What kind of pianos do you work on?
I own a Yamaha Piano Dealership, and have specialized training on both Yamaha and Bösendorfer pianos, as well as Yamaha Disklavier player pianos. More generally my company works on Asian and Vintage American pianos, as well as square grands.
-How much experience do you have?
Founder and owner Vincent Chambers began training in 1982, and started teaching piano tuning and repair in 1984 at the San Francisco School of Piano Tuning. He continued instructing there until 1994, and is now our head piano technician. Mr. Chambers is also a trained operatic tenor, electric bassist, and single engine instrument rated pilot.
Justin Smith has worked for Apollo Piano since 2015 and is a woodworker and refinisher. Although he primarily rebuilds and refinishes pianos, he has a unusually keen ear for piano tuning. We surmise this is from his playing of the didgeridoo, an Australian Aboriginal instrument. Justin also builds beautiful didgeridoos, and is a certified massage therapist, and sound therapist.
Nathan Townley is our newest addition. He studied piano tuning under his father Don Townley, and is an apprentice tuner for Apollo. He also works in the shop with Justin, and is a talented musician. Nathan plays bouzouki, penny whistle, and of course piano. He started travelling on tuning jobs with his father when he was just 11 years old, and has been tuning since he was 15 years old.
-What is your service area?
Apollo Piano is based in Chico, CA. Locally, we service pianos in Chico, Red Bluff, Cottonwood, Anderson, and Redding. In addition Vincent maintains clients in San Francisco, and the East Bay.
-What’s the difference between a tuner and a technician?
While in some countries this might still be the case, most "piano tuners" in the United States are actually tuner-technicians. We really don't know too many who are not. However, some technicians are also rebuilders, a different classification, and some of those rebuilders are not tuners. Of course, there are tuner/technician/rebuilders, but regardless, the person who comes to your house for a tuning can handle most common mechanical issues.
-Do you tune with a "machine" or by ear?
Vincent started tuning by ear in 1982, switched to the The Sanderson Accu-Tuner III in 2012, and now uses a software based app. He can still tune by ear, and keeps in practice by tuning store pianos by ear.
Nathan uses the Accu-Tuner III like his father
Justin uses software
The Granddaddy of tuning device – The Sanderson AccuTuner - was developed in the 1970s by Harvard physics professor and piano enthusiast Al Sanderson. The current model IV runs about $1600, and takes several months and 100+ tunings to competently use. There are several apps ranging from $300-$999.99 (the maximum price on Apple's App Store), with some requiring annual subscriptions fees. These apps take technical mastery of tuning for proper use, and the knowledge of an aural tuners to use properly; they are not for amateurs. Just like a pilot uses a GPS to fly in the clouds instead of ground based navigational aids, tuners rely on technology for a more refined experience on the typical piano.
-How long does it take to tune a piano?
It takes about 45 minutes to an hour and 15 minutes. If it takes much longer than that, the piano likely has a structural or mechanical problem with the action which hinders tuning efficiency, or it’s more than simply out of tune and in need of pitch adjustment. Pitch Raising or Lowering typically takes 15-30 minutes, followed by a fine-tuning.
Most of our appointments include more than tuning, such as pedal adjustments, minor action refinements, and cleaning.
-My last tuner took 90 minutes to tune my piano. Are you skipping something?
Good question, but the answer is no, we're not skipping anything. Some pianos are simply easier to tune for a variety of reasons. We're also human, and can slow down at the end of a long day or week.
-Someone told me they could tune a piano in 20 minutes. Is this possible?
1. A pitch raising can be performed in 15 minutes or less. However, this is not a fine-tuning.
2. A touch-up tuning during the intermission of a concert can take just 10-20 minutes. This is simply because the piano was properly tuned just before the concert, so there’s not much to do besides cleaning up the few outliers.
-What’s a “good” tuner? What do they do differently than other tuners?
This is a great question, and we get asked this a few times per month since we charge premium prices. Fortunately, it’s quantifiable.
1. Experience: We have this saying in the flying world about the 10,000 hour pilot: There is a difference between one hour repeated 10,000 times, and 10,000 unique hours. A factory tuner might be the former, and field technician in NYC would likely be the latter, being called upon to repair pianos rescued from the dumpster and concert grands in the same day.
2. Dedication, enthusiasm, and an intelligent approach to their work. This should be obvious when you speak to them on the phone, in person, and watch them work. Does everything seem to have a place? Do they appear to have what they’re looking for? Are they able to quickly identify problems and solutions as if they’ve encountered them before?
3. Good tuner/techs attend conventions, take courses, and/or pal around with other technicians to share information. Facebook Groups have become the most common way information is shared. A "conversation starter" can literally poste a question, photo, and/or video to several thousand technicians worldwide and have an answer while they are still servicing the piano!
The Piano Technicians' Guild was incredibly important to me when I was training, and although I am no longer a member, they are a valuable resource to many technicians for training, and they do maintain a list of Registered Piano Technicians who have passed a written and practical exam. It's not an easy exam to pass when learning on your own, while students graduating a 1 or 2 year program typically pass at a high rate upon graduation.
4. They’re pretty busy: Bad news travels fast, and it’s hard for 1000 tuning customers per year to be wrong.
5. They are relatively fast in getting the pitch right and setting the pin: Less time spent turning a tuning pins causes less disturbance in the instrument leading to greater stability.
6. Offers extras: A good tuner/technician can make a few mechanical tweaks in 10-15 minutes, which require years of dedication and practice to master. These little tweaks will make your piano play better, last longer, and be more enjoyable to play.
7. Has the right tools: Investing in tools is expensive and time-consuming. Buying from small supply houses, many of whom custom make or import tools from Europe and Asia, allows technicians to perform work much more quickly, accurately, and efficiently. Most of those tools suppliers can only be found at conventions and in journals.
8. Understands the physics behind the sound: Good piano tuners should know a lot about the little-known topic of “inharmonicity.” If you’re bored and up for a “thrilling” conversation, ask your tuner to explain it to you in simple terms. If they can’t, they don’t get it, which is a problem. Inharmonicity makes it impossible to tune a piano mathematically perfectly - which led to Dr. Sanderson's obsession with piano tuning - and forces tuners to make compromises in the way a tuning is crafted. The more a tuner understands the physics of sound, and the better tuned their ear is to inharmonicity, the better the tuner can be. And it’s such a big deal, a study was done on how piano tuner’s brains are affected by learning to listen to these sounds: The University College of London’s Study results were reported in the Journal of Neuroscience on how Piano Tuning Changes Brain Structure.
News Report on Piano Tuning Brain Study
9. Care's about your needs. Why are you having your piano tuned? What would make you happy to have repaired? Communication is important, and a good technician will always ask what your expectations are, and do their best to meet those expectations, while performing their job to the best of their ability. Fixing things you don't care about while skipping the things which matter to you is not very helpful, yet it seems to happen a lot.
-How often should I have my piano tuned?
Manufacturers routinely recommend that you tune your piano two times per year. This should be a simple answer, but there are several “it depends” questions, all leading back to 1-4 times per year, or about 2x per year on average. However I recommend 18-36 for some pianos, depending on the piano, environment, and amount of playing.
Newer pianos go out of tune more quickly and require progressively fewer tunings. For instance, we like to tune our new pianos 6-7 times before we deliver them to our customers, often within only 3 months. It really makes a difference. We will ask the following questions when you call:
How old is your piano?
How often is it played?
Are you a teacher? Composer?
Is it in a bar or restaurant?
A recording studio or Concert Stage?
How well is the environment in which your piano resides controlled?
Is the humidity and temperature a constant?
Is it moved often?
Do you have a DamppChaser System installed?
Regular professional, high-quality tunings improve stability, tone, and enjoyment. As your piano improves with regular tuning, they should be able to recommend a change in the frequency of your tunings.
-I heard that pianos get better with age. Is this true?
The hypothesis is that tone of a piano – or any acoustic instrument for that matter - will improve with age. Here’s my non-scientific take on this:
Pianos are designed to sound a certain way and function optimally when the action is properly regulated and prepared, and the piano is in tune at the concert pitch of A-440, give or take. Furthermore, the wood used in acoustic instrument manufacturing is seasoned or aged so that it is optimal from day one, not year 50. A brand new piano is ideal. The 30+/- tons of tension on the strings, and over 1000 pounds of pressure pressing down onto the soundboard is also part of that design. The joints, adhesives, and bolts holding this all together are somewhat flexible, and keeping a piano in tune and playing well will allow an instrument to settle into its designed state. A piano which is was kept 100 cents low (a half step flat) may settle into nooks and crannies differently, and may never recover from 20 years of improper tuning. Hence the “feeling” that well played – and by definition well maintained – instruments improve with age. Perhaps it’s just better to say they get a bit seasoned.
A brand new, properly prepared piano will run circles around an old one of the same quality, but often I’m asked to compare a 75-year-old Steinway to a brand new entry-level Pearl River for instance. These are not fair comparisons for anyone, and it’s like comparing a 20-year-old Lexus to a brand new entry-level Kia. They are not apple to apple comparisons, but they are good questions.
One thing for certain is that if you play the piano every day for 20 years, you’ll get better at it, and that will make any instrument “sound better."
Any perceived improvements in the piano are outweighed by the fact the pianos have a useful-life, as the parts age simply being exposed to the atmosphere. Of course, playing the instrument wears them out as well, which is why I typically do a 2 hour service during every 2nd or 3rd tuning for the regularly played pianos I take care of.
-You worked for years to develop a skill so you can create art with your piano. Shouldn’t your piano technician do the same?
As an operatic tenor, I spent hundreds of hours preparing roles, and almost everything I did was under my control. From text to context, melody to harmony, it was my responsibility to create a character and deliver an inspired performance.
But no matter how much you practice, playing the piano means relying on someone else for tuning and adjustments, which requires trust. Trust that they will listen to you. Trust that they will do the job correctly. Trust that they will tell you if something’s not right, and even recommend the right person for specialty services.
I prepare pianos on the concert stage, in recording studios, and most importantly to me, in homes throughout Northern California. The truth is, some of my most satisfying experiences are fixing up an old family heirloom so the next generation can learn to play. So whether you’re working on your 3rd Beethoven piano sonata, practicing standards you haven’t played for years, or are just starting out, you can trust Apollo Piano to give you and your family the experience you deserve.