Piano maintenance is not just tuning. Two other areas every piano owner, teacher or student, should track are regulation and voicing.
Regulation is the servicing of the action (inside parts such as hammers), dampers, and pedal mechanisms so the instruments conforms to the factory specifications.
Although some tuners or techs may do a small amount of regulating when they tune, typically a full regulation requires one to two days and costs at least $2000. For these reasons, many piano owners tend to put off regulation until the piano is in a deplorable state.
Symptoms that regulation is needed include:
Why is regulation important? The action (the mechanical part of the piano) consists of up to 11,000 pieces. There are 25 points of adjustment for -each key- in an upright piano; there are 35 points in a grand. If the parts do not align properly, they don't work well. And they wear out more quickly.
Part of regulation is adjusting the trapwork. The trapwork is what connects the pedals to the action. If the trapwork does not function correctly, pealing cannot be done properly. The pedals also control the dampers. If the dampers, which are also controlled by the keys, do not work properly, good articulation and phrasing will not be possible.
Frequency of regulation depends on the quality and age of the piano; on the type and frequency of use it receives; and climatic conditions.
A well-made piano will not need regulation as often as a less well-made piano because on the better piano the components are higher quality and then are assembled with more care to begin with.
If the piano is housed in ideal conditions (42% relative humidity and 68 degrees Fahrenheit), maintenance regulation may be minimal after the piano has a good initial regulation.
For teachers of beginners only, regulation will be needed less frequently than teachers who have many students playing Rachmaninov, Liszt, and Beethoven.
New instruments, however fine, doubtless will require some regulation during the first year or two as the parts settle in during use. If you are buying a new piano, complete regulation at dealer's expense should be a condition of purchase; or have your tech do this and deduct that price from the new piano's cost.
Voicing is little understood. Voicing has to do with that elusive quality we call "piano tone." Your instrument may have a warm sound, or it may be thin or muffled. Whatever the tonal characteristic of the instrument, it should be consistent through the compass.
Symptoms that voicing is needed include:
Tone can be changed to some extent, if you change your mind (or your taste).
A brilliant tone can be subdued, and a mellow tone can be brightened. The degree to which your tech can do this, however, is dependent not only on his skill but on the piano's design and how well your instrument has been maintained since bought new.
If you purchase a new piano and are not pleased with the tone once it's in your home, it is recommended that your instrument be regulated and then played on for a month or two before the decision to voice is made. Voicing may not be needed.
Remember, too, that tone quality is also a function of room acoustics. There are some things you can do to change your piano's tone that don't involve your tech at all.
To voice a piano, the tech will check the hammers to see if they still retain their proper shape. If they have grooves in them, the piano tone will have become brighter (the amount of upper partials in the factory-spec tone notwithstanding) because the hammers have been compacted in the places where contact is made with the strings. The compaction of the hammers means that the fundamental has been reduced and the upper partials increased. If the hammers are quite deeply grooved, a bright sound can border on unpleasantly harsh.
To decrease the upper partials, the tech will shave the hammer with sandpaper to get rid of (or at least reduce) grooves. This process probably will be necessary every one to five years. Shaving can be done several times before the hammers must be replaced.
The opposite of a too-hard hammer is one that is too squishy. Too-soft hammers cause too restrained a tone. If certain notes decay too quickly or if a note is too bright or too loud compared with the tone of the rest of the piano, the tech will pierce the hammer felt with a needle to fluff it up.
If this problem affects all notes, the solution is to make all the hammers harder. The tech may iron the felt to compress it somewhat. Impregnation with stiffening solutions to harden the felt also occurs; some techs consider this a last resort, however.
Note: At approximately Small C (an octave below Middle C), the tone often changes despite the tech's efforts because this is the point where strings change from unwrapped steel to copper-wrapped steel. There is not a whole lot your tech can do about this "break" in the tone. How noticeable it is depends on the piano's factory specs.
In addition to work with the hammers, during voicing the tech will check that all strings are seated correctly on the bridge. Strings also must be level with the bridge and run parallel to each other.
Unpleasant tone color, when coupled with sluggish action or a noisy action that regulation cannot cure, may indicate that more extensive work is needed: reconditioning or even rebuilding. At this point, you need to do some research to find out whether your piano is worth such an investment.
copyright 1999, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
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