Monday, November 17, 2014

Measuring Humidity and Pitch of Your Piano

In my last post I talked about the importance of humidity when it comes to pianos staying in tune. Here is an inexpensive hygrometer (humidity measuring device) that is available at Home Depot for around $10. 
It is called the ACU-RITE Backyard Weather Humidity Monitor 

The readout gives current relative humidity and temperature and also tells you what the high and low have been in the last 24 hours. These inexpensive hygrometers are not known for their precision. However, for the purposes of protecting the stability of your piano's tuning, absolute accuracy is not of paramount importance. Having a generalized idea of what the humidity is doing is the key.

For more detailed information and greater accuracy, for around $100 I highly recommend:

Lascar EL-USB-2-LCD

These can be purchased through Amazon (which may be the most inexpensive) or directly from Lascar Electronics. The really useful aspect of this device is that it can be set to take several readings every day over a period of weeks or months. Then you can plug it into your computers USB port and view a graph that will show you the temperature and humidity over that period of time. This short video shows how this feature works. 

The whole point of measuring the humidity is to stabilize the piano's environment thus stabilizing the tuning. Another helpful tool in helping you achieve this goal is to actually measure a note on your piano with a free tuning app. My favorite for Android phones is Tunelab, which is actually professional piano tuning software that has a shareware version. The limitation of the shareware is that it times out every so often.  (I think around 17 note switches causes a  time out for 2 minutes). 

It would be best to measure a note right after the piano has been tuned. The best note to measure is lowest plain wire string, which on most upright pianos (and smaller grands) will usually occur somewhere around the F note below middle C. The lowest plain wire note will usually be the one to react the most with humidity changes. The reason has to do with the wire's tension and how close to its breaking point it is. Wires that are closer to their breaking point are more stable than lower tension wires. Another approach would be to just measure all the Cs on the piano and write down the frequency number. In the above picture the frequency of C5 is 528.58 Hz. 

If you see the frequency of a note dropping, it's an indication that the piano is losing moisture. The exception to this is with newer pianos or pianos that have new strings. They will tend to drop in pitch quite a bit for the first couple of years. However if the piano was tuned during a humid time of the year, you will expect the pitch to drop during drier weather. If you notice the pitch dropping, it is a good idea to run a humidifier in the room to bring it back up. However, in very cold weather there are limits to how much humidity you can add to a room, without causing moisture problems in the house. Here are some guidelines [source Home Energy Resource MN]:
    Outside Temperature                        Inside Humidity
                        20º to 40ºF                                          Not over 40%
                        10º to 20ºF                                          Not over 35%
                        0º to 10ºF                                            Not over 30%
                        -10º to   0ºF                                         Not over 25%
                        -20º to –10ºF                                       Not over 20%
                        -20ºF or below                                     Not over 15%

During very cold weather, if you are unable to add enough humidity to the room to keep the piano's pitch from dropping, than adding a Dampp-chaser system with a humidifier will help. It will add the humidity directly to the piano instead of the room. 

 Likewise if the frequency/pitch of a note is rising, it is a sure sign that the piano is taking up more humidity. Installing a Dampp-chaser system can bring the pitch back down if the humidity is running in the high 40's or greater. 

Paying attention to the relative humidity and the pitch of your piano will give you clear information on how humidity and tuning are related. Preventing rises and falls of pitch by controlling the humidity in the room and/or piano will help you get the most musical enjoyment and inspiration from your piano. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Humidity and Your Piano's Tuning

Why pianos go out of tune

The top 3 reasons are:

1. Humidity Change
2. Humidity Change
3. Humidity Change

The “Dirty Secret” of Piano Tuning
“If you wait longer, it may actually get better!”

Could this really be true? Could a piano be in better tune after a year than after 4 months. I can assure you that it is certainly true, and I have seen it many hundreds of times in my 20+ year career as a piano technician.

When I see a piano in exactly one year, it is almost invariably in better tune than when I see it after a few months.

Why? The reason is the average humidity at any given time of year is similar to that of previous years. Not exactly, but similar enough that the tuning can correct itself to a surprising degree.

For information on pitch and humidity measuring devices please visit my post on this topic: Measuring Humidity and Pitch of Your Piano

Q: What’s the ideal humidity level for a piano?A: Between 40 and 45 percent

“A relative humidity level (RH) of approximately 45% is ideal” - Kawai owner's manual “Generally speaking, a relative humidity of between 40 and 45 percent is ideal for pianos." - Yamaha’s official website Manufacturers like to say that the temperature should be at 72 degrees F. and the humidity about 45 percent. -Larry Fine’s Acoustic Piano Buyer

Humidity Trends in the Pacific Northwest

I regularly measure humidity in my clients home, and over the years I notice pretty consistent patterns. In the summer, the relative humidity often averages around 65 percent dropping down to around 55 percent in the late fall and finally down to the 40’s in the winter. Occasionally we get humid spells in the summer with the humidity jumping up to 70 or even 80 percent. Likewise, a good cold snap in the winter can drive indoor humidity down into the 30’s.

Rule: the colder it is outside the drier it is indoors.

Cold air can’t hold as much moisture as warm air. When cold air is brought indoors and heated to around 68 to 70 degrees, its relative humidity drops significantly. That is why winter is the driest time indoors.

Fortunately for us in the Puget Sound, indoor humidity during the coldest months is close to the ideal of 45 percent. However the gradual increase in humidity from Spring into Summer is where problems arise.
A basic piano humidity control system is designed to take care of the piano during the summer months when average  humidity typically runs in the 60-70 percent range.

Don’t throw away your tuning dollars!

Believe it or not ~ I have seen pianos literally go out of tune in a week due to sudden humidity change.

A True Story
My most talented client ever, Charlie Albright, lost power in his home in Centralia one winter. The house got very cold. When the power came on Charlie called me complaining about how bad his piano sounded. I told him to wait a couple of weeks and check in with me again. After two weeks Chalie called to say “it sounds fine now!”. If I had tuned the piano right after the power came on, it would have quickly gone out of tune.

I take a great deal of pride in the quality and stability of my tunings. However, the most stable tuning in the world will only last as long as the humidity remains at the same level as when it was tuned.

Dampp-Chaser system is one of the best assurances I know of to preserve the quality of my tunings. That is why we put them in the pianos we sell. That is why I recommend them to all my clients. Consistently the pianos that have a system are in much better tune when I arrive to service the piano than those without. This gives me more time to address other service needs of the piano besides tuning: Cleaning, voicing, regulating, etc.  

Another true storyI arrived at a local piano teacher’s home during the summer  to tune her grand piano that I had tuned the past January. The piano had gone significantly sharp with the higher humidity and the tuning was really bothering her.  After some discussion she agreed to forego the tuning and instead had me install a Dampp-Chaser system. 2 weeks later at the monthly Olympia Music Teacher’s Association meeting, she was happy to tell me how much better her piano sounded already! The system dried the piano out and made its humidity level closer to where it was when it had last been tuned.

Q: “Won’t these humidity control systems put you out of a job?”

A: The systems are not perfect. It is true that a piano owner may find he/she can greatly extend the interval between tunings. However, tuning is just one aspect of the maintenance of a piano. When I show up to service a piano that has a system installed, I am usually able to spend more time cleaning, controlling friction, and regulating touch and tone.. These are separate issues from tuning yet are equally important in order to get the most enjoyment of the instrument.  

How much do they cost?

  • A basic upright system costs $257 + tax (includes installation)
  • A basic grand system is $305 + tax for pianos under 6’. Pianos greater than 6’ are $380.
  • We recommend having the piano tuned 3-4 weeks after installation. We give a special tuning rate of $140. (this is strictly tuning - no additional maintenance or repairs included. It is to compensate for the effect of the system)

Suggestions for keeping your piano in tune:

  • Get a digital hygrometer and put it near the piano so you can actually watch what the temperature and humidity are doing.

  • Get a free tuning app for your smart phone or tablet computer that will allow you to measure the low, middle, and high C, so you can see how humidity change is affecting the pitch of these notes.

  • Run a humidifier in the winter if the humidity is getting below 40 percent.

  • Using an air conditioner in the summer months will keep the humidity closer to the ideal range.

  • Keeping the room cooler during the coldest months of winter will actually keep the piano for getting dried at as much.

  • Keep the piano away from direct sun and heating vents.

  • Avoid having the piano tuned right after unusually humid or dry weather.

For less than the cost of 2 tunings, you can help insure the tuning stability of your piano and improve your listening pleasure throughout the year
“It’s the closest thing to having a tuner living right inside your piano!”

Pianova Piano Service

Friday, July 4, 2014

A Trip To Roseland PIano in Portland

A Trip to Roseland Piano Co.

Saturday June 28th, 2014

We are currently in the process of restoring a client's 1911 Steinway model "O" grand. It was her Grandmother's piano and she decided to rebuild the piano as a tribute to her Grandmother. For phase one of the rebuild we shipped the piano to New York where the Steinway factory installed a new soundboard, pinblock, strings, and restored the cast iron harp. 

Phase two is to build a new action for the piano from the ground up. Most action rebuild jobs economize by keeping many of the original action components: typically keys and keyframe, action rails, damper action. Since we want this family heirloom to last another 100 years we decided to do the complete job. 

There are only 2 keymakers in the United States. Blackstone piano new Boston, MA and Roseland Piano Co. owned and operated by Rick Wheeler in Milwaukee, OR, just outside of Portland. The Portland Tribune did a story on the company in 2012. One of the advantages of having new keys made for this piano is the possibility of using legal, pre-ban ivory instead of plastic. One of my clients, piano teacher, Dr. Merilyn Jacobson in Puyallup owns a Steinway concert grand with ivory keys made by Rick Wheeler, and they are absolutely gorgeous. 

Here is a great picture that shows the intricate grain pattern of real ivory:
However, the federal government is currently greatly tightening restrictions on all ivory sales. Rick told us that our set may be the last set of ivory keys he ever makes. To us this is sad, because cracking down on fully documented legal material raises the black market price and may actually endanger elephants more. Oh well, enough of that...

Here are some more pictures of Rick's shop:
That's our keyframe with new action rails and sample keys. 

Rick Wheeler and my better half, Jean!

Here's another shot of our keyframe just to the left of Rick
Here is Rick next to some of his precious materials.
We are so glad that our keys are in such capable hands! Thank you Rick. 

After we left the shop we were hungry for breakfast. We were surprised that just a few minutes drive brought us near the headquarters of Bob's Red Mill! 
What an operation. The buckwheat Belgium waffles were great!

Looking around on the web I even found a picture of Bob playing the piano!


Bob's 81st birthday was particularly special. Rather than receiving gifts, he decided to give his greatest gift away — his business. Bob surprised all his employees by giving them total ownership of Bob's Red Mill through an Employee Share Ownership Program (ESOP). For those who know Bob, it's yet another example of his kind-hearted generosity. As Bob puts it "It was just the right thing to do. I have people that have worked with me for over 30 years and each and every one of them deserve this."

Friday, September 20, 2013

10th Annual Summer Steinway Seminar at Oberlin Conservatory

Last fall I finished my 5th Seminar at the Steinway & Sons factory in New York City. This was both exciting and also sad, because I had enjoyed my trips so much. However, I was thrilled when Kent Webb, head of Technical Services invited me to attend the Summer Seminar at Oberlin. The statistics below will show you why this is an ideal venue for a technical seminar:

With 231 Steinway grand pianos including 3 New York D concert grands, and 3 Hamburg D concert grands there are always plenty of projects for the staff of four full-time piano technicians. Steinway also flies in several additional instructor/mentors for the week including current head of technical services for Steinway, Kent Web, Former head of technical services Eric Schandall, who now lives in Norway, and Ed Wedberg, who has tuned for many of New York Cities top recording studios. 

I had the pleasure of working with Ken Sloan, who was head piano tech at Oberlin for over 20 years. My team included Angel, a University technician from Puerto Rico, and Mary Luisi who is attending a graduate program in piano technology in Florida. We spent the week completely replacing and regulating a damper system. Ken was a master!
Ken Sloan (Left) Master Technician and huge bike enthusiast
Angel (Middle)Technician, Conservatorio de Musica de Puerto Rico
Mary Luisi (Right) Graduate student in Piano Technology at Florida State University.

At the end of the week we had to give a presentation to the rest of the class. Here I am describing the difference between vertical and horizontal grained damper felt and why you should care!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Ryan receives the James Burton Award from the Pacific Northwest Region of the Piano Technicians Guild!

I was really surprised to find that I had been awarded the James H. Burton award for 2013. It gave me a burst of inspiration and enthusiasm toward my profession and towards the Piano Technicians Guild. I was surprised last year when my "20 year pin" from the guild arrived in the mail. Has it really been that long? I look forward to the next 20!

"Each year the Pacific Northwest Regional Conference of the Piano Technicians Guild honors a member of PTG by bestowing the James H. Burton Award. The award is given to honor Jim, for the service he so willingly gave to PTG over many years, and the recipient who likewise, has given of themselves unselfishly to further piano technology in both the local, regional and national level."

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Great Times in New York at the Steinway Factory!

I arrived in Queens New York on Sunday, October 31st, Halloween night! It was fun to see the kids out trick or treating in all the restaurants and stores along Queens Blvd. So many funky, hole-in-the-wall places, and cool upscale places too! I had dinner at Dazie's, a nice Italian place a couple blocks from the hotel. My busboy (dressed as a bloody vampire!) had just come over from Italy a couple of months prior! I played the old Kimball baby grand they had by the bar. They were so friendly and insisted I come back the next night!

The next morning our instructor for the week, Kent Webb, picked us up and after a "get acquainted" breakfast at Foxy's Diner, gave us a classic, aggressive, NY driver ride down  Steinway Street which leads to the factory. It's funny to see so many businesses take advantage of the Steinway name: everything from coffee shops to body shops!

Being at the Steinway factory feels a little like going to the "Holy Land" of pianos! For all practical purposes Steinway invented the modern grand piano. All the greatest pianists of the past 100 years have been associated with these instruments. One of the treats was seeing the log books where almost every Steinway that has ever been sold is entered. I even found my Steinway there: In beautiful handwritten script it showed that in 1913 My Model "O" was shipped to Sherman Clay in Seattle via San Francisco! I encourage anyone with a Steinway to call the factory and have them look it up in the book.
Steinway factory

Kent is the Manager of Technical Service and Support for Steinway & Sons. In this position, Kent oversees and conducts the Steinway Training Academy. He also works closely with All-Steinway Schools and Institutions to develop and maintain service strategies and resources. In addition, Kent coordinates service literature and publications, works closely with Festival Events, and participates extensively in educational events. When I first met Kent in the early 90's he was National Service Manager for Baldwin Piano Company. Kent has been with Steinway for 10 years. Most importantly, he knows all the best places to EAT!

After class, Kent dropped me off at the "N" line subway that would take me to downtown Manhattan where the New York City Chapter of the Piano Technicians Guild was holding its monthly meeting at Faust Harrison Pianos. My friend Zeno Wood, technician for Brooklyn College had arranged for me to present a class on using software to evaluate one's readiness to take the Piano Technicians Guild tuning exam. I showed up early and got a tour of the store. Then I happened to overhear the owner, talking to the service manager about needing a Yamaha piano tuned before delivery the next day. Since I had nothing to do until the meeting I got out my tools and went to work! So now I'm an official New York piano tuner! Following the meeting we had an enjoyable round of drinks with my NY technician buddies. After staying out WAY too late, and then getting lost in the subway system, my guardian angel in the form of a cab driver got me home safe and sound!

On Wednesday, my classmate and I (there were only 2 of us in this session, the third student broke his ankle and had to cancel!) had lunch with Kent at a great Irish Pub in Queens, and then caught the subway to downtown where we visited legendary Steinway hall. Steinway hall is also the home of "The Basement" a large storage area/workroom where the fleet of concert grands is kept and maintained, and where the best of the best come to select their favored instruments for recording or performance.  As one accomplished concert pianist put it, "There isn't a first class piano player in the world who does not expect to  visit the Steinway Hall concert Basement before a New York performance. It is a piano mecca - sort of the center of the piano universe"

Then, after a beautiful sunny fall stroll through Times Square, and Bryant Park (the ice skaters were out!),
we visited one of the most beautiful buildings on earth: St. Patricks Cathedral. 

We finished the evening over in the theater district and had an incredible dinner at Kent's favorite Chilean Restaurant: Pomaire. I got acquainted with the national drink of Chile: Pisco Sour. The meat and corn pie was delightful and the desserts were spectacular! How does anyone in NY stay thin??

Oh yes! I almost forgot! I was in New York to learn all about voicing Steinway pianos! Well, I did learn a lot and picked up many tips and tricks that will help me bring out the best in these instruments. Working with Steinway hammers is completely different than working with any other brand of piano. Steinway uses a very soft hammer and builds the tone using lacquer to firm the felt. Once the 

power is brought up, the tone is smoothed and controlled with strategic needling right into the strike point of the hammer. On most other hammers this would kill the tone, but with Steinway hammers this is the norm.  It was also emphasized that working with the hammers is at the end of a chain of events that prepare the piano for final voicing: parts must be properly aligned and adjusted, strings must be level, and the keyframe must be properly mated to the keybed. Only then can the tone reach its full potential. 

My next trip to New York is scheduled for November 2011. I'm really looking forward to that session because Jean is planning on coming with me! New York is such a romantic city. I look forward to being there with my best friend who also happens to be my wife!


Saturday, August 14, 2010

Amazing Chinese Pianist with no arms!

I came across this video today and had to share it! It is moving and inspirational. It is taken from the Chinese version of "America's Got Talent!"

It reminded me of another video that I saw last year about the four fingered pianist. Check this out: