Yamaha U1

The ever popular Yamaha U1.  I want to talk about why this piano is sought after, and what makes it so great. 

The Yamaha U1 is 48 inches, or 121 centimeters.  It's made in Japan, has a solid spruce soundboard and ribs and has been seasoned for the North American Market.  Almost everything else about the piano is the same for most pianos.  I mention these things because many brands, including Yamaha, make pianos with plywood soundboards, and other brands use only one seasoning process.  Yamaha seasons their instruments for 3 zones, "wet," "dry," and "superdry."  The homes in North America are in both wet and dry climates, but since we use central heating and our winters are cold and dry, even the tropical regions dry out.  So Yamaha alter's the building process slightly for these pianos and calls them "superdry."  For example, the U1 has super tight tuning pins.  The idea is that when the piano goes through year after year of fluctuations in humidity, the tuning pins will remain tight.  This is pretty much the most important example to provide you with.  Others are how much they dry out the wood for the soundboard and ribs, key bed, etc.  Tuning stability reins over all.  If you can't tune the instrument, there is no point to anything else.

How about reliability?  The Yamaha U1 is a workhorse!  It's commonly purchased en-mass by universities and conservatories.  Some practice room complexes allow students to practice at any hour of the day or night, so it's common that practice room instruments are played 12 hours a day.  The technicians tune each piano every two weeks and make general repairs and scheduled maintenance.  Is a U1 unbreakable? No.  Even you may get a nail or screw in your tire every 100,000 miles.  Sometimes things unexpectedly break, but, all-in-all, the parts remain consistent, stable, and functional.  After all, if a university has over 100 practice room pianos, lots of troublesome work would create a nightmare situation for technicians, not to mention for the students and staff.  

So, the construction is insanely consistent for a piano, they function well for years on end, what about the tone and voice?  I have to say that the tone is bright, and boring.  I can articulate very well on a U1, but the voice is almost computerized.  Many would say it leaves something to be desired, and I will agree with this.  But it brings me to my main point about this instrument.  The overwhelming majority of Yamaha U1's end up in conservatories, and it's almost required that practice pianos remain consistent.  If a student practices flute, guitar, trombone, double-bass or anything else, (well, maybe not drums) they can take their instrument from one lesson to another, and take it home to practice, or play in the street.  A student of the flute becomes better when they practice and perform consistently, and for a while they need the same personal instrument to achieve this.  The piano student can not take their piano with them, so they need to be able to practice on what seems like the same instrument in every classroom or practice space.  This is why the Yamaha U1 is so good: they produce a high quality instrument that is so consistent and stable so that students won't know the difference when practicing in different rooms.

 

Piano Appointment Etiquette

On appointment day you should expect the piano tuner to arrive on time.  If you are the first appointment of the day, your technician may arrive at the exact moment agreed upon.  I start at either 9 am or 9:30 am.  I can honestly say that I'm never off by more than 10 minutes, usually due to unexpected traffic.  The other appointments are trickier to be that accurate.  Unforeseen repairs or tuning conditions can make the previous appointment run longer.  I like to space my tunings out by 2.5 hours when the customers live in the same town.  Again, I'm rarely late, but if it's going to happen, I always call to let my customers know that it's going to happen.

When the tuner arrives, he or she should be cheerful.  This is because we love our job!  I can't think of a single time when I arrived and I didn't want to be there to help a customer with their piano.

You may ask them to remove their shoes, and I expect all tuners in the city to be ready to do so.  The occasions that I like to have my shoes on are when I'm tuning an upright piano over a new hardwood floor.  The floor is too slippery under my bare socks, and a secure posture is important to technique.  My mother lives in Vermont, and there is a sort of culture and expectation of a little dirt around the house, so I can appreciate that the "shoe rule" doesn't apply to all geographical regions.

The first thing you, as the piano owner, should prepare for is the technician to open the piano, so you should remove anything from the top before they get there.  Usually the lid of the piano is home to music books, pencils, children's toys, pictures in frames, sculptures, lamps, etc.  If you don't remove this stuff, the tuner will have to do it, and their fear is that something will get damaged.  Even when I arrive and there are things on the piano, I kindly ask that they remove everything because I won't know where to put it. 

The tech will need to take the front panel off to get access to the strings, action, and tuning pins.  This should be done with care by the technician.  If he or she doesn't seem to know how to get the parts off, give them a minute.  All pianos were created differently, and sometimes it's not obvious how to remove the parts.  But if it takes more than 5 full minutes, this might be a red flag that they are green, or just don't have the proper training.

Piano tuning takes an incredible amount of concentration.  A tuner listens to the relationship of two strings played together and adjusts one string, listening for a very small variation in frequency.  It's expected that there is near silence while they are doing their work.  Loud conversations, television, and vacuuming is not recommended.  Sometimes people like to have the plumber, HVAC tech, cleaning crews and the piano tuner all scheduled on the same day since they may have to be home from work to let everyone in.  Resist this urge!!  I can't tune properly while there is so much auditory interference.

The worst thing you can do while a technician is tuning your piano is wash the dishes.  The sounds of a faucet and sharp clanging of porcelain, glass and metal are infinitely distracting.  It's possible to tune a piano while these things are happening, but don't expect to record your hit single afterwards.

The appointment carries on though, and around 1.5 hours later they should be done.  I usually play a few chords of songs that I would like to master, and that's the cue that the tuning is finished.  The piano get's closed up and I briefly discuss when to expect to tune the piano again.  As I've said before, your ear is the best judge as to when you should make an appointment.  

Thanks are exchanged, as well as a polite handshake, and the fee for the work performed.  I expect that services are paid for at the end of the visit in the form of a check or cash.  Some tuners use a credit card service on their smart phone like square reader, although I'm not sure how well that has caught on yet.  I don't like to carry receipts, but prefer to email a copy to the customer if it is requested.  Ask for their business card, and if you're happy with their work, refer them to a friend, music teacher, or on a website!

Pitch Correction

What is a pitch correction?  In short, when a piano tuner comes over for an appointment, he or she can fine tune the piano in one tuning when the piano is close to pitch.  If it's not close, than it takes two tunings to get it right.  That first tuning is the pitch correction.  Both tunings happen at the same visit.  So why can't it be tuned accurately on the first tuning?

Your piano has over 230 strings stretching from the pin block down to a bridge and anchored onto the cast iron plate.  The tension of the strings is applied directly onto the bridge in order to create the sound you hear when you play a note.  But the bridge can be anywhere from three feet long and seven feet long. 

When the piano is very flat, and the technician turns the tuning pin to adjusts the pitch, this new tension creates a new force of bearing across the bridge.  Imagine a tight rope stretched between two trees with a little slack in the wire.  You stand on the rope close to one tree and the rest of the wire tightens because of your force bearing down.  Now imagine your friend stands on the wire close to the other tree.  Their force (in this case, applied by weight and gravity) will add more tension to the wire, and it makes your body rise up a little.

So now we can envision the tight rope is the bridge of the piano, and when there is no one on it the pitch is 435.  When the tuner tightens the bass notes to 441, that represents the first person standing on the wire.  When the second person stands on the wire at 441, your pitch drops to ~440.  So when the whole piano is tuned, its nearly impossible to accurately tune the whole instrument to 440, so they adjust the pitch to be a little sharp in one pass to get the piano roughly in tune.  Once its at pitch, they can fine tune it and make it sound like a piano again.

Lastly, you may wonder why your piano needs to be tuned to A440.  When the strings are all tightened to the right pitch, it creates around 20 tons of pressure bearing down on the soundboard.  The soundboard of a piano isn't flat, it's slightly arched, or crowned, sort of like a contact lens.  Pianos are engineered around the assumption that the pitch will be A440, and so they put more crown in the soundboard to settle at the correct shape when the strings are pulled tight.  And when the pitch starts to go down, or flat, than there isn't the right amount of pressure against the board and the sound isn't generated in a way that is desirable.  So your instrument should be brought up to the right pitch.  

Also, if the piano is a teaching instrument, when it's flat, the student learns the incorrect sound from that piano and makes it difficult to practice on other pianos because the sound is very odd.  When you want to sing with the piano, or play other instruments, it makes it very difficult to play together.  The piano will sound flat unless all the other instruments, including the voice, are tuned down to the piano. 

How Long Does It Take To Tune A Piano?

A qualified technician can tune a piano in less than 1.5 hours.  An appointment to tune your piano is expected to be around 2 hours to allow for unforseen repairs or adjustments and a little banter with you, the piano owner.

Pianos that are very flat or very sharp need what we call a pitch correction.  A tuner brings the pitch of the piano up to A440, measured at the A above middle C, in a quick pass to apply the correct bearing on the soundboard.  Next they will fine tune the piano.  This still may only take 1.5 hours, but can take as much as 2 hours.  Unlike a guitar with 6 strings, or a violin with 4, a piano has over 230 strings!  Tuning is a skilled art, and requires an extreme amount of concentration.   

Don't be surprised if your piano tuner takes less than an hour to tune your piano.  An upright piano at pitch often takes me less than an hour, but this is not the standard.  If you haven't had the piano tuned in more than a year and your tuner only takes 15-20 minutes, then I would be concerned they weren't completing the job correctly.

Cleaning your piano

I always tell families that the best way to keep their piano clean is not to let it get it dirty.  This means instructing everyone to wash their hands before piano practice.  Not only is this good hygiene, but if you couple it with putting your child in charge of cleaning the piano, they will develop a sense of responsibility that can't be found with a cheap toy or video game.

If you have a new piano with a shiny finish, it is probably polyester.  These piano finishes are the most durable and easiest to maintain, as they are treated very similar to glass.  Polyester is very hard and very thick, rounded on the edges, reflective like a mirror, and not so prone to cracking.  Cory piano polish is what we use to clean and remove dirt or fingerprints from a piano.  We use it in combination with microfiber detailing cloths found readily on amazon.com.  Just spray one or two pumps onto the cloth, not directly onto the piano, and gently rub away dirt in the area you want to clean.  Move in a circular pattern until you have cleaned the whole area or case part, then flip the cloth over to a dry spot and gently polish again.  Once the finger prints are cleaned away, then all there is to do on a weekly basis is dust.  If severe damage or cracking occurs, this finish is the most difficult to repair, and you'll want to find a technician who specializes in polyester repair.

If the piano is matte, and I'm talking about flat like the eggshell style water-based house paints, then all you need to do is a gentle cleaning with a slightly dampened microfiber detailing cloth.  These finishes are usually the thinnest but show scratches.  If damaged, they are the easiest to repair.  Many of our clients will touch-up scratches themselves, and even piano movers are skilled in repairing a matte finish.

The last basic finish is the satin hand-rubbed traditional piano finish.  This is a semi-durable finish, slightly prone to scratching, and very difficult to maintain like new.  Cory does supply a satin piano polish, but honestly, once you get finger print oils on your piano, they never really go away unless you resurface the part.  I learned in the trenches of a piano rebuilding shop how difficult it is to achieve this beautiful finish.  Lacquer is sprayed and leveled many times to build up the thickness of the finish.  Different grits of steel wool combined with lubricants and rubbed in exactly parallel lines for hours give you a very beautiful, semi-reflective, sparkling finish.  Believe me, if you have OCD, this is going to give you trouble.  The best thing is to use a piano cover and keep your hands on the keys.  If a satin hand-rubbed finish is scratched or dinged, it is easily repaired by a knowledgable technician.  

Vacuuming your piano is recommended, but it is also a specialized art.  Most people never clean behind their instrument, so if you have purchased a used piano, we recommend you have your technician do a cleaning to the whole instrument, front, back, insides and under the keys.  Cleanings take between 1 hour and 6 hours, it all depends on what environment the piano was in, and how old it is.

Lastly, you can clean the key tops with a damp cloth, but it's best to have your piano technician do it every few tunings.  He or she should remove the case parts so they can clean the back part of the white key that is hiding under the red felt, and the sides of the black keys.  That is where the dirt likes to hide.  This takes, on average, 20 minutes, but ask for an estimate for severely stained keys.