Caring for Your Piano
Caring for a piano doesn't have to be difficult. Whether you just purchased a new piano or you recently inherited grandma's old upright, the best thing you can do for a piano is have it tuned on a regular basis and maintain a stable environment (temperature and humidity).
Tuning your piano on a regular basis not only preserves the tone of the instrument and makes the playing experience more enjoyable, but also prevents more costly conditions from developing. Piano tuning isn't the only aspect of piano maintenance. Action Regulation, voicing, and climate control are also important aspects in maintaining a piano's quality of performance and ensuring and preserving its condition for decades to come. Proper piano care and maintenance, while seen as an unnecessary expense to some piano owners, is vital in protecting your investment and key in preventing more costly repairs from arising in the future.
So what does all of that mean?
- proper climate control - will prevent conditions such as cracked soundboards, bridges, and pin blocks. Poor climate control will also cause the wooden action parts to swell and contract too often, resulting in failing glue joints and loose center pins (will make the piano play poorly). Piano strings will also rust and corrode more quickly in a poorly maintained climate.
- regular tunings - will prevent the need for "pitch raises" or "double tunings". A pitch raise is needed if a piano drifts too far from standard pitch. Frequent pitch raises, result in poorly defined termination points at the bridge, resulting in "false beats". A false beat results in a lower quality tuning and poor clarity to the tone of the piano.
- voicing and hammer maintenance - will greatly extend the life of your piano's hammer. Grooves form in the felt of the hammers, and if the grooves are left untreated, they will continue to deepen and eventually the hammer will develop a flat spot where their should be a nice curved surface. Hammers with flat spots and deep grooves will sound unpleasant to the player and could even cause string breakage (because of too much surface contact between hammer and string)
- action regulation - if the action is partially regulated from time to time, the piano will play optimally over the years. If not, the wear on each part will add up to a larger problem, a piano that plays poorly or not at all.
How often should you tune your piano?
Well, it depends. A brand new piano will require more frequent tunings for the first couple years. As the wood acclimates and strings "stretch" and settle into well defined termination points, brand new pianos tend not to have very good tuning stability. Expect to tune a brand new piano up to 3-4 times the first year or two. A good rule of thumb for most other pianos is twice a year, once in the summer and once in the winter. Twice a year will keep the piano in relatively good playing condition and allow the player to enjoy the instrument year round. The goal is to not allow the pitch to stray too far from the standard pitch of A440Hz. The further the pitch gets from A440Hz, the greater the stress on the piano and its strings when tuned, resulting in a less stable tuning. Each piano and circumstance/environment is unique, so this information is a only a basic guideline to follow. So with that said, please consider the following recommendations:
- New Pianos/Recently Restrung Piano: 2-4 times the first 2 years
- The Home Piano: at least 1 time a year (if only played casually)
- The Home Piano, played often: twice a year
- Church Pianos: at least twice a year for your main piano (more so if the humidity varies)
- School Pianos: budget depending, stage piano before each concert, classroom pianos 1-2 times per school year (humidity dependent)
- Concert Pianos, College/University Pianos: concert pianos at each use, higher ed pianos - often needed once a month
Why does your piano need tuning?
At standard pitch, A 440 Hz, there is a tremendous amount of stress placed on the piano. This is due to the high tension of the approximate 230 strings. The overall tension on the piano is about 18 - 20 tons! In addition to all of this stress, there are many contributing factors which cause a piano to go "out of tune". Following are just a few of the many contributing factors:
Humidity and Temperature:
One of the biggest factors which cause a piano to go out of tune is the change in climate. The strings are stretched across the soundboard, which is made out of wood. When conditions are too humid, wood takes on moisture and expands. As the piano's soundboard takes on moisture, it swells, producing an upward bulge. Through the bridge, this puts additional tension on the strings. Thus, the pitch is too high, or sharp, in the lower mid-range and high treble sections. When the air dries out, so does the soundboard. In dry conditions, the soundboard shrinks and will flatten. The tension of the strings over the bridge becomes inadequate and the pitch of the mid-range and treble sections becomes flat, or under pitch. Every change in humidity causes the pitch to rise or fall. Therefore, with every fluctuation in humidity the piano gradually, and sometimes suddenly, goes out of tune. The more constant the humidity the better a piano will stay in tune. Changes in temperature and direct sunlight, also have an effect on the pitch of a piano. Keeping the humidity levels consistent will keep your piano at a more constant pitch and extend years, if not decades to the life of your piano. The optimum humidity level for your piano is 43% RH. You can closely monitor the humidity by installing a Piano Life Saver System on your upright or grand piano. By installing such a system, you can keep your piano at pitch, improve tuning stability, and extend the life of your investment.
What Should You Do?
Maintain a constant environment for your piano. Ideally, the relative humidity level should be between 40 and 45 % and without excessively warm or cool temperatures, ideally around 64-70 degrees. If possible, place the piano on an interior wall and away from all heat sources and away from direct sun light. Also, avoid any drafts, such as those caused by older windows and areas near a doorway. If you want to protect your investment, consider having a Dampp-Chaser Piano Life Saver System installed on your piano. The system will monitor the humidity levels around your piano and humidify and dehumidify as needed. If you use a room humidifier, DO NOT place it directly under a grand piano or under the key-bed of an upright piano. The direct airflow and moisture output of most room humidifiers could damage your piano, rather than help it. Rather, simply place it in the general vicinity of your piano, purchase a hygrometer, and closely monitor the humidity levels. Adjust the humidifier as needed in order to achieve the optimal level of humidity.
Cleaning your Piano
The cleaning of the interior of your piano should be left to your technician. Your piano is composed of many parts, many of which are fragile. One wrong move and you could be looking at a more costly repair. First, dust is very abrasive, and it is possible to scratch the finish if dusted with a dry cloth. To avoid scratching, dust the piano lightly with a feather duster or gently wipe with a soft damp cloth to pick up the dust, followed behind with a dry cloth. When cleaning/dusting your piano, wipe with long strokes rather than circular motions. Wipe with the grain for natural wood finishes, or in the direction of the existing sheen pattern for solid-color satin finishes. After dusting/cleaning is complete and smudges or fingerprints are present, use Murphy's Oil Soap. A small amount of this in warm water does the trick. Again, apply this solution with a soft cloth, wiping in long motions, rather than circular motions. Do yourself the favor and do not use household products such as "lemon oil" or "furniture polish". Despite their claim, most products like these will do more harm than good. There are specific products formulated for application on piano cabinets.
Regulation and Voicing
Proper regulation ensures optimal performance of your piano. It is suggested that a piano receiving regular use should be regulated every 2-3 years. When your action is regulated, it will be adjusted to compensate for changes in its wood, felt, and leather parts that may have changed due to swings in humidity levels and from regular use. Voicing refers to the tone of your piano. Some pianist prefer a mellow tone, while others enjoy a bright/crisp sound. When a piano is voiced, it should first be will regulated and tuned. If changes in tone are still desired, your hammers will be reshaped if deeply grooved or flat at the strike point. If they are not deeply grooved and flat, I will delicately needle the felt in various locations and depths until the desired tone it reached. Occasional regulation and voicing can prevent more costly repairs from arising, such as replacement of hammers or other action parts.