Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Learning to Tune

Broken Elbow

As I mentioned, Lirika had a few problems when she first arrived. A few of her keys didn't play when you hit them. Poking around inside, I soon discovered the cause of this - broken elbows.

The elbow is the bit of raised wood on the end of a key, which causes the hammer to hit the string when you press down. Without the elbow in place, nothing sets the hammer in motion.

Luckily, all of the broken elbows were still inside the piano, and the solution seemed fairly obvious - glue.

Fixed Elbow

It was a really simple fix, but it was the first time I'd ever touched anything inside a piano. The first time I'd ever lifted out a key. I've never thought of myself as particularly technically-minded, and it was such a buzz to hear that note play for the first time and know that I had made that happen.

Another simple fix was that one of the bridle straps had popped out of its hole, jamming two of the keys. It was just a case of lifting it up and slotting it back in. Et voila - two more notes played.

I was growing in confidence and utterly fascinated by the inner workings of the instrument. Pianos are extremely beautiful when you open them up.

Now that most of the keys were working again, it was time to tackle tuning. 

The first problem - equipment.

As there aren't any shops selling pianos in Kigali, there aren't any shops selling piano parts. There's a fabulous guitar shop in town, but even they didn't know where to order the things I needed, so I turned to eBay. Many shops, especially those based in China, do free international delivery. Unfortunately, it does take several weeks for stuff to turn up and there is never a guarantee that what is sent will arrive.

A few weeks later, I was delighted to find this in my post box.

There is a strange fascination with things when you have absolutely no idea what they are or how they work.

I unzipped my little bag of mysteries and turned to Howard Piano Industries for help. Armed with a YouTube tutorial and the TuneLab app on my phone, I nervously set about messing with strings.

Tuning pins are really hard to turn. Sometimes you need to put a lot of weight behind them, and sometimes the slightest tap knocks them out by an entire note. To add to the problem, many of the notes have three string - a chorus of stings - also known an unisons. This means you need to silence the two stings either side of the central sting using a temperament strip, which is a long piece of felt that tucks between the stings. Once you insert the temperament strip, only the middle string sounds when you hit a key, so you can tune the middle string and then use your ear to bring the stings on either side to the same pitch. 

It certainly takes practise, and I got a lot of that because I accidentally set the over-pull on the tuning app. So, essentially, I detuned the entire piano, realised my mistake, and had to go through and retune it again. That's around 230 strings. It's physical work and took me a couple of days. 

Thankfully I didn't break any of the strings, and I can now say that I'm a fairly competent piano tuner.

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