Humidity Swings and Your Piano

I’ve briefly touched on this topic before in a previous post, but perhaps it is time to revisit how humidity affects the tuning of your piano.  This has been a hot topic in piano tuning circles lately on one of the technical lists that piano tuners from all over the world monitor.  Technicians like myself can post a particular question or problem they’re having and other technicians will suggest fixes or remedies.  The subject of humidity control around the piano has drawn more interest and heated responses that any subject I’ve seen in quite a while.  Some responses have contained minute details of how and why wood reacts to humidity changes………. it’s enough to make your eyes roll back in your head and put you to sleep.  It will suffice to say that there is no doubt that humidity swings contribute greatly to your piano going out of tune.

Since it is a given that humidity swings affect the tuning of your piano, the obvious counter to this effect is to control the environment around the piano.  To call on a familiar phrase, easier said than done!  I am of the opinion that if you are comfortable in your home, your piano will be comfortable.  Most pianos will change slightly from season to season, but since pianos should be tuned at least twice a year anyway, such seasonal changes can be corrected in the normal course of tuning and maintenance.  However, some pianos are affected more by humidity swings than others.  I have seen specific pianos change pitch from 30 to 40 cents between seasons.  (We divide half-steps into a  hundred parts and call them cents, so a 30 to 40 cent deviation from one season to the next means that the pitch has changed 30% to 40% of a half step)  In such extreme cases, I usually recommend the installation of a humidity control system directly on the piano.

These humidity control systems are manufactured by a company called Dampp Chaser.  They are two part systems that contain a de-humidifier element to remove excess moisture from around the piano, and a humidifier element to add moisture when the environment around the piano becomes too dry.  The system is controlled by a Humidistat, which measures the relative humidity in the piano and activates either the de-humidifier or the humidifier to keep the  environment around the piano within a specific humidity range, usually around 45%.  The Dampp Chaser systems work extremely well in pianos that are in small rooms or homes.  In institutional or church settings where pianos tend to live in rather large rooms or auditoriums, the addition of a piano cover can help limit the amount of space the Dampp Chaser system has to control, thereby making the system more effective.  The addition of such a system to a piano does not eliminate the need for regular tuning, but it definitely helps in minimizing the humidity related pitch swings.

I don’t always recommend these systems because the purchase and installation can be a bit expensive, but for sensitive pianos that tend to have major pitch changes when the seasons change, they can help greatly in preserving and extending the useful life of an instrument.  If you’d like more information on this subject, or anything else piano related, please contact me.

Thanks for tuning in!

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Moving Time

After being in the same house for almost 30 years, my wife and I decided it was time.  Our kids are grown and moved out, living their own lives, starting their own families, so we started looking for a new place to reside.  I won’t bore you with the details, but it will suffice to say that selling the old place and buying a new home is not for sissies!  We are finally somewhat settled in the new house in a different area of town.

Change is inevitable I suppose, and we discovered we needed to make a lot of changes……. some good, some not so good, and some that only time will tell.  My wife has a little bit further to commute to work, but that is offset by the fact that we are closer to major freeways and the time of her commute is actually less than from the old house.  Since I travel all over the metroplex to work on pianos, it hasn’t made a whole lot of difference for me, and those major freeways work in my favor also.  The biggest downside to the move, in my view, is that I don’t have any suitable shop space as of yet.  For the short term, I have moved into a corner of a friend’s shop and, so far, the arrangement seems to be working well.  I am exploring possibilities as to what kind, and how big of a shop I can safely build in the back yard without upsetting the new neighbors (and my wife).

We are still discovering things about our new neighborhood like where to do the grocery shopping, where the closest Home Depot is, and so on.  The neighbors that we have met all seem extremely nice and welcoming.  We are having to scout out for new restaurants and take out places, but so far, so good!  We are closer to many of our friends, and we are scouting a new place to attend church and become involved.  All in all, I think we’re going to like it here!

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Happy New Ears!

Yep, you read the title right.  Since this is the start of a New Year, I thought it appropriate to talk about a new era of hearing for me.  I’m a little hesitant to tell you that my natural hearing was getting bad.  That’s really bad, right?  A piano tuner who makes his living with his hearing, losing the ability to hear everything correctly?  After years of  loud music and the constant exposure to the  percussive strikes of piano tuning, (yes, the piano can be classified as a percussive instrument!), I finally had to admit to myself what my wife had been telling me for a long time, I was losing my hearing.

Reluctantly, I went to an audiologist to have my hearing checked.  The hearing test revealed that my hearing was pretty normal up to about the 1300mhz range, and then it took a nose dive off the chart.  For those of you who don’t know what that is in real life terms, I could hear normally up to about two and a third octaves above middle C, but I had a gradually increasing hearing deficiency in the higher frequencies above that.  Interestingly, those are the frequencies where the plosive sounds of speech are located, like p’s and t’s and s’s, the sounds that help us differentiate words from background sound.  Also, much of women’s voices are in that range.  (See honey, I had a medical excuse for not hearing what you told me to do!)  I had good enough hearing to do my job and could still tune very well, but I sometimes could not hear the buzzes and rattles that my customers heard, and pianos that I voiced were turning out really bright, although they sounded good to me.

Obviously, I needed hearing aids.  The thought filled me with dread.  My only experience with hearing aids had been with my dad, who, in his later years couldn’t hear much of anything even with his hearing aid.  His aid (just one because he was deaf in one ear much of his life) was big and clunky and evidently didn’t work very well.  He complained often about the “wall of noise” he experienced when in a crowd.

You can imagine my pleasant surprise when I learned of the technological advances that have taken place in the hearing industry since my dad’s time.  The hearing aids, (or devices, as they like to call them), are very small and have digital circuitry in them that allows my audiologist to tailor them exactly to my hearing loss.  The part that fits in my ear does not seal the entire ear canal, but is open enough to allow natural sound to come in normally and the aids enhance only the higher frequencies where my own hearing is deficient.  I am amazed at the difference it has made for me.  I can hear the buzzes and rattles in pianos now and find the source and eliminate them.  I can voice a piano to a more normal sound, specific to my customer’s wishes.  I can participate in conversations without asking people to repeat themselves.  My wife likes that!

In short, I love these new hearing aids.  I’m sure many of you can sympathize with my reluctance to share this story with you.  A piano tuner that can’t hear well doesn’t seem to have much of a future, but I hope I’ve convinced you that with modern technology, I am as good as I ever was, and I think, even better.  Just think, new ears and thirty plus years of experience?  Pretty awesome if I do say so myself!

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Updating Your Old Piano

You’ve had this piano for quite a while.  Maybe you inherited the piano from your Grandmother who used to teach piano lessons on it, or from a friend who was moving and couldn’t take the piano with them.  All the notes still work, but lately you’ve noticed that it just doesn’t play or sound as good as it used to.  Perhaps your child’s piano teacher has mentioned that your piano could use some attention beyond normal tuning, but you just don’t know how to proceed.  Well, for those of you out there who may be feeling some of these things, I have good news!  Your piano can be saved!

I will leave myself a little wiggle room here and say that MOST pianos can be saved.  Of course, there are some instruments out there that were not quality pianos to start with, and years of use and abuse have pretty much used them up.  Such instruments are not really worth the cost of updating, but having said that, almost all pianos can benefit from some basic maintenance and TLC.

While pianos tend to last longer than most household items, the truth is that piano parts do wear out.  Pianos are made of wood and iron and steel and felt. There is not much that will affect the iron frame of the piano, but everything else is changing constantly around it. The felt used in pianos is very dense and durable, but eventually it wears through. The wood parts are constantly changing with the weather and sometimes warp.  The steel strings eventually loose their elasticity and start to break.  After 40 or 50 or 60 years, it is hard to believe that a piano would NOT need some work!

I would suggest that you give me a call and set up an appointment for me to come assess the piano and find out exactly what the piano needs.  I will check the soundboard, the strings, the bridges, the keys and internal action parts, the condition of the cabinet, the hardware holding everything together, and even the piano bench.  After a thorough examination, then, and only then, can I tell you what needs to be repaired or replaced and how much it would cost.  Occasionally I run across instruments that are so badly worn, that a total rebuild is in order, but most of the time, existing parts can be repaired without replacement.  In many cases, worn felt can be replaced at a cost far below the cost of a new part.  Existing hammers can be filed and reshaped.  These hammers can then be worked with to produce the kind of tone you want the piano to have.

Updating your piano in this way can breathe new life into your tired old piano and extend it’s life for many years to come.  Piano owners tend to have sentimental attachments to their pianos, and wouldn’t dream of parting with these beloved instruments.  By updating these pianos, they can be around for the next generation to enjoy!

If you have questions, please give me a call, or send me an email with the form provided in the “Contact Joe Tom” section.  As alway, thanks for tuning in!

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The Best Piano Story I Ever Heard

A few years ago, I was asked to be the MC at the PTG (Piano Technicians Guild) Regional Seminar Awards Banquet.  This is an annual 3 day event for piano technicians that features continuing education in all things relating to maintaining, repairing, or restoring pianos.  This particular event drew about 115 piano folks from Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Arkansas.  To keep the banquet from becoming another boring event, I tried to find something to talk about between speakers that would be entertaining to a group of piano technicians!  I hit upon the idea of making a top 10 list of “Things We Find Inside Pianos”.  I began soliciting stories from everyone in the region and soon had some really interesting items for my list;  a bag of money with a gun in it, a “hogleg” pistol, a copperhead snake (alive, but hibernating), rare coins, a blender gasket, a mouse nest complete with petrified baby mice……….  Well, you get the idea…………  We find a lot of strange things inside pianos.  The best story of that weekend, and still champion in my opinion, was from the late Guy Nichols of El Paso.  I will tell the story here and let you decide for yourself.

Guy was hired by a prospective buyer to inspect a piano for sale.  He met his customer at the address she provided, and discovered that the address belonged to a small, run down shack that was home to a Mexican family.  There were approximately 20 family members living in this small house and the family was selling the piano to help make ends meet.  He found the old upright piano in a corner of the front room with a table and several pieces of furniture stacked around it.  After clearing a path to have access to the piano, he started his inspection.  He played notes at random to see what the piano sounded like, and when he got down into the bass section, the keys started making “thunk-thunk” like sounds.  Guy immediately thought the bass bridge was split or had come loose from the soundboard.  To confirm this, he removed the kick panel from the front of the piano under the keyboard and passed it to the family members that had gathered around to watch.  When he shined his flashlight into the piano, he got quite a shock!  There were 2 solid silver candelabras about 3 feet tall that had been laid on their side in order to fit in the space.  One of them had fallen over and was leaning on the bass strings.  That’s where the “thunk-thunk” sound was coming from.  He removed them and passed them out to the waiting family members.  Also in the bottom of the piano were about a dozen jewelry boxes full of very ornate pieces of jewelry with many precious stones.  He handed those to the family members as well.  It appeared that the family was just as surprised by the find as Guy and his customer were.  Everyone just sort of stood there looking when one of the men said to one of the kids, “Go wake up Grandma”.  After a few moments, Grandma arrived.  When she saw what had come out of the piano, she started crying.  Evidently, Grandma recognized the jewelry boxes and candelabras.  After a while the family got Grandma calmed down enough for her to explain.

It turned out that when Grandma was a little girl, she lived with her very prosperous family in Columbus, New Mexico, a little town close to the Mexican border.  One day, word came that Pancho Villa was on his way to raid the town.  Grandma’s family threw many of their valuables in the bottom of the piano and tried to flee.  Sadly, Grandma was the only member of her immediate family to survive the raid.  When order was restored in Columbus, Grandma was sent to live with distant relatives.  The piano went along with her.  In fact, the piano went with Grandma wherever she went all of her life, and she never even knew that her family treasure was in the bottom of the piano.

What a great story!  It also begs the question………  how many of us are going about our daily lives with treasure under our noses?  I asked Guy if he knew what became of the Mexican family.  Obviously, they decided not to sell the piano, but beyond that, he did not know.  He drove by the same address some time later and the small house had been torn down.  You would hope that the family was able to make use of their newly discovered family treasure!

So, if you need some help finding treasure in your piano, or just want to make it sound a little better, give me a call!  I’ll come a runnin’!  Til next time, thanks for tuning in!

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How Often Should I Tune My Piano?

Probably the most frequent question I get from folks is “how often should I tune my piano?”  My answer is always “it depends!”.  I suppose that this is not the answer most folks want to hear, but there are so many variables that affect tuning that it really does depend on your situation.  As a general rule, I recommend tuning twice a year.  The major factor affecting tuning is the weather, or more specifically, humidity.  The Texas climate is one of extremes.  During the summer, it is always very hot……duh!  This year, our hot weather was extremely dry which was unusual, and our lakes and foundations attest to the fact that hot, dry weather tends to suck all the moisture out of everything (pianos too!).  Normally, our summer weather is hot and humid and pianos take on a lot of moisture.  During winter, it may or may not be generally cold, but it is cold enough to warrant running the heater in our homes, which dries out the air inside the house, which dries out the piano.  So, basically the weather swings, or more technically humidity swings, that we have affect the tuning on the piano.  Why is that?  I’m glad you asked!

The heart of every piano is the soundboard.  It is the “amplifier” in the piano.  When a note is played, depressing the key causes a felt hammer to strike the strings of that note.  The strings vibrate at a frequency specific to that note.  Those vibrations are transferred to the soundboard via the “bridge” and the vibrations are “amplified” by the soundboard to enable us to hear that note.  The soundboard itself is a large sheet of resonant wood that is firmly glued in place around the edges to the rigid frame of the piano.  The soundboard is not flat, but has a slight crown.  As we all know, wood expands and contracts, and since the soundboard is rigidly attached to the frame of the piano, it has no choice but to increase crown when the wood expands, and decrease crown when the wood contracts.  Excess humidity makes the wood expand, therefore increasing crown, therefore increasing the tension of the strings that are bearing down on the bridge which is glued to the soundboard.  That is why pianos go sharp during times of more humidity than normal.  The reverse is also true.  When the air is dry, humidity is drawn out of the soundboard, therefore relaxing the crown, therefore lessening the tension of the strings, causing the pitch of the strings to go flat.

I know this has not been a terribly technical explanation, but hopefully you get the idea of why humidity swings affect the tuning of your piano.  The reason I generally recommend tuning twice a year is that in our area, there are usually two major humidity swings during the year.  We use the climate control in our homes to adjust for these swings of temperature and humidity to maintain our comfort level, but still, the swings do affect the tuning of the piano.  By tuning the piano soon after one of these climate swings, the piano will have a better chance of staying in tune longer,…….. or until the next humidity swing!

Having explained all that, I must add that different pianos react differently to the climate swings.  Older pianos tend to be more stable, and you might be able to get by with tuning only once a year.  Newer pianos have more active soundboards and are more susceptible to the climate swings, and must be tuned more often.  In fact, most piano manufacturers recommend tuning at least 4 times during the first year………..but that’s a whole ‘nuther article.

Of course you want to have your piano tuned when it sounds bad, but the timing of that tuning might result in a tuning that lasts longer.  For example, you might not want to have your piano tuned on the one day that it rains during the long, hot, dry summer.  Sometimes it can’t be helped because of getting ready for a special event, but it is something to keep in mind.

I hope this article has helped explain why weather changes affect piano tuning.  Stay tuned (pun definitely intended) for future articles about other interesting piano subjects!  Or maybe I’ll just tell jokes………. nah, I’d better stick to pianos.  If you have questions or want more information, give me a call, or send me an email and I’ll do my best to answer your specific question.

Thanks for tuning in!

 

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