Care of Your Church's Piano by Jan Kiser

Purchasing a piano for your church can be a daunting experience - both nerve-wracking and exciting - and one that requires more than a little homework beforehand. The good news is that there is an abundance of fine instruments on the market these days, and if you look before you leap, as the old saying goes, you should be able to find one that meets your church’s needs at a price you can afford to pay. Think of it as if you were buying a new car: compare specifications; don’t buy the first one you see; and by all means, look under the hood (or in this case, the lid).

The challenges, however, don’t stop with the purchase. Like a new automobile, a piano needs regular maintenance and proper care to operate at its optimum level. Unlike a new automobile, however, there are no mandatory service schedules to follow for a piano. Once it’s yours, it’s your responsibility. So the more you know about caring for your piano, the longer it will last and the better it will sound.

Here then, are a few tips intended to help you extend the life of your piano and give your congregation the beautiful accompaniment its songs of praise deserve.

1. Initial Tuning: The piano has been tuned and regulated many times before you buy it, both at the factory and the dealer’s showroom. Once it’s been delivered, most manufacturers recommend waiting at least six weeks before tuning again. This allows the instrument to become accustomed to its new surroundings. A new instrument is fairly unstable and needs a chance to get acclimated. Contrary to what you may have thought, it isn’t moving a piano that affects the tuning - it’s the change in humidity and other atmospheric conditions that exist in the new location. Until a reasonable period of adjustment takes place, a tuning won’t last long - sometimes no more than a few minutes.

2. Regular Tunings: A piano should be tuned regularly, at least once a year and as many as four times a year. The length of time an instrument holds its tune can depend on many factors, including the weather, how often it’s used, how well it’s constructed and what it’s made of, to name but a few. It’s important to engage a tuner/technician whose skill you can verify-either by referral or by his status as a registered piano technician (RPT) with the Piano Technicians Guild, a national professional organization of piano tuners. [Special note: If the piano will be played with an organ, it should be tuned to the organ, since most organs cannot be tuned.]

3. Environment: As much as possible, keep your piano’s environment uniform year round. Pianos don’t react well to wild fluctuations in heat and humidity and, in fact, can be seriously damaged by them. If you take the time to read them, you’ll notice that most new piano warranties specifically exclude damage caused by exposure to extremes in temperature or relative humidity. To help avoid problems, don’t put your piano next to a heat source or directly under a heating and air conditioning vent. That will help to avoid possible damage to the soundboard and other wooden parts. Wood is organic and tends to expand and contract when exposed to temperature changes. Pianos have metal parts that can rust too, so keep water away from it. Humidity can make the keys swell and stick, also. Humidity control devices (damp chasers) can be used if too much humidity is a problem in your church.

4. Cleaning: Keeping your piano’s case as beautiful as the day you bought it can be as simple as keeping it clean. Dust it regularly and let "less is more" be your motto when using cleaning products: dilute them with several parts water to one part liquid cleaner. (Windex is effective when diluted this way, but don’t use furniture wax: waxy build-up should be avoided.) Be sure to use a soft, lint-free cloth; spray the cleaner on the cloth and then wipe the piano. If you’re cleaning a piano with a satin finish, be sure that you clean in motions that are with the grain, not against it. Keep your key tops clean with a damp cloth, and remove any dust under the strings with your vacuum cleaner, using the brush attachment.

5. Storage: Most church pianos are used frequently, so closing the lid and fallboard is as much as you’ll want to do in between uses. However, if the need to store the instrument longer should arise, or if there’s any construction going on nearby, you would do well to buy a cover for it. There are a number of piano supply companies that sell these, or you can usually order them through your piano dealer or piano technician.

6. Enhancements: In the future, you may decide that your acoustic piano isn’t quite enough to meet the musical needs of your church. Before you invest in additional keyboard instruments, however, you may want to explore the retrofit systems for acoustic pianos that are currently on the market. Some can give the acoustic instrument all of the features and benefits of electronic keyboards - allowing you to reproduce full orchestral sounds, connect your piano directly to your sound system or even to a computer - without forfeiting the acoustic instrument’s own touch and tone. After all, you probably invested a lot to obtain your piano’s action, feel, and keyboard pressure sensitivity. There are retrofit player piano systems as well - the perfect accompanists for choir practice as well as revenue-generators for wedding receptions, etc.

With proper maintenance, a piano can last for several lifetimes. As a matter of fact, the pianoforte’s 300th anniversary is currently being celebrated around the world, and there are scores of instruments still in existence that date from the very beginning. Many of these instruments are still playable and as beautiful as ever, three centuries after they were made.

Every bit of care and attention your piano receives over the years will be reflected in its performance. And if, as Martin Luther said, "...the devil flees in the face of music," every voice and instrument should be raised together in glorious song, and your piano will be among them!

Jan Kiser is the Artist and Media Relations Director for the Mason & Hamlin piano company and PianoDisc, manufacturer of retrofit products for acoustic pianos. Her e-address is: jan@pianodisc.com.