How often should I have my piano tuned?


I often get asked by my piano students how often they should have their piano tuned.

There is a very easy answer to that: twice a year, ideally when the seasons change (from warm to cold and vice versa). The reason being that when winter comes, the central heating comes on. This means that your house will usually have a much drier air to it, which will affect the piano. At the end of winter, once the heating comes off, the windows are opened, the central heating is switched off, sunlight might hit the piano and slightly moister air might surround the piano – and the wood will absorb this moisture.

Pianos are mostly made of wood, metal and felt, and the wood in particular will absorb and release moisture with changes in humidity and temperature. This will affect the tuning of the piano, and these changes mostly occur as the seasons change. So as a rule of thumb, October/November and then again around May are usually good times to call your tuner. He will normally offer to call you every 6 months to arrange an appointment anyway.

If you don’t have your piano tuned at these intervals the tuning of the piano will start dropping. This can create real problems if it is left too long, as the tuner can then not immediately tune it up to what is called concert pitch, as the added extra tension would make the piano frame crack. Unlike a guitar or violin or double bass, there is a huge amount of pressure on piano strings, something like 20 tons on the whole (iron) frame. This means that tuning up all strings would increase the overall pressure on the frame by too much, and the frame would break. Violins, guitars, bass guitars, etc are not made of metal, so cannot have such high string tension, and you can easily detune a guitar and tune it back up again without any worries, but this cannot be done with a piano.

I have also seen it happen that a piano has been left untuned for too many years, and the tuner simply cannot get it back up to concert pitch, as it has been left too long.

Unlike with the aforementioned violins or guitars, you cannot tune a piano yourself. You need specialist wrenches and other equipment (and piano strings aren’t freely available in shops), but more importantly it is quite a skilled and difficult job to tune a piano, and this takes several years of training.

If you play your piano a lot, and hit the keys hard, you may need to have the piano tuned more often, and if you are recording it, you will need to have the piano tuned just before the recording. In recording studios and concert halls pianos are tuned before every performance/recording, and I have seen it happen that during a jazz festival the tuner came on stage between acts to tweak the piano a little. Not a lot of fun to listen to.







The importance of having a good guitar set-up


When you buy your first guitar or bass guitar, you might think that it should work perfectly straight out of the box. Well, unfortunately this is not the case. Guitars and bass guitars generally need setting up, so they play as well as they can, staying in tune, not causing the player unnecessary agro through action that is too high (or too low) with no buzzing strings. As a huge number of people buy their first instrument on-line, there is no shop to take the guitar to in case you want to ask any questions about your new axe. As a rule of thumb it is always best to go to a real guitar shop and try out various instruments – even if you can barely play – don’t worry about embarrassing yourself, you can always ask an assistant to play the guitars to you and explain the differences, or take a friend along who can play.


Anyway, as guitars are made of wood and some metal, they are likely to be affected by changes in humidity and temperature. On top of that, if you did buy your guitar on-line, it has probably sat in a warehouse (unheated) for a length of time, prior to which it was probably in a container for several weeks traversing the seven seas from South East Asia to your home country – so the poor instrument needs to settle in and feel at home.

Once you have bought your guitar and had it a few days it is well worth finding a guitar technician or luthier who, for a fee or roughly £45, will set up your guitar perfectly for you, making it playable and fun to own. A luthier will go over a number of things, most notably the truss rod adjustment, intonation and saddle height.


The truss rod is a metal rod that runs through the neck (under the fretboard of the guitar, and it allows you to bend the neck up or down. Below is a useful diagram illustrating this.















When you first unpack your guitar it could be in any of the 4 states above, and though you can adjust this yourself, it is best to let a professional do this, as you can potentially break your guitar. Once this has been set (this may take several goes, as the guitar gets used to the changed tension), usually the  the saddle height (for the action, i.e. how far away the strings are from the freeboard) and intonation (whether the guitar is in tune on the higher frets) are set. Should your guiatr re-align itself once you get it home, your luthier would norammly be happy to have it back for a small re-adjustment withouth further charge.

A luthier would also  be able to advise you on string gauges, as these can have a dramatic impact on your playing, especially as a beginner. Bizarrely acoustic steel string guitars usually come out of the factory with thick strings on, as these make the guitar sound fatter in the shop. But thicker strings are much harder to play, and as acoustic guitars are harder to play than electrics, you don’t really want to make your life any more difficult than it needs to be, especially if you are a beginner. Conversely electirc guitars usually ship with very thin strings, as this make them easy to play. However, these strings might be too thin for you, and they can be hard to play in tune, as just a little too much pressure on the strings from your fretting hand can make them go sharp.

One last thing to note is that acoustic guitars are harder to set up, as they require filing if the action needs adjusting at the bridge – this is always best left to a professional, as if you file away too much, you’ll need to get a new bridge. Electric guitars thankfully can be set up with screwdrivers and allen keys.



Learning A New Instrument

I often get asked which instruments are easiest and hardest to learn. It’s a tricky question and the best way to answer this is: every instrument has a different learning curve. Now what do I mean by “learning curve”. Well some instruments are easy to get started on, but then get tricky when you try playing harder pieces. On others it is hard just to make a sound on, so that instrument is difficult from the start and has a steep learning curve that then gets shallower. There are several aspects to learning an instruments and whether you are better at one or another might decide which one is more suitable for you. These elements might be broken down int to these categories:


Note creation



Physical Strength


Let’s take two very different instruments: the piano and trumpet and compare these. On the piano the note creation is very easy – if you dropped your cat on the keys, the piano would make a sound – if you drop your cat on a trumpet the trumpet would,however not make any sound, but there would be a howl of protest from your cat. Making a note on a trumpet is very hard. You need to press your lips together to form the smallest gap and force out a narrow and strong current of wind. I never managed to produce a note on the trumpet, but strangely played trombone for several months, where I did not struggle as much. This has to do with the fat that the lip tension on trombone (certainly in the lower registers) is much looser than with a  trumpet.


Students first struggle terribly with making a note on the trumpet, and increasing the range to the upper register is a very slow and hard process. So you need to build up a lot of strength in your lips, as well as your buttocks and diaphragm, to be able to build up enough body tension to create a sound. The piano certainly does require you to build up strength in your hands and arms, but nothing like the trumpet. So looking at these aspects alone, you might think the piano is easier. But not so fast.


When it comes to co-ordination the trumpet is relatively easy – lip strength and the three valves have to be combined – so no huge feat in co-ordination. On piano however you have to learn to move fingers independently, something that at first feels very unnatural, and additional you will have to learn to independently coordinate three limbs (two ams and your right foot for pedalling).


When it comes to note reading the piano gets very tricky. On the trumpet you are only concerned with one note at a time, as well as only having to read one clef (treble clef). On the piano you have to read two clefs (treble and bass) and read a multitude of notes all at the same time – piano sheet music for that very reason tends to look quite scary, especially to beginners, who struggle to read all the information quickly enough.
I have learnt a number of instruments, some to a higher standard, some to a lesser, and every instrument has its own areas of difficulty. It is often stated that bass guitar is an easier instrument to learn, and generally I have to concur, though it depends on how far you want to take your bass playing. If you want to be able to play walking bass lines, slap bass, fretless and play like Jaco Pastorious (one of the best bass players ever), then the bass is a very difficult instrument. If, however, you want to play along to U2 songs, you should be up and running pretty quickly. Yes, you need to build up “pads” or scar tissue under your fingers and you need to build up strength in your hand to be able to press down the strings properly, but it is not anything like as hard as playing a double bass, where the distances are much bigger, there are no frets to tell you where to put your fingers, and the strings are much fatter and hard to play (if you are plucking them jazz style).


Of all the wind instruments the alto and tenor sax are certainly two of the easier options (the smaller cousin in the saxophone family, the soprano, however is pretty tricky to play). Note production on the sax is fairly easy, and the instrument is generally pretty in tune. The same cannot be said about the clarinet – though note production is not that hard, the instrument goes very flat at the top of the range, and mastering this is very tricky.




What about the guitar? Well, as I have noticed, you need different sorts of pads under your fingers compared to the bass guitar as the higher strings are very thin and end to cut into your skin more. Bass guitar strings are more abrasive by contrast. You need to build up a lot of strength in your hand and wrist to be able to play some of the trickier chords on guitar. The iinteresting thing though is that there are generally 3 types of guitars out there: electric, nylon acoustic and steel string acoustic. Out of these the electric is by far the easiest, so if you choose to start playing the guitar, I would start with an electric. Steel string is by far the hardest as it requires the most strength in your wrist/fingers to play the notes correctly.

So what about the drum kit? Note production is easy and there are few notes to read (there is no entirely universal system for drum notation though a few are used). All of that is true, but you have to co-ordinate 4 limbs independently, and that is very tough indeed.


Sometimes when people choose to start playing an instrument they simply choose the wrong instrument for them. They give up, thinking they are not musical, but they simply may have just chosen the wrong instrument for them.


Famous Themes From Ads/TV



There are many musical themes that we are familiar with these days outside of their original context, as they have been used in tv commercials or films, in a striking and memorable way. For example, a famous melody from a classical piece of music is known to most people in Great Britain as The Hovis Theme. Of course Mr Hovis didn’t write it, and in fact it was written well before the actual composer would have had the chance to enjoy a slice of the aforementioned bread whilst composing his piece. And as the composer was Czech, and wrote the piece in America, the connection to England is getting really tenuous. Never mind the fact that no-one else in the world would know what you were on about if you referred to “The Hovis Theme” to, say,  a Canadian, or even tried to engage a Parisian in conversation by referring to “le thème de hovis”.

Other themes however have a more global recognition, for example the piece that is used at the start of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”. In fact that piece is the opening section of the rather cumbersomely titled: “Also Sprach Zarathustra”, German for “And so spoke Zarathustra”, Zarathustra being the Persian prophet and founder of Zoroastrianism. No wonder people remember it as “the piece from 2001”. It was written by Richard Strauss, not to be confused with Johann Strauss II, who wrote “The Blue Danube”, which is also featured in “2001” but much later in the film, in the bit where the spacecraft docks with the space station dock, and the twoseem to be performing some beautiful celestial waltz with each other (The Blue Danube is, rather fittingly, a waltz).

The problem of course is, if you want to buy these tracks or play the sheet music for them, it’s a bit tricky to find them if you only know them by their popular reference. So here is a little roundup of some of the most famous ones and what they are actually called and whom they are written by:


The Stella Artois Theme – was actually written for the movie Jean De Florette by Jean-Claude Petit.


The piece of music they blast ouf of the helicopters in Apocalypse Now – is actually “The Ride Of The Valkyries” from Richard Wagner’s famous Ring Cycle.


The British Airways Theme is actually a piece entitled The Flower Duet from the opera Lakmé by Léo Delibes.


The aforementioned piece that accompanies a spaceship docking with a sapcesation in the film 2001 is The Blue Danube Waltz by Johann Strauss II.



The Opening theme From 2001  is actually the opening theme from Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss (no relation to Johann).


The Theme at the end of Ocean’s 11 is actually Clair de Lune by Claude Debussy.


And finally The Hovis Theme is acually the Largo movement from The New World Symphony (Symphony No. 9 in E minor) by Antonín Dvořák.


We hope you enjoyed that!


Ronnie Scott’s to stream Wynton Marslis concert for free

The famous London jazz club Ronnie Scott’s has announced that it will be streaming Wynton Marsalis’ gig on Tuesday the 23rd of July (from 10.30 pm) live from its website – for free!

In recent times there has been a fair bit of innovation with regards to how live performances can be experienced by audiences. No longer is it necessary to buy tickets for some events, but live concerts, theatre shows and even opera performances have been broadcast live into cinemas. This obviously opens up new revenue streams for venues, who are hard pressed in these economic times, as often needed financial support from the state has dwindled. The state owned National Theatre of England started the trend in 2009 when it broadcast a production of Phèdre starring Hellen Mirren to 50 cinemas across the UK, with audiences having to pay £10 entry. The experiment was so successful it has continued to this day, under the banner of NT Live.

The Royal Opera house runs a similar scheme, with its Live Cinema Season.

A number of Pop/Rock bands have also jumped onto the bandwagon, and even the Victoria and Albert’s David Bowie exhibition was broadcast into cinemras, with viewers being taken through the exhibition by curators and special guests.

Ronnies Scott’s has now followed suit, though their stream of famous New Orleans trumpeter Wynton Maralis is actually free. As tickets for his gigs at Ronnies’ have alrready sold out, it will also be the only way you’ll be able to watch the gigs. More details can be found on Ronnie’s website.





Nile Rogers – An Incredible Career In Music


I recently watched a documentary about the musician Nile Rogers. At this point some of you will be   going, WHO? Exactly – I had no idea how this fellow was, and sort of half-heartedly got myself to  watch the documentary, until I realised what a fool I was. Nile has had one for the most prolific careers  in pop/rock history, but to be fair, a lot of it has been in the (semi) shadows. Yet the groups/recordings  he has been involved in make a phenomenal list, at any one point in time he has been involved with  Chic, Diana Ross, David Bowie, Duran Duran, Madonna, Sister Sledge and Daft Punk. Wow. And not  just as someone who tweeks a few knobs on a mixing desk, but as a full writing partner.

Nile’s rise to prominence started with the soul-funk outfit Chic, which Nile had started with bass player Bernard Edwards. The band had numerous chart-topping hits with tunes such as Le Freak, and Good Times. Then followed the rather small matter of writing We Are Family for Sister Sledge, once again with writing partner Edwards. This was followed by the hit Upside Down for Diana Ross, which would be the last he produced and wrote with Edwards.

Not one to rest on his Laurels Nile then produced the album Let’s Dance for David Bowie – which went on to be Bowie’s biggest selling album of all time. Nile then went on to, somewhat incongruously, work with Duran Duran, producing, amongst others, their hit The Reflex.

But it does not stop there – this was followed by producing Madonna’s album Like A Virgin. And after that the roll-call of famous names continued, and most recently culaminated in Nile’s contribution ot Daft Punk’s most recent hit, Get Lucky.

So, if you plan on making a hit record, give Nile a call, chances are it will turn into a hit, as long as you can afford him!









Great Music Theory Website



I recently stumbled across a very useful site on which you can improve all aspect of the dreaded subject of music theory, whilst having a bit of fun:














Learning to read music can be quite a struggle for beginners, but on this site there are note reading exercises which you can tailor to your own needs. So if you are an aboslute beginner, and only want to practice natural notes in treble clef, from middle C to the G above, then you can set the site to just test you on those notes. If you fancy testing yourself on bass and treble in all keys, or even the more obscure tenor clef, then you can do that, too.





All the way a score is kept, and you get the percentage of correct answers displayed. As someone who teaches, I find this works particularly well for teenage boys, as rather than having to look at tufty old scores, they get to go online, or better still, download an app, and can click on buttons and see a score at the end of it – much more fun!  There are quite a number of other exercises you can test your skills on, from key signature, interval and fretboard identification to ear training exercises.

There are also lessons on the basics of music, which are pretty handy (clefs, notes, scales, etc.), to some slightly more obscure tools, such as for building 12-tone rows. You never know, someone might be writing a 12-tone opus on the train next to you.



Most of the time when someone is pushing a site on a blog, it is because of a (monetary) kick-back, but I can assure you that in this case, we have no relationship with this site, we just found it damn useful!


Für Elise Boogie Sheet Music



We’ve just shot a video for our Boggie Woogie arrangement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s classical masterpiece Für Elise.

We have plenty of versions of the original piece, tiered by levels of difficulty, but we dcided it would be good fun to turn this piece into a Boogie-Woogie, as the melody and harmony of the piece lend themselves to the Boogie treatment rather well. The sheet music is available here.

In the video I also go over some of the technical aspects of playing the left hand patterns that occur in the piece (from 1:48 onwards). I actually change between two Boogie patterns in the piece – something not normally done on a Boogie Woogie composition, which usually sticks to one type of left-hand pattern.

If you want more Boogie Woogie pieces, or want to learn how to play in that style check out our Boogie Woogie Licks and Jerry Lee Lewis Boogie Collection, which contatins the piece Jerrry Lee Lewis Booige, as well as three guides: one on Left Hand Patterns, one on Right Hand Patterns, and one on Section Endings.


Virtual String Sample Libraries Round-up



This is not the usual subject for one of our blogs, but we thought we might do a quick round-up of the string libraries that are out there to purchase right now, and which ones you might want to consider if you are on a budget. The list is not designed to be complete, but is designed to really look at the main players in the market. So, here we go:


LA Scoring Strings (LASS)


  • True divisi articulations with a clever engine that will auto-split for you if needed (the only library to offer this)
  • Flexibility, with Violins 1, Violins 2, Violas, Celli and Basses in Ensemble, First Chair and Divisi articulations
  • Lite version is only $400 – a real steal. You don’t get the divisi articulations, but as it is always best to blend two string libraries, this is really not much of a drawback


  • Samples are incredibly dry, and can at times leap out at you and be tricky to integrate into a mix, if softer sounds are required
  • The odd tuning issue here and there, though they are very minor
  • Con sordino (muted) strings cost extra

Hollywood Strings (EastWest)


  • Great Sound
  • Available in 32 bit format
  • Gold version represents a great saving – you really only loose the fact that you have to live with 16 bit samples rather than 32 bit samples
  • East West (the creators) are not known for fixing bugs quickly
  • Sample sizes are huge, so can put a real strain on your computer
  • No true divisi

Vienna Symphonic Library (VSL)


  • Great Sound
  • Many different sample packs to choose from (Orchestral Strings, Chamber Strings, Appasionata Strings, Solo Strings)
  • Deep interface with many articulation options
  • Pricey when buying all the options
  • The sound has a certain classical feel to it (slightly cold), rather than a Hollywood scoring feel

8dio Adagio Strings


  • Great Sound
  • Some divisi sounds, but not as detailed as with LA Scoring Strings
  • Dynamic Bowing patches sound great
  • Easy keyswitching to be able to produce minute changes in performance
  • Many, many articulations available, some unique to Adagio Strings


  •  Fairly new, so still has some bugs
  • Adagio Double Basses not yet available,
  • Pricey when all 4 sets (Violins, Violas, Celli, Basses) are bought

Spitfire Albion Volume I

This is actually not a string library, but an orchestral ensemble patch library. I mention this however as the string patches are sonically quite incredible. You basically have a choice of Violins in octaves, Violins with Violas, Celli and Bases in octaves or unison, and spiccato patches for Violins and Celli as well as full strings ensemble patches.

  • Incredible sound, recorded at Air Studios in London onto physical tape, giving the sound an unprecedented richness
  • Great to use for blending with other libraries
  • Competitive price at £349 + Vat


  • Other than that you have not got articulations for each instrument of the orchestra separately (so Violins 1, Violins 2 etc), which it wasn’t designed to have anyway, there are none

Cinematic Strings


  • Controllable vibrato using a MIDI CC


  • Sounds aren’t quite as good as the other libraries



  1. If you intend to buy any of these either sign up to the companies newsletter, or twitter feed, or like them on facebook, as you will get news of their offers, and these libraries always go on sale at some point (at the time of writing East West have knocked $100 off Hollywood Strings Gold, for example), and truly huge savings can be had. Try to never buy a library at full price.
  2. String libraries sound best when you blend two or more, so ideally you should buy more than one. Both the “lite” versions of Hollywood Strings (called Gold) and LA Scoring Strings (called Lite) offer a great starting point at $499 and $399 respectively. If you have not got a fast system, and the choice is between these two, go or LA Scoring Strings (LASS), as this will put a lot less strain in your computer.
  3. Listen to the demo tracks available on the website, but be aware that these can sometimes fool you a little, as they are really designed to sound as good as possible, using mostly lush legato articulation or short spiccato patches. But often articulations in-between these two are hard to get right, and 8dio’s Adagio package does especially well at catering for these.
  4. Spitfire Albion offers a great alternative, as you also get all the other orchestral ensemble patches for brass, woodwinds and some percussion, as well as some synths, and the sound is outstanding.
  5. Not previously mentioned here, but do not buy EastWest’s Symphonic Orchestra – this was a great product when it first was released, but is now 10 years old, but is really showing its age

Web Site Story


Over at comedy site College Humour they have created a really funny and clever parody of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. Rather than talking about the rivalry of two gangs in New York City (as the original West Side Story does), the parody uses excerpts from the same songs as West Side Story, but instead weaves the action around how our everyday lives evolve around the internet.

The song “I Feel Pretty” turns into

“I’m on Twitter, I’m on Twitter,

And I’m tweating and singing a song about tweeting

But it’s seven characters too long.

I’m on Facebook, I’m on Facebook,

And my Facebook updates with my tweets,

So I twitter,

And then everybody knows my deeds.”


Compare this to the original lyrics:

“I feel pretty, Oh so pretty

I feel pretty and witty and gay*

And I pity, any girl who isn’t me today.

I feel charming, Oh so charming

It’s alarming how charming I feel

And so pretty, that I hardly can believe I’m real”

(* gay in those days simply went by its original meaning of “happy”)

So, Maria, rather than being a love song about a girl from the other side of the divide, turns into “Pandora, I’ve just found a site called Pandora”. “I Like To Be In America” turns into “I Like To Be On EHarmony”

To compare, here is a clip from the “Original” 1962 film version: