“When I go to A client’s house and pull out the action the first time, they’ve often never seen it before,” explains piano technician Justin Elliott. “And they’ve had pianos for 30 years!”
Elliott, along with his wife Jina, run J. Elliott & Co. (jelliottco.com) which offers a range of piano-related services, from tuning to full-on restoration. Earlier this year, the Florida-based firm customized the Yamaha C7X SH for Prince, which became known as the “purple piano.” (Read more about it at keyboardmag.com.) Elliott stresses that there is more to piano care than tuning, so he regularly checks all of the aspects that affect playability. “Most tuners don’t want to take the time to voice a client’s piano. But that’s the most critical part about servicing. It’s the feel, the touch that makes all the difference for the player.
“If the client loves the piano much better,” Elliott continues, “and they understand how it works, they can play into it because they know the mechanism and its limitations. If they want more out of it, you can help them get it a little bit faster, a little bit stronger; make it more responsive so they can play better.”
Elliott found his calling when his parents bought a baby grand piano. “It was terribly out of tune,” he notes. “I drove the tuner crazy asking all kinds of questions.” The experience, however, sparked his interest, which eventually led to an apprenticeship with the late Susan Graham, a sought-after technician who rebuilt Steinways. “She took me under her wing. I had a little studio and started bringing pianos in for restoration—all kinds of old Steinways and what not.”
Graham also had connections to the Yamaha Corporation, which helped the budding tech get into the company’s rigorous educational program. The courses included basic piano regulation, Disklavier maintenance and calibration, and two intensive “concert” classes covering hammer replacement, voicing, and concert tuning.
“I went through all their levels of service. I think I was the youngest tech at the time—17 years old. The Japanese technicians didn’t really speak English, so it was basically hands-on experience: They’d do it, then I’d do it. It was an eye-opening experience of how, internationally, technicians work on pianos—not just the American way, but the Japanese way—bringing the cultures together to make a different sound.”
Based on his extensive experience, I asked Elliott what piano owners should do to get the most out of their instrument. “For the typical home piano, problems come about from age and lack of maintenance. I relate it to car service: the piano tuning is like putting gas in your car; voicing the piano, filing the hammers, doing the regulation—that’s like getting your oil changed; changing your hammer felt and rebushing your keys, that’s like putting new tires on it. And little things, like using a string-cover when the piano is brand new, make a difference: If you take it off 20 years later, the strings won’t have all that dirt, grime and oxidation. Doing all of these maintenance things will increase the longevity of the instrument.
“Realistically, minor regulation should be done after every other tuning visit—an extra half hour to tweak the hammer line and keep them all even. If that doesn’t happen, then every two years the tuner should go in and do some light regulation, some voicing, and some prepping. Then every four years, do some key bushings.
‘The biggest thing I’ve found is that artists are interested in the foundation; what the keys feel like. And it’s the key bushings—keeping them all aligned. If it has a sloppy foundation, the player doesn’t feel confident. But if you keep track of that and make sure its solid and feels good, they know how it’s going to move: The keys aren’t going to shift around to much for them, and it makes them much happier as an artist coming to the instrument.”