Over our many years tuning Toronto’s pianos, we often have the pleasure of working on some truly special instruments, be they of historical importance, like the Glenn Gould’s Chickering grand at the CBC, or for recording sessions for some of the world’s most renowned pianists. One such piano we have the opportunity to tune on occasion is the exquisite Hamburg Steinway & Sons grand piano at The Toronto Centre for the Arts. It has the distinction of having its harp signed by many of the well-known artists who have had the pleasure of tickling its ivories over the decades. It’s truly a special piece in Toronto’s musical armoire.
Ivories.ca has now added piano rentals to its long list of available services. Are you hosting a concert or corporate event but the venue doesn’t have a grand piano on site? No problem. Our team of experts will deliver one of our expertly restored, high-end, brand name grand pianos to your event and pick it up when you’re done. Need a longer term rental for a recording session? We can help there too, and provide piano tuning services along the way as needed. Simply give us a call at 416-871-2550 to check availability.
A common concern/complaint we run into while touring our lovely City of Toronto tuning pianos is heavy touch. Some keys or entire pianos may respond poorly and require a great deal more effort to play/depress than others, making it nearly impossible to play the instrument smoothly and with the intended intonation and feeling. While this is especially prevalent in newer pianos, older, more “worked-in” instruments are not at all immune to this problem, as the causes of heavy touch can be numerous, from the length and weight of replacement hammers, their age and stiffness, to regulation issues such as overly tight pins, residue buildup in action parts (this being more common in older pianos) and simply improperly repaired or rebuilt pianos. But in the end it comes down to what’s known as “touchweight”, i.e. the weight necessary to depress the key, which is now most commonly assessed in grams.
While many older pianos and those direct from the factory often have a higher touchweight (in the neighbourhood of 60 grams), the internationally accepted standard these days is 49-50 grams. This weight is assessed using a gram weight placed on the end of the key while the right pedal is depressed to disengage the dampers. Weights of varying heaviness are added or removed until the key depresses slowly under the given weight.
Only if and once any of the regulatory causes mentioned above have been cancelled-out, the issue is then most commonly resolved by adding or moving key weights/leads, which are implanted into the keys themselves. These typically range in size from 10-12 mm and start at 6.8 grams. Adding these weights before the piano has been properly regulated/aligned and eased can do more harm than good – a mistake not uncommon among inexperienced technicians.
These are strategically embedded along the key until the desired touchweight is achieved. In some cases existing weights are shifted to new positions, with the old holes filled in.
If done properly, the keys should be capable of rising back into position on their own with a 29-30 gram weight placed atop. In rare cases there may be no room left to add additional weights, at which time other tricks of the trade can be attempted, such as altering capstan screw positioning.
Due to the considerable time and expense involved in altering a piano’s touchweight, this is a procedure we typically only recommend for higher-end, name brand grand pianos such as Steinway & Sons, C. Bechstein, Bösendorfer and the like.
As some of Toronto’s most experienced piano technicians, there’s not a lot that we haven’t seen when entering our customer’s homes and studios to assess their upright or grand pianos, but on the other end of the spectrum is that which we see far too frequently, which is of course neglected and unmaintained instruments. While this is hardly a surprising thing given that many pianos are seldom used outside of family gatherings or visits from the grandchildren, a weathered, poor-responding and out of tune piano can also be the root cause of it being neglected in the first place. While the benefits of regular piano tuning are relatively obvious, the improper maintenance of other components may not be. Here we’ll take a look at one such oft-forgotten element: The hammers.
While on one hand logic might dictate that a seldom used, and therefore static part should mostly retain its original, optimal condition, nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to piano hammers. Felt is a slave to its elements, and neglected hammers, especially in Canada’s harsh and changing environment, will become hard/dense over extended periods of time. This results in an overly loud, harsh, bright tone, which severely limits the moods one is able to create when sitting down at the keys. At the other extreme, over-used hammers will develop wear that will make them produce a muted, muffled tone which won’t allow the player to achieve the louder, epic tones required of more energetic and striking pieces.
The good news is that for both situations there is a solution: voicing. While many times the best, cheapest and quickest option may very well be replacing the offending hammer, in other instances your piano tuner/technician can restore the intended striking point and tone by either softening or hardening the hammer’s felt. If the hammer is worn, your technician will file /re-shape the hammer to restore its original shape, and at times may further harden it with specialized chemicals. If the hammer is too hard, a special needle tool can often soften the felt’s fibers to allow a more mellow tone to be achieved. Regardless of the procedure you require or choose, some relatively inexpensive restoration and regulation work can bring your lifeless and forgotten piano back to the land of the living.
Piano tuning is more than just tightening strings to a given pitch, it’s an essential part of keeping your piano healthy and in good working condition. Avoiding routine tunings and maintenance can lead to much more expensive repairs down the road. At Ivories.ca, a piano tuning begins well before the tuning hammer touches its first pin. A thorough initial visual inspection is critical to tuning a piano to its greatest potential. All front panels are removed and a check of the pinblock, soundboard and bridge takes place to ensure that the piano is in decent enough condition to be tuned. Especially in our varied Canadian climate, there are many factors that can render a neglected instrument to become difficult to tune, or as we see more an more these days, completely untunable (read more about proper humidity levels on our facebook page). Ivories.ca will not tune your piano if it becomes apparent that it is incapable of being tuned to our standards. In such cases, we provide free quotes for the necessary repair work to return the piano to a playable condition.
The condition of the soundboard and pinblock greatly influences one’s ability to tune a piano to the desired and ideal A440 (Hz). Pianos showing minor wear or damage may need to be tuned to a lower pitch to ensure the instrument’s integrity, as they can no longer handle the tension and pressure created by the strings at the proper pitch.
When a piano is in tunable condition, the “well tempered tuning circle” is used to obtain the critical temperament octave (the chromatic 13 notes in the middle of the piano) in order to properly tune the rest of the instrument. The A4 key is tuned to 440Hz, most commonly using a digital tuner or tuning fork, and then setting the intervals between the remaining keys using perfect fifths in relation to A440. During this process a tuner will assess the beating of the intervals (using fifths, fourths, thirds and sixths – both major and minor) in a ascending and descending pattern to ensure that the proper adjustment of beat rates has been achieved.
The adjacent strings are muted during this process (using mutes or temperament felts) to ensure a proper temperament.
Unlike, for instance, a guitar, which has six concrete, set pitches that must be obtained to be “in-tune”, a piano is far more complex, as a piano string has not just a set pitch, but one which varies along the length of the string. This creates a factor known as “inharmonicity, which leads the octaves to have a perceived sharp pitch. This increases the higher you move along the keyboard. To rectify this audibly perceived phenomena, a tuner must “stretch” each string to a greater or lesser degree to achieve an audibly balanced tuning. The amount of stretching necessary will depend on a string’s length, diameter, and tension. Being able to properly address these subtle nuances is a skill gained through extensive study and experience, a very compelling reason to only entrust your instrument to well trained expert piano tuners and technicians.
When we hear the words “high-end piano” we don’t often think of Canada, but for a large part of the late 1800’s and 1900’s, Toronto’s Heintzman Piano Manufactory rivaled instruments built by their American counterparts at Steinway & Sons, leading many to christen Heintzman the “Steinway of the North”.
Founded by German immigrant Theodor August Heintzman in 1866, Heintzman Ltd. followed the same tradition of attention to detail and uncompromising quality over quantity as his better known predecessors.
As the story goes, Heintzman’s first Toronto made piano was built in his daughter’s kitchen, the sale of which allowed him to move into more appropriate surroundings. What followed was a series of progressively larger factories, first downtown on Duke St (now Adelaide), and then two years later at 105 King St (a larger King St building would follow a few doors down in 1873 at what is now the TD Centre). As word of Heintzman’s quality pianos increased, they consistently churned out more and more pianos, reaching the 2000 mark by 1884.
Even as the piano market began to get over-saturated near the end of the 19th century, Heintzman continued with his tradition of building only high-end quality instruments. Theodor was credited with a series of innovations that solidified their reputation as a quality builder and allowed their pianos to carry a superior tone and remain on the cutting edge of piano manufacturing. His pianos would come to be sold overseas, and even be played in Albert Hall for Queen Victoria, who is said to have been impressed that an instrument from “the colonies” could be of such quality.
After Theodor’s death in 1899, his sons took over the company reigns. By this time the company had opened a large factory in the Junction neighbourhood of Toronto near Keele and Dundas, and was producing instruments at a much higher rate. Other innovations followed, such as a clever “transposing” piano, which allowed players to shift the entire keyboard several octaves, allowing the player to play in any key, and the first ever full sostenuto pedal on an upright piano (a feature previously only found on grand pianos)
Although the Depression was hard on the company, they continued to manufacture instruments at an impressive rate. Following the second world war, they could no longer survive on manufacturing pianos alone, and diversified into the sheet music market, and even dabbled in the manufacture of house ware products, at which point pianos only accounted for half of the company’s sales. The piano arm would go on to produce economy pianos under economy labels such as the Gerhard, Weber, Stevenson and Nordheimer brands. The company had previously taken over the reigns of Theodor’s nephew Gerhard Heintzman’s rival piano company upon his death, which produced pianos that did not necessarily have the same quality and standards as the Heintzman & Co. brand.
After changing ownership a hand full of times in the latter half of the 20th century, the original Heintzman company closed its doors for good in 1988. While a Chinese/Canadian conglomerate has since purchased the Heintzman name and patents and continues to produce instruments under the Heintzman name, it is not widely considered to be the same company.
The life of a professional piano tuner in our harsh Canadian climate is not always an easy one during our chilly winter months, and not only because getting to a customer’s home or place of business can be a lengthy, slushy ordeal – especially on Toronto’s congested roads. No, the main source of hardship is when we must inform a customer who wants nothing more than to have a playable piano at day’s end that their cherished, but more-often-than-not long neglected instrument is no longer tunable in its current state, and will require at least some minor repair work to get it back into playable form, most often thanks to loose tuning pins that will no longer hold properly hold a tuning. That’s not to say we couldn’t pull the piano into reasonable tune at a lower pitch (after some tedious and lengthy prodding), but such a piano tuning would most certainly not hold for more than a couple weeks, if not days, and the customer would be out 100 of their hard earned dollars for minimum net benefit.
The cause of such issues lies mostly with the maintenance and care of the piano (or more specifically, the lack thereof). While regular wear and tear, as well as age no-doubt play large roles in the condition of a piano’s important structural and mechanical components, our wildly fluctuating northern weather conditions and extremes make it all the harder to keep a piano in optimum shape. Overly dry conditions (as well as exceedingly humid ones) can cause swelling and contracting of the instrument’s soundboard, inevitably leading to cracks not only in the soundboard, but also the pinblock, which in turn puts greater pressure and strain on the instrument as a whole. While there are a host of relatively quick and minor repairs that can be done repair these problems (which we’ll address in the future), the best possible thing one can do is to avoid them before they ever happen. The key here is to control the temperature and humidity levels in the vicinity of the piano in question. They should never be placed near fireplaces or other heat sources, and an inexpensive humidity gauge will let an owner know if their instrument is in need of further assistance by way of a built-in humidity system or nearby humidifier to keep the surrounding area at an ideal 45% humidity (anything below 40% or above 50% is asking for trouble). Looking after this key condition will go a long way towards ensuring that both the customer and the piano tuner have a more enjoyable, and music filled Canadian winter season.
Those of you returning for a repeat visit will have noticed that things are looking a bit different around here these days. We’ve once again upgraded our site to hopefully serve you better, and we hope you’ll return often to check out what’s new. Make sure to add us on Twitter and like us on Facebook to get the latest updates.
All the best,
The Ivories.ca Team!