Saturday, November 7, 2009

You can tune a piano, but you can't tune a fish

The player of a stringed instrument has almost total control over intonation. Each string can be tuned, as well as each note. Even varying bow pressure and speed affect intonation.

One has no direct control over the tuning of a piano unless one is specially trained. A piano has 88 notes; the two lowest octaves usually have two strings each, referred to as bass strings, and all the other notes have three strings each. All of these strings need to be tuned. A further complication is deciding on a tuning system that is the best compromise between exact scientific tuning (which will not sound in tune) and some sort of "well-tempered" system, in which any note can be played with any other note and sound harmonious. This is a vast oversimplification of a hugely complicated topic. One interesting reference is a book by Perri Knize, Grand Obsession, in which she describes her search for a piano, which in turn leads her directly into the tuning topic. The frustrating fact is that how a piano is tuned is intimately connected with how it sounds and ultimately how musical a performance can be, but the performer is dependent on a technician to achieve the desired sound of the instrument.

The main thing a piano owner can do to keep the piano in good shape, besides having it tuned regularly, is to control the humidity in the room where it's stored. Because a piano is made mainly of wood, humidity (and to a lesser degree, temperature) affects everything about it. I keep my piano in a closed room. It is on the basement level of our house, so I run a dehumidifier in there except in the driest weather. I also have a heater bar installed under the belly of the instrument that supposedly keeps the soundboard from becoming damp; it turns on automatically when humidity in that area rises above 50%.

I can hear whether a piano is in tune, up to a certain point, but after that point it becomes a matter of judgment.  Because I am not a very hardware-oriented person, I have always tended to leave this judgment up to the technician. I am realizing, though, that I need to get more involved. This was reinforced by my recent tuning experience (what inspired me to bring up this topic here). After a routine tuning about a month ago, I went to play my piano (eagerly anticipating the fresh tuning rush) and was disappointed to hear it sounding sour, dull, and clangy. I tried to stick with it for a few weeks, but finally called the shop that had sent out the tuner. I bought the piano from them, and I have used only their tuners in the time that I've had it. As I explained to one of the owners, this is the first time I've had a serious complaint. The upshot was that they scheduled the tuner to return and touch up the tuning.

He ended up retuning the piano, spending an hour and a half. It sounds much better. However, I am still unhappy about the brightness of this instrument. "Brightness" refers to the ringing, piercing qualities of a sound; obviously, some brightness is good, but I'm starting to wonder if this piano is just too bright. It's certainly overwhelming in its small room unless I keep the lid closed and muffle it with quilts. Piano techs can do something that's called voicing, in which they tinker with the hammer felt, fluffing it up with needles to soften it and injecting chemicals to harden it, but there's a limit to what that can achieve.

Do I need to shop for a different piano? Or just a different technician? Something to think about. In the meantime, I'll keep the quilts on it and keep practicing.

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