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Basic Instrument Care and Selection

The piano is an expensive investment but it is built to last for at least a few decades. However because it is a delicate musical instrument (comprising of thousands of parts), it needs proper ongoing care. Remember it is not just another piece of furniture!!  

PIANO CARE AND SELECTION

Ideal Piano Room 

1. Humidity Level 

A piano fares best in 35-45% humidity, but up to 55% is acceptable – so long as it’s constant. Fluctuating humidity causes wood (including the ever-important soundboard, pinblock, bridge and piano action parts) to swell and release leading to tuning issues, changes in timbre, silent or sticking keys, and a host of other costly, avoidable problems.

If you own an electric piano, keep the humidity level at 55% to prevent static electricity damage.

Pianos should be kept well away from direct contact with an air conditioner’s air-stream.

2. Temperature Level

An ideal piano room is a constant 70-72° F (21-22° C); going too much higher or lower upsets tuning, weakens delicate internal glue, and contributes to long term wood damage. Make sure you can control the temperature of your piano room, avoiding climate fluctuations:

Keep your piano away from exterior walls, drafty windows and doors, fireplaces, and climate-control vents. If you must have your piano near a window, try to ensure the curtains are drawn in excessive conditions.

If your area has temperature extremes, keep the room protected and well-insulated, especially if your climate-control will be off at night.

Beware of placing a piano in a north facing sun-room, garage or uninsulated sleep-out as these rooms can experience extreme temperatures.

3. Exposure to the Elements

Condensation – a particular threat to electric keyboards – can be avoided by keeping windows and doors well-insulated; both of which should remained closed when less than 4 feet from a piano.

Dust, pollen, and smoke all reach the piano’s fragile interior easily, and – with the help of condensation – coat it with a sticky, bacteria-happy residue. Keep the piano lid closed, and invest in a quality cover for your electric keyboard.

Direct sunlight should never touch a piano – electric or acoustic. It will cause ugly sun-fade to the woodwork. Indirect sunlight can help prevent mold and yellowing keys in acoustic pianos, but be sure to monitor the temperature in a sunny piano room.


Ongoing Piano Care

1. Piano Casework
For wood finishes use a damp cloth to remove dust and finger prints. Once or twice a year you can use lemon oil as it is very friendly to wood. Do not use aerosol products as many contain alcohol which will dry out the wood, damage the lacquer and cause hazing. For the high gloss finishes I recommend using a liquid polish by ‘3M’ called ‘Imperial Hand Glaze’.

Ensure that day-to-day dusting of any piano is done with a duster or soft dry cloth only.  Never use ‘Pledge’ or any other silicone-based product as eventually they cause a cloudy residue that is very difficult to remove.

Never place flower vases or any other wet objects on a piano.  Even if water doesn’t spill directly onto the piano, a watermark will develop in the wood/polish over time. Moreover some objects can cause vibrations which will compromise the sound produced. 

2. Piano Keys

To clean the keys use a very mild detergent. Plastic keys are easy to clean and usually for stubborn jobs denatured alcohol works well. Don’t use acetone as it will destroy the sheen of the keys. For ivory covering sometimes lemon juice works well. Some of the sharps used (black keys) are either plastic or ebony. Use a mild detergent to clean plastic sharps. For real ebony sharps clean them and then use Brasso or Jif to polish.

3. Grand Piano Soundboard
I recommend that the grand piano lid is lowered and closed when not in use. Although the grand piano with its lid up looks impressive, the dust that accumulates on the soundboard looks bad and will eventually need to be professionally cleaned.

4. Piano Internal Cleaning

The felts will shed fuzz and residue from the constant friction inside the piano. This residue can accumulate under the keys causing the key’s downward travel to be affected. Have a piano technician clean your piano internally every few years. Grand pianos will have a build up of dust on the soundboard and around the tuning pins. Routine cleaning will prevent massive build up.

5. Piano Action

The action is a complex mechanism that converts the pressure applied by the musician’s fingers to the hammers, ultimately striking the strings. If the action’s felt is too worn out, notes become hard to play or not respond properly. The piano becomes out of “regulation”. Regulation is the procedure we use to reset all the parts precise settings so the piano plays as intended.

6. Piano Hammers

The hammers, which are densely compressed felt, glues to wood moldings. As time goes by the hammers compress, become flat and deeply grooved from string cuts. When this occurs strings can begin to break, the hammers surface is increased and setting off more harmonics that are undesirable. The hammers occasionally need to be reconditioned by a special procedure by a qualified piano technician. When the hammers are reconditioned the beautiful tone is restored as well as helps prevent needless string breakage.

7. Squeaky Pedals
With an upright piano, remove the bottom panel (beneath the keyboard) and lube all metal-on-metal pedal parts with WD-40 or Vaseline. For grand pianos, lube the vertical pedal rods underneath the piano and look for any worn felt or rubber that has gone hard or is producing a metal-on-metal situation. These are the most common causes of squeaks, but if the noise continues, the problem may be in the action (piano workings), requiring professional help. If the pedals tarnish, use Brasso or any other hardware cleaner to polish.

8. Piano Castors
I recommend that castor cups be used. These prevent unseen corrosion marks on carpet and stop any sharp edges of the castors slicing through. Grand pianos should have the plate type cups, which distribute the piano’s weight over a larger floor area.


Piano Tuning
Some pianos need tuning more often than others. It largely depends on the quality and condition of the instrument as well as its environment and how often it is played. The more a piano is played the more it should be tuned. For most pianos in a home, being tuned once a year is fine. Since the pitch of a piano is relative to tension it is best to keep the piano tuned so the tension does not drop. When a piano is not at its intended pitch (and tension level), the piano’s tone suffers and major components, such as pinblock, soundboard, bridges etc can be severely damaged.


How to Choose a Piano

The most important things to pay attention to are:-.

1. Sound - Good piano has clean and lasting sound. It can make light sound as well as loud sound.

2. Tactility - The keys should have a nice “touch” or "feel". 

3. Tone - Make sure there is a consistent tone from the low end all the way to the high end.

4. Keys - Make sure that the keys are all level and there is no excessive side movement. Look out for sticky and silent keys.

5. Exterior - Check that the exterior casework is in excellent condition and choose the color.


Buying a Second-hand Piano
It is wise to ask for professional advice before acquiring a second hand piano. The professional will look inside the piano and spot problems in cast iron plate, soundboard, bridges, pinblocks, tuning pins, hammers, dampers and strings which affect its tonal quality. Just be aware that sometimes it may not be able to repair or tune an older piano.


Moving a Piano

Hire a professional piano mover. Get the piano tuned 10 days after every move.

VIOLIN CARE

Here are some guideline to preserve your violin’s structural integrity, improve its tonal character and reproduction and protect your investment:


1. Heat

The greatest danger is ‘heat stress’, i.e. the instruments have been left in a storage facility where the temperature has been allowed to climb beyond acceptable limits. Maybe you left it in the car all day in readiness for the afternoon’s lesson or performance or placed it in a bag rack at school which is in direct sunshine. Perhaps you decided to catch up on that overdue exercise and walk home from school or work. Even an hour or two in the car while you shop is dangerous.

Your instrument should, wherever practical, only be used in a temperature range of 24-28 degrees Celsius. Higher or lower temps can cause the materials from which it is made to dry out and shrink, effecting seams and joints. Cracks can appear where no other damage is evident and no trauma was suffered.

The tonal reproduction can be harmed as the plates [top and back] take on greater tension caused by shrinkage. Its sound could become introverted and indistinct with some previously defining aspects of its voice now labored and more difficult to achieve.

Always store your instrument in its case in a cool, dry, temperature consistent place, lid down, latches engaged. This will afford some insulation against fluctuations in temperature.


2. Humidity

The second greatest danger is moisture. Your instrument can and will absorb moisture from its environment to its great detriment. Orchestral stringed instruments are finished [varnish or lacquer] on the outside only. The interior, the part you can’t see, is in its natural state, unprotected by bark or sapwood, and therefore capable of absorbing or shedding moisture. We strongly advise you monitor the humidity where you store your instrument and if necessary take steps to add or subtract moisture so as to achieve a 45%-55% range.

‘In-case humidifiers’ are cheap and effective. Many homes where young children reside will already have steam humidifiers. These can be used to good effect during peak periods but caution is advised. The use of an accurate electronic monitor is helpful. Alternatively, a case mounted Hygrometer is available.

Orchestral stringed instruments are assembled with water-soluble glues. With too much humidity, the glue joints soften, seams open and the structural integrity of the instrument is compromised. Fingerboards fall off, neck joints loosen due to the effects of string tension and so on.

Tone can be badly affected by humidity. As plates swell, they become sluggish and less responsive. The tone and active participation you are used to can vanish, replaced by uninspiring, barely adequate noise. This phenomenon is called ‘tonal apathy’.


3. High Risk Behaviour

The other great risk is thoughtless or careless handling of the instruments by you. Young inexperienced players are more at fault here, relying too heavily on the impact absorbing capabilities of cases, overconfidence in the integrity of handles and straps, and a misguided belief in the capacity of their instrument to endure impacts and injury. The best defence is education and developing good handling habits. Here are some ideas:

a) If it’s not in your hands, it’s in its case – bow loosened – lid down – latches engaged – against the wall – out of harm’s way. [younger siblings, boisterous play, unrelated activities].

b) Never on the floor. If you don’t stand on it, someone else will. [cellos and basses excepted. Store these against a wall, endpin in, bridge facing the wall].

c) Used only for their intended purpose. It’s not a doorstop or paperweight, it’s not a weapon.

d) Don’t over-tighten. Strings will break, bows will break, components will wear prematurely.


4. Your Instrument At Its Best

Here are a few helpful hints on how to get the very best from your string instruments, in addition to the ideas above.

a) Wipe rosin residue from your instrument with a soft dry cloth after every use. Rosin can absorb moisture causing it to adhere to varnish. Removing this is problematic and time-consuming. The use of a properly formulated cleaner is advised to preserve the varnish surface and sheen.

b) Remove rosin from strings using a resin cleaner fluid. Done reasonably regularly, this can prolong string and bow hair life.

c) String sets should be replaced at least twice per year, allowing regular practice and performance habits. Replacing strings as they break is a false economy as this only indicates the other strings are equally as fatigued and should be retired. We also advise you carry a spare string set, just in case.

d) Use only quality strings and accessories. Synthetic core strings will produce a warmer richer tone, be softer to the touch, and promote a more sensitive playing style. Each instrument has a unique and special voice. Be sure to use strings which complement its voice or enable you to bring it out the best way. An instrument with a mature relaxed voice may do well with a medium tension synthetic core string while a newer developing instrument may need a slightly heavier tension set enabling you to work a little harder with the bow.

e)  Ensure you use a resin which is compatible with your string of choice. A light coloured resin is best for steel strings while the darker resins are best for synthetic cored strings.

f) Bow hair should be loosened after every use and never over-tightened. Hair and stick life can be extended with this deliberate treatment. To prevent infestation by dermestids [bow hair beetle], regularly vacuum the case, add cedar chips or moth balls [wrapped in cloth], leave the case open in sunlight [minus instrument] for a few days at a time two or three times a year. The application of insecticide is not recommended as spray residues may harm instrument varnish.