a tuning hammer, mutes and a good ear

Train Your Ear

I wish to tell you about the essential piano tools that helped filled a void in my journey as a musician. I was unbalanced in my skills as a player. My performance was bound up in classical approach music, known as “reading only”. I needed a holistic experience that would release me from the confines of the written page; a way to be free, to create without rules.

To carry on in a more fulfilling relationship with my art, I had to find space to listen and develop my hearing skills.

Instruments are the extensions of our musical voice and ear training is the number one asset in our skills. No one told me that my “reading only” approach was unbalanced. It was apparent when I played in jazz combos, rock bands, and blues sessions, that I was lost.

I hope my story that drove me to ear-training helps you find the time to build these auditory talents while providing a service. This is my story.

American Standard System?

In 3rd grade, students were approached by the music department with a demonstration of band instruments. We were encouraged to choose an instrument to become a member of the school band. I didn’t know how to spell “Xylophone” so I got that crazy trombone instead. It was a ‘King’ brand trombone with a slide that made it easy to change notes. And notes are all that we learned to play. During school, sections of instrument owners would be characterized as “brass players”, “wind players” and “percussion players”.

When the cafeteria wasn’t being used for lunch, a group of us would meet there to orient us about the technical aspects of making music. Tuning the instruments was a first priority. Therefore, we could all play a basic note that didn’t conjure up the vision of ailing elephants swaggering through the jungle. Now trumpets had valves and clarinets and saxophones had pads, but the trombone could slide through all the notes in between.


teaching students
piano teacher

Learn the Notes first - the Ear may follow

The first piece of music that I learned to play well was “On Top of Old Smoky”. I guess it was because I knew how it was supposed to sound.

All of us played in band we were assigned chairs. The “First Chair” trombones got the better music and the “second and thirds” received the leftovers. To make others think we weren’t that dumb we followed the slide movements of the first chair dudes. Now, I recall this because no one taught us how to hear the correct pitches, just the slide positions.

Some of us caught on to using our ear, they were the jazz soloists, the ones that formed rock bands.

Reading notes did help me when discovered a guitar and a ‘Mel Bay’ guitar lesson book in our basement. I learned how to tune and read the notes for the first 5 frets of that steel string acoustic guitar.

My two much older brothers joined the Navy when I was six. They may have played that guitar, that was abandoned in our basement.

My mother played piano and was very good playing classical pieces. Her approach to music was definitely the reading skills she learned while she was a child.

Theory was my hiding place

When I attended college, I studied Music Education with trombone as my major instrument. Trombone was not my major instrument; it was the instrument that I had formal training in. In fact, all instruments were my majors.
I could see myself as a theory major, but that is not how the music department works. The college is geared towards performance skills. I worked hard on becoming a better pianist and the trombone became an albatross.

I envisioned the piano is a more universal and teachable instrument. As a creative type, my life’s ambition as a teacher would be enhanced by knowing the piano more intimately.

electric piano

Tuning Pianos and Ear Training

I became a piano instructor after the age of 35. Looking at a keyboard of 88 notes was like having the world at your fingertips. I was well versed in reading skills and they were my tools for teaching. I would break down the essential piano skills into seven areas of focus and one of them was ear training.

Ear training grew to be the major factor that powered the better musicians. The top 10% of all musicians had incredible ears.

I passed all the dictation and ear tests back in college. I sang in college ensembles at the university level, but my ears were only “so-so” next to the best. The techniques and tricks were only a false crutch to becoming a better player.

Therefore, I decided to strengthen the weak skills I had with an activity that would force me to listen better, more intensely.


My 1st Piano Tuning Job

I advertised my availability as a piano tuner to my student’s parents first. I had taught some of them for years and the piano never got tuned while I taught week after week. Their piano always sounded a bit “rough”. I could help this clunker find a new life.

Most piano technicians had a larger skill set than “just tuning the strings”, but just getting the pitch right, would make a vast improvement in the keyboards “play ability”.

piano tuning tools

The key-bed removed from a grand piano case (top).  On the right, is an upright piano being tuned using a felt strip and tuning hammer.

An Appointment for my Ear

I used my “tuning time” appointment to test my scales and intervals by singing the pitches in “solfege”. I used the “movable DO” system as the reference key changed as I moved to different locations on the keyboard. I didn’t have “perfect pitch” so tuning was always relative to the note provided by a digital tuner.

My ear became more reliable with each session with the “out-of-tune” client (the piano). Finding new clients to work on was an opportunity to stretch my ears and get paid for my time.

upright piano

Piano Tuning is about your Ear

The digital tuner, tuning hammer, temperament felts and mutes are necessary for tuning the notes of a wayward piano to pitch. The most important tool is the tuner’s ear. Use both of them (both ears, that is); you’ll need all the help you can get! The rules are the same for teaching the music student to achieve a better ear:

1. Listen to the correct pitch.
2. “Own” the note by humming or signing it.
3. Isolate the target note by using felts or mutes.
4. Adjust the pitch of the target note with the tuning hammer.
5. Tune the target note slightly sharp, then lower it to pitch
6. Move to the next note chromatically
7. Tune 5 or 6 notes above and the same below your target note.
8. These twelve notes are your reference notes for the others.

Tuning your first 12 pitches is vital to having your reference notes on the piano. If you use a felt strip to tune the middle string start tuniing the unisons. The left unison first, by removing the flet strip from left to right and one at a time. The tuning of octives are easy done by tightening the string until the beats dissapear and a pure note it heard.

Tune the Entire 88 notes

Go slightly past the reference note and lower it into pitch. Going slightly sharp and then returning to pitch will set the note better because the string tends to relax after being stretched, but less so, when flattened. Check these notes again to confirm that notes sound correct before using these notes to tune the rest of the piano.

Test your progress as your expand you range, first upward into the treble register. When your ears get tired, mark your last tuned string with a mute and take a break. When you return, change direction and tune from the reference notes to the left, towards the bass registers.

Changing directions helps relax your ears. The upper strings that don’t have dampers can be sounded with a guitar pick and you don’t have the room to work to mutes effectively as the piano’s hammers get shorter.

Make sure you check your octaves often, as little errors add up. A set of tuning forks would help confirm work if you are tuning to concert pitch, otherwise consult your calibrated digital tuner. The lowest bass notes are full of overtones (upper harmonic frequencies) and are colorful. I expose the harp by removing the bottom panel. By touching lightly on the center of the string and keying it, I can induce the first harmonic of the string which is easier to tone properly.

Continue Ear Training

I use my ear training applications from the internet to confirm my abilities to hear intervals. I sing the melody lines of my student’s music before playing them on the keys. Teaching my students to do the same is part of the training I give to all my clients.
If you are searching for ways to correct the imbalance of your musical training, try tuning some pianos.

Best tool Kit - Best Price

piano tuner kit

It includes:
1 Lever Wrench Hammer or Key with star Head + 3 Rubber Wedge Mute + 1 Mute Clamp + 1 Temperament Strip+ Case.

Piano Tuning Tools

digital tuner
  • Chromatic tuner with a wide 8 octave detection range.
    The Korg comes with a very nice storage case
  • Dual display provides both a needle-type meter and an LCD for excellent visibility.

      5.0 out of 5 stars
Isolate detected sounds in a noisy room.
For use with KORG OT-120, needed when using sound back mode. Bypasses the built-in microphone in KORG.

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