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Every once in a while I have a client who wants to fixate on notes in the bottom octave. Usually I expect them to hear them as sharp, but recently I had a client who heard the lowest C as flat - I could test the note as a pure 6:3. On a whim I set Tunelab on that note and it was reading it as slightly wide - It was just set on "average" and not set up for that piano, so its display was a bit arbitrary. I pulled it to a slightly narrow 6:3 which made the display stop and he thought it was better. I'm fairly certain that the display affected her perception.

Next time I tune for this client I will use make sure the Tunelab display will show pure 6:3 down there so that Tunelabs "opinion" will match my own. Hopefully that will satisfy him.

This was a 5'10" Boston grand.

I'm curious if others have come up with good strategies when clients get confused about what they are hearing in the bottom of the piano (or the top) and are not completely confident that the notes are "right". Do you have any explanations or approaches that work well?


Ryan Sowers,
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Only happened once, Ryan. It was kinda uncomfortable. Let me start at the beginning.

It was an old overly-used Howard spinet owned by a private music teacher. Both he and his son have absolute pitch. (See where this is going?) The lower bass was horrible, wild partials everywhere. I just made it sound as least bad as possible. The son is also socially challenged... Anyhoo, at the end of the tuning the son starts banging on one of the lower notes saying something like "You call that a G#? That's not a G#!" The dad was embarrassed, but didn't seem to know what to do. So I said, "This piano has some bad overtones." This got both of their interest. So I showed how one interval with this troublesome note sounded fine, another did not even though the two notes, not including the G# (or whatever it was) sounded fine together. It satisfied the dad, and quieted down the son.

The dad later got an electronic keyboard and gave the Howard to a public music teacher. I've tuned it a couple of times since, but not lately.


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I have occasional clients who complain that the top has no sound, just a wooden thud (usually the last three or four notes). Typically the notes are ringing beautifully with marvelous sustain and power.

That's when I dig out my diplomat's hat and try to explain hearing loss. 'Not fun!


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Originally Posted by David Jenson
That's when I dig out my diplomat's hat and try to explain hearing loss. 'Not fun!

OT Should their be a thread about hearing aids for pianists?
http://www.hearingcareblog.com/2013/03/05/the-best-hearing-aids-for-high-frequency-hearing-loss/


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Anyone with any issues associated with their hearing should see an audiologist who is certified by the American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA) and/or the American Board of Audiology. Get a thorough evaluation and recommendations.

Hearing aids have benefitted greatly from technological innovation and are significantly better than they used to be!


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It is very difficult to handle a customer's nit-pick about ANY note, really.

A couple of years ago I tuned an old upright that had been 'tuned' some months previously by the Phantom WD40 Sprayer of Old Glasgow Town. This individual had the interesting technique of spraying the tuning pins and string coils with WD40, on the premise that it would help to break rust bonds and avoid string breakage, plus it makes the pins look sleek and lovely. But some weeks after, the WD40 seeps down the pins enough that the odd pin here and there will suddenly slip flat by a tone or two. This lady's piano was in that condition.

After some CA treatment to the loose pins, and tuning, the piano sounded pretty good for its age. But the lady had a problem with note E4. Just that one note. It didn't sound 'right' to her. Tonally it was just the same as its neighbours, and it was at the right pitch. I asked her did she hear it as flat, or sharp? She said flat, which I think is what people would tend to say anyway, out of a general perception that notes 'go flat'. So I tweaked the note ever so slightly. It is absurd to suggest that, having put up with a piano hideously out of tune with some unisons out by tones, that she could now genuinely be aurally upset by a cent or two error in the temperament (and there wasn't an error anyway). Nor was she listening to chords or intervals. Just that single note. After my 'tweak' she seemed a little more satisfied, if not entirely convinced.

The following day, I recalled a discussion on the pianotech Google group, about selective-frequency hearing loss, with comments by an RPT who is also an audiologist. I wrote to my customer about this, quoting the comments, and suggested tactfully that she might get her hearing checked, as she worked as a senior nurse in a large local hospital.

I never heard back from her, so I don't know what the outcome was.

It's hard to convince someone against the evidence of one of their senses.

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Originally Posted by rysowers
Every once in a while I have a client who wants to fixate on notes in the bottom octave. Usually I expect them to hear them as sharp, but recently I had a client who heard the lowest C as flat - I could test the note as a pure 6:3. On a whim I set Tunelab on that note and it was reading it as slightly wide - It was just set on "average" and not set up for that piano, so its display was a bit arbitrary. I pulled it to a slightly narrow 6:3 which made the display stop and he thought it was better. I'm fairly certain that the display affected her perception.

Next time I tune for this client I will use make sure the Tunelab display will show pure 6:3 down there so that Tunelabs "opinion" will match my own. Hopefully that will satisfy him.

This was a 5'10" Boston grand.

I'm curious if others have come up with good strategies when clients get confused about what they are hearing in the bottom of the piano (or the top) and are not completely confident that the notes are "right". Do you have any explanations or approaches that work well?

Ryan, I really enjoy your posts, you are often tje sole voice of reason here but you appear to me to have stepped out of character on this one.

"nitpick" "Fixate on" "clients get confused about..."... All "it's their fault" terms and by implication, dismissive. Also "he thought it was better"vs "affected her perception" which gender?

Particularly since there was an informative thread on 'octaves as unisons' started by Isaac relatively recently. There were the usual objections from ETD users, those aural tuners who tune like an ETD and pure theoreticians. Those of us who agreed With Isaac were in the minority (does not make us wrong) but, did nobody learn anything useable???

Did nobody learn anything??? Or at least add to their arsenal of knowledge for use in such "difficult" situations.

Cumulative 2-1 octaves (along with the experience to achieve them correctly) are standard practice for pianos used in ensemble where other musicians are involved, particularly at the highest level. Even then, it is becoming common knowledge that the lower notes of a piano will be below the pitch of all other standard musical instruments, and not by a fine, negligible degree, either at this level, but 2:1 octaves bring everything more together. Over stretching takes little skill and only compounds the problem.

We have five major international symphony orchestras and many more similar but smaller ensembles here that are a mere training ground for the better paid studio musicians involved in the high level ensembles I spoke of.
LA is the same, or I know that it was 30 years ago, (the sound stages there are relatively silent these days, NY too).

So, while we may tune what suits us or what our clients will tolerate, we must retain the knowledge that there are other ways and other views and more widely experienced opinions. (in this case, I would have tuned the whole lower half of the piano with cumulative 2:1's, checking with tempered fifths and thirds and their compounds which, of course, being delucately spaced and balanced, requires a very accurate temperament in the first place.

The tuning habits bred of and for cheep spinets do not apply to larger pianos with well designed and well manufactured bass strings.

I feel led to ask, exactly who is confused or fixated? Your client knows exactly what he/she wants, their demands also happen to be in keeping with those of highly experienced musicians.

(this from one who is intensely interested in how others hear pitch with too few opportunities to indulge my interest these days and I also have first hand experience with intonation issues as a former studio musician).


Amanda Reckonwith
Concert & Recording tuner-tech, London, England.
"in theory, practice and theory are the same thing. In practice, they're not." - Lawrence P. 'Yogi' Berra.


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Originally Posted by David Boyce
...

It's hard to convince someone against the evidence of one of their senses.

Even suggesting that a customer seek the services of a hearing specialist can loose you a customer. It's one of the touchiest areas that I work with. I hate it.


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Originally Posted by David Jenson
Originally Posted by David Boyce
...

It's hard to convince someone against the evidence of one of their senses.

Even suggesting that a customer seek the services of a hearing specialist can loose you a customer. It's one of the touchiest areas that I work with. I hate it.


Well, yes, but if mentioning it loses a customer, then you have one less problem to deal with. wink


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Fortunately we are not in the business of dishing out medical diagnoses. A treble that is too sharp is severely weakened, tonally. Lowering the notes to where they sound louder will often also put them in tune.

Back to the subject, check the relative tone regulation in those single strings, they often get neglected. A note that is much brighter or louder or less depth of tone, etc. can seem to be at a different pitch.


Amanda Reckonwith
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I actually relate well to that last comment.
Honestly, in the bass section of spinets it is often math against tone (however you want to define it) and is a compromise. Fundamentals and harmonics are finicky in the bass , depending on string diameter and length. So if the math is right but it sounds bad, change it. Sometimes I use the vibration on the cabinet to "listen" to weak fundamentals if the harmonics are really loud.
If a note sounds bad to a customer, that is a good thing, because it is not the whole piano. In this business I have learned to try to hear what the customer hears and fix it to their liking. They are NOT technicians and don't want someone belittling them with theoretic mumble jumble. Sometimes what they hear is a hammer mating problem with the string but it sounds "out of tune".
We are paid to make their piano enjoyable and musical and they don't necessarily want to hear terms like " overtones, aftertouch, 2:1, partials, regulation..". Try using simple words like "trebly, boomy, harsh, stiff, slow , fast"

I had a customer who thought a note in the trebIe I had perfectly tuned and voiced was not loud enough. He was not a good player so his "nit picking" was unwarranted to me, but I tried my best. After he told me he had tried these other tuners (who I know are good) and that should have been a warning sign. I put some nail polish on the hammer to make it louder (something I said I would never do..|) I never went back and I do not know if he ever got what he wanted.You can't make everyone happy but you can look at yourself in the mirror if you have a good work ethic and try your best.

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Nice posts, Andrew and RXD. You guys said it all. I understand Ryan's frustration also though, when you feel like you have perfected something and someone with no knowledge criticizes the best you have to offer.

The worst example in my mind is when a client hasn't had their piano tuned in so many years that they forgot how it sounded.. or formed a false memory of its limitations. Every bad sound is then the fault of the technician, not the piano.. and that client will run through many techs until they finally listen to one.

That's the difficult part of this job.. no matter what brilliant solution you may have found, whatever random flavor the client wants is what we need to provide. Really difficult to find the balance between that and communicating technical truth.

All you can do is be open-minded to deliver what the client wants, but at the same time honest and grounded in your technical understanding of limits and trade-offs.

I should add on a direct answer here to your question, Ryan.. I don't think there is any unequivocally 'right' solution to the low bass or high treble. Tuning becomes less constrained / objectively correct in these regions.

What RXD said about amplitude increasing with the correct treble point is absolutely right on in my opinion. Unless the treble is dead or flat, I never hear a musician even mention it. The bass can receive more complaints.

I don't think a 6:3 bass sounds good on any piano, except for studio uprights and smaller pianos. Just my opinion. We were all trained to tune this way, but I departed. I will not try to convince anyone that what I tune is 'right' in the bass. If they don't like it, I will retune it for a small additional fee.

One thing I've added to my list of services is an aural bass tuning, coupled with a machine upper. It gives the piano 90% of the sound of an aural tuning with half the cost and work. I explain the extensive thought behind the decisions I make.. if the client doesn't like it, I am glad to do something else.

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When all else fails, make sure the customer is happy and satisfied.


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Originally Posted by Steven Bolstridge
When all else fails, make sure the customer is happy and satisfied.


I'm not sure that's always possible. I think people who have issues with their bass notes are often reacting the inharmonicity of the strings themselves - especially on spinets and small uprights. They often haven't had it tuned for a decade or more and they've forgotten that the bass notes never were good.

I think there are times when a tuner has to just say, "this is the best I can do with this piano". Hopefully they have at least listened to your explanation why, but if they don't, there will be no pleasing then anyway. They may as well annoy a different tuner until they eventually learn their lesson . - and they will if they continue to chase bass notes that sound like a 9 don't grand.

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One of the things I have been saying is that the amount of time that a hammer should stay on the string is related to the frequency: The lower the frequency, the longer the hammer should stay on the string before bouncing off of it. If the hammer bounces off the string too quickly, there is no time for the fundamental to develop, so you will get mostly high modes of vibration, which are distorted. This is worse with the short, thick strings of small pianos.

So if you want to improve the lowest notes, you have to voice them softer. In order to keep definition to the tone, the hammer should be properly shaped, and the surface at the strike point should be reasonably hard, but underneath, the hammer should be softer, either by needling from the shoulder to the area under the strike point, or by needling from the side. Needling from the side is very aggressive, so be careful if you try it.

After I have done this, the lowest strings often need to be tuned even lower. But the blend with the rest of the piano is much better.


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I'm not sure that's always possible. I think people who have issues with their bass notes are often reacting the inharmonicity of the strings themselves - especially on spinets and small uprights. They often haven't had it tuned for a decade or more and they've forgotten that the bass notes never were good.

I think there are times when a tuner has to just say, "this is the best I can do with this piano". Hopefully they have at least listened to your explanation why, but if they don't, there will be no pleasing then anyway. They may as well annoy a different tuner until they eventually learn their lesson . - and they will if they continue to chase bass notes that sound like a 9 don't grand.

I think that's right. And if they have a frequency-selective hearing problem of some kind, it may be impossible to make a certain note, or section, sound "right" to them, even though it does to anyone with normal hearing.

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I once had a customer try to play chords in the lowest octave after I tuned. She said it didn't sound very good. I was mostly speechless, but tried to explain it to her.

I have had several cases of older people with hearing aids saying a single note didn't sound right. Its a real problem trying to explain away this perceived issue.


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Thanks for the input everyone!

My question did not relate so much about the reality of the tuning, but to the times where clients are letting their imagination lead them astray.

Another case was 7' Baldwin at a church. The lady who let me in to tune two pianos came and talked to me after I was done with the 7' and said she didn't think one of the bass notes sounded "right". I always try to be friendly and listen to them. I moved the note around to where she thought it was good, and the octave was way off. This seemed to confuse her. She said she had been a band teacher as evidence that she knew what she was talking about. But I told her if I left the note like that I would get complaints.

What I was looking for in this post was how others deal with diplomacy in these situations. What I usually try to do is listen to them, experiment a bit and try to get a sense of their hearing is out of step with what is normal professional practice. Sometimes the client is not right, but I still want them to be happy with the work. There is more of a psychology/diplomacy problem them a tuning problem in these cases.

In the end, if it is the clients piano I will be willing to adjust things outside normal practice if they seem to want it, even though I'm not comfortable with it. I feel like if I had the right speech prepared for these situations I might be able instill some confidence in the work. Again, this is not for situations where they are hearing something real and just have a musical preference for overall stretch. This is when they pull one note out of sequence and fixate on it.



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Ryan,
You might try saying: Thanks for asking me. It is better to correct any problems you notice before I leave. Would you mind showing/explaining the context of how you came to notice a possible discrepancy?


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That is nicely put Ed! That's the kind of idea I was looking for. Putting the ball in their court and asking them to explain what they are experiencing seems like a positive approach. A goal in these situations is to not appear defensive, which can be challenging when our expertise is questioned. And the client needs to feel heard.

It is helpful to hear about experiences where technicians successfully navigated one of these situations and felt good about the outcome.


Ryan Sowers,
Pianova Piano Service
Olympia, WA
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