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Do Pianos Improve With Age? Part 1

This is truly a fascinating question. To answer it properly would take pages and pages of dense, technical writing, and none of us want that, so I’ll try to make my views clear quickly and simply.

There are a whole group of parts of the piano that definitely do NOT improve with age—the strings, the damper felt, the delicate moving parts of the action:  hammers, shanks, whippens, key bushings, underfelt, the little rubber buttons on the outside of the piano—anything that wears and becomes brittle with use over the decades.

And USE is the operative term here. I maintain a Steinway model “A” that sat in a crate in a hotel basement in San Francisco from 1928 until 2000. The parts and keys look white and new; they function perfectly; the plain wire strings are still shiny and wonderful; we changed the bass strings only because they were oxidized—a purely cosmetic decision. Everything else on the piano is like being transported back in time—a serious piano geek’s dream.

What about the rim of the piano, the case, and the plate, the gold-colored, harp-shaped massive iron thing that holds most of the 40,000-pound tension of all the strings? These parts, unless they have been subjected to outrageous punishment, will last, and be functional well into the 22nd century. Everyone reading this will be dust, and a rim and a plate made and used in the early 20th century will still be going strong.

So, ethical rebuilders take these massive parts, the case and the plate, and use them as a platform to essentially build a new piano on a vintage base. This is exactly what high-end shops that restore vintage cars do; they build a new car on an old frame and chassis, with all-new, modern but vintage-looking (cosmetically) parts on the inside, new paint, the whole works. At its heart, it’s a ’32 Ford coupe; but really, it’s a new and expensive automobile worth 60 or 70 thousand dollars.  Car freaks could just as well pay less money for a replica kit of that car, but the market says the vintage body makes that old car worth more.

And so it is with vintage Steinways, for instance. I could make an exact-in-all-ways replica of a Steinway grand piano using a new rim and plate, and have all of the parts in the piano be exactly what’s in a brand new, $100,000 Steinway, or a rebuilt vintage Steinway—and I’d have a difficult, if not impossible, time selling it for what it cost to make. My point? The global piano market says the iconic name on the fallboard, Steinway & Sons, makes all the difference in the world. And perception is reality in the market….

But wait a minute, you say, what about the most important part of the instrument? The very heart of the instrument? That much-discussed and little-understood thing called a soundboard?

That, my friends, is for Part 2. Stay tuned. So to speak.

CHOOSING A TECH – BY DAVID ANDERSEN

This is perhaps the most important decision you make in your life with your piano—a gifted, experienced, honest, reliable technician has the power to exponentially enhance the beauty of your instrument, your enjoyment of it, and gratitude for it.

David Andersen Piano Blog - CHOOSING A TECH This is perhaps the most important decision you make in your life with your piano---a gifted, experienced, honest, reliable technician has the power to exponentially enhance the beauty of your instrument, your enjoyment of it, and gratitude for it.I can’t stress this enough.  There is usually one or two, and perhaps a handful (in big cities) of tuner-technicians who are perceived as “the guys”:*  great tuners who can also provide complete mechanical and voicing services; who can rebuild & restore, or are allied with the best rebuilder/restorer in the area, who can be relied on to “do the right thing,” in the right time, within budget, and make the piano sound and feel a whole lot better than it did when they came upon it.

*non-gender-specific use of the word, as in walking into a roomful of men and women and saying, “How’re you guys doing?”

This person will probably come to you through a personal referral, and they will have a busy practice, servicing some of the best pianos in the area—-professional musicians, music teachers,  people with great grand pianos, concert venues, recording studios, families with kids, passionate amateurs…a largely high-end practice, especially if you both live in a major city. This person will likely have done work for the dealer in your area that is perceived as the “good” guy, the honest guy, the store that deals with quality pianos and quality service: the “mensch” dealer.

This wizard of a piano technologist will willingly provide you with profuse references, but don’t waste your time—trust the person who referred them to you, watch them work for a few minutes, ask them some questions, and you’ll be thanking your lucky stars that you found this person, because

—they will tell you and show you the truth about the condition of your piano as they find it

—they will be really nice, interesting as a person, and totally professional in their approach to your instrument.

—they will offer complete piano service rather than just “tuning and leaving.”

if you trust them, your piano will sound and feel better than it ever has.

These people are relatively few and far between, so hold on tight and treat them with the respect they deserve.  They are artisans, craftsmen-and-women who have spent thousands of hours honing their intuitive and cerebral skills and are bringing you immense value for your money. They won’t lie to you, and you can take their recommendations to heart with no fear.

This “wizard” pianotech will be expensive—one of the highest-priced in your area.  He/she will have a sliding scale for students and not-rich people who respect him/her and ask good questions;
They all love to teach.

The Power of Tuning, Voicing, & Regulation…

…is massive. It is both physical, tangible, and psycho-acoustic illusion: your brain likes the radical improvement so much it sounds better than better—it sounds MAGIC.

As I’ve said so may times before, finding a piano technician with the skills to both diagnose and execute this work at a high level is rare. If you find one, hold onto her ferociously. Refer her to other people who will treat her with the respect and honor she deserves.

It comes down to this: high-end piano work, acquiring and perfecting the skills to make a piano sing, is hard. It takes a tremendous amount of energy and focus. Only a relatively small percentage of piano techs will make the sacrifice to actually get there.

When you find one that does—and you just have to look sensibly—hold onto them, my friends.