering) was exceptional. I could play Tico-Tico at lightning speed. As a freshman, I auditioned for the college lab band. I did not make it. As a sophomore I auditioned again, this time successfully, and played in the second jazz band for the next three years. I also formed a jazz trio and played often in restaurants and weddings. I was a business major. I would take business classes during the day and then go to the music building at around four. I would practice piano until late at night on many occasions. Lab band practice was in the late afternoon.

As a junior, I received a call from the registrar. The administrator said that I had enough hours to get a minor in piano performance but I would need to take a few extra classes in order to qualify for the degree designation. She explained that I would need to take piano lessons and perform a recital. I accepted the offer. I signed up for lessons and at the proper time I arrived at my teacher’s studio. He was a doctoral student.

I love playing piano. After reading that brief history, I think few would doubt my claim. There is something about me which motivates me to play. I do not understand it, nor will I ever understand it. At age thirty I was very aware that I lacked a tremendous amount of skill simple because I had not enjoyed the pleasure of taking piano lessons. I practiced intently, and endured the shouts from my instructor “JAZZER!” he would affectionately chide me. I received an A- from a jury of three instructors for my recital of Chopin’s A Major Polonaise, the Bach Prelude in C Major, and a Mozart Rondo, all memorized. My lessons continued in my senior year but the intensity was much less because I did not have to perform again for a grade. I took one hour on four-hand piano which I enjoyed very much. My bench partner was an agricultural major who had to clean stalls each afternoon. She would arrive to the 6:00 lesson after having worked in a stable for a couple of hours. I do not recall that she brought with her the stench of the stables. We would play Beethoven Symphonies in four-hand. I truly loved that class and the music.

I am now much older and have never taken a classical piano lesson since then. I am learning an impromptu by Schubert and for some unknown reason; I can now play Bach fugues, having stumbled through them for years and years without even a slight glimmer of hope. Then one day, they started to flow like honey. I cannot explain it. At the close of day I reach for my tattered copies of the Prelude and Fugues and play one after another until my wife nods to sleep. I love to play; she loves to listen. I think there might not be a greater goal in piano performance than to simply enjoy the music of the ages in the twilight of each evening.

What might a teacher teach a non-piano major? It depends entirely on the motivation of the student. As it would apply to me, there is nothing a teacher might teach which I would not absorb. Fingering is so essential that if a teacher had told me that I could not proceed through any measure unless I first learned the fingering, I would have been grateful. But fingering is not about where the fingers go. Fingering is about where the HAND goes. It is through fingering technique that the hand is enabled to be where the hand needs to be, at all times. Fingering is a means to an end.

“Oh.” The piano student says. “So that is why it is important.”

Did the teacher forget to explain why fingering is important? Did the teacher forget to instill in the student a deep respect for the importance of fingering? Perhaps.

Without technique there is no music, just as without bricks there are no buildings. Fingering is not something you do so you can make music. Music is something that occurs after you learn and employ technique.

Before there can be a love for music expressed, there must be a love for technique that is addressed.

The teacher who makes me fall in love with technique is the one who will unlock the doors to all the passion ever expressed in music. And how might she do this other than through a demonstration of reverence and respect for technique?

What else might a teacher have taught me? Perhaps I should have paid more attention to perfecting each piece I attempted. Yes, because if you cannot perfect one piece, you will never perfect any piece.

“Why do I have to play it perfectly. I already know it.” The student protests.

Yes, it is one thing to play a piece of music, and then it is another thing to know a piece of music. And this lesson might be best expressed by teaching a student to practice intelligently and efficiently, in order to avoid the burn out which occurs from playing a piece for too long.

Well, let me correct that thinking. A piece is most often played for too long because the student practices the wrong way. Yes, a student must practice to learn, not just move through a piece stumbling over every error without a desire to learn anything at all!

To teach a student how to practice efficiently, the teacher must insist on meeting deadlines for perfecting passages. To this end I would suggest assigning a two measure passage each week with a strong imperative that it MUST BE PERFECTED by the next lesson. By this method, the student practices efficient learning and perfection at the same time.

Now then, which two measures would be assigned? Ah! Here is where the teacher gets to teach efficiently. Those measures would come from pieces the student will learn next. Do you see? When the student encounters the next piece, like Bach #1 Fugue in C Major, the most difficult two measure passage in that piece would have already been learned and perfected! And which two measures in that piece would qualify? Ah! Twelve and thirteen, of course! (With the pickup). Such a more miserable and technically difficult passage does not exist that stands in contrast to the difficulty of the rest of the piece. If the student can perfect those two measures (three actually), the rest of the piece will be easy by comparison.

And so on and so forth. For arpeggio practice, what would be more monstrous than the first measures of the 3rd movement of the Moonlight Sonata, or for the student who struggles with five flats, the first two measures of the 2nd movement would suffice.

But of course, the teacher would not tell the student the name of the piece. That belies the point of the lesson. The origin of the passage is moot. Perfection and efficiency are the focus.

“And how do I practice this EFFICIENTLY so I can perfect it in only ONE WEEK!” the frustrated student screams in desperation.

“Let me teach you,” the teacher says calmly as she demonstrates how she practices efficiently.

I will stop here. That is enough I suppose. Teach a reverence for technique, the economy of efficient practice, and a love for perfection. And do this in small steps which promote the small successes that will instill the greatest level of confidence.

And I say these things are most important because no teacher ever sat me down, looked me in the eye, and said: “You are going to play piano the rest of your life. Do you understand that?”

I never knew that.

Teach me the tools of learning, and I will apply them the rest of my life. But if you only teach me how to play a piece of music, I will only have the memory and none of the tools of learning.

And if you have to beat me with a stick to get this point across, then so be it.

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I Left Them Screaming

Posted: September 25, 2011 in Piano Regulation
Tuning Fork

Image by Shaylor via Flickr

I seem to follow a lot of piano and music teachers on my Twitter account. Although my wife is a high school teacher, I know very little about teaching. Maybe this feature of education is pretty obvious to teachers, but I have noticed that students do not know a lot about what you are trying to teach them. Have you noticed that too? Yeah, it is like you have to teach them everything. My wife explains to me that my comments about teaching almost guarantee I will never be a teacher.

But I do teach a little bit. I teach children when I tune pianos. What I teach them depends on their ages. If they are in third grade, I know they are developing an awareness of the world outside. They are becoming aware that they are individuals who are capable of doing things other children cannot do. This is a great age to instill self esteem in a child who is playing piano. I do not ignore children when I tune pianos. Usually I ignore parents. The student is my customer. The parent is the head of accounts payable.

It is also a good age to teach children about the magical tuning fork. It surprises me that children, even teens, have never seen, heard or touched a tuning fork. I set the tuning fork in motion and place it on a flat area on the piano. I explain why it gets louder. I ask them to touch it with the end of their finger. They laugh when it tickles.

I encourage parents to let the children sit with me when I start tuning a piano. As I open the “magic box” there is a definite intensity in the interest of children. Their eyes are wide open and they are soon amazed at all the things that are inside a piano. They touch hammers, play the keys, watch the movement, and hear the sounds.

I do this because I want each child to take ownership of the piano. Think with me for a moment. One of the first lessons a band or string student learns from a teacher is that, “This is your instrument.” It belongs to you, and you are responsible for it. Do not let other people play it, hold it, or take it home with them. Take care of YOUR instrument.

Few people say that to a piano student. Mom and Dad bought the piano, so it must be that the piano belongs to Mom and Dad. I try to correct that perception.

Once I taught a group of Brownie girl scouts about acoustics. I was tuning the upright piano that day and six or seven girls were standing around me in their uniforms. I asked them, “Do you all know how to scream real loud?”

Of course, this is not what you ask a group of girl scouts. But I did, and soon they were squealing at the top of their lungs. So I got their attention again and asked, “I wonder if your screams are louder in this room with carpet on the floor, or in the hallway where there is a stone floor. Would you like to find out?”

And of course they did, so we all went into the atrium and I asked them to scream again. Then we went back to the piano and they screamed again at my request. “Which was louder?” I asked. When they answered correctly, I asked, “Why?”

That is when they got quiet. Hands went up obediently to answer, and I fielded the answers. Later, when I moved to the door to leave, the girls all followed me. The customer said goodbye with a smile and I asked the girls to scream one last time, which they did as I waved, turned and walked to the car. A few days later I received a kind thank-you note from the Girl Scout leader.

Yes, I teach your piano students, and the parents of your piano students. I teach them about tuning forks and strings and hammers and sound waves and acoustics and pedals and lots of other things that no one else teaches them. But most importantly, I teach them that the piano is their instrument.  It is an instrument to love, to take care of, to enjoy and to practice!.

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The Basics of Playing Piano

Posted: September 25, 2011 in Piano Regulation

Consider that every musician, except pianists, can tune their own instrument.

I wonder if there is an exception to that statement. Every horn player, every string player, every wind player is taught how to tune his or her instrument. What about harpsichordists? The harpsichord is an instrument which goes out of tune easily. What about harpists? Yes to both.

How did piano players escape learning how to tune a piano? Why was this important lesson omitted?

When I performed regularly, I would carry a tuning lever and a couple of mutes in my music bag, crammed besides several fake books. If I encountered a piano with a few sour notes, I could make corrections quickly. Hotel pianos are notorious for being poorly maintained. I feel sorry for pianists who must play an abused piano during a gig. Most tuning issues  could be addressed if pianists learned the basics of tuning a piano.

A lever and mutes can be purchased for under fifty dollars. They will last for years and years. Basic tuning lessons are easy to find on the web.  So why do piano players not learn how to tune their pianos? I do not have an answer.

I learned a trick about piano strings long ago from a jazz pianist. If the outside wire of a unison is out of tune, a piece of folded paper can be wedged between two unisons, thus muting the offending string. Another common ailment of pianos is pedals that do not work. Usually the problem is that the bolts on the pedal assembly are loose. Anything other than that might require the attention of a technician, but keep a small crescent wrench with you when you perform.

That crescent wrench can also be used to tighten the legs of a wobbly bench. Just open the top. There are four bolts with nuts. If the nuts are tightened, the bench will be more stable.

All pianists should know how to take an action out of a grand piano. It is easy to do, but it is also easy to break hammers if you do it wrong. This is not something you learn how to do fifteen minutes before the downbeat. Go to your favorite piano store and get a free lesson.

Once you know how to remove an action, you can reach drumsticks, pencils, batons, napkins, clothing and other objects that somehow find their way into a piano action. A little common sense is in order here. A drumstick does not cause one key to stick. It usually causes a whole section of keys to stick.

If you remove an action and start messing around with things you do not know how to mess around with, you will probably make an even bigger mess of things.  But any piano player can learn how to remove an action and inspect it for a foreign object like a drumstick. Once again, any piano store personnel can show you how to do this.

Tuning octaves and unisons requires no great skill. A pianist of modest skill can equalize two discordant tones.  Use your lever and mutes to practice on your own piano. The best time to practice is right before your piano tuner arrives for your annual tuning. Problems you caused can be corrected quickly.

The point here is to practice first in preparation for that occasion when you will either fix a sour note before an engagement, or suffer because you do know the basics of playing a piano.  It may sound odd though, that “tuning a piano” is a basic skill of “playing a piano”. Think about it in terms of other instruments. If a trumpet player said, “I can play a trumpet but I cannot tune it,” would you not be tempted to respond, “If you can’t tune it, you can’t play it!”

One of the very first lessons on horns, winds, and strings is how to tune the instrument. This is a lesson that is completely ignored in piano lessons. Children should not attempt to tune pianos, but every piano teacher, every college student, should definitely know how to tune unisons and octaves.

Organ players! Ah ha! I almost forgot organ players. They are the exception to the rule. (I think most organ players would agree with that statement…for other reasons of course.)

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The Judge of Quality

Posted: September 24, 2011 in Piano Regulation
Piano tuner's most basic tools: tuning hammer ...

Image via Wikipedia

Coppell Piano Shop is having a banner year. The reason for our success is because of the referrals we receive from our clients. We strive to offer unique services and a level of expertise that is not readily available in our market area. Piano tuners come in many varieties. In this blog I offer a look at the various titles used by piano tuners and offer general distinctions between each one.

Piano Tuners: Who Are They?

You have probably met one or two piano tuners. I have met hundreds.  Taken in sum, piano tuners comprise an industry of people who are all interested in the maintenance of pianos.  Piano tuners draw from many different backgrounds and diverse skills. It might surprise you to learn that most people who tune pianos are either hobbyists, retirees or part-timers who use piano tuning to supplement their incomes.  The majority of piano tuners are men who are over the age of fifty-five. Full-time piano tuners either work for an employer (piano store or music institution) or they run an independently owned business.

Piano Technicians: Addressing the Necessity

Tuning pianos is enjoyable, challenging and rewarding.  A piano is designed to permit 218 piano wires to be tuned to very exacting precision.  It is not too difficult to tune a piano, but it is very difficult to tune one with exact precision.  You can probably tune one piano and be satisfied with the result, but in order to develop the skill to compete among other piano tuners, you must first tune hundreds and hundreds of pianos.

Pianos sometimes need to be repaired. You will not find many pianos that need every possible repair. Each piano will need at least one or two adjustments every time it is tuned. As you acquire skill by tuning hundreds and hundreds of pianos, you will encounter many of the same repair needs over and over again. A person who repairs a piano is called a piano technician. There are many books available that can teach you how to repair a piano, but until you actually work on pianos, it is almost impossible to prepare for the myriad variations that occur. For instance, a piano key may need to be repaired. Piano keys do not always break the same way. In fact, they rarely break the same way, in the same place, for the same reason.  The best teacher for any technican is experience.

Hobbyists, retirees and other part-time tuners soon learn that performing technical repairs and regulation is a necessity for proper piano maintenance.  If you are only tuning pianos of close friends, contacts at church, or on a limited basis, you simply are not going to acquire the experience needed to perform the countless number of repairs a piano might need.

Professional piano tuners attend workshops, trade shows and belong to professional organizations which actively study the technical features of a piano and various methods used to repair pianos. Piano tuners who also have advanced skill repairing pianos are called Piano tuner/technicians or just Piano Technician. It is not always clear to the customer that a technician also tunes pianos, or that a tuner is also able to repair a piano, so the title of “Piano Tuner/Technican” is most often used.

Master Piano Technicians: The Title of Senority

A tuner/technician who embraces the name of Master Piano Technician does so primarily because he seeks to market his skills, experience and services as those which exceed what is commonly available from most tuner/technicians. A Master Piano Technician must be able to demonstrate advanced skill or experience in at least one major area related to the the art of piano tuning and the discipline of piano maintenance. I will provide a few examples below.

Piano Rebuilder – A piano rebuilder is a technician who has demonstrated advanced skills and training in the practice of rebuilding pianos. A piano restorer is not a rebuilder. A rebuilder can disassemble a piano and rebuild it to factory specifications.  Piano restoration does not require or imply such a high level of technical scrutiny. Most piano tuner/technicians do not have the skill or training to rebuild a piano. Thus, a piano rebuilder is entitled to a designation which exceeds that of a tuner/technician.

Piano Consultant is a person employed in the business of advising customers who seek to buy, sale, appraise, restore or rebuild a piano. A consultant draws from experience, information, contacts and/or skill not readily available to tuner/technicians or restorer/rebuilders.

Bench Technician – This person is actively involved in one or more specific duties in the repair/rebuilding of pianos, and by virtue of a constant practice of that skill acquires a higher degree of expertise. A Bench Technician is a specialist and would not be fairly entitled to use the title of Master Piano Technician. However, if a person’s background included experience in this endeavor, and subsequent expertise was acquired in the art of tuning and discipline of technical maintenance, the title of Master Piano Technician would most certainly be appropriate.

It is important to note that the piano industry does not have a centralized committee who certifies the credentials of any piano tuner/technician/rebuilder.  The person who determines if a person’s title agrees with his or her offered services is you, the customer. The Piano Technician’s Guild (PTG) makes a significant contribution in education and testing for people interested in becoming a tuner/technician. That organization does not address the educational needs for every specialty employed in the industry, and there has always been strong opposition to the organization from many talented and scrupulous members of the industry.

A Name by Any Other Name is Just A Name

Whatever a person may call himself is not an absolute indication of who he might be. The greater indicator of success is determined by the number of customers who are willing to refer their friends to anyone who provides a professional service. There are no guarantees when it comes to relying on a title as a measure of a person’s real ability. You might find a part-time competent tuner among members of your church, and you might find one who will cost you considerable money in repairs. The same is true for any member of any professional organization which exists to certify the quality of its membership.

What is more true about the use of a professional title in an unregulated industry is that the title is a statement of the level of service the provider hopes to achieve.  If you believe, as I do, that most people are honest, then their title is just an conscientious statement about how they want to be regarded, and how they rank their own abilities compared to their competitors. In the end, the title means nothing: the quality of the work means everything.  And the person who is the judge in that matter is the customer.

A senior piano rebuilder once told me, “I take a tuning test every time I tune a piano. The customer is the final and most important judge of my ability.”

As the owner of Coppell Piano Shop, that is also my approach to piano service. I intend to do the best job I can,  seek to further my skills as I am able, and approach every piano as if it is the finest piano in the world.  The greatest concert halls in the world are not found hidden beneath the skyscrapers of large cities. They are found in the living rooms of my customers.

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