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A Quick Piano Tuning Primer

by ivories

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.

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Heintzman – Toronto’s own Piano King

by ivories

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

A bit more on piano maintenace

by ivories

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.

Welcome to our new site!

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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!

Calling all piano students ages 3-96!

joannagrace

Originally posted on 04/30/2015 12:26 PM

Just a quick note to inform any of our customers looking for an exceptional and accomplished piano (or french horn) teacher that our friend Ms. Joanna Grace is currently taking on new students in the Richmond Hill area. Joanna holds Bachelor and Master of Music degrees and has studied both here in Canada and abroad. She can also help prepare students for Royal Conservatory exams. In addition to music lessons, Ms. Grace is available as a performer for private and corporate functions.

For information on availability and lesson rates in Richmond Hill, Ontario contact Joanna Grace: 647.701.8421 or Joanna@JoannaGrace.ca
www.joannagrace.ca

A unique tuning experience

musideum_ivories

Originally posted on 08/12/2013 8:00 PM

As you may have noticed in our Twitter Feed, our head technician Wolfgang recently had the opportunity to tune a wonderful late model C. Bechstein concert grand at Toronto’s Musideum, a unique musical instrument store which doubles as a convert venue for very intimate performances by a varied selection of artists. Playing later that evening was Steve Koven, a Toronto born and educated pianist known for his improvisional performances. The store itself is unique in that while it may appear to be a museum displaying all sorts of untraditional and even odd instruments, nearly all of them are for sale, from more common items like drums, sitars and mouth harps, to relatively rare finds such as the ocean harp and the Indian TaishoKoto. The store is located at 401 Richmond Street West, Suite 133 in Toronto.

Piano humidity control

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Originally posted on 24/05/2013 12:00

In our last post we briefly looked at the dangers of overly dry or humid conditions around one’s piano. Dry conditions are considerably more common, and can lead to problems such as loose tuning pins,rattling keys, and cracks in the pinblock and soundboard. Overly moist conditions cause wood to swell, crushing sensitive parts under undue pressure, and will cause the thousands of moving parts in the piano’s action to lose proper regulation, leading to sluggish response times/performance. Excess moisture also causes convex bulging in the bridge, putting excess tension on the strings and causing the pitch to go sharp. In dry conditions, the bridge goes flat, and creates the opposite problem.

The solution is quite simple. Keep your instrument away from heat and a/c sources, and maintain proper humidity levels, which can be checked with the qauges mentioned in our last post. There are several ways to go about this. Any standard humidifier/dehumidifier placed under or near the instrument will do the job, but there is a downside to this: cost. While it may seem like the simpler, more affordable fix when compared to buying a dedicated piano humidifying system, the annual cost of operation can be nearly ten times that of the on-board piano system. These dedicated systems, such as the Piano Life Saver from Dampp-Chaser, consist of a humidistat, humidifier, dehumidifier, a water-fill tube and an indicator panel to tell you when to top up the water supply. Not only are they cheaper to operate, they require less work, requiring attention only a couple times a month, as opposed to nearly every single day.

If you’d like to have such a system installed in your upright or grand piano, give IVORIES.CA a call today at 416-871-2550!

Keeping humidity in check

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Originally posted on 15/05/2013 01:20

With the warm summer weather rapidly approaching, it’s not a bad time to revisit the topic of keeping your piano’s humidity at proper levels to avoid cracks in the soundboard, along with a variety of other performance and mechanical issues. As we’ve mentioned in prior posts, your piano should ideally be at a humidity level of 45% to help avoid problems caused by excessive drying of the wooden components of your instrument (which make up the majority of it!).

When out piano tuning, we’ll often see pianos that are placed in less than ideal spaces, often near fireplaces or other heat sources which contribute significantly to drying out essential structural components. Keeping a piano away from such places will greatly contribute to increasing its playing life.

It’s not only the larger structural parts of your piano that are affected by humidity. Overly humid conditions can cause your piano’s keys to stick, making playing difficult, not to mention annoying. The humidity levels also cause your piano’s pitch to change. High humidity will result in a sharper pitch, while low humidity will cause your piano to go flat.

A Humidity gauge is an inexpensive but important tool to have around to make sure your piano isn’t being exposed to extreme humidity or dryness. In our next post, we’ll take a close look at the options available to treat and protect your instrument from the dangers of humidity we touched on here.

Buyer beware…What to look out for when buying a used piano.

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Originally posted on 08/05/2013 01:35

In our daily travels in the piano tuning business, we often come upon a variety of unfortunate, but entirely avoidable situations. One such occurrance is finding customers who’ve recently acquired used pianos, usually through on-line or print classified ads, that end up being not only not as advertised, but often completely unplayable and tunable without a considerable additional investment in structural and mechanical repairs.

Once must be cautious of purchasing pianos bearing brand names. Not all are what they first appear to be. While less common than in say the guitar industry, there is no shortage of scam artists trying to fool buyers into purchasing a well known brand name piano, when infact, the instrument is far lower on the quality scale. It is imperative to look for the brand name non only on the fallboard, which can be easily replaced, but also on the plate/harp and soundboard. A quick bit of on-line investigating comparing these features to other similar makes and models can go a long way in confirming a piano’s authenticity. This goes for serial numbers as well, which can be stamped or painted/printed on. There are many useful sites on-line that can be used to research these serial numbers and see not only if the piano is from the said manufacturer, but when and where it was made. A quick bit of Google research can ensure you buy a Lexus, and not a lemon.

As the old saying goes: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. This most definitley applies to buying used pianos as well.

Before you buy new…

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Originally posted on 02/05/2013 11:56

We’ve touched on this issue briefly in other parts of the site, but as it’s something that keeps coming up, we thought it best to point it out here as well. When dealing with older, run-down and generally neglected pianos, we often get asked “Is it worth fixing?”. Often, the answer will be a clear and simple “NO”. This is most often the case with entry level instruments of lower quality, and some solidly built, but poorly designed pianos that have complicated action and damper set-ups that require work that would surely cost more than the value of the instrument itself. Be aware of such pianos when scanning the classifieds for a “good deal”. Often, we’ll get called to repair such newly acquired instruments, only to have to tell the customer that their piano is beyond tunability and repair, making their seemingly amazing $500 investment a complete write-off.

Then there are the pianos worth saving. In general, any quality brand name North American or European made antique upright or grand piano made of solid wood and properly constructed is worth another look. While on the surface the cost of completely restoring such an instrument might seem high, it will be a far cry from the tens of thousands of dollars more one would pay to get an instrument of similar quality new. While a thorough repair job may be in the same neighbourhood as the cost of a brand new entry level piano, the quality and useful life of the instruments simply do not compare. As the old saying goes “You get what you pay for”. In this case, a new piano at that price level will almost definitely be made of composit materials, and not solid wood. These instruments have been known to last as little as ten years before requiring work normally reserved for instruments much older. Properly restoring a well-built brand name antique will not only bring you many more years of playing bliss, it will also retain the value of the restoration in terms of re-sale value, and will provide you with a good-as-new high-end piano at the cost of an entry level clunker.