Piano Tuning By Bicycle

My tool case.  Behind the upper panel are replacement strings.  Under the lower panel are adhesives, solvents, lubricants,  gloves, and assorted pieces of felt and leather.

My tool case.  Behind the upper panel are replacement strings.  Under the lower panel are adhesives, solvents, lubricants,  gloves, and assorted pieces of felt and leather.

One of the most common questions I get when I show up at a client's door is “Where did you park?” For some reason, people are very concerned with the well-being of my vehicle. The answer to their question is, of course, “nowhere” as I don't own a car. However, out of fear of being judged as unprofessional, I usually say something along the lines of “Oh, I'm just down on the corner.” This isn't completely false, as my bicycle is usually locked up down on the corner.

Many technicians on piano tuning forums write of dragging large rolling suitcases from their car into client's homes for every job. Forums are also full of references to keeping all kinds of rarely used tools and materials in the trunk of the tuner's car just for that one or two jobs a year that they might be needed for.

This seems absurd to me. One of the great things about tuning is that there are only three absolutely essential tools: a tuning wrench, a set of mutes, and either a tuning fork or an electronic tuning device. Sure, some jobs require tools other than these, but many tunings are performed where the “big three” are the only tools that are touched by the technician.

I carefully select the tools that I carry with me to maximize utility and minimize volume and weight. I bring one tool-case to all of my tunings. The tool-case fits on the front rack of my bicycle and it contains all the tools I need to complete 95% of the tunings I go on. Anything that requires more in depth work gets a second visit during which I bring the special tools and supplies needed. A big part of  knowing which tools to bring is having a conversation with my client before I even show up at the door. When was the last time the piano was tuned? Where did it come from? Does the piano have any other issues besides the tuning? If I know the specific piano's problems ahead of time, I don't need to bring 50 pounds of tools and supplies with me. Five to ten pounds will almost always suffice.

The other important part of piano tuning by bicycle is maintaining a small service area. My service area is anywhere within about a five-mile radius around my house. Any calls I get from outside this area are referred to another tuner who gives me a finder's fee. Sure, I make less money by turning down these calls, but I also am saving gobs of money on auto loans, insurance, gas, parking, and repairs. Not to mention the stress of driving, which many people don't seem to take into account.

As far as I can tell, cycling piano tuners are pretty few and far between. I have only found two others – one in Chicago and one in the UK. There may be more out there who, like me, don't generally advertise their two-wheeled transport. In “The Secret Life Of Pianos” a piano tuner is profiled who rides a motorcycle to his appointments. While not much different, I imagine that the motorcycle is seen as more of a “real” mode of transportation than the bicycle. Perhaps, as bicycling piano tuners become more commonplace, we can finally tell our clients “Oh, I parked my bike right there on the corner.”


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Hantavirus

A deermouse.  (via Wikipedia)

A deermouse.  (via Wikipedia)

Five years ago, I spent a few days hiking in Yosemite National Park with my family.  A few days after we left, the National Park Service put out a notice of an outbreak of Hantavirus – a disease transmitted by air and hosted by mice.  This was the first time I had ever heard of this virus with nearly a 40% fatality rate.

The relevance of this virus to piano tuners and piano owners is that old pianos often serve a second purpose as mouse hotels.  Even if you haven't seen any mice around your house, if you haven't physically opened up your piano in the past few years and checked for mice nests or droppings, there is more than a slim chance that mice live or have lived in your piano.  I would say that over 25% of upright pianos that I open up show some sign of mouse inhabitation.

There is a lot of concern about Hantavirus in the piano technician community (rightly so), but I find that there is also a lot of misinformation. I'd like to try to clear things up a bit here.

First of all, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is the best place to get good, non-sensationalized information about this issue. Hobbyist and even professional web forums are full of hyperbole and misinformation.

Hantavirus was first recognized in 1993 in Northwest New Mexico. Since it's discovery, more than 96% of reported cases have occurred west of the Mississippi River.

Hantavirus is spread through rodent feces and urine. It is kicked up into the air when mouse droppings are disturbed and causes infection when breathed in by humans. Hantavirus doesn't seem to live long once exposed to air or sunlight. For humans to become infected, there must be an active mouse infestation. Droppings that are more than several days old are unlikely to harbor the virus.

There have been only two cases of Hantavirus with known exposure in Louisiana.

The virus is carried by several species of rodent: the deer mouse, cotton rat, rice rat, and white-footed mouse. All of these usually live in rural areas, but the deer mouse and cotton rat can sometimes be found in cities under certain conditions. House mice rarely, if ever, carry the virus. Barns, sheds, and other unattached structures in rural areas are the most common places to find the virus, and therefore require the most caution when cleaning or working in.

Deer Mouse habitat.

Deer Mouse habitat.

Cotton Rat habitat.

Cotton Rat habitat.

White-footed Mouse habitat.

White-footed Mouse habitat.

Rice Rat habitat.

Rice Rat habitat.

Though there is no anti-viral treatment for Hantavirus, early detection does increase the likelihood of survival. Early symptoms are similar to the flu (fever, fatigue, muscle ache, upset stomach). These then progress into serious respiratory problems.

If you are showing these symptoms, be sure to mention any potential rodent exposure to the diagnosing physician.

Hantavirus is not contagious and cannot be spread by sneezing, coughing, kissing, or other bodily contact.

The best way to prevent Hantavirus infection is to eliminate the presence of rodents in and around your home. The Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety gives these tips:

  • Storing food (including pet food), water and garbage in heavy plastic or metal containers with tight fitting lids.

  • Sealing any holes in structures where mice may enter.

  • Cutting back thick brush and keep grass short. Keep woodpiles away from the building.

  • Using rubber or plastic gloves when cleaning up signs of rodents, handling dead rodents, or other materials.  When finished, clean gloves with soapy water before taking them off. Wash hands with soapy water (again) after removing the gloves.

  • Setting traps when necessary.  Put rodents in a plastic bag, seal the bag, and dispose.

 

Mouse nests and droppings can be soaked with a 1:10 solution of bleach & water. The nest material should be sealed in plastic and disposed of. All reusable gloves, respirators, or other protective gear should be wiped down with the bleach solution as well.

Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome Cases, by State of Exposure. (via cdc.gov)

Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome Cases, by State of Exposure. (via cdc.gov)


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Piano Tuning Gift Certificates Now Available!

My Holiday Gift Certificates were such a hit last year that I've decided to offer them again!

Gift Certificates start at $125.  They are valid for 6 months from date of purchase and can only be used in Orleans Parish. 

To purchase, head over to the Contact Page and send me a message with the desired value of the Gift Certificate and the name of the person it should be made out to.  Payment can be made via Paypal and the Certificate will be mailed to you.  Pickup can also be arranged if desired.

Thanks and Happy Holidays!

-Ryan


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The Secret Life of Pianos

Today, I found this film that came out recently on Youtube.  It is basically a profile of a piano technician in Edmonton, Alberta.  It is very beautiful and I really enjoyed it (even though I disagree with a few of the things that this technician says!).

Have a look and let me know what you think.


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Broken Strings Cause More Trouble Than You Might Think.

There are a lot of heavy-handed pianists out there who seem to have a misconception about the ease of replacing broken piano strings.  Replacing a broken string is not a "fix it and forget about it" kind of problem.

There are two types of strings in a piano: wound strings and plain (straight gauge) strings.  Wound strings are found in the bass section and are composed of a steel core running the length of the string, and a copper winding that is wrapped around the core.  Plain strings are found everywhere else in the piano and are simply a steel wire of an exact, consistent diameter throughout its length.

When it comes to replacing a broken string in a piano, the procedure is fairly simple.  The problems arise after the string has been replaced.  Piano strings, whether wound or plain, will stretch over time due to the large amount of tension that they are placed under.  This has the effect of very slightly lengthening the string, which causes the tension to drop slightly as well.  Since the pitch produced by a string is affected by its mass, length, and tension, any changes in these properties will cause a change in pitch.

After a manufacturer has finished building a new piano, they will tune it a half a dozen times or more to ensure they get as much stretch out of the strings as possible.  Without this, the tuning of the piano would be very unstable and the pitch of all of the strings would drop very quickly as they stretched.

The problem here lies in the fact that most piano tuners aren't going to want to tune your piano six times over the course of a few days.  So, when a string breaks in your piano, it will be replaced and freshly tuned, but that new string will go out of tune much faster than the rest of your piano.  The best way to deal with this is to mute any new strings until they have been tuned enough times to become stable.  On a typical home piano, it can take years before the strings have fully stretched out and stabilized.  Muting the string ensures that it won't be audible as it goes out of tune.  However, this comes with the trade-off of slightly lower volume in the bichord and trichord sections of the piano.

In the low bass, where each note is only comprised of a single string, the pianist must simply deal with the string going quickly out of tune, as a mute would deaden the note completely.

In addition to this, missing strings can wreak havoc on action parts inside the piano.  hammers will wear unevenly, bushings in the hammer flanges will get torn up, and grand hammers can get wedged against their dampers.

Basically, take it easy on your piano and you won't have to deal with the long-lasting effects of string replacement.


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