-What kind of pianos do you work on?
I work on and have specialized training on Baldwin, Bechstein, Hailun, Kawai, Mason & Hamlin, Pearl River, Schimmel, Steinway, and Yamaha pianos, although Asan and Vintage American pianos are my specialty. I also work on Square grands.
I also am a Yamaha Disklavier Technician, and have a lot of experience with PianoDIsc and QRS Digital Player systems.
I began training in 1982, and started teaching piano tuning and repair in 1984. I continued in this capcity as an instructor while working as a tuner/technician in San Francisco until 1994.
-What is your service area?
Apollo Piano is based in Chico, CA. I personally service pianos in Chico, Red Bluff, Cottonwood, Anderson, and Redding.
-What’s the difference between a tuner and a technician?
Before the advent of really good tools, advanced techniques, electronic tunings devices (ETDs), and regular conventions, meetings, and journals, it made some sense for tuners and technicians to specialize. In 2016, however, a “Pianoman” or “Pianowoman” should be familiar with tuning, repairs, adjustments, and be able to handle most service requests. There’s really no reason to only be a tuner. 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 typically handle most common mechanical issues.
-Do you tune with a "machine" or by ear?
I started training in 1982, and in 1984 I began teaching piano technology. I taught piano tuning and repair until 1994, and tuned solely by ear. Yes, I was the luddite. I tuned by ear for 30 years, but now I use my ears and an Electronic Tuning Device – EDT. First I use the ETD to measure and create a customized tuning. I then check the intervals and make adjustments by ear, save the tuning I’ve created in the device, then I tune the piano. This method allows me to move quickly through areas which are difficult to hear due to construction or design flaws, and to touch up areas which have slipped, leading to a more stable tuning over time.
The gold standard tuning device – The Sanderson AccuTuner - is $1600, and takes several months and 100+ tunings to competently use. If you’d prefer, you can buy one the most expensive apps in Apple’s App Store –the Reyburn CyberTuner – for $999 This also takes technical mastery for proper use – think Photoshop – and is 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?
This is a somewhat loaded question, but the simple answer is about 45 minutes to 1:15, unless I’m tired in which case it can add 30 minutes. If it takes much longer, 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 my appointments include more than tuning and include services beyond tuning so that I can leave your piano in optimal playing condition. Services include 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, I’m not skipping anything, I just move quickly, and concentrate on my work. However, in order for me to tune quickly, several things must happen:
1. Your piano must be in good shape. Notes which skip, get stuck or have other issues slow down the process.
2. I don’t mean to be rude, but I can't always talk while I tune (although I live to chat!). However I’m pretty affable and need to mind my watch to keep moving.
3. It takes a conscious effort to move quickly and even requires special techniques to rest certain muscles in between notes - a trick I learned from singing.
4. My service sessions are usually two hours, but not all of that time is spent tuning. There are many other things in the piano which need adjusting, and which tuning alone can not address.
-Someone told me they could tune a piano in 20 minutes. Is this possible?
Yes; sort of:
1. A pitch raising can be performed in as little 15 minutes. This, however, 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. Dedication, Interest, 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?
2. They have the right training: Preferably at a school, but that’s difficult training to get these days, so most have done apprenticeships, and some have taken correspondence courses backed up with convention courses (all perfectly acceptable). Most important is the desire to constantly improve. Once that’s gone, it’s game over.
3. Good tuner/techs attend conventions, take courses, and/or pal around with other technicians to share information. The Piano Technicians' Guild was incredibly important to me when I was training, and although I am no longer a member, I still attend conventions.
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: 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, and forces tuners to compromise. 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
9. Most importantly, they should care about you and 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.
-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 months as well, 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.
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. 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.
I feel that 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.