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Before We Tune Your Piano…

by ivories

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While we’re sure most of our customers would like for us to be in and out of their homes, auditoriums or studios ASAP (let’s face it, the piano tuning procedure is not the most pleasant thing on the ears), there are a number of steps any good, experienced piano technician will take before ever putting a tuning hammer to a pin.

A thorough inspection of a piano and its key areas is always necessary to not only ensure that the piano can be tuned properly, but also that any damaged and/or potentially vulnerable parts are not helped along in their degradation. Some key areas to assess are:

  • Condition of the mechanical (action) components. Excessive or extreme wear and tear of the piano’s action parts will make any tuning, no matter how exceptional, entirely pointless, as the piano will not respond or resonate as intended.

    Damaged & Worn Damper Felts

  • Structural damage. Pinblocks not firmly secured to the frame, cracked soundboards, cracks in the piano’s harp/plate and other problems with the piano’s structural framework can mean the piano will not be able to properly retain the immense tension placed on it by the strings. Bulging in the bridge do to improper humidity levels will cause a piano to go sharp or flat, depending on overly humid or dry conditions respectively.

    Cracked Soundboard

  • Loose tuning pins. Over time tuning pins become loose due to cracking or contraction of the wood surrounding the pins. This often means that in addition to it being very difficult to tune in the first place (if it can be tuned at all), a piano will not hold the tuning for very long, which is never a good value for the customer. As such, Ivories.ca will not tune your piano if we discover this problem on-site. Charging a customer for a tuning of little to no use is simply reprehensible.

A truly unique Canadian talent

by ivories

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We first became aware of composer Lubomyr Melnyk last year after a friend from Latvia mentioned that a Canadian piano virtuoso was performing several sold-out shows at the popular Zemlika Music Festival in Durbe, a small town on the western edge of the country near the Baltic Sea. Not having previously heard of him, and curious as to how a Canadian came to be invited to play at an indie music festival in such a little known town far off the beaten path, we delved a little bit deeper into this performer, who, as it turns out, invented a musical style all his own, and is finally gaining some long overdue recognition, including from some of Europe’s best known publications.

Born in Germany to Ukrainian parents, Melnyk moved to Canada as a two year old, where he spent most of his early years in Winnipeg, graduating from St. Paul’s College and continuing his studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. It was however while living abroad in Paris in the early 70’s that he developed his particular style of playing while serving as the accompanist for modern dancer Carolyn Carlson. Mr. Melnyk, thought by many to be one of the fastest pianists in the world,  has the unique ability to play the piano at 19.5 notes per second, and can sustain a speed averaging 14 notes per second for over an hour at a time. This has lead him to develop a style he’s christened “continuous music”, which features each hand playing incongruent patterns for extended periods of time and liberal use of the instrument’s sustain pedal to meld the different parts into a musical journey.

Upon returning to Canada in 1975, Lubomyr made the rounds introducing Canadians to his nontraditional compositions at art galleries and alternative music venues throughout the country, while being largely shunned by the classical music establishment, despite having more in common with traditional greats like Chopin and Beethoven than ‘avant-garde’ modern composers. While he has recorded 17 live and studio albums to date, the vast majority of them have flown under the radar, especially back here in Canada, where he spent his formative years. It is only in recent years, after signing with London based indie label Erased Tapes Records, that his two most recent recordings have gained a wider, more appreciative audience and critical acclaim, which has earned him an audience among the music loving hipsters of the indie and electronic music worlds. That new-found fame is what has lead him from relative obscurity to touring small halls and churches all over Europe, including performances in Denmark, Germany, the United Kingdom, and yes – Durbe, Latvia.

Lubomyr Melnyk’s most recent album “Rivers and Streams” was released on November 27th.

Our semi-annual piano humidity warning!

by ivories

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Those of you who’ve followed our piano blog for a few years will no doubt be saying “not this again”, but keeping your piano in a proper environment is key to keeping it in shape and extending its lifespan, while avoiding unnecessary and at times very costly repairs. The main factor at play here is humidity, and while our record warm Toronto winter to date may not have the fireplaces lit up quite as often, make no mistake: Winter is coming, and keeping your piano away from excessive heat sources is paramount to keeping the humidity level around the instrument at or around the ideal 45% and avoiding these issues.

Considering the majority of your piano is made of wood, there are a lot of parts that can dry out and begin to under-perform if the humidity level is not kept in check, from relatively minor (but no less annoying) things like throwing off the pitch and loosening the tuning pins, to more severe problems like cracks in the sound board, pinblock and finish. Luckily, keeping things in shape humidity-wise is relatively simple and economical. The first key piece of equipment you should invest in is a humidity gauge. These come in a wide variety of models and sizes with varying features, and can be purchased for as little as $3 at your local hardware store (although we’d recommend going with a decent digital version, which average between $10-$25). Once you’re able to assess the humidity level surrounding your instrument, you may then be pressed to invest into some additional equipment if the levels are too far off.

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More often than not, this will mean purchasing a humidifier. There again the choices are numerous, and the prices will vary from below $50 up to $300+ depending on the model you choose (if you want to be particularly trendy, perhaps these Star Wars versions are for you). If you’d like to keep your piano in shape while not necessarily altering your over-all environment, there are piano specific on-board options you may want to purchase and install instead, such as the Piano Life Saver system from Dampp-Chaser. These units can be installed by your piano technician and will keep your piano humidified at the proper level automatically (provided of course you remember to refill the water supply – but don’t worry, there are handy blinking lights to tell you when it’s thirsty for more). These humidity systems are available for both upright and grand pianos. If this is something you’d like to add to your instrument, don’t hesitate to give us a call at 416 871 2550.

Photo credit: www.pianolifesaver.com

On a less serious note…

by ivories

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Do you know how many competitors we have in Toronto? If so, you may be qualified to be the next project manager at Google. A recent article on Business Insider took a look at the topic “Weirdest interview questions from top companies”. Among the results was “Choose a city and estimate how many piano tuners operate a business there”. We’ll leave it to you to discern why this would be a good thing for a project manager to know, we’re just happy that we haven’t been forgotten by some of the most influential people in the world.

Tuning one of Toronto’s piano gems

by ivories

DSC_0338  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.  

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These Rentals Aren’t Lemons

by ivories

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.

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Getting Touchy

by ivories

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Piano Voicing

by ivories

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.

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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.

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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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.