Pianos are surprisingly hearty objects, considering the thousands of precise moving parts that they contain. Pianos can provide you and your family with enjoyment and beautiful music for many years with only a moderate amount of attention. Unfortunately, they often receive virtually no consideration when it comes to care and maintenance. Given the cost to repair or replace one of these beauties, I found it important to review some high points of proper piano care.
The first thing that most people think about when it comes to piano maintenance is tuning. Manufacturers recommend tuning ever 6 months, but they are usually lucky to get a tuning once a year. What most people don’t realize is that a new piano should be tuned more often than an older and well-stabilized instrument. It is a good idea to get your brand new instrument tuned several times in the first year as it is settling in. Consider the fact that a violinist or guitarist tunes their instrument every time they play. The poor piano, on the other hand, only gets a tuning once or twice a year. If piano tunings are neglected for too long, the piano may fall significantly in pitch and require a more elaborate and expensive pitch raise tuning.
What many people don’t realize is that there are other areas of maintenance that should be considered beyond the simple tuning. From a tonal aesthetic perspective, you should consider having your instrument voiced occasionally. Voicing adjusts the density of the hammers. As you play your piano year after year the felt hammers compress as they hit the strings. The result is that the piano will slowly begin to get brighter and more strident. This is especially noticeable in some Asian instruments because of the way their hammers are designed. The piano should be voiced to your taste by a competent technician when you first get it and then voiced again, probably the same time that it is tuned, every 3 to 5 years or when it becomes noticeably bright and shrill.
If you have an older piano, odds are that it probably needs to be regulated. Regulation is the process that a technician goes through to adjust the way that the keys and associated mechanics (or action) operate in order to cause the hammers to hit the strings. Older actions can get sloppy, develop lost motion and generally become difficult to play. I use the analogy that your instrument will slowly go from feeling like driving a sports car to feeling like driving an old Mack truck. Depending on the level of adjustment this can be a little expensive, but necessary especially if you have beginners or young children trying to operate a cumbersome and uncooperative action.
If you have a piano whose age is measured in decades rather than years you will eventually reach the point that rebuilding should be considered. Rebuilding includes replacing hammers, dampers, pin-block, strings, repining the action and sometimes replacing the soundboard. This is quite expensive (often $4000 to $8000) and the question must be asked if your current piano is worth the investment. When you’ve had a piano many years and seen generations of family members learn to play on it is understandable that you will become attached to the instrument. It might be a legacy from a parent or grandparent. Truthfully, only a few higher-end pianos probably merit this kind of investment because, candidly, older instruments could never be resold for even a fraction of the cost of rebuilding. It would be like spending eight thousand dollars to rebuild a 1973 Ford Pinto. To continue the car analogy, we may have spent the greatest family vacation of our life traveling to Yosemite with our children, but we don’t enshrine the Plymouth station wagon that got us there. Our memories are of the people and not the hardware.
Some consideration should be give to the cosmetics and finish of the piano. Don’t use spray polish on your natural wood finish piano. If you have that type of finish and wish to use a polish, then use a higher end product designed for fine furniture and use it sparingly. Never ever use furniture polish on the black polyester finishes used on many modern pianos. Use a slightly damp soft cloth to wipe these down. Non-ammonia window clean works nicely but spray the cloth, not the piano. If you have a natural wood finish and you place it in front of a window that gets any sunlight, expect gradual fading over time.
Finally, be careful where you place your piano in your house. The old bromide about avoiding an outside wall is a myth and hearkens back to the era where there was no insulation in the walls. Placing an upright piano in front of a window is not a great idea because cool air coming off the window can cause tuning instability. Never place a piano over a heater vent or right beside a wood stove or active fireplace.