State of the Arts
Say you’ve wanted to get a piano. A new one is out of the question, and you can’t quite afford one from a used-piano dealership, where dealers charge a premium for vetting each product on the floor. That means you’re scanning Craigslist and yard sales. How do you know if the instruments are good ones?
You whip out your cellphone, of course. A call to piano tuner Allan H. Day  of Williston is adequate for determining if an instrument is worth purchasing, says the registered piano technician. Day is one of at least 16 RPTs in the state — meaning he’s passed the international Piano Technicians Guild’s test. He’s been tuning pianos for 40 years.
Reached in the middle of tuning the grand at the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, Day describes a typical call: “I’ll have them play the A above middle C” — the standard concert tuning pitch — and then every A in succession from lowest to highest. Day doesn’t have perfect pitch, he says, but it’s pretty reliable. The A-note is “kind of like a compass, and it’s always in my head,” he explains, humming it to demonstrate. “Sometimes I go ahead and check with my iPhone, and usually I’m right.”
Often the caller doesn’t know when the piano was last tuned, especially if it was a gift or garage-sale find. So Day asks next to see a photo of the tuning pins, to determine how far they’ve been driven in. If there’s no more room to tweak them, “it’s a lost cause,” he says.
If the piano is still tuneable, Day asks the caller to sit cross-legged in front of it, “pop off the bottom board” and snap another picture. This will tell him, first, if the piano has ever been in a flood, a point that’s “very germane right now.” The polished exterior of a piano can be wiped down after flooding, but it’s hard to get rid of an interior high-water mark.
The innards shot will also tell Day whether any mice have made their homes in the piano — usually indicated by a telltale pile of dog or cat food that’s been transported in. Mice “love idle pianos” and use the felts — the cushions under the keys — to make their nests.
Finally, the technician asks to hear the serial number. Every piano has one, going back to the 1800s. Day can look up most makes’ numbers online to determine when the instrument was made. One recent caller turned out to have an 1890 piano.
Unfortunately for that gentleman, though, pianos don’t accrue value with age; their worth lies in how they play. Older instruments have more fragile strings, which are likely to break during playing or tuning, especially if regular maintenance has been lacking.
And Vermont’s extreme temperature swings actually shorten pianos’ lives, says Day. “A piano from Arizona that’s moved here will seem like half the age” of one made in the same year that’s lived only in Vermont. he says. For that reason, he recommends buying pianos no older than 35 to 40 years old.
The problem is not just our climate, Day adds. “We superheat our homes in the winter” — a fact that European and Japanese makers take into account when building for the North American market. Kawai, Yamaha and others “put another month of seasoning” into the building process than they do for domestic products. The latter occasionally find their way into the U.S. “gray market,” according to Day, but by looking up the serial number he can spot the scam before a purchase.
Ultimately, Day recommends buying “the best piano you can afford. Don’t get a cheap piano just to see if the kids are interested,” advises the technician, who tunes for the area’s more discriminating clients, including the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, the University of Vermont and Vermont Public Radio (whose grand he recently restrung). The unpleasant sound alone will turn kids off to playing.
For buyers, true peace of mind may require an in-person assessment, according to Roselyn Kinnick, RPT, of Sheldon. A professional tuner for eight years, she believes that a phone call can help identify “certain flags” that indicate a piano should not be purchased, but “there are a lot of other factors that you can’t see,” she warns. Kinnick charges $66 for a visit. Day charges $75 to $90. But the cellphone assessment is free — and a good way to weed out the clunkers.