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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