Piano String… Repair or Replace?

I was introduced to the concept of repairing bass strings only 5 years ago.  A fellow tech friend of mine showed me this simple knot in order to ‘save’ a bass string.  Now before i get down the path too far, some of you might be thinking…’well why not just throw it out and replace with a new string?’  First of all, it it’s plain wire, you do.  Plain treble wire is readily available and there’s no magic in the wire.  When it comes to the bass strings however, they are custom made for the size, model and scale of each piano.  The core wire, the copper winding, the length of the copper and the speaking length all come into play.  You don’t just pick up the phone and ask for a new one… especially when the company has been out of business for 60 years.  In addition, a new bass string will not carry the same ‘weathered’ sound as a the more brilliant brand new string.  Aged strings tend to be duller.  So there’s a lot to be said for splicing a bass string.  This knot (shown in a diagram and also picture) tightens up wonderfully.  There are a few criteria however…

1. The break cannot be in the speaking length.  That’s the part where the string sings.  A knot will inhibit vibration.

2. You must have enough steel to make the knot.  Most recently i went to a home where there was a broken bass string and although i was hoping to splice, the broken wire only had about 1/8″ or about 5mm before the copper… not enough to work with

I usually use brand new wire of the same core thickness at the tuning pin because if it has broken once, it’s probably brittle enough to break again.  Once tight, the string usually acts as normal and you can once again listen to the bass with a continuous flow or sound rather than one note ‘jumping’ out at you.

Pianos and Dust

I get asked ALL the time “What do i do about the dust in my piano”. Let me reassure you that dust is NOT an enemy to pianos. The outside of pianos – the cabinet is simply furniture. The inside – the strings, keys, action – think of it like a car. Do you worry about dust on your car engine? Of course not. Piano keys have a type of dust ‘trap’ which is the keybed. As seen in the picture below, when you take the keys out there are paperclips, dust, coins. None of these affect the piano performance. Heat and humidity fluctuation are the enemies to pianos – not dust.
So go ahead and dust the outside and leave the insides alone. Now if you own a grand and you’re tired of looking at dust under the strings – again, it’s cosmetic but i can understand that you want to have it clean and bright looking. I own a soundboard cleaner which is simply a long aluminum strip that i attach a dust cloth to. When asked to clean under the strings, I remove the grand lid and do a proper job of cleaning. It requires some effort and know-how but worth the results. Just one cautionary note: If you want to either vacuum or dust the inside of your grand, be REALLY careful with the dampers (pictured right). If the wires that hold these in place get bent, they affect the sustain and will require adjustment. My advice, you can dust the gold cast iron, the strings, the soundboard, the tuning pins, but leave the dampers alone. Hope this helps.

The Do’s and Don’ts When the Tuner Arrives…

Lately it’s struck me that clients have no real understanding of what things are acceptable when tuning a piano. I’ve found that even teachers and experienced pianists are doing things that i would never consider doing when it’s time to tune. Since tuning is a listening process, it’s obvious (to me) that a certain amount of quiet is necessary. What i find when tuning however is quite the opposite. Regularly i compete with vacuums, dishwashers, radios and TV’s. Think about when you’re in a noisy restaurant and you’re trying to listen to a conversation but the ambient noise level is too high. It’s a struggle right? Same thing when it comes to tuning. Tuners listen for vibrations called beats. All of the extraneous noise competes then with tuning. In addition to this, distractions such as constant conversation, kids doing kid thangs and pets who feel the need to be part of the job all detract from doing a good job. This one time… this made me laugh… I was tuning a grand piano and this big fluff ball of a cat came and sat on the strings of the piano…lol… so instead of getting this long resonating tone, i would just get a ‘thump’ sound from the piano because the cat was damping the sound. The owner said that it was pretty rare to see that seeing as how this cat didn’t like guys. I must be a cat whisperer (they like me and i like them). Anywhoooo… i ended up just moving the cat over to a different section of strings and then purrriodically i would move her to a new set of strings while i tuned in a different area.
All that to say, be mindful of the task at hand, you’re paying good money for a tuning and if the environment is loud, the resulting tuning will undoubtedly be substandard.

Hints:
1. Keep noise to a minimum
2. After pleasantries are said, let the tuner do his/her work
3. Best to keep kids and animals out of the area (i removed an action from a grand one time and their baby snapped a hammer off when the father and i were talking..UGH!)
4. Make sure the temperature is comfortable (i’ve tuned in homes and institutions where i could have been wearing gloves!)
5. Offering coffee, tea or water isn’t necessary but is a nice gesture :)
Hope this helps.

Piano Funny

Ok this just made me laugh out loud.  Truly a “beginner” model piano. Enjoy!

Piano Friction “Weight”

So… it was a graph that was bothering me… i couldn’t let it go. I was looking at data from a recent piano where the hammer weight was sloped (as it should be – there are larger hammer in the lower notes of a piano and small ones in the top) and what i found to be interesting was that the frictional component was also sloped. Why would that be? But there was no more time for today…I locked the door, closed the shop for the weekend. But it was on my mind. According to the stats, i needed to reduce about 3-5 grams of friction in the lower hammers. Then i got to thinkin’… what would happen if you had a wagon that was empty versus one that was full. The coefficient of friction would remain the same – meaning that the percent or ratio of friction would be the same – but the load would actually change the ‘weight’ of friction. Thinking again about the wagon… if it was empty it would be quite easy to move right? Load it full of bricks and all of a sudden, the force required to move the wagon increased proportional to the load. So in essence, the ratio doesn’t change but the weight of friction will change with the load. Back to the piano – the hammers i measured were slightly heavy… too heavy in fact for this piano. I referenced my graph again… i was examining the weight of friction and not the coefficient of friction. After i did many checks and balances again on certain joints, i finally did the reduction of weight which you can see the article on entitled Hammer Shaping. What gave me a tickle though was the fact that with the load reduced, so also the friction reduced by the exact amount i needed – a few grams.

PS… don’t know whether the coefficient of friction changes when the friction becomes the kids fighting… <sigh> i remember those days all too well :)

Piano Touch Weight

When you ask a child to draw a picture of a car, invariably it looks like this – wheels (with spokes hahaa), windows (again with panes lol) and exhaust.  Much is the same when we think of pianos – black and white keys as well as strings and hammers.  Everything in between magically gets glossed over.  But it’s in the attention to such details that make a piano go from just ho-hum to exceptional.  There are times that you sit at a piano and it REALLY responds.  That piano makes you not only sound good but it also makes you want to play MORE! That’s because someone somewhere in the world has connected the dots from keyboard to string.  More accurately, that’s the evolution of many hands spanning 200 years or more with the inception of keyboard instruments.  It’s naive to say that one person designed the car as we know it today… so too many people have been involved over the years with the development of the piano.

But there are four basic elements from which we derive “good” touch at the piano.  They all must be in check for a piano to function.  And they are:

Down weight

Up weight

Friction

Action ratio

The down weight refers to the pressure required to press down a key on a piano. The up weight is the weight needed to bring the piano key back to resting position. Friction is the perceived weight on all the joint and moving parts while the action ratio is the lever system (called whippen assembly) that multiplies the speed, weight and force of the hammer from the key.
So… in my curious nature, i start asking questions. Why do we need friction? It’s not that we NEED friction but too little of it, and parts are usually too loose and will start producing noise. Too much of it (as on the Chickering grand i just worked on) and the touch feels too heavy. Concert instruments should range between 50 and 55 grams of touch with friction representing 10-15 grams of that touch weight. With too much friction, the piano i just worked on clocked in at just over 80 grams of touch – completely unreasonable for normal playing. Question 2 – well… why not just counterbalance the touch using weights in the keys? If you’ll notice on the sides of your piano keys there are small circular weights made out of lead. Well the lead weights will have some effect for the initial movement of the hammer but in dynamic playing those lead weights will not compensate for rotational inertia at all. Nor will they do any good for either friction or up weight. So why not then just have really light parts and light friction? Good idea but… the speed of the key is also determined by the return… the return requires weight.
The balance then is this – 2 elements of the four are relatively easy to control while 2 are not. The action ratio – the intrinsic design of the piano – not so easy. That’s like saying “Can we just change the pistons on this engine?” Not easily. The second part is the up weight. The up weight carries direct correlation to the hammer weight alone. The other two factors – friction and down weight can be readily altered. Friction is by far the biggest culprit that i’ve seen. And down weight can be counterbalanced with the aforementioned weights. Once the balance is achieved however, the piano becomes a wonderful and inspiring instrument. Below are two pics of lead weighting this last week – some tools of the trade and different lead weights across the keyboard ready to be installed.

Horizontally Laminated Bridges

I will go to my grave arguing that horizontally laminated bridges are the WORST thing possible on a piano. Sometimes my blog is informative while today i just need to rant. Yesterday i tuned a brand new piano (which will remain nameless) and i thought to myself – i’ve tuned pianos that are 100 years old that are better than this #$%!@#. What is WRONG with this piano???? So i guess a wee bit more description would help: It was a continental style upright. Continental means it has no front legs and is rather narrow front to back. Rather narrow usually means short key sticks. Short key sticks means it usually doesn’t feel very balanced. Check mark. Then i noticed that the dampers were lifting AHEAD of the hammers. WHAT???? The damper blocks dampen the sound and should be removed from the strings about halfway through the key stroke. Instead, they were lifting BEFORE the hammers were even moving. Ridiculous! In addition to lifting at the wrong time, the damper springs were so heavy that it made any kind of delicate playing impossible. OK wait… there’s more. So about 2 octaves above middle C, the tone just decided to take a left turn and sound like a tin can on steroids. But the Pièce de résistance in this piano was the lack of sustain. I took one look at the bridge (pictured) and added it to my list of bad pianos of all time. I have NEVER NEVER NEVER played a piano regardless of name brand that has a horizontally laminated bridge. WHY? Because sound will not travel through 14 layers of glue. FOURTEEN!?? Yep. Fourteen. I counted.
So if you have no idea what i’m talking about, a bridge (like that on a guitar) is the part on the piano where the strings transfer energy to the soundboard. If you look at the picture, you’ll see the strings crossing over the bridge pins onto this piece of wood. In this cheap piano, they made it out of layers and layers of glue… errr i mean wood. It is my experience that bad bridges are bad for business. The pianos ALWAYS sound terrible.
Now i understand the need for cost effective manufacturing and maybe this is my ignorance in woodworking but if you need to make a cheap bridge, why not turn it 90 degrees and do a vertically laminated bridge so that the sound is running down the individual strips of wood? The big boys (those who build $100,000 plus pianos) usually have a solid one piece with a cap for structural integrity resulting in great transference but also crazy costs. But i’ve also played really great pianos with 5 ply vertically laminated bridges. That is my guess at why i can play a 100 year old Bechstein that sounds wonderful (on today’s list of tunings) and why this piano that is brand new plays like dirt. Manufacturers need to wake up and realize that if there are corners to be cut, tone is not one of them. This week a piano tech said to me “The road to hell is paved with shortcuts”. Truly this is one of them.

Hammer Shaping

Recently i’ve had the opportunity to work on a church piano – an older Chickering. But i must say, this piano was an interesting one to tame. I use the word tame because it was out of control. The touch was not only uneven but INCREDIBLY difficult to play. Most fine pianos have a touch weight of about 50-55ish grams of weight at the key. This one was a whopping 80+ !!! First things first… chase down the friction. That blog will be for another day though. After friction was in the ballpark, i was still faced with a piano that had a touch of 65ish grams. Time to consider putting this piano on a diet. Yep. You heard me. This piano was overweight and i was about to transform the touch.
So where does weight come from? Many months ago i wrote a blog on piano weights. It can simply (and yet so difficult at the same time) be measured in 2 forms – static weight where we are doing a dead lift – the hammer has yet to move. The other is created by rotational inertia. The hammer has started to move… how much effort is required to continue to move the mass of the hammer. The former mainly deals with soft playing… we’re not concerned about velocity but simply getting the hammer in motion. The latter however deals with everything above soft playing and truly is the more important factor. Static weight can be counterbalanced in the key like a see-saw. Rotational inertia however can really only be changed through the mass of the hammer itself. Because static weight again really only affects soft playing, when i sat and just played the piano (after friction was removed), it still felt heavy and burdensome. So it was time to trim the fat – reduce what i could on the hammer without compromising either structural integrity or tone. How does one leave the strike point of a hammer the same and yet reduce dead weight? Take a look at the pics. The one on the left is the original. Square and bulky. The one on the right – the more parabolic shaped one is one i adjusted. The tapered ‘shoulders’ of the hammer offer insignificant contribution to tone… if any. And so i spent the next 3 hours shaping hammers. Take a look at the two ‘tails’ – the end parts of the hammer. On the left – one that is tapered while the right, original. The net result? Reduction in about 1.3-1.5 grams of fat. One point three??? Perspective here… a nickel weighs 5 grams. You ask “How does anyone get excited about 1.3 grams of weight?” Ahhh therein lies the magic. Every piano has an ‘action ratio’ meaning one gram at the hammer accounts for usually around 5 grams at the keyboard. OK so do the math… this piano has a 5.5 action ration. 1.3 gram reduction x 5.5 action = 7.1 gram reduction of touch weight – the exact amount i needed to make this piano feel dynamic and alive. I’m so happy! 😀

Piano on an Outside Wall?

This week i’m refinishing an old upright. One that was made in 1917. When this piano was built, houses were not the same as we know them today. Today we have insulation, modern heating capabilities of gas furnaces, baseboards and even oil heaters. Interesting because nearly 90 years after this piano was built, i can just hear the salesman of this piano when it was new out of the factory “And be sure you don’t put the piano on an outside wall”. I came from the prairies… in the prairies, the ice on those old farmhouses in 1917 would have been about as thick on the inside wall as the outside. Without insulation, the wood stoves and fireplaces put out incredibly dry heat. If you put a piano on an outside wall back then, you ran the risk of exposing the piano to fluctuation in temperature and humidity. The cold would come right through those thin uninsulated walls and by day the room would heat up with the old stoves. Back and forth the contraction and expansion would happen on the soundboard. The safer bet would be to put the piano on an inside wall where there was less fluctuation. It wouldn’t cool down like the outside walls.
OK fast forward to the 2012… construction of buildings now have insulation minimums. The walls have are thicker and more resiliant to temperature. So when people ask today if they should house the piano on the outside wall, my litmus test is “If you can touch your wall and it feels close to room temperature, you’re fine”. That dispells many of the myths of why pianos should or shouldn’t be on an outside wall.

Piano Music… novelty?

Written in 1923, this incredibly catchy song was one i grew up both listening to and playing.  Recently my youngest son was sniffing around for some new music.  I played a few bars of this from memory and his eyes lit up.  Edward Elzear aka “Zez” Confrey wrote what was called ‘novelty’ piano music.  In later years, he composed more for jazz band.  What i didn’t know however was that he only died in 1971 with quite a career in composition.  His other famous song was entitled “Kitten on the keys”.  If you need a challenge for more advanced students… let them loose on Dizzy Fingers.  It’s a musical tongue twister and is supposed to be performed at break neck speed. 

BTW, you can still order it online and have it shipped to your door which is what i did. 

Without further adieu… here it is performed by none other than Liberace.  He embelishes the ending but is still a wonderful performance.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ORxE6uoQvyg[/youtube]

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