There have been so many times I’ve been asked to play piano at someone’s home simply because the host heard I play and service pianos. Other times I’ve been asked to sit in with a pianist and play guitar and/or sing and I can only apologize because the ensemble can’t work together due to the fact that the piano is out of tune.
Here is an excerpt from a fellow technician’s web site that I thought was wonderfully worded:
Why Should I Spend the Money to Keep My Piano Tuned?
I’ve been tuning for over forty years now, I’ve heard all the questions and the excuses for not having the piano tuned regularly.
Here’s the thing, if anybody in the house wants to play the piano, do it for them. Nobody wants to play an out of tune piano, or one that has notes that won’t play properly. Plus some of your friends, neighbors, guests may play. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been a guest at someone’s home when they find out I play piano and ask me to play. I cringe if the piano is out of tune (or worse).
By the way, fixing notes that don’t play properly is not part of a tuning, although many of us will fix one or two without charging extra if it doesn’t take too long. Otherwise we will point out what needs to be fixed and give you a quote. Depending on our schedule, we may be able to make the fixes while we there, or we may need to ask to make another appointment.
Particularly if someone is taking lessons, learning music, singing, etc. !
Part of learning to play an instrument is ear training. Learning what notes sound like what, hearing how combinations of notes form chords, etc. If the piano is out of tune what the student thinks is the sound of a C chord (three notes played together, C,E,G) is really the sound of a B♭ (if the piano is sorely out of tune).
“There’s a free piano on Craigslist.com – I can find someone to help move it and have a free instrument!”
Slow down a minute. If there were truly “Great Deals” for pianos on Craigslist, don’t you think I would be scooping them up since I’m in the trade? I admire the enthusiasm, especially since you having a piano can only help my business, but there are some very good reasons that piano is free or cheap.
Pianos are (almost) never free. I’m not counting tuning as an initial cost because that is standard maintenance.
Why is the current owner getting rid of the piano? Even if it’s simply to clear space, moving and/or down-sizing, the owner doesn’t value the piano for its usefulness. You don’t want to bring home something so large that you’re stuck having to dispose of. This doesn’t disqualify their piano from being an instrument you should value, but it is a consideration to keep in mind while looking.
Also, don’t discount a piano because it’s older. Some of my customers have 100+ year old instruments which have been well cared for and are in better playing condition than pianos built in the last 20 years.
Onto the potential piano pitfalls:
After 20+ years of use the action should be regulated. Because pianos are mostly wood, the rise and fall of humidity over extended periods of time cause numerous problems, even if the piano is not played. The wood around screws and flange pins expands and shrinks with moisture variation, the effect of this is that parts come loose and cause: sticking keys, clicking, miss-hitting hammers, and truncated dynamic spectrum. Many technicians stave off a full regulation during their routine tuning. Even so, there are screws that cannot be adjusted without removing the action from the piano.
Something you can check by opening the lid and inspecting the striking point of the hammer – are there lines etched in the felt? If there are, reshaping can often remedy the issue. Having lines like that means the notes won’t be as responsive or clear sounding. This is an example of worn hammers which could either be replaced or reshaped.
Regulation and voicing(shaping) without new parts should cost you between $400-500. All labor and typically not an ‘in-home’ service. The action is removed for about a week of working time.
The keys are easy to visually inspect and make a decision on the cosmetics but it is important they function properly. The key height and distance they travel when pressed need to be uniform as well as stable in their pivoting motion. If the keys look like this, you’ll probably need work
Work involving the keys ranges in price from around $400 to over $1,000 depending on what you need.
Barring stability and structural problems, you now have an instrument to play. Unless you find something exceptional, stability and structure repairs are too much of a investment for most searching for a ‘free’ piano (low estimates start @ $2,000 going up to $30,000).
How can you ensure you get a good deal? Hire a technician to inspect your prospect. Most of us can’t perform this service for free, but some will credit the inspection fee towards any repairs you’ll need. I always recommend setting aside a minimum of $900 for acquiring a used piano to at least get the instrument tuned and functioning. If you have some left over, great, but at least you aren’t sitting with a malfunctioning piano.
Anyone who works in a rather obscure field will be able to relate to the question “How did you get into that line of work?” I’m probably asked that on a weekly basis or more, but I don’t mind because I think my story is pretty good.
I’d like to begin with a little background on me which indirectly led to my work in the piano industry. I have been studying music for longer than my memories of early childhood allow me to recall. I’m fairly certain that I knew all the words to Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’ by age 5 and definitely most of Billy Joel’s ‘Storm Front’ album by 7. I began trombone lessons in 4th grade and found a guitar sitting next to a dumpster in 6th but didn’t even touch a piano until late high school. It wouldn’t be until my junior year of college that I even thought seriously of playing piano, much less working in the industry.
At West Chester University, where I earned my bachelor’s degree in music composition, I heard Dr. Vincent Craig play Beethoven’s “Tempest” sonata, only the first movement, for one of my theory classes (as I recall, a G-sharp was out of tune in the bass). I was so taken by the performance that I just had to learn it. So I practiced for 3 hours a day when I should have been working on my required voice lesson material. This led to me getting my first piano.
I paid 6 guys chicken parmesan to move a 110 year old upright into my second floor, off-campus apartment. Half the keys didn’t work and the ones that did sounded awful. My wife would also tell you how ugly it was in our living room. I started fixing it with the materials available to a poor college student – there were #2 pencils in place of broken hammer shanks and rubber bands doing the work of missing springs. The project earned the piano a new name, MacGyver.
At this point I had an ugly piano that “worked.” It wasn’t until the following semester where I developed an interest in tuning. The name of the course was “Music of the Spheres” led by Dr. Mark Rimple. I learned a lot about pitch and temperament theories dating back to Pythagoras and following a western evolution to what is common practice today. If the course is offered again you should make an effort to take it! If you can’t, you should buy his book, A Companion to Boethius in Middle Ages.
Unfortunately, I never tuned that first piano, it wasn’t possible.
Onto graduation and finding myself unemployed during the worst economic crisis for a few generations. I took a job I knew I wouldn’t like as a teller in a bank. It paid the bills and I had the opportunity to begin teaching myself a trade. Then finally, a stroke of luck! A local piano tech came in to make a deposit for his business.
“I’m trying to get into that business,” I said.
“I’m trying to get out,” was his response.
So for the next 4-5 months I apprenticed by working with Donn Young during time off from the bank and calling out sick. I left the bank to have more availability for my new passion. It has been about 12 years since then. In 2015, I took over the business.