Archive for September, 2010

Loud but not belligerent

There are few things in my life that i am SOOOO opinionated about that i would venture to say “YOU ARE WRONG” but to this regard, i’ll go to my grave standing behind this point.  “What is it” you ask yourself “that would make him so adamant?”  It relates to piano tuning.  Y’see, a few months ago i was tuning while another tuner was working on another piano adjacent to me.  After some time he put down his tools, came over to me and said “that’s CRAZY how loud you’re hitting the keys when you tune! Why do you do that?”  The answer is really quite simple (the explanation – a little more complicated).  When you tune a piano, you do something called “setting the pins”.  Each of the approximately 225 tuning pins is either loosened or tightened to raise or lower the pitch of the piano.  Only problem is… once you move the string, there is still residual movement of the pitch until that note has settled.  How do you get the note to *JOLT* into place? That’s where the term ‘setting’ the pins comes in.  If you strike the key with some force, it moves the string until it settles.  The advantage to this is that when a performer then sits down at a piano and they play some really loud chord, the strings won’t move out of position because they’ve already been set – they’ve already been struck with similar force when it was tuned.  What this ensures then is tuning stability – if i when i tune a piano hit quite a loud volume, the strings will only jostle out of pitch if the performer hits HARDER than i do when tuning.  In a nutshell, if you hear a piano tuner who is really gentle at the piano… you have the wrong tuner (in my humble opinion).  If they don’t bang the tar out of the piano when they’re moving the strings, the first loud piece you play at the piano will move them out of pitch and you’ll be having to live with that out of pitch note for the next year (or until you have your piano tuned next).  So when i was asked “Why do you hit the key so loudly?”, i simply stated “Because it makes no sense whatsoever to tune the piano quietly”.  We exchanged a few more words but… i still walked away thinking “I am right, and you’re wrong”.   Hate to say it… but unless you have a loud tuner, you will be unsatisfied with your tuning.

When 50 Cent Ain’t a Half Dollar

Pianos are stubborn! There are no two ways about it. If you pull their strings, they’ll pull back. In fact, it’s a little like a tug of war when tuning. The farther the piano has dropped in pitch (remember that there are thousands of pounds pulling whether you play the instrument or not), the more the piano is going to complain when you pull it back up to pitch. For example, there are 100 cents in a semi-tone. A cent is an increment of pitch. So if you pull strings 25 cents, quite often the piano will pull back 8 cents. Raise the pitch 15 degrees (or cents) and it will pull back 5 cents. Why is that? Most of that pull-back is from the soundboard responding to added pressure.

The following are some tuning fun free facts i’ve noticed in recent years:
1. Solid reputable pianos will fall about 3-5 cents per year. It makes sense then that a piano that hasn’t been tuned for three years will be out of pitch 9-15 cents.
2. Pianos will not stay perfectly in tune if they are out more than about 15 cents. Back to the tug-o-war… you tighten the strings and it will pull back. It is impossible to stabilize perfectly a piano on first tuning that is out more than 15 degrees.
3. It’s a good idea then to compensate for this loss of pitch. Let’s say that A440 is “0” and that the piano is 15 cents down in pitch (-15). I usually adjust my strobe to tune +5 and expect that the piano will then drop by that amount. Crossing fingers, the piano will end up at 0 after completion.
4. Pianos farther than 40 cents down and have strings that look old and rusty, expect possible string breakage.
5. When pianos are farther than 15 cents down, it doesn’t mean that the piano cannot be tuned, it simply means that it would be a good idea to do a ‘pitch raise’ first and then do a fine tuning. A pitch raise is a very fast tuning to bring the piano into the ballpark. Once the piano has settled somewhat to the new tension, it is then possible to tune it at which point, the piano should be stable.
6. Piano wire gauge is matched to the pitch of a note. Even though the wires may look all the same thickness, they’re not. And so when pitch has slidden, the piano also won’t sound optimal. Only when the instrument is matched for the pitch will the tone also follow. Pianos that are flat in pitch usually sound dull and lifeless.

Next time you have your tuner over, ask him/her (providing they have a strobe) how many cents your piano is ‘out’.
PS…you’ll look like you’re in the know

Five Words to Parents

I’ve been asked numerous times by parents what the secret to success is for keeping their children interested in the piano.  Over the years i have noticed five common threads amongst the students who excel.  Invariably most if not all of these are neccessary ingredients in the music learning process with successful students.

1. As parents – be present.  Small story: my dad had a lazyboy recliner right beside the old grand piano i would practice on.  When he would come home, he would love to read the newspaper.  No words were exchanged.  He would just read the paper.  It’s AMAZING how much more focused a child is by just having a parent sitting beside them.  You don’t even need to be musical! You just need to be within earshot.  It can be the kitchen, the living room… just so long as it’s close.  It prevents kids from daydreaming and makes them get down to work.  The end of the story with my dad… he would quite often fall asleep while i was playing and the newspaper would fall to his face – the condensation and ink would turn his nose black.  I would gradually play softer, softer, softer…then BANG! into the Beethoven!  He would just about jump out of the chair.  As a teenager i would laugh and laugh and he would give me the not so approving look and then smirk.

2. Repertoire inspires.  There HAS to be some form of music that you enjoy at the piano or else you might as well be sitting at a typewriter (do they even have those anymore?)  Again, my father would buy books for us not related to our studies in piano that we would read through – jazz, blues and ragtime.  In the dry seasons of practicing – feeling like there is no end in view, I would often end my piano session with some sort of fun piece. Truly, this was one of the motivating factors in writing these six books for my boys to learn how to play. I wanted to combine entertaining (and at times challenging) music with good piano skills. (There’s my shameless plug for my books). So find what inspires your children and go out there and get it!

3. Be consistent. I know this sounds paradoxical, but I have this saying “You can’t love it ’til you hate it”. ANY student who has broken through the barriers of forcing their fingers to learn piano technique knows that it’s frustrating. But the key here is consistency. All too often i hear parents say “we want our kids to just have fun at the piano”. I’m translating in my brain “ok… this means non-enforced practicing”. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and state for the record that those students just won’t excel. PERIOD. Reason being – as soon as it’s not ‘fun’, the practicing stops. I tell parents over and over and over: Make piano a part of daily routine. I used to ask my kids “did you brush your teeth, make your bed and practice piano?” It was part of the fabric of the family. That said, i also needed to come to grips with allowing children to make their own decisions about piano – a fine line to walk for sure.

4. Speed of the turn. Why is early music so exciting for kids and as they progress, quite often that enthusiasm wanes? In part it’s due to the fact that as you get more advanced in music, the songs get more complicated and subsequently take longer to complete. There’s a danger here on both the part of the student as well as the teacher. Teachers want the song to reach perfection. Students get bogged down and sometimes drown in a song they feel they will never finish. The longer that song(s) take, the more the fire goes out of the student. As a teacher, i don’t expect perfection from each song. In fact i would much rather play through more songs and take them to the 80% mark than play only a few and try and perfect them. In addition, i would allow each student a ‘drop’ token – they were allowed to just drop one song per year and say “i don’t want to finish this one”. I’m a HUGE advocate of finishing what you start, but even i know that there are times to put songs to rest. But here’s the thing… the faster the rate songs are learned, the more energy it creates in the student. It’s almost like an appetite… they want to consume more when they realise they have the capacity to learn more. And so it should be.

5. Finally, perform. As an adult, the most fun i have had playing is with others while performing. When i was a kid, it was one of the most horrifying experiences. Now somewhere in the middle of those years, a lightbulb went on. I think it was during performance in jazz band in front of my peers. It was the incredible sound of a big  band that i loved and at the same time i received admiration from my friends. It somehow bolstered my fragile teenage ego. I realised i had a feather in my cap – i realised i had skills – i wasn’t just some kid practicing, there was actually a REASON i had played all these years. Isn’t one of the reasons we play music for social benefit? We interact and communicate through sound. How weird would it be if we were taught to speak in public but never had the opportunity to do it? If music is the means through which we speak, why then do we sit sheltered in a corner? Back to reality – we still need to hone the skills – learn the chops – do the woodshedding… but the greatest feeling is to finally peform. As a drummer friend always says (and in this context – regarding performance) “don’t hate, celebrate”.

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