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Perfect Impact – A piano tuner's thoughts

Looking to buy a used piano on CraigsList? Read before you embark on your journey.

I frequently get calls from potential customers who bought a used piano on an Internet site specializing in used, “for sale” items (i.e. Craigslist.com).  Quite often, I set up an appointment to tune the aforementioned instrument; only to arrive at their premises to find a freshly-acquired, used piano that is completely unserviceable, or, it needs work that could cost every bit as much as the acquisition.  That is when I encounter one of the most undesirable aspects of my profession.  I have to tell the customer, “Sorry, but I can’t do anything for you.”

Of course, in many cases the customer did get a good piano for a fair price, and that works out well. But a used piano can potentially have a myriad of problems which cannot be addressed within reason. Most of these points are not detectable from a novice’s point of view.  Of course, I try my best to make light of the situation. Perhaps there is an inexpensive alternative to making the piano at least playable. But it always involves compromise.  More often than not, the situation pans out that purchasing this white elephant was a poor decision. Let’s face it; if the piano has serious problems that can’t be fixed without an investment several time s that of the purchase price, it probably would have been better if the customer had simply bought another instrument that is serviceable as-is.

To compound the problem, the customer now has a very large, heavy object that needs to be disposed of. They can’t sell it because they know it is defective. Now, they must figure out how to get rid of this monstrosity that is occupying valuable space in their home.  Weighing in at a minimum of 300 pounds (and that is for a spinet; the weight goes way up from there), more than one person is required to move it. Disposing of it is another issue altogether.

I’m not suggesting that you avoid buying a used piano off an Internet site. Very likely everything will be fine, and the piano could just use a good tuning. My point is this; call a qualified technician to inspect the piano before making a decision to purchase it. That might cost you around $100 or so, but it is worth every penny if their inspection averts a potentially bad situation of having to dispose of a 300+ pound white elephant.



The Importance of Music Education in Public Schools

Today’s state budget deficits seem to be more the rule rather than the exception.  Illinois governor Pat Quinn signed the state’s $33.7 billion budget for FY2013 into law on June 30, 2012. The budget included an $8.3 billion deficit. School districts in Illinois were owed $981 billion at the end of the 2011-2012 fiscal year.

This sounds like great news, doesn’t it? Of course I’m being sarcastic. With all of this money being spent that we don’t have, why would anyone want to retain school programs that were not in the best interest of the majority? Or, does it really matter what is in the best interest of the majority?

Getting into how our state appropriates funds for public education is almost irrelevant when it comes to where the funds actually go in the individual school districts. In other words, the state and federal government allocate funds for public education and the individual school districts. What the districts do with the money is up to them. Let’s face it-no matter how much money the districts get, it is never, nor has it ever been, enough. Why is that? We are certainly paying enough in property taxes.

So what about the school’s programs? Athletics, probably the most important and widely recognized programs, must exist, and they take precedence other programs. Programs such as art and music are the ones that get less money than anything else. In many cases they are cut entirely. But not every student is athletically inclined. And when it comes to lifelong commitments to pursuing one’s passion, athletic activity usually ceases or is drastically reduced by the time a person reaches 40 years of age. Music, on the other hand, is usually a lifelong activity.

I really can’t offer solutions to shrinking budgets. I am just frustrated that taxes are soaring, despite declining property values, and there still is never enough money. Education is an investment in our country’s future, and our young people are our most valuable resource.

Let me quote a statement that is taken from “Music Resource Manual for Curriculum Planning” by the Illinois State Board of Education:

“The value of musical experience rests upon its unique relationship to the inner life of feeling. Response to the images of human feeling embodied in music (works of art) humanizes us by providing insight into what it means to be human and alive in the world. Musical aesthetic experiences always carry with them a sense of significance, and thus increase our sense of meaning in life. These experiences improve and deepen the quality of personal life by broadening and refining the repertory of feeling. In our increasingly technological in impersonal society, these learnings make an important contribution to a quality of life that is humane, rich and satisfying. Students should not only learn how to earn a living, but learn how to lead lives worth living.”

Sounds like a rather profound statement, made by someone with true insight in the human spirit. Someone who knows that music education is far more valuable to a student than merely learning how to play an instrument.

I could go on about my personal beliefs of the benefits of music education in our schools. But the author of that statement did a pretty good job and that’s a tough act to follow.

I encourage all of you to be proactive in retaining music programs in your school district. Your child’s school experience lays the groundwork for their future endeavors, the way they think, the way they get along with other people, and their human compassion. Music education is good for both the objective and subjective areas of the brain. It has been proven numerous times that children who take piano or music lessons do better scholastically than those who don’t. Athletics will always take precedence over arts and music, that’s just the way things are. However you won’t find too many 40-year-olds who are still playing football. You’ll find a lot more of them playing the piano.



A Piano that Tunes Itself? Now What am I Going to Do?

I read an interesting article in Popular Science today about an invention that is due to come on the market soon. It is not a new invention; in fact, it began development back in 1993. The invention is an acoustic piano that tunes itself. That’s right, soon the job of a piano tuner will be going by the way of a typewriter repairman or a keypunch operator.

Well, not so fast. I am not contemplating changing careers just yet. First, I am not here to say anything negative about this invention. I actually am very intrigued by the idea. Being a tuner for over 35 years, I know exactly what is involved in the tuning of an acoustic piano. It is not easy to do, and much harder to learn how to do.

When tuning a piano, the tuning pins are turned very slightly to bring the string to proper pitch. Accomplishing this is hard enough, but then the tuner must set the pins in place so there is no torque on them, as they will simply jump out of tune after a few minutes. Finally, the tension on the strings must be equalized in order for the tuning to hold. Knowing this, I think it would be impossible to develop a mechanical device that would be able to accomplish all of this and be reliable.

Instead of building a machine that turns the tuning pins, this apparatus changes the tension on the strings by heating them up, using the process of running an electric current through them. Infrared sensors measure the string’s frequency and apply the appropriate amount of heat to change the pitch. If you want to tune the piano, simply push a button and each string heats up to the proper tension for it to be at the correct pitch. You must keep the device on while you are playing the piano, as turning it off causes the strings to return to the pitch they were originally at.

The automatic tuner has some serious limitations, however. It cannot increase the tension on the strings-it can only decrease it. Heating the strings causes the metal to expand and therefore relaxes the tension. This causes the strings to go flat. In order to increase the tension, the strings would have to be cooled, and there are no provisions for this. In 80% of the pianos I tune, the strings are flat from pitch and the tension needs to be increased. The only way this automatic tuner would work is if the piano was sharp from pitch, and the pitch would be decreased by heating up the strings. The problem with that is if you bring many of today’s pianos sharp from standard pitch to facilitate the use of this device, you run the risk of breaking many strings. In addition, the automatic tuner would sell for about $1000.00. With my prices today that would buy eleven annual tunings. In other words it would take eleven years to pay for itself.

If a piano is properly tuned and serviced, it should require no more than a tuning every six months, minimum one year. Keeping the climate in your home as constant as possible will ensure your piano will hold a tune, providing it was tuned properly to begin with.

Still, the idea is very interesting to me. I applaud Don Gilmore for developing this technology, and I think it might find some use in a few  pianos. I also think the technology might be applied to any acoustic instrument that requires tuning by shortening or lengthening the speaking portion of the instrument.

Applying modern technology to acoustic instruments is not something every inventor is working on, and those who do are true pioneers.





Today’s Modern Player Piano

Ever wonder how these new player pianos work? I mean, there are no paper rolls, no vacuum motor or pedals, no noisy mechanisms. The piano magically plays itself, at all levels, and there is someone inside the piano singing along with it! How does it work? Well, I made a video of myself installing a PianoDisc player system in a grand piano, and this is a capsule view of the process. Click below to watch:

PianoDisc installation_2012



Why Restore When You Can Buy New?

The dilemma a lot of piano owners face is what to do with that old, scratched-up, dinged-up, twangy sounding piano that can’t hold a tune anymore. There are only a few piano stores left here in Chicago-I’ve seen many go out of business in the 35 years I have been tuning pianos.

Buying a new piano is a rather large investment. If you or your children are serious players, you will want to check out many different brands of pianos which will require a lot of driving, and time. Determining the right piano for your pianist is a lot like buying a new suit, or dress. In other words, it has to fit right, be comfortable, and look good on you. Most pianos today come with 88 keys, 220 or more strings, and three pedals. They all use essentially the same type of mechanism in the action. So, what makes it so hard to find the right one?

The answer can only be given by the pianist. There is a connection-from playing a note, to the tone that you hear. That connection consists of an infinite number of variables. The response of the instrument, the touch weight, the ability to play and be in control in a number of expression levels, regulation, repetition, tone, volume, timbre, harmonics, voicing, fundamental vs. partials, and many other subjective points are to be considered.

The selection process can take a while. How long it takes depends on how accomplished your pianist is, and how sensitive they are to the nuances of the instrument. It is important to select the right piano, because once you buy it, it’s yours. And you are not likely to want to go through the process again if you make the wrong choice.

If you already own a piano that you really enjoy, but it looks like it fell out of an airplane, has worn hammers, and does not hold a tune, you might want to consider the option of rebuilding it. A properly rebuilt piano will have a new action, a complete refinishing, new keytops, new strings, tuning pins, felt, pinblock, a repaired or replaced soundboard, bridges, bushings, damper felt, and back action, everything to the decals that proudly display the brand name. What you will have is the piano you have always loved, but now it is new again.

Don’t expect to save money by rebuilding. In fact, you might spend more than buying new. Of course, the piano has to be good enough instrument to justify rebuilding it. But in the not too distant future, when you see the piano that has been in your family for generations, looking and sounding new, with that old familiar “connection”, you will know you made the right decision.


How I Connect with People on a Musical Level

After being in the piano tuning business for 35 years, I have come to appreciate some of the “perks” that come with the job. One of the most important facets of my experience as a piano tuner is getting an insight of the many different families I meet and visit regularly, and how their sons and daughters are progressing with piano lessons, school, and their lives in general. I have seen many people grow up from young children to adults with their own families, which I get to know and am now seeing their kids grow up as well.

There is at least one thing in common with all these people; their love for music, their dedication to the different activities they engage in, and most important their organizational skills. Kids today have a lot on their plate. They are expected to spend hours a day studying, they are active in sports such as soccer, football, basketball, baseball, and others. I ask myself how young people can organize their time so efficiently as to accomplish all these activities in a given week. I think part of the answer lies in the fact they have music in their lives, and they are enriching their minds both subjectively and objectively. Studying music requires that you know how to count in cadence, in perfect tempo, and understand measures, beats, time signatures. It also forces you to read music while you simultaneously play that music, using both hands. It isn’t an easy to become an accomplished musician-in fact, it takes years. The rewards-the immense joy that is had by being able to play music, is infallible, cannot be replaced, and cannot be bought for any amount of money.

Most of my customers’ children do not grow up to be professional musicians. That’s fine-they earned their skills of playing music through hard work, perseverance, and genuine love for music. Some play at cocktail parties, others in bands, and still others just sit down at the end of the day and relax by playing their favorite composition by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Debussy, or others. The rewards from their hard work are that they have the ability to do this, and nobody can take that away from them.


From Piano Rolls to iPads

Back in the early 1900’s, the sources of home entertainment were rather limited. Today we can watch virtually any movie ever made through our Blu-Ray DVD players, Netflix, Hulu or other online companies. We can play video games with other people in the world online. Our Wii can be the center of entertainment at any party. We browse Facebook, Twitter, follow blogs, read the news as it is happening, pay bills, schedule appointments, and communicate with each other on home computers, laptops, iPads, iPhones, and other electronic devices.

Imagine a world without all of this. Imagine an evening spent at home with just the family, perhaps a few friends, no television, and little else but the walls and ceiling. Its called: Use Your Imagination. That’s right-we have to get creative and use our own resources. Personally I sometimes wish things were that way today. I mean, people would actually have to interact with each other!

One of the sources of home entertainment back in those days was that old, adorable, noisy player piano. You had to put on a paper piano roll, connect it to the take-up spool, and sit down and pump the pedals to get this thing to make music. Not only would the operator create some great piano playing, they would also get a good cardio workout! Usually everyone there would stand around the piano, looking at the lyrics printed on the roll, and sing along. Mom would probably bake some snacks, bring in beverages, and even let the kids stay up until ten.

Is it a better world today, with all of our electronic gadgets? Are we better off, walking around with our cell phones to our ears, totally caught up in our own conversations? Is it really important that we can watch any movie, TV show, or play any interactive video game at our command?  Today if we have a power outage the party’s over!


Eckwall Piano Tuners +1 630 258 5002

After eight years, my website has finally been upgraded! Not that I’m a procrastinator or anything, but finding the right person to design my site and transfer my old site over while maintaining my SEO was tricky. Seems as though some of the older website hosting companies do not want to make it easy for their old customers to exit. I would like to thank my friend Dan Blanchfield for accomplishing this!

In this blog I will try to keep things light, interesting for all, and informative on subjects that I am an authority on. I promise not to become politically polarized as this is the best way to make enemies! I am a piano tuner, technician, rebuilder, and installer of electromechanical player systems that can be installed on pianos. But through the thirty five years of tuning pianos in people’s home I have had the privilege of getting to know many families, and have watched children grow up to adults and start families of their own.  By touching people’s lives in a musical sense I feel I share at least one thing in common with all my customers: The love for music. No words can describe how positive an impact music can have on someone’s life.

I will be blogging regularly-please visit often!