Piano Care

Here are a few articles to help you care for your piano, selecting a good teacher, and case care. Although the care article is oriented to the teacher, the student should enjoy the same quality of care if progress is desired.

CARING FOR YOUR NEW PIANO

If you were to take your piano and seal it in a box with a constant 45” humidity, there is little doubt that 100 years from now your piano would still be a fine working, playing instrument. When you take that piano out of the box and use it, expose it to sunlight, and vary the humidity it is exposed to, the aging process accelerates.

A few simple tips on getting the most from your piano.

DO NOT
Place your piano in sunlight.
Position it near or against heating or AC vents.
Expose it to grime and dirt, such as during remodeling.
Store it in an area with uncontrolled temperature or humidity.

DO
Use and enjoy your piano.
Tune on at least a yearly basis.
Keep the mechanical aspects properly adjusted.
Keep the case and keys cleaned and polished.

REFER
To the articles on this site concerning tuning and maintenance below.

MAINTENANCE OF THE TEACHING PIANO

For your students, your piano is much more than just a musical instrument-it’s a unique vehicle for their self-expression. It can increase self-esteem and self-knowledge, and can also provide the opportunity for much-needed recognition. Your piano has a task far beyond teaching scales and chords, and it must be up to the challenge.

As every teacher knows, a good piano is a major investment. The cost of an instrument capable of performing up to professional standards and enduring constant use is considerable. And to keep that instrument performing its best over the longest possible time requires regular maintenance.

How often should I have my piano tuned?

Because of the amount of time your piano is in use and because ear training is such an important aspect of any musical education, your piano may require more tunings annually than other pianos. Your piano may also be used to make audition tapes for student scholarship competitions where impeccable intonation is vital for your students to sound their best.

The variations in the relative humidity of a studio or home are generally the most important criteria in determining how often a piano needs to be tuned. Normal homes may experience fairly drastic changes from season to season. Your situation is complicated by constant use, which tends to deteriorate a tuning more quickly. A piano functions best under consistent conditions which are neither too wet nor dry, optimally at a temperature of 68 degrees Fahrenheit and 42 percent relative humidity.

You can reduce the severity of these climatic effects by placing your piano in the room so that it is away from windows or doors, which are opened frequently. Avoid heating and air conditioning vents, fireplaces and areas receiving direct sunlight.

While manufacturers’ recommendations on the number of annual tunings vary, they generally agree that a piano should be tuned at least two to four times each year, with additional tunings as needed.

What about regulation?

Periodically your piano will require the adjustment of its mechanical parts to compensate for the effects of wear, the compacting and settling of cloth, felt and buckskin, as well as dimensional changes in wooden and wool parts due to changes in relative humidity. This series of adjustments is known as regulation, which involves three systems of your piano: the action, trap work and damper system.

The action is the mechanical part of the piano that permits efficient transfer of power from the fingers on the keys to the hammers that strike the strings. Consisting of over 9,000 working parts, the action requires adjustment to critical tolerances to properly respond to a pianist’s performance. Because the piano’s action will go out of adjustment slowly over time, you may not notice accumulating sluggishness or unevenness as it occurs. Your student’s performance, however, will be affected dramatically. No amount of practice will compensate for a poorly maintained action. Poor legato touch, chord playing where all the notes of the chord don’t speak clearly, a gradual loss of subtlety in phrasing, and an inability to execute quick passages or note repetitions evenly may be the fault of the piano – not the student. Smooth, even playing is as much a function of a well-maintained action as a well-rehearsed student.

The trap work is the assemblage of levers, dowels and springs that connects the pedals to the action. The damper system is the mechanical part of the piano that stops the motion of the strings and is controlled by the keys and pedal system. Incorrect pedaling techniques may be related to poor regulation of the trap work or damper system. Fine adjustment is essential here if you are to teach the nuances of pedaling to your students.

What is voicing?

Your piano also may require periodic voicing. The process of voicing can adjust the relative brilliance of a piano and provide an even gradation of volume and tone over the entire range of the keyboard. Voicing procedures may involve reshaping the hammers, the use of needles on the hammer felt and/or the application of special softeners or hardeners in order to produce the best sound possible. You should discuss with your technician what changes in your piano’s tone are practical and, together, decide what steps should be taken to effect these changes.

Although you may have your piano tuned regularly, you must specifically request regulation or voicing procedures. These procedures aren’t included in a normal tuning. It should also be noted that voicing can only be accomplished after a piano has been freshly tuned.

What should my regular maintenance program consist of?

The backbone of any maintenance program is regular tuning. These tunings should occur as needed to compensate for changes in humidity and temperature, and movement of strings from use. A rule of thumb is that tunings should be done often enough to hold pitch between A339 and A441. Depending upon your climate and the condition of your instrument, this probable will mean at least two to four tunings per year. Minor repairs and adjustments can be made at the same time.

Your teaching piano should be thoroughly cleaned, the action regulated, and the hammers reshaped and voiced approximately every three years, or as needed, depending upon the usage and quality of your instrument.

What about long-term maintenance?

If you are advised that regulation will not improve the performance of your instrument, or that your tuning may not hold for more than short periods of time, your piano may require reconditioning or rebuilding.

Reconditioning involves cleaning, repair and adjustment of your piano, and replacement of parts only where indicated.

Rebuilding involves the complete disassembly of your piano. A qualified rebuilder inspects and replaces all worn or deteriorated parts that can include such major components as the pin block, action, soundboard and bridges. Thorough rebuilding will restore your instrument to its original condition.

How should I go about selecting a piano?

If you find yourself in need of another instrument, be sure to consider all options, both new and used. Fine used instruments become available for sale for a variety of reasons. Your technician can help you select a piano in good playing condition and give you an idea of what type of maintenance you can expect in the future. Like selecting a used car, it’s important to seek the help of an expert when making your purchase to avoid costly repairs in the future. Your technician also can provide you with guidance regarding the selection of a new instrument best suited for your demanding needs.

How can I help my students improve the performance of their pianos?

Many students don’t like to practice their lessons at home. It’s possible their instrument at home isn’t tuned regularly, has never been regulated or voiced, and just doesn’t sound good. A student needs a practice piano that functions properly in order to take full advantage of your instruction. You can help by introducing your students to a qualified technician and by letting them know how important it is to properly maintain their instruments.

How do I find a qualified person to service my teaching piano?

The Piano Technicians Guild, Inc. (PTG) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to expanding the knowledge and skill of professionals in the piano industry. The largest organization of its kind in the world, its membership includes tuner-technicians, rebuilders, piano designers and manufacturers, retailers and enthusiasts. PTG certifies Registered Piano Technicians (RPT) through a series of rigorous examinations designed to test their skill in tuning, regulation and repair. Those capable of performing these tasks up to a recognized worldwide standard receive certification.

As a piano teacher, you have invested years of practice and study in the areas of piano pedagogy and performance. Similarly, RPTs have devoted years of study to become competent in the areas of piano maintenance and service. By regularly utilizing the services of an RPT, and by recommending an RPT to your students, you can be assured that you and your students’ instruments will be properly maintained for optimal performance year after year.

What is a Registered Tuner-Technician?

Registered Tuner-Technicians (RPTs) are certified only after successfully completing a series of three rigorous examinations on the maintenance, repair and tuning of pianos. The Piano Technicians Guild authorizes only RPTs to display the familiar logo that consumers look for. Protect yourself and your piano by always engaging the services of a registered member of the Piano Technicians Guild.

The Piano Technicians Guild is a nonprofit, international organization of skilled piano technicians. The Guild’s purpose is to maintain the highest level of skill in its members by providing educational opportunities and forums for the exchange of information. Its goal is to offer piano owners qualified technicians who are accredited, readily available and thoroughly dependable to service their instruments.

SELECTING THE RIGHT PIANO TEACHER

How do I find the Right Teacher?

All music teachers are not created equal. The teacher closest to where you live, or the one who charges the least, is not necessarily the best choice. You want a teacher who will inspire you or your child, and nurture you as you grow artistically-someone whose style and values are appropriate for your personality and learning style.

Ask for teacher recommendations from friends, neighbors, music stores and schools. Arrange to interview prospective teachers prior to making a commitment. Ask to sit in on a lesson. If the teacher thinks auditing a lesson would be too intrusive for the student, ask if the teacher’s students will be presenting a recital, and attend it.

If your child is the one interested in music, it is especially important to find a good teacher. If all goes well, your child will develop a special one-on-one relationship with their music teacher, who will help instill a lifelong love of music in your child. Another key factor in making music lessons successful is your involvement. Parental support in the learning process is vital. Whether you know anything about music or not, make time to listen to your child play, encourage them to practice, and praise their continued efforts.

Interview Prospective Teachers

Teachers should have definite objectives and teaching techniques, and should be able and willing to explain them to you. Here are some questions to ask during the interview:

  • How much teaching experience do you have?
  • Do you have a degree in music? Which degrees and from where? (Not that college-educated teachers are the only ones you should consider. But find out about a prospective teacher’s educational background, and then decide how important it is to you.)
  • Do you use technology in your studio, such as computers, music instruction software, electronic keyboards?
  • What are your studio policies regarding fees, cancellations and make-up lessons, for example?
  • Do you periodically conduct parent conferences to evaluate student progress?
  • What instructional materials and methods do you use?
  • Do you think learning music should be fun? How do you make lessons fun but still productive?
  • Do you teach any music other than classical music? What if my child wants to play pop, or I’m interested in learning to play jazz?
  • How much practice time do you require each day? Do you spend time during the lesson helping students learn good practice habits?
  • Do you provide performance opportunities for your students? Do you require students to perform a certain number of times per year?
  • Do you offer group lessons? Master classes?
  • Do you teach students how to improvise? Memorize? Play by ear? Compose? Do you work on sight-reading in the lesson?
  • Do you teach music theory? Music history? How?
  • What do you do in the way of ongoing professional development? (Subscribe to music education magazines, belong to professional associations, attend workshops.)
  • Are you nationally certified?

In order to reap all the rewards studying music provides, a student must be motivated to continue to work toward a goal. A skilled music teacher can make the difference in continuing music lessons over a number of years.

Ask for References

Ask prospective teachers for references, and evaluate each teacher’s credentials. One valuable criterion is participation in the national certification program administered by Music Teachers National Association (MTNA). To become certified, a teacher must hold an associate or bachelor degree in music, have college teaching experience, and/or successfully complete a series of comprehensive examinations. If a teacher has met certification requirements, you can be assured that they are an educated, accomplished and dedicated professional.

Music is Beneficial for All Learners

Children-and adults-need to create, to express themselves, and to receive praise for something they’ve accomplished. Music lessons provide all this and more. Learning to play a musical instrument develops concentration, coordination, critical thinking and communication skills; but best of all, it boosts self- esteem.

Taking music lessons can be a joyful experience for students of any age or ability. Diligent music students learn how rewarding it is to achieve a goal – practice really does make perfect!

The piano is unique among musical instruments because it also serves as fine furniture for the home. In fact, the term “piano finish” has traditionally been used to describe the highest standards in wood finishing. Properly maintaining that fine finish will enhance your home’s décor and preserve the value of your piano.

Basic Finish Care

Modern pianos are finished with a variety of materials, from traditional lacquer to modern polyurethane’s and polyester resins. Whatever the material, a piano finish is designed to protect the wood from dirt and liquid spill, reduce the damaging effects of humidity changes, and – in the case of clear finishes – enhance the beauty of the wood.

Modern finishes are designed to do their job without the additional aid of polishes or waxes. In most cases, a piano finish is best maintained by simply keeping it clean and avoiding exposure to direct sunlight, extremes of temperature and humidity, and abrasion.

1. Avoiding finish damage.

Your piano’s cabinet, like all woodwork, is subject to expansion and contraction with humidity changes. Excessive wood movement can eventually cause the finish to develop tiny cracks and even separate from the wood. Moderating the temperature and humidity swings around the piano will help to preserve its finish as well as its overall structure and tuning stability.

Locate the piano in a room with a fairly even temperature, away from drafts, dampness, and heat sources. Always avoid direct sunlight – it will age the finish prematurely and cause color fading.

To prevent scratches, never set objects on your piano without a soft cloth of felt pad.

Never place plants or drinks on a piano, because spillage and condensation can cause major damage.

2. Dusting your piano.

Dust is very abrasive, and can scratch the finish if wiped off with a dry cloth. To avoid scratching, dust the piano lightly with a feather duster. Alternatively, wipe lightly with a soft damp cloth to pick up the dust, followed immediately with a dry cloth. The cloths should be soft cotton such as flannel, because coarse or synthetic fabrics can scratch some finishes. Wring out the damp cloth thoroughly so it leaves no visible moisture on the surface.

To avoid creating swirl marks, always wipe with long straight strokes rather than circular motions. Wipe with the grain for natural wood finishes, or in the direction of the existing sheen pattern for solid-color satin finishes.

Because some exposed parts inside your piano are fragile, it’s best to let your technician clean these areas.

3. Cleaning the finish.

To remove smudges and fingerprints, first dust using the damp/dry cloths as above. If heavier cleaning is necessary, dampen your cloth with a small amount of mild soap solution. A common product is Murphy’s Oil Soap, available at most grocery and hardware stores.

4. To polish or not?

Before using polish on your piano, be sure it is actually necessary and beneficial. In general, most manufacturers recommend against using polishes because of the potential for damage to the finish and contamination of other parts of the instrument.

Common household products such as “lemon oil” or inexpensive “furniture polish” should be avoided. Despite the labels’ claims that they “protect” the finish or “feed” the wood, they offer no protection from scratching and can actually soften the finish if overused. Worse, they often contain silicones and oils that contaminate the wood, complicating future refinishing or repairs. Silicone is especially dangerous because of its tendency to spread within the piano, sometimes causing extensive internal damage. Avoid aerosol products altogether since the over-spray can contaminate piano strings, tuning pins and action parts.

Once the original finish is clean, you can either leave it as is or enhance the gloss and clarify with an appropriate polish according to the finish type listed below.

5. Care of specific finish types

Modern pianos are finished with a variety of materials, from traditional lacquer to modern polyurethane’s and polyester resins. Whatever the material, a piano finish is designed to protect the wood from dirt and liquid spills, reduce the damaging effects of humidity changes, and – in the case of piano strings, tuning pins and action parts.

An appropriate polish can help to restore luster to a dulled finish or reduce the tendency of some finishes to show fingerprints. However, it should be applied sparingly and infrequently, and all excess should be wiped clean with a soft dry cloth so no visible film remains. To prevent scratching, always dust before polishing. Specific recommendations follow.

6. Removing a heavy polish build-up.

If your piano’s finish appears gummy, oily, or streaked, it may be contaminated with too much or the wrong type of polish. Adding more polish will not correct this problem. Instead, the finish should be thoroughly cleaned, then evaluated for any further treatment.

To remove accumulations of old polish, use a cloth dampened with a mild soap solution as in item 3 above. Wring the cloth thoroughly to minimize wetting of the finish, and dry the surface immediately. Test a small area first to make sure the washing does not cause white marks or softening of an older finish.

If stronger cleaning is necessary, look for a product called “wood cleaner and wax remover” at hardware or wood workers supply stores, or ask your technician for a suggestion.

FINISH REVIVERS

Always test each procedure on an unnoticeable area before proceeding!

There are several ways to revive an old finish. Merely cleaning off the dirt and wax may restore the luster. For scratches on a tabletop, a gentle cleaning followed by recoating with shellac or lacquer may do the trick. Lightly dissolving the surface layer and rubbing out flaws with a soft cloth might work, or you might have to liquefy the finish and brush it out. Even the last approach is easier than stripping.

Cleaning Intact Finishes.

If the finish is dark or dull, but not cracked or crumbly, simple cleaning may be all you need. Start with the mildest cleaner first.

Mix one tablespoon Ivory Liquid in a quart of warm water. Whip it to create suds. Dip an old towel into the suds-not the water. Water will turn shellac and lacquer cloudy. Suds will not. Rub a test area (about two square inches) vigorously, then towel dry.

If the surface is still dark, remove old wax by brushing mineral spirits on the test area. Allow to soak for three minutes (less if it’s a glossy tabletop). Vigorously scrub in the direction of the grain with a towel. Then allow the wood to dry for an hour and apply a bit of lemon oil.

If this doesn’t take care of the problem, you can try a commercial cleaner, such as Briwax Furniture Cleaner (imported from England), which removes wax, smoke, and dirt. Floors have their own cleaners, such as Floor Revive, to deep clean and restore shine.

A pleasant-smelling homemade cleaner OHJ that has been recommended for years is one cup each boiled (not raw) linseed oil, white vinegar, and turpentine. Put the ingredients in a one-quart container and shake vigorously.

In a test area, apply this mix with a paintbrush, let it sit for three minutes, and scrub with terry cloth. You can also use fine steel wool (#0000) or green 3M pads. (If I’m going to apply clear finish later, I avoid steel wool; fine steel hairs catch in the wood grain.) Wipe off the excess with paper towels or rags (see “Safety First,” below).

If the cleaner is effective, go on to clean all your woodwork. You can clean newel posts and carved trim with a toothbrush. To clean inside turnings, use twine, working it back and forth like a shoeshine rag. The same tools can be used for the finish revivers.

When the woodwork is clean and dry, apply lemon oil or paste wax, but not both. Lemon oil dissolves wax and turns it gummy.

More Than Cleaning

Let’s say your finish is scratched, crazed, or crumbly. As long as the body of the finish is still there, a commercial finish reviver can help it rise again like Lazarus. These products range from those that coat scratches and remove water blooms to others that “melt” the finish and allow you to brush it out.

For a lightly scratched tabletop you can use Jet Spray Lacquer, which touches up scratches, blending them seamlessly with the existing finish. You’ll need to specify clear or one of several wood colors. There’s a Blush Eraser that goes along with this product to get rid of those white marks from glasses. Or try Pad-Lac Padding Lacquer. The product kit includes a soft pad that spreads a thin finish over the existing varnish, shellac, or lacquer, leaving an effect similar to French polish.

If the surface is distressed-water rings, burns, checking, or crazing-try one of the products sometimes called “refinishers.” They range from gentle to very aggressive. Among the gentlest if Howards’ Restor-A-Finish, which does not dissolve the original finish but removes flaws as you rub with fine steel wool or toweling. It comes in nine wood colors. A similar product, designed especially for highly polished surfaces, is Briwax Reviver, which is rubbed in with a soft cloth.

A more aggressive reviver, Behlen’s Qualarenu Amalgamator, softens old shellac, lacquer, and varnish so that you can brush the finish smooth. You’ll need something this strong if the finish is alligatored. Be prepared to work quickly because the amalgamator only has a short “open” time.

The product you’re most likely to find in your local hardware store is Formby’s Furniture Refinisher. Formby’s definitely falls into the aggressive camp. Be sure to test in an inconspicuous location first and try several application methods, from 0000 steel wool to barely dampened terry cloth. Formby’s will cut through varnish, so it can be used to revive varnished woodwork, but if you put too much on, you’ll wind up with most of the finish on your steel wool or rag.

Home-Brew Finish Revivers.

Saving money is a goal if you have rooms of architectural woodwork staring you in the face. In that case, you might find that a home-brew works as well as commercial finish revivers, especially if your woodwork is shellacked. You can try the following, starting with the first and working you way down. (Here’s where you’ll be glad you’ve tested your old finish first).

  • 15% by volume lacquer thinner in minerals spirits
  • 50/50 lacquer thinner and denatured alcohol
  • Pure denatured alcohol
  • Pure lacquer thinner

When you are not actively applying them, store these liquids in a wide-mouth jar with a lid. The volatile ingredients will off-gas, so suit up, with mask and gloves, for the work.
Dip steel wool or a 3M pad in the mix and rub with the grain until you’re happy with the color. The finish dissolves, so work on about one square foot at a time. Stop when the tackiness disappears or when the color pleases you. You may have to go over the whole area a second time, with a lightly dampened pad, to remove lap marks.

The Final Touches
Allow the amalgamated finish to dry. To bring back gloss, rub tung oil on by hand with a lint-free rag. Go with the grain, wiping off excess. One coat provides a satin finish and two coats, gloss.

Another option is to recoat with shellac. You can use shellac over any other finish and it’s highly reversible. For tabletops, consider a tung oil varnish. Tung oil varnish provides a durable surface, impervious to water.