After the Instrument Arrives
After you receive your new performance piano, you'll need to play it in for a while and let it acclimate to the hall. Your selected piano may need no adjustments on arrival, but any new piano will sooner or later need some touch-up regulation, and that can be done after a few weeks of playing. In my opinion, however, voicing should be delayed until the piano has been played extensively, so that everyone involved can agree on which direction the voicing should take.
After I have done the preliminary regulation touch-up, and made minor adjustments to even out the voicing without changing its character or volume, I usually invite two pianists to the final voicing: one to play, and the other to join me out in the hall, walking about and listening. I then make whatever voicing changes are needed, the pianists trade places, and we repeat the entire procedure until everyone is happy.
A piano will always sound a little different in the concert hall from how it sounded in the selection room. Halls that have been acoustically optimized for sound-reinforcement systems rather than for acoustic instruments can be especially challenging in the area of sound projection. However, I caution institutions not to jump to the conclusion that a piano's sound must be brightened if at first it seems a bit mellow. Not only will playing automatically brighten it over time, but most concert grands will blossom after a few months or several changes of season, and the piano will suddenly sound bigger and more robust. Indeed, if a piano is delivered in the summer and has been subjected to slightly higher humidity in shipment, it will take a few weeks in an air-conditioned hall before it sounds as it did at the selection. Patience in this regard is paramount. A good set of hammers can easily be ruined by overbrightening in response to initial complaints about a new piano's dullness of tone. Any changes in voicing should be made conservatively.
Special Considerations for Pianos in the Home
As mentioned at the beginning, even if a concert grand is being chosen for a home, it would be wise to choose one with plenty of power and projection, so that it can later be sold to an institution if desired. However, the issue of power and volume will obviously not be quite as important in the home as in the concert hall, and if the instrument is of less than concert-grand size, it will be less important still. In that case, more emphasis should be placed on the sustain tests than on the volume tests.
Institutional buyers are likely to buy a well-known brand based on its reputation, and its instruments' ability to be used for a wide range of concert repertoire. A purchaser for the home, on the other hand, is more likely to have narrowed down the selection to one particular brand after considering many, based on that buyer's desire for a particular tonal quality and the type of music he or she most often plays. Similarly, whereas institutional buyers must be primarily concerned with satisfying an audience with the sound of the piano rather than with its action, a buyer for the home is the audience, and thus, when shopping for an instrument, has more leeway to consider the action as part of his or her total musical experience.
Just as a concert piano will sound different in the concert hall than in the selection room, so will it sound different in the home. The home piano is usually easier to voice because projection is not a factor. However, the quality of sound will be substantially affected by carpeting, drapes, upholstered furniture, wall hangings, etc. A technician or acoustical expert may be able to help you adjust the acoustics of the room, and the piano's placement in it, for optimal results. In a home, owners often solve the problem of excess volume by closing the piano's lid. I encourage customers to let me voice the instrument to the room with the lid open. This way the piano can be played with the lid left open, and without excess volume, without stifling the piano's true tone.
If the brand chosen has a significantly idiosyncratic tonal palette, it's best to find, for follow-up service, a technician who has experience with that brand, and is familiar with its unique tonal characteristics.
Over the past 35 years, piano technician Sally Phillips has worked in virtually every aspect of the piano industry — service, retail, wholesale, and manufacturing. In her role as a concert-piano technician, she has tuned and prepared pianos for concert and recording work in such venues as Town Hall, Alice Tully Hall, and the Kennedy Center, and for such orchestras as the Cincinnati Symphony, the BBC Concert Orchestra, and the Vienna Philharmonic. At present, Ms. Phillips lives in Kentucky and works throughout the southeastern U.S. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.