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You Can Tune a Piano But Can You Tuna Fish?

Damon Groves and friends

To mark National Piano Month, we asked our Facebook fans to submit piano-related questions for Damon Groves (seated), The Royal Conservatory’s Concert Piano Technician and a member of The Conservatory’s crack Piano Technology team. In this second post of a two-part series, Damon offers advice on scheduling tunings, handling humidity, and adjusting your piano to sound like Glenn Gould’s.

Janice Frid Mason: I have a Yamaha U1. I had it professionally tuned in April 2011. It still sounds in tune to me, but should it be tuned every year at the same time?

Damon: This is a good question. The odds are that your piano has shifted a bit since it was last tuned. I usually recommend tuning at least once a year. It is hard to notice the subtle changes from day to day, but infrequent tunings make it more challenging for tuners to attain stability. Tuning during the same time every year is probably safe.

Heather Beth MacIntosh: I will be moving my 1909 Heintzman 6' wide tail piano from Ottawa to Montreal in a few months. Currently it is in a humidity controlled environment (about 32 whatever units they are) and we will be moving it to a location that is much more humid and closer to a large body of water. Any suggestions about how I should protect the piano and help it acclimatize?

Damon: First of all, good luck with the move. I assume you mean 32% relative humidity. The ideal humidity range for a piano is around 45%; however, the biggest issue is fluctuation. I've seen as little as 18% and as high as 80%. Pianos like a stable environment. It sounds like you have a humidistat—great! Perhaps you could invest in a Dampp-Chaser. This is a unit that is installed under the piano to help control humidity. Check this website to find a technician that can install one on your Heintzman. 

Heintzman pianos from that era are very well built, but this piano is over 100 years old. You may also want to refer to my blog post about temperature/humidity. It is a good idea to let the piano re-acclimate to its new environment for about two weeks before having it tuned.  

Norm Gensler: How can a piano be set up to mirror the action, as much as possible, of Gould's CD318 (in its best days)? I'm playing a Yamaha and am not afraid to make "adjustments" with the help of my technician.

Damon: This is an interesting question that touches on a very prominent subject with pianists and technicians—preference. What some people find attractive in touch and tone, others simply do not. I unfortunately did not work with Mr. Gould, nor have I ever seen CD318 (but have heard it on many recordings). I understand, however, that anyone can visit this piano now that it's at The National Arts Centre in Ottawa. 

I believe that Gould preferred a light action, with a fairly shallow touch. Gould would have requested this to make rapid passages a bit easier and also for greater repetition (how fast a key can be repeated). These adjustments would come in handy especially for Bach. 

Making an action lighter (i.e. reducing the weight required to depress the key) requires significant work, but can certainly be achieved. Reducing the depth of touch, or making the key travel less, is fairly simple, but still requires plenty of work as well. Since the key is what operates the rest of the piano action, many adjustments must be made after adjusting the depth of touch. 

Dale Walsh: Is it true that you can tune a piano but you can't tuna fish?

Damon: If I had a nickel...

Interested in learning more about the inner workings of the piano? Join a free, hands-on workshop taught by members of our Piano Technology team. Workshops are held once weekly during our fall term. Contact Damon for more information. 

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Damon Groves, member of The Royal Conservatory's Piano Technology team, answers more of your piano-related questions.