It is tempting to compare pianos to cars, even in the piano business, because most people know much more about cars than pianos. However, there really aren’t that many similarities, especially where longevity is concerned since pianos can easily achieve a human lifespan of 80-100 years (unlike most cars), and even longer if you rebuild them. The most obvious similarity between pianos and cars is that the majority of people who drive cars have only a basic understanding of how their cars function mechanically and have to rely on trained experts for maintenance and fixing things that go wrong. The same is true for most piano owners.
We pianists know less about how our instruments function mechanically than most other instrumentalists. Even pipe organists know more about the mechanical functioning of their instrument than pianists, even though a pipe organ’s complexity, size, and power dwarf that of the piano. An organist must command anywhere from 2 to 7 manuals (keyboards), a pedalboard (pedal keyboard) with up to 32 pedals, dozens of stops, couplers, and memory pistons, and understand how each of these features contributes to the realization of the music being played. Meanwhile, the pianist only needs to know that pressing a key produces sound, and pressing a pedal changes the sound in some way. Mastering these basic skills is the difference between the beginner and the virtuoso, but the basic operation of the piano can be learned in a matter of minutes. Since it is not necessary to understand anything mechanical about the piano to be a virtuoso pianist (though it is very helpful), many fine pianists, including some world-class virtuosos, have little understanding of the mechanics of their instrument. This is completely understandable. Here’s why:
Most instrumentalists can toss their instruments in a box or a bag and take it anywhere. Pianists must adapt to the available piano at the venue where they are playing or recording, or they must travel with their own piano, which can be prohibitively expensive and a logistical nightmare. Most instrumentalists can tune and make minor repairs to their instruments, including replacing parts. Due to the complexity of the piano, with thousands of moving parts, and over 200 wires that need to be independently tuned, most pianists are entirely reliant on professional piano tuner/technicians to care for their instruments, and therefore do not need to know much about how the piano functions mechanically.
Many people looking for an interesting job that allows them to study a craft will find jobs in piano shops learning to tune, repair, and rebuild pianos without ever developing an interest in studying music. Many non-musician piano technicians have gone on to become outstanding concert-level piano technicians. However, the majority of career piano technicians, including the present author and numerous colleagues at Rick Jones Pianos, were pianists for many years before taking an interest in learning how to tune, repair, and rebuild pianos. As a pianist and Registered Piano Technician (RPT), it is my hope to shed some light on some of the misunderstood aspects of piano functionality in future articles on this page, hopefully using language that any non-piano technician can understand. The better a pianist understands what their instrument was designed to do (and what it can’t do), the better than pianist is able to enjoy and benefit from the capabilities of their chosen instrument.
Paul Yarish, RPT
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