I have been in some truly magnificent homes during the last 30 years of tuning pianos up and down the coast of California from Malibu to Palos Verdes, and have had the pleasure of working on some of the most expensive pianos ever built. The owners, some of whom are world famous celebrities and others, wealthy beyond most peoples wildest dreams, that you never heard of, are often and unfortunately quite negligent in regards to the care of their pianos. I’m talking about instruments that they payed upward of $100K for.
It has always puzzled me as to why someone would neglect such a valuable treasure. But I see it over and over again. These wonderful instruments sit idle and unattended for years – are never played and never serviced. Is it that they were acquired as decorative room-art, or status symbols? They never say.
When they decide, for whatever arbitrary reason, to call for a tuning the pianos are invariably in disastrous condition and require intensive care to return them to playability.
Let me pause to offer a brief explanation of how we determine the pitch of an instrument:
- We start with the world-wide standard for concert pitch – where the A above middle C on a piano (A4) is supposed to be 440 Hz (cycles per second).
- The frequency difference between notes (ie. the fundamental pitches) is measured in cents (like pennies).
- The distance between any two adjacent notes is supposed to be 100 cents ($1.00).
Now let me explain what happens to an acoustic stringed instrument (assuming that is made of wood and metal) over time. Don’t abandon me just yet – I’m setting up the punch line.
- Wood and metal expand and contract whenever the temperature or humidity change (all the time)
- Therefore the interface between the soundboard (wood) and the strings (metal wire) is in constant flux.
- This causes the tension on the strings to change and therefore alter the pitch (frequency) they produce when struck.
- So, the instrument (in my case a piano – but this applies to all acoustic instruments) is always going out of tune (unless it’s kept in an hermetically sealed environment)
- In Southern California we really have only 2 seasons but they have extremely divergent humidity levels that have a profound effect on unprotected pianos.
- In the winter – the low Relative Humidity (R.H.) causes the soundboard to expel moisture and the piano goes flat.
- In the summer – the high R.H. causes the soundboard to expand as it absorbs moisture from the air so the strings are stretched and hence go sharp.
When I explain this to my customers I often see their eyes glaze over (as yours may have) but if you’ll stay with me, I could save you a lot of money, heartache and disappointment.
So – back to the rich people!
Over the past month I’ve encountered over a dozen exquisite pianos, housed in sprawling estates, that hadn’t been tuned in 10 or more years and most of them were more than 100 cents flat! Each one of them a disaster of enormous proportion that required extensive (and costly) therapy to rehabilitate.
The first question I ask is “What motivated you to tune the piano now, after all these years?”
Common responses are:
- We’re having a party and have hired a famous musician to play for us
- A relative, who is a concert pianist, is coming to visit
- Our child wants to take piano lessons
- Our child’s piano teacher refused to come back until we fixed it
This situation is so common as to have become cliche. People with the most expensive pianos, who have no monetary constraints, are the most likely to neglect their instruments. I, personally, don’t understand the psychology behind that attitude – but I’m not rich. I suspect that in most of those cases the piano was purchased on the advice of a decorator or for the fulfillment of a need for personal glorification.
Whatever the justification, I find the indignity to the instrument an obscenity. Confronting a situation like this is always painful and disturbing to me. But it happens all the time!
I send reminder notices to my customers every 6 months. The recipients of the 90% that go unanswered are most often the ones who need my service the most and have no excuse except:
“Well, no one was playing it”.