Why All Pianists Should Learn the Basics of Piano Tuning

It was the dress rehearsal on the eve of my cousin’s wedding. We all gathered in the chapel to go over the ceremony. As the professional musician in the family I am sometimes the go-to person for these sorts of things. Happy to help out, all I asked was that there was a working piano there. I was assured there was…

I had prepared a nice program of popular wedding favourites which I was looking forward to playing. However, my excitement turned to embarrassment upon testing out the instrument. The way the D in “Canon in D” was sounding probably made people think I brought the steel drum version instead. Out of politeness no one said anything to me, but the elephant in the room had just added itself to the guest list.

If this had been a couple years ago I would have bitten the bullet and started dreaming up excuses for all the unwanted twangs and clonks:

“No, I’m not a bad pianist, it’s the out of tune piano’s fault.”

“No I can’t fix the problem, we’re not like guitarists, harpists, string players, and most other instrumentalists.”

“I’m sorry. Although I consider myself a very capable musician I haven’t the slightest idea how to tune my own instrument.”

I’ve been in this bind many a time but this time things were different. The next day I brought a tuning hammer and with the permission of the minister I repaired the ugliest notes. The day had been saved and the elephant never showed!

piano tuning1

Tuning mutes isolating the middle string

Many pianists are as knowledgable about what happens behind the hood of their instrument as the average motorist about their car. You might be an excellent driver but can you change the oil, fix a flat tire, replace a burnt out brake light or service the engine? Many of us can’t. The same is true for pianists.

I’ve seen oboists carving new reeds for themselves, violinists replacing strings, harpists tuning their own instrument from top to bottom. I’ve been through a university piano performance program without learning an inkling about the mysterious inner workings of my instrument. When a note was out of tune on my own piano I suffered through it long enough to make it worth paying for a full tuning. When a string broke I survived on pure hope that the one or two remaining (most notes have 3 strings) held while I begged the tuner to fit me into his busy schedule.

To me this has all seemed a little lopsided and ridiculous. How could I know how to play my instrument so well but not have a clue what do when it got sick?

The simple answer is that, for most human beings, it’s just too complicated to know it all. That’s why there are mechanics and people like piano tuners and technicians who specialize in these things. But there are practical things that an amateur can learn to do. When I finally summoned the courage to approach my piano tuner, instead of getting a litany of reasons why I should never work on my own instrument, he actually encouraged me to get a tuning hammer!

piano tuning2

Piano wire coiled around a tuning pin

I think he was delighted that someone was taking a serious interest in his craft. It’s probably not every day that a client asks him to explain the basics of tuning. He taught me practical stuff like how to hold the tuning hammer and where to place it so as not to torque the pin. He showed me some ways to safely and effectively turn the tuning pin, working it as little as possible so that it doesn’t loosen over time. He even taught me how to replace strings in the treble section.

And so I got started with basic things like tuning unisons, replacing strings, and eventually tuning the whole instrument.

I do full tunings using an app called Entropy Piano that is free to download on iPad. Unisons are more accurately done by ear. It has taken me about a year to get relatively comfortable with the process and I’m by no means at the skill level of my tuner. When I started, tunings were marathons and the results were terrible at best. I don’t know if this is true, but I heard that before becoming a professional a piano tuner will tune at least 1000 pianos.

If you’re going to try it be mindful of what piano you practice on. It helps that mine is a dinosaur. My 1901 Nordheimer Cabinet Grand is way past its prime and the hammers are like rocks. They are so solid that you can’t push a pin into them and the piano is brighter than the sun. So, in all honesty I wasn’t too worried about damaging it. If this had been a brand new baby grand, I probably wouldn’t have dared to work on it.

So, with simple tools like a tuning hammer, a few mutes to isolate strings, a screw driver, different gauges of piano wire, and a temperament strip I can cover most of the everyday issues. If I have a student coming and a note is out of whack it’s no big deal now. If there’s a huge change in the weather and humidity I can deal with it. If I hear that SNAP! I know I can replace that pesky broken string (not the bass strings as they’re custom made and I wouldn’t touch those). And if I’m at a gig and I’ve got my trusty hammer then honky-tonk pianos beware!

piano tuning3

Temperament strip

If I’m inspiring you to go out and do some self tweaking the first thing you need to do is consult with a professional. My piano tuner was extremely open and helpful and I hope others would be as well. I can understand it if a young tuner who is starting out doesn’t want to reveal all the tricks of his profession. I’m not going to delude myself into thinking I can replace my piano tuner. There is a reason why these people are certified in what they do. Doing any of this stuff incorrectly can seriously damage your instrument. So make sure you have proper instruction.

What I want us all as professionals and educators to think about is the larger picture. Do piano playing and piano tuning have to be as separate as they are? There may have been a piano technology course that I didn’t take at university and I regret that now. In any event I think it should be a staple of all piano programs. Knowing how to service my own instrument could easily replace one of the many electives I have since completely forgotten about. Even a one semester course could go a long way. This is something that I believe should be considered in future curricula.

Just imagine how much more empowered pianists would be if, when required, they could make the D in Canon in D really sound like one!

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