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Advice and opinions

Tuning machines

The debate rages on about how accurately a piano can be tuned by machine, so I’ll keep myself out of this sinkhole and try approaching it from a few different angles.

There is a real and continuing bias against tuners who use a computer or machine to tune a piano. This is a reflection of a wider respect for craftspeople who use traditional methods rather than rely on new technology, and I believe piano tuning is no exception to this. I find that my customers are often fascinated that anyone can tune an entire piano by ear. I regularly include in my advertising that I tune strictly by ear, and many customers have chosen me for this reason. Even people who know nothing about tuning will ask me if I tune by ear. Advocates of electronic tuning always have anecdotal evidence that their customers think it’s fine. That may be so, but time and time again my customers tell me otherwise.

Steinway & Sons will only hire aural tuners. That’s good enough for me.

Tuning education choices

There are several choices for learning how to tune pianos:

  • Full-Time School Program – Several schools offer full-time instructional courses. Often running for one or two year periods, these courses offer tuning and technical education and finish with a student becoming certified (or certifiable). I believe this is the most ideal way of learning the art and science of piano tuning.
  • Part-Time School Program – A number of graduate schools of music offer a credit course for musicians to learn piano tuning. These are typically a semester long and are meant to introduce piano tuning to musicians more than to actually teach someone how to become a professional tuner.
  • Home Study Courses – There are several home-study courses available for people interested in tuning and technical education. Having learned myself in a full-time program with one-on-one teachers always available, it is hard to imagine learning to tune by books and videotapes. However, one home-study course website claims that 65% of all tuners learn by home-study course. Go figure.
  • Apprenticing with a Tuner – Many tuners learn their craft by apprenticing with other piano tuners. Finding a tuner willing to take on an apprentice may be difficult and may take some convincing. Of course, the quality of the instruction is limited to the ability of the teacher, so it is vital to apprentice with someone with proven skill and experience.

My recommendations: All of the above choices have been the start for many good piano tuners. I believe enrolling in a full-time program to be the most ideal choice. I learned this way and it is hard to imagine a comparable choice. The classrooms I learned in had pianos that constantly went out of tune, giving me a steady stream of practice candidates. The time we spent at a desk learning about tuning and regulating was put to immediate use on our pianos. My instructors were constantly on-hand to answer questions, calm frustrations and encourage me to keep trying after hours of practicing.

For many people, enrolling in a full-time course for one or two years at a school, which is likely far away, is not possible. This is one reason why the home-study courses and apprenticeships are the choice for so many. One of the things I found indispensable in learning is to have a number of pianos to practice on before you start tuning professionally. Learning to tune on one piano is very limiting. My teacher arranged for students to go each Thursday to a local piano dealer and use the showroom pianos to practice on. This is often agreeable as long as students leave the pianos sounding better than when they started. This also opens the door to possible employment when schooling is completed.

One thing to consider when deciding on a training program or course is to what extent you want to learn piano technology. For example, the program I chose was a one-year program that taught tuning, action regulation, and a number of repair procedures. North Bennett Street School offers a two-year program that includes major rebuilding and refinishing. I work primarily as a tuner-technician, and have neither the interest nor the shop space to do major rebuilding or refinishing. I would rather give that work to rebuilders who do that kind of work constantly. Even with training, doing one or two rebuilds every year will never give me the experience to be as skilled as the big rebuilding shops.

Working for piano dealers

Full-time instructors will argue with me here, but I believe that students who complete their programs are better suited to start their careers working for piano dealers rather than starting as self-employed tuners. I feel it is critical for any piano tuner to have as much experience as possible before going out and charging customers for their work. It is unfair to the customer to have to pay for a tuner’s inexperience. Why should a customer pay the labor rate for an inexperienced tuner to spend an hour figuring out how to fix a sticking key? Many piano dealers have other, more experienced tuners who can help a newer, less experienced tuner. Also, it takes several years of good recommendations by customers to build an independent business as a full-time professional. Working for a dealer usually provides more consistent income and some benefits.

Before running out and applying to work for a piano dealer, there are some things to keep in mind. Many tuners see working for a dealer as a temporary part of their careers. Tuning pianos in a showroom is great when “cutting your teeth” as a new tuner, but the learning curve eventually levels off and it becomes limiting. Especially with new pianos, showroom pianos don’t stay in tune long, so there is less incentive for tuners to do their best and accurate work. Also, dealers may expect as many pianos to be tuned as possible inside of a day, and may prefer quantity over quality. Constantly doing mediocre tunings makes for constantly mediocre tuners.

Another consideration is that when working for a piano dealer, you are answering to a piano dealer. This seems fairly obvious, but gets a little more important to remember when tuning for customers as a store employee. Employees are obligated to do what is in the best interests of the dealer, not necessarily the customer. This can create some conflicting situations. Working for the most reputable piano dealer in the area will make a big difference in how often these conflicts come up.

The need to improvise

Being adaptable to new and challenging situations is essential! For example, the piano you started tuning for the concert breaks a string, you have no extra piano wire, and the sound check starts in twenty minutes. Another piano you are tuning is right on the other side of a big window from two very angry bullmastiffs that want to use you as a human chew-toy. The empty classroom you are tuning in suddenly fills with students. What do you do for those situations where you’ve tried everything in the book? Or what about those situations that aren’t even IN the book at all? When all else fails, it’s time to improvise.

Sometimes the official “right” way to do a repair isn’t the most appropriate. Are you going to drill, plug and re-drill a stripped screw hole on a dying upright’s lid hinge, or just shim it and keep it going? Public schools can force tuner-technicians to bring repairs that “just keep it going” to a high art form. Meatball surgery indeed, Lou! Tuners who stubbornly refuse to be adaptable inadvertently lose their business to those of us who are more flexible.

Get a team

No tuner has seen it all, and for those times when we come across something new and challenging, it’s good to have other tuners to call on who can help. Customers have much more respect for a tuner who calls on or brings in another tuner for advice than someone who gets in over their head and causes even more damage.

Find other tuner-technicians who you trust and respect, and check in with them when challenging situations come up. The Piano Technicians Guild is a good place to start putting together a team.

Don’t become a piano tuner if…

If you are mentally unstable, tuning pianos is not the right job for you. It will be your undoing.

People who don’t follow good personal hygiene and have a disheveled, unprofessional appearance: what can I say here? Customers don’t want scary-looking people in their house! There are some exceptions to this, however. Some customers may give them benefit of the doubt, looking at piano tuners as artists and therefore exempt from having to look presentable. Also, if there is only one tuner within a 100-mile radius, piano owners would have to be more accepting. Most other customers, however, will usually wait patiently for the tuner to finish, and then call someone else the next time.

I could have included people with poor social skills in the last paragraph, but they deserve their own special mention. How do these people stay in business? It is astonishing to me. I want to know – why do people become piano tuners if they have poor social skills? Tuners have to deal with people (including children) every day. If you don’t like being around people, don’t become a tuner! Try becoming a clown, or a computer programmer.

Piano tuning is not a very physically demanding job. It’s pretty sedentary, in fact. People who are fidgety and like to move around a lot every day should probably find something else to do.

People addicted to drugs or alcohol would find it difficult to be a piano tuner. I have no first-hand experience to offer here, only the wisdom of those I’ve known who tried tuning either drunk or stoned. It just doesn’t work. Most pianos just don’t hold up well to getting thrown up on (except maybe Baldwin Hamilton studio uprights – they’re like the Timex of the piano world). Being stoned allows one to hear all kinds of extra tones and harmonics (real or imagined), and it makes it hard to concentrate. Most sane people would not call back a tuner under the influence, regardless of the quasi-romanticized acceptance of the drunken tuner in Piano Shop on the Left Bank – ohhhh, don’t even get me started on this book!

Playing the piano

Contrary to popular opinion, piano tuners do not need to know how to play the piano to learn how to tune. It helps a lot, I assure you, but it is not necessary. In my own experience, I have found it useful to me in three important ways:

  1. Customers expect that a tuner can play. People ask me frequently to play when I am finished, and it would be embarrassing to me if I always had to say that I didn’t know how. I have customers who are beginner/novice players, and to them even some arpeggios on a freshly tuned piano sound impressive.
  2. More advanced players sometimes have limited technical knowledge of the piano and can’t articulate their needs in our familiar terms, such as ‘this section is too bright’, or ‘the letoff is too low’. (I still haven’t figured out how to make a piano sound “chocolaty”, Patricia) Being able to play the piano and identify/translate the issue is an important skill. The ability to play also gives advanced players more confidence in their tuner-technician.
  3. Finally, playing the piano when finished is a great way to test the tuning in a way that checks can’t. Hearing how all the sections interact musically lets you hear the tuning on a ‘whole picture’ level.

Tuner vs. Tuner-technician

There are many piano tuners out there who for various reasons are not piano technicians and do not perform any or most repairs. Piano actions can be intimidating and complex mechanisms. Attempting repairs or adjustments without training is an invitation for disaster. It is too easy to do more harm than good, especially in the case of spinets, or any old, brittle wooden action parts (ah, those old upright stickers bring back such fond memories)

I’ll go the practical route here and say that personally, if I tuned a customer’s piano but couldn’t do any necessary repairs, it would be embarrassing. It seems there are always sticking keys, squeaking pedals, broken glue joints, etc. I would hate to always have to refer these jobs to a technician. It costs the customer more money, and eventually they would just hire the piano tuner-technician instead. As a piano tuner-technician myself, I see this happen first hand.

Tuning the odd-balls

Square pianos, Mason & Hamlin screw stringers and birdcage actions: These pianos are quickly becoming a footnote in piano history. They are so different in their design and tuning, I personally don’t feel they are worth doing. Anyone interested in odd tuning curiosities, please, be my guest.

Fortepianos: I’ve never tuned a fortepiano but spoke to a builder in Maine who claims it wouldn’t be hard for a piano tuner to pick up. I’ve heard sometimes historical temperaments are called for to play period pieces. Until the world is flooded with fortepianos or I get numerous calls for tuning with historical temperaments, I’ll leave it for someone else to do.

Harpsichords: I have tuned several harpsichords before and they’re not hard once you get the hang of it. Unlike a piano, there is no cast iron plate and the tuning pin block is much less substantial, so harpsichords stay in tune for a much shorter period. I have also noticed that harpsichords are more sensitive during tuning, so that tuning several more notes can easily throw off the tuning for the notes already tuned. Rechecking as it is being tuned is a must.


Having a lot of patience is essential for anyone interested in becoming a piano tuner. My father unknowingly gave me the virtue of patience by making me sit through all those organ concerts when I was younger. The ability to entertain yourself is very useful in tuning and life in general. Good tuners need the patience to keep tuning no matter how bored they get and not hurry to “just get it over with”. When the tuning is done and some of the checks are off, tuners need to have the patience to go back and fix the problems, no matter how close they thought they were to being finished. A customer may not be able to tell the difference, but their pianist friend who comes to visit will. Then there’s always the matter of personal pride in your work, which leads me to the next topic of advice…

Personal pride in your work

While it is not essential to have personal pride in your work to be a piano tuner, it is if you want to be good. There are a number of tunings done for (whatever the reason) people who can’t hear much difference, or may not even hear it at all. There are some commercial pianos I tune on a regular basis that sometimes aren’t even played between tunings! When the piano does get played, it has to sound good and the management doesn’t want to worry about making sure it gets tuned. It can be tempting to call it “good enough for jazz” when you know yours will be the only critical ears to hear the quality of the tuning. If you let yourself fall into this way of thinking, then you’re just working for the money, not the satisfaction. Don’t get me wrong – there are unavoidable times when the money is all the motivation there can be, like when tuning the worst of the old spinets that don’t sound any better than when the tuning began. There are tuners who can hear that the tuning could be better, have the hammer technique to make it better, but are just too lazy to finish the job right. It bears repeating: this is one of the main things that separate those who get called from those of us who get called back.

The problem with learning how to file and voice a set of hammers

This may not have much to do with tuning, but since I have an opinion on the subject, I’ve included it anyway. Learning how to file (reshaping and removing string grooves) and voice (making the tone ‘brighter’ or ‘softer’) a set of hammers is very challenging and takes a lot of practice. Unfortunately, it is very possible to ruin a set of hammers beyond repair while learning. So whose pianos do you learn on? This is another benefit to learning in a school setting with many pianos to experiment on. How anyone can learn to file and voice a set of hammers without many hours of personal instruction is beyond me.

Action regulation and repairs

If you are interested in learning about action regulation and repairs, I recommend buying the book Piano Servicing, Tuning, and Rebuilding by Arthur Reblitz, and the Steinway & Sons Technical Reference Guide. These two great resources are packed with helpful information. Of course, no one book can cover it all, but these two cover a wide cross-section.

I have developed a strategy for troubleshooting action problems that some may find helpful. It would have saved me many hours of cursing and gnashing of teeth, but I had to figure it out for myself. I start by looking at the action as four major components: hammer/shank/flange, repetition/whippen, key, and damper mechanism. If there is an action noise or a key not working right (and the regulation is fine) try to isolate it to one of these four areas. If there is nothing loose or otherwise obvious with the part causing the problem, try switching it with the neighboring part. This is a good way to tell if the problem is the part itself, or how the part interacts with its three other action components. Being able to quickly narrow the possibilities saves a lot of wasted time and wild-goose chases.

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