Old or new pianos best?

My grandmother’s old Collard and Collard grand is about to passed down to me, much anticipated by my son who is about to take his Grade 6 exams. I had intended buying a decent piano but now I’m not sure which to go for – much loved old or good quality new. Help! Collard & Collard were a well respected make of piano many years ago and your grandmother’s grand piano is likely to be a rather elderly example which has rather outlived its sell by date. It is common for piano owners to become very attached to their old family piano and allow sentimental value to cloud their judgement when assessing the condition and quality of the instrument. Very occasionally it has been maintained admirably well and is worth the effort in preserving it for another few years of happy service to the family. More often than not, the passing of the years will have seen the tone fade and the action deteriorate to the point where it is positively difficult to play with expression or enjoyment. No matter how loved the piano is, how many happy memories are associated with it or how beautifully the casework has aged, it is time for a new piano. If in doubt, why not ask a reputable tuner (preferably PTA qualified) to give you his honest opinion before you tell him your attachment to the piano? Grade 6 level piano deserves the very best you can provide if you are not to hinder your son’s musical progress. Hanging on to an old, unsatisfactory piano might just prevent him from reaching the... read more

Scratched casework

I own a relatively new, Asian make, baby grand piano. Its formerly black glossy surface now has plenty of scratches and small dents, mainly, I have to admit, due to my young children playing on and around it. Is there anything I can do restore the surface of the piano? Scratches and dents are two separate and quite distinct problems. The dents in your polyester finish will be the hardest to repair invisibly; these will inevitably require a repair followed by a re-spray of the entire panel, particularly difficult on most Asian pianos as the polyester is usually quite thin. Scratches, if not too deep, can be masked with some degree of success using a black car polish (Colour Magic or the like). Simply apply a very small amount with a soft cloth and buff off with another. Good, old fashioned pink Windowlene will remove small scratches and built up dirt leaving a good shiny finish – try on an inconspicuous corner before launching into a full on assault. For a showroom finish the only course would be to re-spray the whole piano at a cost of £1500 –... read more

Broken Hammer

My sister just had a hammer snap off on her piano and doesn’t know what to do. Can you advise? The best advice is to call in your piano tuner / technician. This is not something that can be successfully repaired with enthusiastic DIY. The broken hammer shank has to be carefully drilled or drawn out of the hammer head and butt portions and a new shank inserted and glued at the correct rake angle and alignment to the string. If you have retrieved the old shank with the hammer head still attached from the bottom of the piano, please do not throw it away or lose it! If a head from a different set has to be used there will be a noticeable difference in tone between it and the other hammers. Hammer shanks used to be made from cedar which gets brittle with age, and is possibly why your hammer broke. Modern shanks (what yours will be replaced with) are sycamore which has a good straight grain and is much... read more

Grand legs

My grand piano now has wobbly legs from having been moved around a lot. Is that normal? Or bad construction? Can something be done about it? When a grand piano is moved, the lyre (pedal assembly) and the legs are removed and the body of the piano is put onto its side on a specially constructed padded ‘shoe’ for ease of transport. With the piano in its new position, the legs are then re-attached with coach bolts. Unfortunately, it sometimes happens that the removal men are less than efficient at performing this task and mistakes are made in placing the legs in the wrong positions or using the wrong coach bolts for each particular leg (the bolts can vary in length by half an inch) which then has disastrous effects on the functioning of the soft pedal and the stability of the whole piano. Sometimes the solution to wobbly legs is to simply tighten the bolts; a large socket wrench or a car’s wheel brace is usually about the right size. There are three basic types of grand piano leg; turned octagonal, double gate leg, and square. If your piano has the gate leg type – two thin square legs at each corner – then these are prone to wobbling over time, not exactly bad construction but less stable than the more solid turned octagonal or square, just don’t put anything valuable... read more

Effect of environment

I recently inherited my Grandmother’s piano and, having moved it into my house, found it is not the same piano at all – the tuning is awful and notes are sticking – can moving a piano really have such a drastic effect on its condition? This is actually quite a common problem and is partly due to the moving process but more to do with the change in environment to which the piano has been subjected. Moving a piano, even from one room to another, can upset the tuning just because the temperature might be different, or because it catches the evening sun, or it’s now sitting in a draught. It is quite possible that, if the piano has been kept in an unheated or barely heated front parlour for many years and is then moved suddenly into a warm centrally heated house, this type of problem will occur or indeed, be almost inevitable. Dampness and even mildew can lie dormant deep inside the piano without appearing to have any effect until it is moved into a warmer, drier environment where the piano will mysteriously develop classic symptoms of damp such as sticking notes or a sluggish action. The only solution is to wait until the piano has completely acclimatised to its new position before having it properly tuned and repaired which may possibly entail quite a major... read more

Sustaining treble

The top treble notes on my piano ring on unlike all the other notes which stop when I release the key. Can something be done about this? You have noticed something which is common to all pianos and the short answer to this question is no! There are two qualities about a piano string, volume and sustain, which need to be addressed when designing a piano. The bass strings tend to produce the loudest sound and you will notice that for the first octave or so, there is just a single copper wound string for each note. Moving up, this becomes two strings as they approach the treble around the C below Middle C where the strings are made of steel and become trichords or three strings per note. The strings are also becoming thinner or lighter in gauge as the notes rise in frequency up the treble. The reason for all these changes is to maintain the volume, as much as possible, throughout the whole compass of the piano as the natural tendency is for both volume and sustain to drop as you rise through the treble. Most notes have pieces of felt called dampers which fall back on the strings when the key is released to finish the note and stop it sustaining. There comes a point, usually around two octaves above Middle C, where the sustain of the note is so weak that the dampers are no longer required and would actually make the note sound oddly cut short if they were damped. You can find this point on your piano if you listen carefully for... read more

Tuning frequency

My tuner rang to say that as it is now 6 months since he last tuned the piano, we should make an appointment for another visit. I told him the piano seems fine and doesn’t need another tuning just yet. Should I have said yes to him anyway? Yes, you should have made an appointment while he was on the phone to you. He was probably going to be in your area and now you don’t know when he will phone you again if he thinks you are not keen on keeping the piano in good shape. The onus will now be on you to remember to phone him when the piano seems to you to be out of tune which probably means (to the trained ear) it is very out of tune. The idea behind regular six monthly tunings is to make seasonal adjustments to the pitch and keep the tuning to within certain limits; the less the tuner has to move the strings to the correct tension, the more stable the tuning becomes and the less you think you need the tuner because he catches it just before it begins to sound really off pitch. Leave it for much longer than he recommends and you will appreciate why his visits come around so regularly. If you have a tuner who is efficient enough to phone you so regularly that the piano never seems to be out of tune, then he is doing you a service and you should treasure him! (Especially if he is an... read more

PTA Superior?

Are piano tuners who are members of the PTA really any better than those who are not? This is an interesting question and one which doesn’t have a straightforward answer. If you are looking for a tuner and don’t have a recommendation to go on, then getting in contact with a Member of the Pianoforte Tuners’ Association (MPTA) either through the PTA website or in Yellow Pages or similar, is an essential first step. To become a Member, applicants must have had at least five years experience in tuning pianos and pass an advanced examination in tuning, repairing and general piano knowledge. This requirement is the Association’s greatest strength but also a major stumbling block in attracting new Members amongst existing established tuners. Some very good tuners are reluctant to put themselves through the ordeal of being judged by their peers and manage well enough on their own. There are, however, plenty of ‘tuners’ out there with no formal training and no real skill either who can fool some of the people often enough to supplement an income derived elsewhere, possibly teaching piano. Members of the PTA have to conform to certain standards or face possible disciplinary measures via a complaints procedure, which is, happily, rarely used! As was mentioned in the last issue of Pianist, training opportunities for student piano tuners may be reaching crisis point which could encourage more and more amateurs to call themselves tuners. Why take that risk when employing a qualified tuner who is a Member of the Association is just as... read more

Bass tone

The bass section beyond F below middle C on my upright piano has a dull thudding sort of tone, what could be causing this? Bass strings are quite different to treble strings in that they have a copper winding around a steel core. If the piano is getting on in years then the strings will also be old; one feature of bass strings is the development of a ‘tubby’ tone, losing the sparkle of higher frequencies they once had. If you think how often a violinist or guitarist changes his strings, you’ll appreciate that piano strings last a very long time indeed. It is sometimes possible for your tuner to brighten the tone by putting an extra twist to each bass string, putting more tension on the windings, but it may be that your strings simply need replacing. This can be done in isolation to the treble strings but it is often necessary to replace all the strings in the piano. A set of bass strings will have to be made specifically for your piano from a pattern which your technician will make and send to the stringmaker. There is also a gloomier diagnosis for the cause of poor tone in the bass section; it could be a fault with the bridge, which is that part of the piano which carries the vibrations of the string to the soundboard. If this has become damaged (woodworm?) or detached from the soundboard or if the pins which hold the strings in position are loose then you are likely to describe the tone as ‘dead’ or... read more

Cleaning

When my tuner takes off the casework to tune my piano I notice how dirty and dusty it is inside. Is there anything I can do to keep the piano clean myself? Treat your piano like a valuable piece of furniture: keep it clean and avoid standing drinks, vases of flowers, or potted plants on it. Spilled liquids can cause serious damage, the repair of which may amount to a serious overhaul. New pianos are generally finished in polyester which requires only to be wiped over with an anti-static cloth or special cleaning preparation, definitely no wax polish! Unless you are very confident in what you are attempting, it is probably best to leave the inside of the instrument to the care of your tuner. Even removing the top door, fall, and bottom door can prove problematic as can replacing them properly. The dust and debris you can see when the tuner is working on your piano is best left where it is, not causing any problems. Dust tends to settle inside where it does no harm and moving it around could change that delicate balance; it takes only a small bit of grit to jam two keys together. That said, if your piano is really dirty, ask the tuner to clean it for you. At least if he knocks the delicate action out of kilter, he will be able to put it right... read more