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Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Piano Tuners make the News!

It is not often the Piano Tuning profession makes the News. The BBC News Health pages report on a study that is looking into the structural changes within the brains of professional piano tuners. 

Piano tuners who use their ears (as opposed to those who rely on electronic devices) focus their hearing on what most listeners do not even notice. The pinnacle of the tuner's art is the 'setting of the scale' accurately. 

This 'setting of the scale' is the laying down of the central octave so that each note is in a correct relationship with the others. Starting with only a single tuning fork, tuners learn to balance the complex inter-related pattern of intervals in order to fix the 12 semitones that make up the central octave. Once this stage has been reached, tuning the octaves up and down the keyboard is relatively easy.

To set the scale, the tuner listens, not to the dominant pitch given out by the various notes played, but to the harmonics these vibrations generate. Once you get the hang of it, it is not really so difficult, but to the uninitiated, it is like listening to an unintelligible language.

Any two notes played at the same time create a chorus-like sound. Since the texture of the sound is difficult to describe in words, it is fruitless to attempt a definition beyond saying that in setting the scale, harmony is achieved when the intervals (mainly the 3rds, 4ths & 5ths) are nicely balanced.

The study mentioned above, does not address the detail of what goes on in the tuner's brain, it simply records that something occurs in there that is different from what goes on in a non-tuner's brain.

Interesting to note that it was observed that the difference is more pronounced among the more experienced tuners - further proof that this is a job in which one has ever more to learn and gain from experience

Tuner's Journal


Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Broadwood Grand Pianos

Broadwood Pianos have been around since 1728. Not many examples of an 1860s Broadwood piano survive to this day. Ordinarily, I am not a fan of these relics of the 19th century but occasionally respect has to be paid where it is due. I have come across 2 such pianos that deserve mention. When these particular pianos were new pianos, they would have been stunning examples of high-quality, English craftsmanship.

1980s Broadwood Letterhead
One of the pianos must have been at least 7' 6" long - if you sat at the keyboard and squinted a little, you could just about make out the far end of the piano! I did not expect it to be up to pitch, but it was only a quarter-tone flat. The strings had been replaced at some point but the wrest pins were still the old, oblong ones that were fitted when new. One of the pins in the bi-chord section of the bass strings had snapped off, so instead of two strings on that note, there was only one.

The hammers had been recovered, but not terribly well - the high treble hammers jammed against the front edge of the wrest plank. Not too much of a problem for most players, but we tuners like all the notes to work! 

The rich colours of its rosewood case, made it a very fine-looking piece of furniture. The flat wooden pedals always look odd to modern eyes but at least they are the 'real thing' - if they had ever been replaced with modern pedals, it would no longer look the part.

The ivory keys were still white and still had a shine to them. Some were worn thin in the middle of the playing surface, but this is not surprising after more than a century's use. So often, the original ivories are yellowed with age, and usually a few of the originals have been replaced with ill-fitting substitutes.

So there it was, this remarkable old piano, in a charmingly renovated house that was even older than the piano, - a perfect setting for so well-preserved an instrument. The fascinating thing is that after 150 years, this piano is still regularly played, loved and appreciated. John Braodwood & Sons certainly knew how to build a piano that would last! 

The second piano is another grand - the serial number of this piano does not fit neatly into any of the categories listed in the Pierce's Atlas, but I reckon it must have been made about 1860. 

The case, for its age, is stunning - the rich Rosewood veneer still boasting the bold stripes of the grain. The polish has been preserved to the point that most would not think it in need of any particular attention.

But from a tuner's point of view, the most remarkable thing is that it is only a little flat in pitch - (I believe when this piano was built, the standard pitch was a little lower than A 440.) Over the years, 2 bass strings have been replaced, and couple of treble strings - apart from these, the strings are those fitted when new! A few treble strings are absent. The original oblong tuning pins still holding firmly in the original wrest plank! 

The piano is regularly used for a to accompany singers, occasionally for concerts but is always appreciated by pianists and audiences alike. Live music is still a wonderful social phenomenon that dates back to long before this piano was made.

The action is one of the odd incarnations of Broadwood's own design but still playing acceptably and capable of expression and colour. The tone is the one big give-away, but even here, the sound is extremely good for its type.

These grand old pianos are from a time when serious craftsmen built everything to last, a time when gentleman tuners wore hats. If I had a hat, I would take it from my head as a mark of respect, a salute to the beauty of  esteemed craftsmanship. These pianos are works of the piano-maker's art.   


Wednesday, 15 August 2012

The changing face of the Piano Trade

It is lamentable that the Piano Manufacturing Industry in England - once so enviable and influential, has disappeared without trace. Back in the 1970s, noticing the first few imported pianos from unfamiliar makers, one could sense that change was in the air. Complacency in any industry is a bad policy. Once a decline gathers momentum, the result is inevitably grim.

Seeing a Yamaha piano for the first time was like seeing a 'cloud the size of a man's hand' - a cloud that in no time at all, filled the heavens and brought a great deluge of rain! The first batches of Yamaha pianos delivered to the local piano shop created astonishment. It was clear the Japanese piano was going to be a threat to the market dominance enjoyed for so long by the English piano. How was it that a piano made in Japan could be sold for just a little more than a piano made in the UK? 

The best British pianos seemed to be rather average compared to the imported pianos that soon dominated that new-piano-market. One by one, the English manufacturers ceased production so that in a few decades, we saw the total loss of an industry. Alas for the English Piano!

The more recent economic downturn has added still more to the worries of Piano shops. Pianos are regarded as a luxury item - and are one of the first items of expenditure to be delayed or postponed entirely. 

Where will all this take us? Only the 'fittest' of piano shops will survive, and it will take a few years of successful trading to put a smile back on the face of the piano trade. 

Buying and selling pianos on eBay may turn out to be the method of choice for bargain hunters  - but there are plenty of dangers to be met with here. Off-loading an awful piano is quite easy if you can produce a few good photos! Auction Houses have, for a very long time, been selling what other people no longer want. Maybe, ebay will be able to preserve a strong, residual demand for the good old-fashoned, traditional piano!

Tuner's Journal


Wednesday, 1 August 2012

A tuning coincidence?

The chances of today's events happening the way they did are so small that it is very unlikely ever to happen again.

My first call today was in a village in Wiltshire, not very remote and not exactly tiny, but certainly had much less than a small-town feel. There must be a few hundred houses there and of these, a small proportion would be have a piano. Over the years, I have visited only a couple of houses in the village with pianos. The house I was working in today has 2 pianos (both Bluthner grands) - they will be used for piano exams tomorrow - hence the date of my visit.

When I arrived at the house this morning, I thought something was a little different about the house almost opposite - It seemed tidier than before, the driveway was spacious and clear. As I have never had reason to take particular notice, I cannot honestly say there was a change but something just felt different.

The pianos I was working on were in a first-floor room close to a window overlooking the road. About an hour and a half into my work, I heard a truck stop just outside the house and prepared to reverse into the driveway mentioned above. 

The timing of this moment is very interesting as I just happened to be standing up. From where I stood, I could see only the top of the truck sides but was able to make out the tops of the letters of the logo on the side of the van. As there was something familiar about it, I had a second look to make sure. Could it be 'G & R'? 

Sure enough, it was! G & R, are well known piano movers, moving pianos for the piano trade. They must still be one of the main piano movers in the country. And yes, they were delivering a grand piano to the house just over the road from where I was working.

I would imagine, this would have been the first ever visit by G & R to this particular village. I go 2 or 3 times a year to tune the pianos I worked on today. The delivery could have been down at the other end of the village - had it been, I would not have known anything about it, but no, it was to the house just across the road from where I was. Wondering on its occurrence, I conclude it was just one of those strange, inexplicable happenings that was meant-to-be. A real 'tuning' coincidence! 

© Steve Burden

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

How often a piano needs to be tuned.

Music demands that a piano should be in tune. Regular tuning is the most reliable way to keep a piano in stable tune. However frequently the piano is tuned, the tuning is never static - the weather, temperature and humidity all affect the tuning. This is the same for fine quality pianos and the not so very good ones. In different sections of the piano - the middle, treble and bass - the tuning can move about unevenly
Piano tuning is an ongoing battle with the conditions in which a piano is kept. The pianist who has a keen ear and the concert pianist who demands perfection, both expect the piano tuner to have the piano in tune whatever the weather. Achieving this golden goal can be done only by a period of over-tuning the piano. Only when a degree of tuning stability is established, can the time between tunings can be lengthened.

One thing is certain: if while tuning a piano, the pitch has been raised, say, half a semitone, it will take a while for the piano to settle nicely in tune at that higher pitch. So it is quite possible to have a piano tuned, only to find that all too quickly, it loses that recently-tuned sound. This is not the fault of the tuner! 

From the tuner's point of view, a change in pitch is always countered by the stretch of the strings. Altering the pitch of a piano is like pushing something heavy up a slope. Even if you think it solid enough to stay where you've put it, a force - like the downward pull of gravity acts on the tuning as if it would prefer the tuning back where it was! 

It is a mistake to think that because the piano was tuned last week, last month, last year or 2 years ago, it will not need tuning again. As a general rule, a piano should be tuned about twice a year and definitely not left longer than a year. If you have a keen ear, you may find the piano needs to be tuned 3 times a year! Though it might be understandable, the cost of tuning a piano is going to be a major factor in deciding how often a piano is tuned. Costs do vary, so it is important to find a tuner that will tune well and is able too, to keep the cost reasonable.

© Steve Burden

Thursday, 5 July 2012

State of Pianos in Schools

It is too easy for school administrators who are asked to make budget savings, to focus their attention on the fund of money used for the tuning and maintenance of the pianos. There is obviously, no visible difference to the pianos if they are tuned or not. There will be an audible difference, but if the administrators are tone deaf, an out-of-tune piano is not going to bother them anyway. 

Financial management, for any institution is extremely important, but what makes good sense on a spreadsheet on the finance office computer can be nonsense in the practice rooms. Pianos were once bought by schools as assets, but somehow their value to the budget-makers has fallen to the point where they are now considered a liability. So much for good asset management!

There can be very few people who do not understand the need for institutions to make savings wherever possible. The conflicts of interest that remain after waste has been addressed, will always create problems. 

During separate conversations with a couple of piano teachers recently, the state of pianos in schools was mentioned. At one, high-end, fee-paying school they feel so poor they can no longer afford to have the pianos tuned each term, and so have them tuned once a year. Another school does not usually bother to tune the piano used for the Associated Board Piano Exams. If they do, they seem to look for and accept the cheapest quote they could find!

There could well be a generation of piano-playing students who may never know what a properly tuned piano sounds like. A look at some of the piano recitals and demos that are uploaded to Youtube is enough to demonstrate that there are many who seem oblivious to the howling sound of an out-of-tune piano! 

In term time, many school pianos are played constantly. Tuning stability is impossible if such a piano is tuned only once a year. The tuner can only play a game of catch-up! Because the piano was in such a poor state of tune before tuning, it is not going to stay in good tune for very long after the tuning. This is frustrating for the teacher, the students and the tuner.

Giving children cheap food is no way to plan for a strong future generation. If piano playing is to survive for the next generation, the budget-makers should give the tuning and maintenance of school pianos a much higher priority than has become normal over the last two decades.

© Steve Burden

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Prestige, Priorities and Pianos.

Imagine: a posh, exclusive hotel - the perfect setting for just about any kind of event - with extensive and flawlessly kept grounds, an award winning restaurant, golf courses, conference facilities... and a piano! 

In a corner of the dining room is a double-overstrung Ibach baby grand piano. It is not ancient, but should there ever be an 'MOT' Test for pianos, this one would fail. It needs re-stringing and a lot of rebuilding work before it could be certified as being in the kind of condition one associates with the name of Ibach.

In spite of its condition the piano plays fairly well, and when tuned, its pleasing tone proves the old rule that a 'quality' piano will sound good and play acceptably, even in a bad state of repair. 

I was told that, at quite a considerable cost, the lid had recently been re-polished! Sure enough, the lid was beautifully French polished and looked as good as new. But surely, the money was spent on the wrong part of the piano! 

Many of the guests who pay good money to sit and eat in the 'award-winning' restaurant, and who listen to the piano being played, are musical enough to realise the piano is more often than not, out of tune. Whether the top of the piano looks nice, is of no consequence to someone who cringes at the unharmonious sounds coming from the piano!

In such an exclusive hotel, where the best of everything seems to be on offer, it is rather sad that a tired, old piano is considered good enough to entertain the guests as they enjoy award-winning food in such prestigious surroundings. Despite appearances, perhaps prestige is only a superficial thing!

A very high priority was given to the choice of super-luxurious paper towels in the toilets! 

Prestige, Priorities and Pianos: 
To achieve an air of real prestige, the choice of piano ought to be higher up on the priority list!
© Steve Burden

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Piano Actions

The piano action is made up of thousands of components but its one single purpose is to present the pianist with an even and responsive touch. The repertoire of piano music can be played with so much more confidence and freedom when the pianist knows the full range of dynamic expression is at his fingertips. 

In the early days of piano history, fierce competition fuelled efforts to develop a strong, reliable piano action along with economic methods of manufacture. The basic design of the piano action today is not significantly different from what it was 100 years ago. It is as if generations of piano makers have, to the present day, been entrusted with a perfect template.

The degree of perfection achieved by makers of more than 100 years ago, who without the aid of computer technology, produced so efficient a mechanism that  now, only minor variations in the comparative geometry of actions from different makers distinguish one from the other. Changes now, are restricted mostly to materials and glues. The use of carbon fibre is a most interesting development - clearly, the material's strength, coupled with its weight (or lack of it) opens exciting possibilities for its wider use in the construction of both piano and actions.  

The drawings of some of the early actions by the likes of Schroter (1717), Christofori (1707), and Stein (1780) are only primitive sketches and hints of potential, compared to what the piano action has become. No doubt, these brave pioneers spent many tense hours thinking up new ideas and alternative ways to transfer the simple movement of the piano key through to the hammer and thus, to the string.

By 1850, Sebastian Erard had developed the piano action to the point of being recognised as more or less, the design used today. Further 'variations on the same theme' were tried, some proved useful, but many came to nothing. Herburger, Schwander, Langer, and Renner were among the best of the many action 'houses'. Actions made by these makers are found in many of the better quality pianos around today.

The recent rise of piano-making in China and the far east, has meant that the Piano Trade is now a worldwide enterprise. It is sad where local piano-building traditions have all but died out, that piano production has shifted so entirely from the West to the East. This is the stark reality of our contemporary world. Materials are sourced from anywhere on the globe to make the piano a truly multi-national product. Too much to expect perhaps, that world peace and 'harmony' might turn out to be a happy by-product from the manufacture of pianos!

The Piano World

© Steve Burden

Friday, 8 June 2012

Schiedmayer Pianos

The first Schiedmayer Piano was built around 1735 - still early days in the history of the piano. It is not known how Balthasar Schiedmayer, who was born in 1711, came to be building pianos but his name would be associated with piano-making of distinction and excellence long into the 21st century.

By 1845, the business was based in Stuttgart and headed by Johann Lorenz Schiedmayer who brought his sons into the business and changed the name to Schiedmayer and Soehne. 

The younger sons of Johann Lorenz, Julius and Paul, spent some time in London and Paris and eventually established themselves in Stuttgart around 1853 building harmoniums under the name of J & P Schiedmayer.

In 1860, when the harmonium market was saturated, the shrewd business decision was taken to concentrate solely on building pianos and thus the business name was changed to Schiedmayer Pianofabrik. 

A while back, I worked on a Schiedmayer Grand. It was very old - I reckon it was made about 1895. I have commented elsewhere that I do not think anyone should spend serious money on pianos of this age. For this piano, a day spent regulating the action so as to make the best of its existing state was as far as I was prepared to go.

I was impressed that though so old, this piano still has all the qualities of a respectable and durable piano. Reassuring to know that a quality instrument such as this Schiedmayer, used daily, continues to sing out its piano music with a good deal of finesse even after more than 100 years.

Directory of Piano Makers


Sunday, 3 June 2012

Piano Brochures

Brochures about New Pianos are littered with adjectives that imply a superiority of tone, craftsmanship, build quality, choice of materials, the range of models... on and on!

The unfortunate would-be buyer, has to learn a sort of code before coming close to making a decision. Then, when the piano is delivered, the tuner often has to 'iron out' the niggles and tweak the odd misbehaving notes before the customer feels he has made the right choice.

The most difficult part about using words and pictures to describe a piano, is that every piano is so different. Tastes are different. The process of choosing a particular piano from among many is, for most pianists, a deeply personal thing. Any attempt to narrow the decision down to a particular piano by answering a series of questions or by simply reading a brochure, is doomed to meet with disappointment.

In a glossy brochure, references made to the piano maker's art, is little more than part of the overall intention to impress the reader. What does it really mean? There is something about building a piano that does make it more of an art than a skill - though great skill and patience are essential to build a piano worth having! What buyers really need to know is that their choice will match their expectations, that the bold words of a loquacious salesman will be seen to have at least some sincere content.

It would be good if makers could have genuine and honest feedback on their pianos - more than a simple 5 option response to 5 general questions. As a tuner, I come across many new pianos whose questionnaires, if I filled them out, would have the 'least satisfied' option selected in most cases. This is not because I do not like new pianos, but because I am often disappointed myself with the condition of the piano when I get to tune it in the customer's house.

If I were spending serious money on a piano, I would feel justified in having high expectations - Isn't that what the brochures are trying inspire in the buyer? 

A while ago, a customer who bought a top name 'silent' piano, to replace a piano that was rather old and definitely inferior, said she regretted ever buying the new one! Why? Because it was not what she led to believe it was. This is not a customer who will go about saying she was 'completely satisfied' with the piano. 

Piano makers seem not to care about their pianos once in the hands of the retailer. Pianists are the buyers and users of pianos - if the goods supplied are poor, the demand will soon drain away. In the Piano Trade, we have a lot of work to do!  

The Piano World

© Steve Burden

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Piano Exams

Piano exams mark the student's progress through to competent musicianship. The higher grade exams obviously demand much more from the student, which raises a question about the piano the student plays on at home. A piano that is 'good enough' for Grade 3 may not still be suitable when the student is working towards Grade 7 or 8.

It is unreasonable to buy a better piano each year to track the increasing technical demands of higher grade pieces, but it is a wise move to upgrade the piano as soon as the player has exhausted its capabilities. A starter piano will get a young player going but eventually, for a keen and talented student, it will be a source of frustration and discouragement.

The piano used for exams should also be a good quality instrument - and in good order. There can be nothing more intimidating for a young student to be introduced to the exam piano only to find that it is unresponsive, heavy to play or in need of tuning. A young student encountering an 'unfriendly' piano, has to work very hard to keep their 'cool', - this is an unwelcome pressure to add to the concerns of taking the exam anyway.

One would not wish to make piano exams easier, but a better piano goes a very long way towards giving the student a fair chance to do credit to himself. It is certain that some pianos used for piano exams simply unsatisfactory. I am not sure if exam boards have any effective 'quality' assessment of the pianos used for their exams, but it would be beneficial to everyone that some quality control system were set up.

© Steve Burden

Monday, 28 May 2012

A strange fondness for old pianos

There is a strange fondness for old pianos. The thinking seems to assume that regardless of its age, if it has a well-known name on the front, it has to be a good piano. Upright pianos, grand pianos, baby grand pianos - whatever old piano you find will almost certainly be in serious need of repair work. As a rule therefore, old pianos can never perform as well as a piano half their age. 

Old pianos do have a charm about them, their looks, proportions, the ivory keys (if present and in good condition) will give out a sense of nostalgia - as if to say, "This is how pianos were made in the golden age!" But 80 years on, much of the original quality has drained away with the passing of time. What remains is something in need of massive investment or replacement.

Of course, there are exceptions. It is remarkable when you come across a piano 100 years old or more, which has been miraculously preserved - perhaps because it has hardly ever been played. Such examples are extremely rare and are likely to be treasured family heirlooms.

Major rebuilding work on a piano is hugely expensive. Unless the piano is one of the very top makes, the repairs will cost far more than the piano will ever be worth. 

It is a mistake to buy an older, albeit a pretty piano, when you really need reliability in tune and tone. Buying cheap - only to find you have spend serious money to bring it into reasonable playing order is just an embarrassing waste of money!

When buying a piano, try to get some advice and buy the youngest, most up-together piano you can find. Please do not be lead astray by the strange fondness for old pianos!

The Piano World


Monday, 21 May 2012

Tuner or Magician?

Tuners are often asked to work some kind of magic on an unpromising piano for a concert. It is surprising pianists don't complain about the condition of the piano they have to play! Perhaps they do - but after the event it's too late for anything to be done about it.

This kind of thing should not happen: 

A celebrity singer and her accompanist felt the piano they were given to use was not up to scratch. So, at very short notice, the tuner was given 30 minutes to work some kind of miracle with a woefully out-of-tune piano. 

Or, for a New Year's Eve event - a Piano Concerto, complete with orchestra... The piano was to arrive 28 December but could not be unpacked until New Year's Eve itself, and the tuner given one hour to tune it for the concert!

A major American comes to town with his band and entourage but need a local tuner to prepare the piano. The day before the gig, organisers ring for a tuner and reckon the job could be done in 45 minutes.

Why should this kind of thing not happen? Surely, anyone who puts on events like these should have some appreciation of what is involved in preparing a piano for a fully professional concert. Serious tuning is not a 45 minute magic trick.

We live in an age when an instant response is expected for any request. In this respect, the piano does not belong in our modern 'instant-fix' world. Every piano is unique, does not like rapid changes of environment, and even worse, every piano takes its own time to settle down. A pianist taking their own piano on tour has to accept a less than perfectly tuned piano - unless proper arrangements are made well in advance.

Hiring in a piano is not easy when there is little choice and/or limited funds, but who really wants to pay good money to hear good artists doing battle with an inadequate instrument? 

The Tuner's Blues

I woke up this morning 
with an ache in my head,
nothin' about tuning
but about what they said:

"Tomorrow is Monday 
and we want you to tune
an old, beat-up Steinway
we're using at noon..."

"…shouldn't be no problem,
but the van's just broke down
- when I last spoke to them,
they were drinking in town…"

Best case scenario:
they'll arrive a bit late,
bring in the piano

expect me to tune it
in twenty-five minutes,
ask me to hurry it
and complain if it whines.

There, at the piano,
if I played what I choose,
I'd give them a solo,
and I'd play them the blues!


Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Piano Tuning - A Brief Explanation.

You cannot enjoy playing an out of tune piano. Sometimes pianos can be so badly out of tune, their owners just stop playing them. When children complain the piano does not sound like the one used for their lessons, you know a tuning is long overdue! It is time to contact your local tuner.

There is a defined pitch for every note on the piano keyboard. The frequencies are calculated according to the principles of equal temperament. This piano tuning system uses mathematics to divide an octave into 12 'equal' steps. Once the ratio for a semitone is established, harmonics are used to help the tuner fix the intervals in the scale. These harmonics are used by the tuner to set the notes in the middle octave. The tuner uses these first 12 notes in the middle octave like a template, thus being able to tune the rest of the piano - hopefully achieving equal temperament across the whole piano keyboard. How close we tuners actually get to perfect equal temperament would interest perfectionists for a very long time.

It takes many years to gain confidence in tuning pianos. A customer once said, "It takes 5 years to learn a job, another 5 to be any good at it, and a further 5 years before you can call yourself an expert!" At the time, it sounded rather harsh, but the truth is that it probably takes even longer than 15 years! Piano tuning is one of those jobs in which you never stop learning. Worse still, a tuner has to keep striving to improve if he is not to slip into complacency.  

The truth is that a tuning may not be perfect - the tuning will be as good as the particular piano will allow. To achieve a perfect tuning, one would need a perfect piano. Even an expensive new piano may not be quite as perfect as one might expect! After 50 or 60 years of wear, whatever perfection there might have been when it was a new piano, has been 'worn' away.  

However, a well-tuned piano will always be a treat to play, a pleasure to listen to and the cause of great job-satisfaction for the piano tuner. The piano tuners who continually seek to excel in the job will everyday, be fine-tuning their skill.

© Steve Burden 

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Buying a Used Piano

Buying a good used piano should not be difficult, so long as you do not get carried away with what a piano looks like or by the fact that it is cheap. It is very easy to pay a lot of money for a piano that is simply not worth buying. Pianos, when they are 80 years old or more will almost certainly need some repair work, so it is essential to consider the cost of any work before you agree to buy it. 

Piano repairs are extremely time-consuming and therefore expensive. You do not want to buy a piano and have it delivered only to find that it is beyond any viable repair. Pianos are for playing music - not for stressing you out! Keep the following points in mind when you are looking to buy a piano:
  • Never get sentimental over a piano.
  • Never buy a piano just because it looks nice.
  • Buy as young a piano as your budget allows.
  • If you can, get professional help.  
Any piano may be better than no piano but if you go to the trouble of looking for a useable piano, it helps if it actually works and is tuneable. These basics cannot be assumed if you are looking for the cheapest piano available. The pianist who has to play it, might play it once and never again if he feels it is too much of a challenge. 

Generally speaking, for most piano-owners, the average time between tunings is getting longer all the time: months turn into years and all that time the pitch will be gradually sinking. Claims that a piano for sale was tuned 6 months ago, though not meant to deceive, might be a little exaggerated. A vague "recently tuned" is probably more truthful, but could mean 2 or 3 years ago!

There can be any number of mechanical problems hidden from view, inside a pretty case. If notes do not repeat; play a couple of times and then stop working; if there are clicks and knocks every time you play a note; if the key sticks down when played... there are serious problems within! Walk away.

Of course, if you want to spend £50 and no more, then you will need a lot of luck. I hope you manage to find something, but you are very unlikely to get a reliable piano.

What makes should you look for? Don't even think of it! There were thousands of makers producing pianos that were nothing special when they were new. These are the sorts of piano that are now being sold very cheaply or even given away. To start looking for specific makers, you are at the very least, considering pianos a couple of price brackets up the scale.

You will save yourself much worry, pain and regret if you seek the advice of a trusted professional - at least to steer you away from a disastrous choice. Happy hunting!

The Piano World

© Steve Burden 

Piano Action and Keys

The piano action and keys are the great link between the pianist and the music heard. This sophisticated mechanism is capable of a vast range of dynamics and expression - it is a masterpiece of engineering. Every one of the eighty-eight notes has it’s own key, it’s own hammer, it’s own strings and it’s own set of levers. 
The movement created by depressing the key, is delivered to the hammer via a series of levers. The hammer strikes the string - thus generating the audible musical sound of the chosen note.

The design of the piano action has altered very little over the last 100 years or so, which means that the basic piano action design was perfected long before the computer was even thought of - let alone being brought in to help. Those who
 devoted themselves to the task of developing the piano action, used sheer inventiveness and dedication to get their ideas to work.

A grand piano action

A quote from a book about piano action design by Walter Pfeiffer: “...the action is that much closer to perfection the less the player is aware of it” 

The modern piano has the potential to achieve this lofty state of function. Pianists, not having to worry about the technical aspects of the mechanism, are free to give themselves to making music. 

Technicians strive to get the very best out of a given piano. With their detailed understanding of the workings of the action, the piano becomes far more than just a machine. The less the player is aware of the mechanism, the more able the artist is to explore that mysterious zone only a musician understands - and thus the piano is to closer to perfection. 

The Piano World

© Steve Burden 

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Beware of Old Pianos

Antique pianos can be wonderful pieces of furniture, often superb examples of exquisite woodworking craftsmanship but they are not suitable as a working instrument for a keen pianist.

An antique piano with considerable sentimental value presents the owner with an equally considerable dilemma! Should one be guided by one's heart, or by one's head? 

Different tuners have their own stance on this kind of scenario - some would rebuild the thing, hoping that the finished piano will play and sound well enough to justify the expense. Others would think twice - knowing how brittle these old actions can be, the chances are pretty high that there will be many added hours simply repairing broken parts.

In the course of a normal year's tuning, tuners meet with plenty of rebuilt pianos and while there is no doubt these pianos are better for the work having been done, the piano is still an old piano.  

Meeting a rebuilt piano for the first time, a piano tuner can have an awkward time trying on the one hand to be kind, and on the other hand, to be honest. Invariably, the truth is not easy to swallow. The piano can have all new parts fitted, new strings and felts, it can look like the classic showroom piano, but get it delivered back to your home, play it for a few weeks and all too often, small problems become too large to ignore.

Are there exceptions to the rule? Fortunately, yes, but the conditions are hard to meet! Firstly, the piano has to be one of the top names. Secondly, the piano should not be too old. Anything manufactured before 1900, and you are really wasting your money on any work beyond regulating. Rebuilding a piano made in the late 1800s, and you are well into the zone of rebuilding purely for sentimental reasons. 

Pianos are to be used and enjoyed - they should be an absolute pleasure to play. You cannot enjoy one that has a heavy action and is unresponsive or stays in tune for less than a couple of weeks. The idea that 'Old is beautiful' does not apply to pianos - unless of course, you really don't care how it plays, and are only interested in what it looks like. 

The Piano World

© Steve Burden 

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Piano Makes

Jane Austen mentions a Broadwood piano in at least one of her novels. In her day, pianos were objects of status and the ability to play was proof of a refined education. These things no longer carry the same significance though of course, the dynamics of status are still with us. The objects desired today are smart phones, expensive cars and the latest that technology can offer! 

The Broadwood name is known only to pianists who probably were told long ago that Broadwoods were the best English-made piano. This would be found, written a few chapters back in the great, unfolding history of the British Piano Industry. However, such a high opinion of Broadwood Pianos was not universally held - years ago, I remember an elderly tuner say, somewhat unflatteringly: "Ah yes, Broadwood Pianos! The bass is very broad, and the treble very wooden!"    

It is not often a piano maker's name is mentioned in a modern novel. If a best-selling author wanted to mention a piano maker, questions might be asked about some advertising deal, but surely, this need not get in the way of a good story! Why not mention - in some dialogue - a piano made by a little-known maker? How about: Thompson & Shackle; Jarrett & Gouge; Skerrett; or Dunmo, Ellis & Hill? 

Or even a Macintosh!
This piano has absolutely nothing to do with Apple Computers and I do not imagine that Apple Mac will ever dabble in making acoustic pianos. This is an inexpensive piano made in Edingburgh. Straight strung, over damped, rather tired now, but with a decent enough tone and quite tuneable.

Even when new, this sort of piano was never brilliant, but clearly, they were built well enough to last a very long time. 

Uncomplicated and honest, pianos like these, never pretend to be more than what they are, they just continue doing what they were built for - making music! Thousands of makers put together pianos like this and proudly put their names on the fall-board. Sadly, most are now entirely forgotten. 

There was an old German maker called 'Lubitz' but you don't often see a Lubitz piano here in the UK. One might think a firm called 'Lubitz' made toilet spares!

© Steve Burden 

Friday, 30 March 2012

Is it Safe?

My old school had a Bechstein Grand in the hall. From time to time, the piano had to be moved from one end of the hall to the other, but there was a slight problem: the piano suffered from a couple of weak legs. A whole class of boys were stationed around the piano, and as a group, lifted it and carefully carried it across the hall. Health & Safety would have something to say about this now, but back in the 'dark ages', nobody bothered about such things!

Although I did not play the piano at the time, I was always fascinated by the piano and loved to look inside at the strings and at the dampers moving up and down as the piano was played. I little knew that one day I'd be sent to work on this very piano!

A few years after leaving the school, as a newly qualified piano tuner, I was called in to sort out a problem with the piano legs. The school was concerned that from time to time, the piano had to be moved from one end of the hall to the other. For some reason, now was the time to sort it out! 

So I walked into my old school, feeling quite the expert. Marched up to the very same piano I had heard being played just about every day of my school life, the very same piano I had actually helped to move across the hall a few times. Sure enough, the problem with the legs had not gone away: the piano was as unsafe as ever. 

Bechstein Grands of this age have legs that simply screw into the underside of the piano. The screw is part of the hardwood core of the leg and is about 6 cms. in diameter. I tightened up all three legs and the piano was as safe as it could ever be! The job was done in under 5 minutes!

I am sure the piano had been 'weak on the legs' for at least 6 years. Remarkable - miraculous that nobody, to my knowledge, had ever been injured by this unsafe piano!

Many years later, I was helping moving pianos around a warehouse. Piano warehouses often get so clogged up with pianos that invariably, the one you need to work on, is over in the far corner 'buried' behind 4 or 5 others. 

We came to move an old Broadwood Grand. There was a problem with one of the legs - but I didn't know it at the time! The pedals had not yet been fitted either - perhaps there was a problem with them as well! Of course, as luck would have it, the leg that gave out when we tried to move the piano was the one nearest me. 

When piano legs break, there is no cartoon-like pause before the inevitable crash, no luxury of any thinking time. I looked down at the treble end of the piano, now resting heavily on the concrete floor and noticed - with relief, that my foot was about an inch from where the brute had hit the ground!

When pianos have to be moved, there is very good reason to be aware of Health & Safety!

The Piano World

© Steve Burden 

Monday, 26 March 2012


In days of old, tuners used to sign their name and write the tuning dates inside the piano, usually on the back of the keys where it was unseen by the owner. Occasionally, there might be the added comment, "Raised pitch." or "C = 522", or even, "C = 517"!

These notes, written in classic piano tuner's scribble, can take some deciphering but they are a reliable record of the piano's service history. Early in my career I used to tune a piano that had a complete list of tuning dates since the piano was new in about 1912, up until the 1930s. The tuning interval was generally every four months - with a few six-month gaps here and there. There was writing on nearly every key!

By way of contrast, a particular customer prepared for my arrival by taking the parts off the piano himself, and, just for my benefit, had written an A4 size sign which read: "NOTICE TO THE PIANO TUNER, DO NOT WRITE ON MY PIANO". A previous tuner had signed his name in it and was never asked to tune it again! The customer was a fascinating character - a very good pianist, full of amazing stories from the 1940s and 50s. He bought his piano in Bristol during the war, the day after an air raid!

Anyway, he was both proud and very fond of his piano, and wanted to keep it in as immaculate a condition as possible. There was no need for him to worry about my signing his piano - I have signed or initialled only about 5 pianos during my entire career - his, was not one of them!

While repairing a George Rogers piano a year or so ago, I found, on the underside of one of the keys, the hand-written words 'Glazebrook Pianos'. Now, I don't know if there is a family link, but there were Glazebrooks involved at Steinways! Whoever wrote on the underside of the key was very coy about what he was writing - only a tuner with reason to lift out that particular key would ever see it. Why bother?

The writing in some of these old pianos, does give them a social setting and a hint of the community history that goes with it. These scribbles on the inside of a piano, are authentic written records of the relationships built up between tuners, their clients and their pianos.

© Steve Burden