THREE MAIN JOBS TO PREPARE A PIANO
There are three main maintenance jobs to be done on a piano -- Tuning, Voicing, and Regulating. All Concert performance pianos are being serviced continuously in all three of these areas. Otherwise, there is no way the performer could get the spectacular results he/she does and which we enjoy.
Many (most) home pianos are terribly neglected in all three of these critical service areas. The reason--I am most often told by home piano owners, is that they just don't play that well, or that often, to justify the increased cost of more frequent tunings, voicing, and regulating. However, the truth of the matter is, that if they did tune their piano more often and get it properly voiced, and regulated, they would play it more often, they would play it better, and they would enjoy their playing much more. Let me explain why.
First I need to define tuning, voicing, and regulating so you can understand why these jobs so directly affect the owner's playing skill, time, and enjoyment.
Tuning is the job most often requested of a technician. But it is often the most mis-understood job of fine piano preparation. A very fine quality tuning can actually sound poorly if the piano is poorly voiced. Also, a very fine quality tuning will not last more than a few hours if the piano is not tuned frequently enough. This is because over time the piano goes out of tune in two ways . . . 1. to itself (so the intervals and harmonies don't sound right anymore), and 2. the entire pitch of the piano drops away from the standard of A=440.*
Piano string wire is made of high carbon spring steel and consequently it has all the characteristics of any spring, i.e. when you pull a spring apart and let go of it, it will pull itself back to its "homeostatic tension point." Conversely, when you push a spring together and let go of it, it will push itself back out to it's homeostatic tension point. Piano wire has the same characteristic. When we pull it tighter it will try to pull back, and when we loosen it, it will actually try to push back up (tighter). The internal tension in the string will increase when we pull or push it away from its homeostatic tension point. The further we have to pull a string to get it to reach proper pitch, the stronger the pull back becomes (just like in a spring) We can all bend a leaf spring, or pull out a coil spring a little bit. But if it is a strong/heavy spring we can't move it very far. We notice that it gets harder and harder to pull out until we just can't pull it (or compress) it any more. These is because the "pull back" or "push back" force increases greatly the further we try to move it away from its homeostatic tension point. The same thing happens with piano wire so that if a tuner has to move it too far away from its current homeostatic tension point the pull (or push) back become so great that the string itself will overcome some of the new setting and literally pull (or push) itself back "out of tune" some amount. It will not stay exactly at the pitch the tuner moved it to. The further the tuner has to move the string way from its current homeostatic tension point to get it to the proper pitch, the strong and more pronounced will be the string pulling itself back out of tune. This effect is immediate and can be easily hear within a few minutes.
Now here's the reason for sufficiently frequent tunings. Over time the internal homeostatic tension point in the piano wire relaxes and falls further and further away from the A=440 standard. Thus, the tuner needs to do two things when tuning: 1. bring the pitch back to the 440 standard and, 2. insure the piano is all in fine relational harmony to itself. But if it has been too long since the last couple tunings, the homeostatic tension has fallen too far away from 440 to allow it to be brought back to that point without the pullback being too strong, thus preventing the piano pins from keeping it at the pitch where the tuner set it. In these cases, the tuner will need to "raise the pitch" then "tune" the piano. He will need to follow that up with another "final" tuning within a few weeks (2-4) to be able to get the piano wire to accept a new homeostatic tension point that is now at the 440 standard. At this point, the whole matter now works in favor of the piano owner, because now the piano wire will resist moving away from its new homeostatic tension point, which is now exactly at the International pitch standard of A=440.
To keep a piano from falling too far away from the 440 standard so that a very fine tuning can be put on it and the wire will allow the change most home pianos should be tuned twice a year here in Eastern WA.
Many pianos will drop in pitch fairly evenly over a period of three or four years. This is a long period of time and so the owner doesn't notice the drop in pitch nor the dis-harmonies that are setting in. The piano owner only starts to think the piano needs tuning again when the dis-harmonies become very obvious. What the owner has NOT realized however, is that the entire piano tension has ALSO fallen significantly away from the 440 standard. In fact it has fallen too far away from the standard to stay precisely where the tuner will now put it. Thus, after the tuner leaves, the piano continues, for a few days, to pull itself a bit back out of tune. It still sounds better than it did before the tuner arrived, but it does NOT sound as good as that piano is ultimately capable of sounding. The owner, nevertheless, is satisfied, because on his 3-4 year tuning schedule, this is all the better he has ever heard the piano's tuning sound. He has come to think that this is what a properly and newly tuned piano sounds like. But it is not. It is only what a newly tuned piano sounds like when it hasn't been tuned for 3 or 4 years. If that tuner would come back and tune it again in a few days, the owner would be amazed at the improvement! He wouldn't believe his ears. He would say, "I've never heard this sound soooooo good!" And he would sit down at it and enjoy playing like he has never enjoyed it before! He would play longer, he would get "drawn into" the beautiful tones coming from "his" playing and "his" piano; beautiful, quality tones he has never heard before from his piano! The psychological phenomenon of this experience will affect him emotionally and physically. He will actually play better and will become one of those homeowners who has finally discovered why he bought this piano in the first place! It will gain a renewed prominence in his life.
Now . . . add the factors of voicing and regulating and experience even greater piano joy!
The sound the piano makes is made up of a lot of features, but the two most important ones that can be readily manipulated by the piano technician (and should be) are tuning and voicing.
We've adequately described tuning above. But the second half (or first half) of tuning is "voicing."
Voicing is the manipulation of the hammer head felt so that when it strikes the string it brings forth the most beautiful tone possible. A well voiced hammer produces a sweet, clean, velvety tone (timbre) of proper loudness directly proportional to the effort exerted by the performer. A poorly voiced hammer (one that is too hard or soft, or is a mixture of hard and soft spots) will produce a mushy, dull or bright, harsh howling tone (timbre) and does not feel to the performer to match his effort for loudness. The timbre (tone color, flavor, sensation) is either good, bad, or somewhere in between (and so is the loudness).
What a technician does when he/she voices the piano is to soften or harden the hammer felts, blending them evenly through the entire range (all 88 hammers) so that the tone is even and smooth throughout the entire piano. Think of it this way. Generally speaking, when we change notes, we only want to hear the pitch change from note to note. We do not want to hear the tone change. In worst case scenarios, you will play a piano that has serious voicing problems and as you run up or down a scale, it will suddenly sound like you changed pianos right in the middle of the scale--not only are the pitches changed but suddenly the tone or volume also changed. Sometimes if sounds like (and feels like) one note "jumps" out from the rest and "bites" you every time you play that note. Do you find yourself not liking certain notes on your piano? Voicing problem! Do you find yourself either trying to play certain notes softer than others or harder than others? Voicing problem! (and/or regulating problem discussed below). Do some notes sound real pleasant to you and others sound harsh or biting? Voicing problem! You get the point; a fine tuning on a poorly voiced piano will still not give satisfying results, and still be far from what that piano is ultimately capable of.
Generally speaking, hammer felts harden over time because of being "hammered" into the strings over and over. The felt gets compacted, as well as groves getting cut into the felt. If you look at a hammer you will see it is actually a wooden wedge covered with felt. Image the sound that would be made if all the felt was removed and the string was getting struck with just the wooden wedge--a terrible, minimal crash, clunk, ?@%# kind of sound. Now picture the fact that over time, the felt is getting harder and harder. Thus the sound (tone) being produced is moving more and more toward that which would be made by the wooden wedge by itself. Voicing restores the felt characteristics, thereby regaining the optimal tone on each and every note.
This is the job of readjusting all the moving parts to bring them back into engineered specifications. Like voicing, over time, moving parts suffer wear and tear. Eventually they wear so far that the lever system no longer functions at top efficiency. Some keys literally (physically) play differently than others. You will find that some keys seem "sluggish," or like you have to strike them harder than others to get the same amount of volume. The piano loses its dynamic range, particularly in the very quiet end of the range ( ppp ). It becomes impossible to play very quiet sections because some of the hammers won't strike their strings. So you lose a great portion of musical expression; you end up playing certain sections of music louder than you would prefer. Consequently, you don't hear the full beauty of either your playing ability nor the piano's. Certain passages of music played on notes that are our of regulation are difficult to play. Often the mistake is made of concluding that the player, adult or child, just doesn't have sufficient talent to play that passage. But often the truth is, the player does have the talent to play it, but the piano doesn't have the "talent" to do its part. It's the piano that is not keeping its end of the deal. The player is playing fine, but the piano is only giving a 70 to 90 % response depending on what note is being played! No wonder no one every plays really good on that piano! Regulating the piano could make all the difference in the world. BEFORE you conclude, for example, that your child has already maxed his potential . . . that that's all the better he can get . . . GET THE REGULATION OF THE PIANO CHECKED OUT! If it's a regulation problem in the piano, you'll be exceedingly amazed with joy at what you hear coming from your child's playing after the piano is properly regulated.
Here's a simple test you can do. Sight down the keys. Are they all level? Or are some higher or lower than others? Are some crooked, leaning to the side? Then your piano NEEDS Regulation.
*A=440. This simply means that the sound wave on the first "A" note above Middle "C" will cycle 440 times each second. At that speed, we will hear the correct pitch. If the string is pulled too tight, the sound wave will cycle more than 440 times per second and we will hear it as a higher pitch. Conversely, if we do not pull the string adequately tight, the sound wave it produced when struck will cycle slower than 440 times per second and consequently we will hear it as a lower pitch.