If you are reading this article you are wading into dangerous waters. I’ve been in your shoes before, you might be thinking, I have good ears, I know when things are in tune and when they are out of tune. How hard can it be? Maybe I should just tune my own piano. There was once a time I also wondered, can you tune your own piano?
No, if you are not a trained piano technician, you should never tune your own piano! Pianos are complex delicate instruments, you will most likely do more harm than good tuning your own piano. One mistake can cost you a lot of money.
There are a whole number of reasons why you should not turn your own piano. Before I dive into them I will tell you a story about what happened when I tried to tune my own piano.
I ordered a cheap piano tuning kit on Amazon and watched a bunch of videos on YouTube about how to tune a piano. Here's a little bit about me: I'm a professional musician, I'm a graduate from Berklee College of Music and I've been playing music for 20 years. I've also been teaching private piano lessons in Tigard for almost a decade.
I understood tuning and how to be in tune so I figured how hard could it be. When I finally opened up the piano and started tuning it I realized I was making a real mess out of things. There are a whole number of issues that I didn't even realize we're possible. And the worst part is once you start messing with the piano you're really just doing more damage than good. It's very hard to get the piano back in tune once you get it out of tune. This is much more of an art than it is a science and is not as simple as playing in tune or tuning your instrument.
I ended up basically wrecking the entire piano slowly as I tried to address one problem after another. One thing though is I knew that I was wrecking the piano, and it was an old piano and I didn't mind that much so it was mostly a learning experience as well. But it was clear as I was diving deeper and deeper that there is no turning back. On the other hand if you picked up a free piano on Craigslist you might be able to afford a great technician! To learn more about if free pianos are worth picking up check out this article:
Pianos are delicate instruments, actually they're more like machines. And there's always a strange belief amongst musicians that if you are a good musician you are good at things that have to do with music. I know this sounds strange but it's very common. But when you transfer that line of thinking to another activity you realize doesn't make any sense.
Someone who is a great driver is definitely not a great mechanic. You could actually make an argument that the better the driver is the less likely it is that they are good mechanics. This is because they spend their time practicing driving, they're not spending their time practicing working on the car. Of course being familiar with a car makes it more likely that you understand how a car works oh, but it does not mean you are a professional mechanic.
So now back to pianos… I would venture to say that it is possible that some of the greatest piano technicians in the world might not even be musicians at all. I know this sounds crazy and it's probably unlikely because people who enjoy music also get into professions that involve musical instruments oh, but I don't think any musicality is required to be a good piano technician. Same way you could be an incredible mechanic and never have driven a car, in a strange way working on something and being good at it have nothing to do with each other.
I know you were probably rolling your eyes at this point reading this blog thinking this person doesn't know what he's talking about, but I assure you the two things are not that closely connected. Think about it this way, do you have to be a great pianist to build a great piano? No of course not oh, you have to be a great piano builder. So it's not that far of a leave from great piano builder to great piano technician and those two things are much more closely related than being a great musician and being a great piano technician.
Tinkering with a piano can be very fun, but just realized you were potentially destroying a beautiful instrument!
So what can happen if you tune your own piano? Well once you open up the piano and start playing around with things you realize that it's a much more complicated machine than you thought.
One thing that really surprised me when I started tuning my own piano was that the tuning pegs can slip and there's a special touch to get them to stay. When you watch piano technicians sometimes they hit the back of the hammer to wedge the peg. Is the very delicate procedure that takes a lot of finesse, and you definitely don't want to hit the peg too hard but if you don't firm it up, it can slip.
This is a great example of something that people don't think about, most instruments that musicians tune on a daily basis are built to be tuned on a daily basis. The mechanisms on the end of a guitar neck to tune the guitar are purposefully designed for daily use. This is not true with the piano, it is not meant to be opened up by every single person and messed around with. Each piano has its own personality and a good piano technician can feel how the piano is going to respond to tuning. So please keep this in mind before you start trying to tune your own piano, it is not the same as a guitar or violin or trombone; these are very delicate mechanisms.
Finding a good piano technician is difficult, you want someone who is seasoned and skilled. The way I like to find a new can of technician when I move to a new area is to call up the best studio in the area and ask them who they use. Of course this has to be a studio that specializes in recording acoustic instruments. I don't think the local hip-hop studio will have the name of a good piano technician.
Another good place to start is to figure out who tunes the pianos at the local symphony. That's a safe way to find the best person in town. If you're living in or close to a major city with a major symphony, those pianos are tuned regularly. And of course they're not having any old Joe Schmo come off the street and tuner hundred-thousand-dollar grand piano. But unfortunately this person might be out of your price range.
Another place to look to find a piano technician is to check with the local churches. Churches typically have many pianos in them and they need to be tuned and serviced. This might be a great way to find someone who's more in your price range. Depending on what kind of piano you have in your house you don't necessarily need a master piano tuner. Also it depends on the level of musician you are oh, if you were just starting out the consistency from note to note of key wait won't be as noticeable to you.
If this article has been altogether discouraging, I don't want you to think I'm saying you can't become a great piano tuner. Just realized that it's a skill on its own and it takes months and months of practice and learning to start to become competent. If you are really interested in tuning pianos you should probably become the apprentice of a piano tuner. That way you can start to learn the basics and how to take care of a piano, diagnose its issues and fix it. It's a very complicated instrument and should not be taken lightly when you're going under the hood.
A good place to start would be called local piano technicians in your area and ask them if they ever take on apprentices. I know people who have done this and they are on their way to becoming great piano technicians. But don't think this is an overnight Adventure, it takes a lot of practice. Just remember Malcolm Gladwell saying it takes 10,000 hours to become a master. Unfortunately this applies to being a piano technician as well. So think twice before starting down that road, it can be a great career but it certainly isn't the shortest road. And keep in mind that it doesn't really have that much to do with music so if you enjoy playing music, you might not enjoy tuning up and working on pianos. but if you're a musician who also enjoys working with your hands, or being a carpenter this might be right up your alley.