For pretty much my entire natural life, I have been railing against the neglect of the public piano, i.e. any piano found in churches, synagogues, nursing homes or schools or anywhere else that doesn’t or won’t or can’t maintain their pianos properly. There’s a lot of reasons for this, but I’ve found there are usually two main reasons: money and thought.
Money is a biggie. A lot of places don’t have the funds to maintain and tune a piano. Oftentimes, the piano itself was a donation. And more than anybody would like to admit, the piano that was donated was a cast-off and not purchased for the organization that it’s supposed to serve. This last little bit can mean that the piano is actually meant for the dump or needs so much restoration that it’s really not worth keeping (or restoring).
But let’s say that you’re an organization that has a pretty decent piano. And the money to maintain it. And you maybe tune that sucker about once every year or two. After being badgered by somebody like me. And instead of paying a highly trained piano technician, that lovely Mr. So-and-So who’s retired and loves to give back to the community did the tuning. Because he took a few classes at the local community college or watched some YouTube videos and has a couple of tools and no he’s not a professional, but how hard could it be? Really? Really?
Ok, so there was a bit of snark in that last little bit. But the fact is, if you have a musician that’s practiced and prepared come to your event and you present them with an instrument that’s wildly out of tune, it’s a major let-down. I don’t have perfect pitch, but I actually find it painful. And even the majority of my students, after a little bit of study, can hear the difference between a tuned piano and something that’s gone honky-tonk. I actually think a large chunk of the non-musician public can hear the difference, too, but simply can’t articulate it other than as “good” or “not good/weird”. As a horn player, it’s a nightmare. We spend a lot of time trying to get things in tune and then when you have to play with a piano that’s gone to pot, it makes riding the mechanical bull that is horn playing into riding a real-life bull. A really angry one.
The fact is, pianos need to be tuned fairly often. It keeps the piano sounding good, it’s a check-up of the mechanical parts and it keeps the wood happy. Often means more than once very few years. Probably a minimum of once a year for a privately owned piano and several times a year for a public one. And I’m not even talking about a piano that’s on the concert stage. That is a different thing altogether.
Enter Don Gilmore. He’s basically developed a self tuning piano system. It’s meant to be attached at the factory and works by sending an electrical current through the strings until each note is in tune. If it can be retrofitted to existing pianos, hopefully out of tune pianos will gradually fade away. And I can stop being a hater. It’s still in the prototype stage, but I hope Mr. Gilmore can find an investor, and soon.
Here’s a clip of what he’s got so far:
I don’t think this is a permanent solution or a replacement for a good piano technician. It’s also not a perfect solution because it also requires raising the temperature and the long-term effects on the soundboard (Wood) will be interesting to see. Every once in a while you’ll need human hands to check the mechanics, do an overall retuning and re-voice the piano as necessary. And I certainly wouldn’t suggest this for expensive pianos like the concert grands of Steinway or Bösendorfer. But it would be a way of taking some of the thought required to own a piano out of the equation and make the musicians that have to use those pianos much, much happier. Did I mention we’d be much happier?
There’s a link the article in Gizmag here, if you want a few more details. Interested in donating a piano or wonder what happens to them when and if you do? Check the link below.
- Where a Condemned Piano Can Win an Appeal (nytimes.com)