Can’t Say No to a Free Piano

A few weeks ago, one of my neighbors threw out an old piano. It laid on the curb up against a dumpster, baking in the hot sun. My mom saw it on one of her morning walks and asked me if I wanted it. I hesitated for a little bit, I knew that an old acoustic piano would be a pain to maintain, but since it was free there wasn’t a good reason for me to turn down the offer. We went ahead and hauled the huge hulking thing down the street to our garage.

One of the first things we realized about the piano is just how heavy it was. Of course, you probably knew that already, but you wouldn’t appreciate this fact if you never moved one. Neither my mom nor I were professional weight lifters, but there was enough strength in my back and legs for me to lift one end of the piano while my mom lifted the other. Many passersby saw these two scrawny women moving this hulking piano and offered to help move the piano for us. It wasn’t strictly necessary, but we accepted the offers of help because it tremendously eased the stress on our backs and legs.

The first thing we did when we got the piano in our home was to clean it up. There was a thick covering of dust over the piano, and not ordinary dust but dust from crumbing plaster, as if someone has been scraping the walls remodeling the place and didn’t bother to move the piano out of the way. The inside of the piano was also covered in dust, but it was the more common household dust that comes from lint shedding off of clothes and probably dead skin cells. My mom wanted to clean that dust as well, but I told her that it’s not very wise to touch the delicate mechanisms inside. The strings were in fairly good condition, they were shiny with only a slight hint of rust, although the bass strings which were wrapped in brass were covered with a brown patina. The instrument clearly show signs of aging, but I tested every key and all of them functioned fine. Only one key that had significant problems, it was the B right above middle C. I could tell that the hammer on that one had been replaced, but it was done very badly. Instead of gluing in the hammer, they just shaved the end of the shank and popped it in without any secure attachment. That hammer was particularly wobbly, and you can tell each time you pressed that key there was a soft “thud” as the hammer wobbled in its socket. But that was the only major defect, aside from the sustain pedal not working.

Before I could play anything on it, I had to tune the instrument. The piano had been in a state of neglect for a very long time, I could immediately tell when I first tested the instrument. I’m not a professional piano tuner, so I did what any DIY enthusiast in the 21st century does, go to Wikipedia and typed in “piano tuning”, and also going to Youtube for tutorials. What I learned was that I needed a tuning wrench, strips of felt, and an electronic tuner. The strips of felt were needed to mute the strings as the piano was being tuned, but I felt I could improvise by using wads of toilet paper. I didn’t need to buy a separate electronic tuner because there’s an app for that, so all I needed was a good tuning wrench. I went on Amazon, read the reviews to find the best tuning wrench and bought one for $22 (and a couple more for shipping).

When the wrench arrived I started the tuning process. I sat down at the piano, lifted the lid and pressed the key of middle C. I saw a hammer hitting two strings, then a harsh warbling sound came out of the instrument, I looked at the electronic tuner, the needle swung around wildly without settling on a definite pitch. (Each key on a piano strikes about two or three strings that are tuned to the same note, however if these strings go out of tune they would vibrate at slightly different frequencies, and the frequencies interfere with one another to create an unpleasant warbling sound. The fact that these strings have gone out of tune for a single note tells me that this piano hasn’t been tuned in a very long time. Fun fact, the gamelan music of Indonesian often uses two instruments that are slightly out of tune with one another. This creates a “shimmering” sound that the people who enjoy this music find pleasant, but this effect is usually undesirable on a piano.) I found the two strings corresponding to middle C and stuck a wad of toilet paper to mute one of the strings, struck that note again and a metallic ringing noise came out of the instrument. It wasn’t what I have considered pleasant, but it was much better than before. I looked at the tuner, and the note was so flat that it registered as a B. (It was about fifty cents too flat, so it was actually between a B and a C.) So I took out my tuning wrench and inserted it into the tuning peg with my right hand, then pressed the key again and pressed down on the wrench. The force required to turn the peg was tremendous, it felt like I was arm wrestling a bear, but after I got some good leverage I could hear the note bending upward. I had barely turned the wrench, maybe only one or two degrees, but I looked at the electronic tuner and the note had been raised by twenty cents! I knew that I needed to finesse the next turn or I might kick that string up to a C-sharp. I pressed that key again, then with all my might pressed hard until I could feel the wrench barely moving, then stopped. I looked at the tuner and it told me that I was about five cents too flat. I decided that was good enough, five cents is too small for most people to perceive, and moved on to tuning the next string. Tuning the next string was much easier since I didn’t need the tuner, all I had to do is to listen to the two strings vibrating together, then tune the other one until the two beat together in unison. This is really easy to tell even for someone with an untrained ear, I describe it as like at first it sounds like a bunch of frying pans being thrown on the floor, but gradually as the strings get in tune it sounds more and more like the sonorous resonance of a metal bowl being struck.

I tuned the first eleven notes of the piano in a very similar way, and it took me about two hours. Tuning a piano is physically difficult, not only do you need to be strong but exercise that strength in a very controlled way. I compare it to having the strength of the Hulk but at the same time use it with the precision of a brain surgeon. Even tuning eleven notes was enough to make my right arm sore, so after the first day I took a rest and came back the next day to resume tuning. To my surprise, when I came back the next day I discovered that the notes I had tuned had gone flat by about ten cents! I think what happened was that the piano had been out of tune for such a long time that I had to stretch the strings extra hard, but that made the strings lose elasticity and go flat. I had to restart the next day tuning the same strings I had tuned the day before, then start tuning the notes in the next octave up.

I continued tuning the piano for about the next week or so, gradually turning it into a playable instrument. You remember at the beginning that I hesitated taking in an old piano in my house, and this was the exact reason why. I always knew that tuning a piano would be a pain in the ass, but I didn’t imagine it would be like this. But it’s better to tune a piano myself than to hire someone to do it. Tuning a piano can cost between $100-$200, and since a piano needs to be tuned once a year, over the course of many years it could add up to the cost of buying another piano. But over the past few weeks I found that this piano has become my passion project, I have become kind of obsessive about it. I would get worried that I did the tuning wrong, or that I stretched the strings too much. I would pay attention to every detail in the shimmer of a note, keeping mental track of which note sounds too wobbly, too flat, or too sharp. Tuning the piano has become a kind of meditative task that I take, getting myself lost in the sound of the instrument. If I were honest with myself, even after tuning the damn thing the piano still sounds pretty mediocre. Being a very small piano, its design already doomed it from the very beginning from becoming a great instrument. However, there is still kind of a charm to it. Of course, I could get an electronic instrument and it would sound better and require less upkeep, however it wouldn’t be quite as impressive as an acoustic piano. When I play the very low notes on the instrument I could feel the ground beneath me vibrate, which would have been something I wouldn’t expect from an electronic instrument. I also find looking at the hammers hitting the strings to be endlessly entertaining. You wouldn’t be able to do that with an electronic piano, since all the oscillators and microchips are sealed away inside, and even if you can see them you can’t see electricity flowing through wires the same way you can see strings vibrate, levers teetering and dampers moving. In fact, I have a big obsession with these older mechanical technologies, but that’s a story for another time.