Treading on hallowed ground: the challenge of maintaining fine pianos after a personal tragedy

I kept this controversial blog topic in my back pocket for safe keeping until a close friend fired off an e-mail with a link to a recent movie review of Pianomania:

From IMDB:

“Pianomania follows Stefan Knüpfer, a piano tuner from Steinway and his famous clients Lang Lang, Brendel, Buchbinder and Pierre-Laurent Aimard as they search for the perfect pitch.”

It’s an entertaining glimpse of pianos undergoing personally directed pre-concert transformations at the world’s great recital halls. Movie, Written by Cibis and Franck

The New York Times published the following critique:

http://movies.nytimes.com/2011/11/04/movies/pianomania-by-lilian-franck-and-robert-cibis-review.html

Just a snatch:

By MANOHLA DARGIS
Directed by: Robert Cibis, Lilian Franck
“Pianos don’t cry out in pain, even when their listeners do; they go out of tune, warp and crack. Yet to watch Stefan Knüpfer delicately prod the insides of a Steinway concert grand Model D — a 990-pound, 12,000-part behemoth made of wood, metal and wool — is to witness a procedure akin to laparoscopic surgery, if done with animal glue. Mr. Knüpfer, blond, bespectacled, boyish, is the technician hero of “Pianomania,” a documentary about those who fix, love, play and wildly obsess over these beauties, tweaking and all but disemboweling them in search of the sublime. Mr. Knüpfer almost sneaks into “Pianomania,” hovering in the background of an early scene in which the famously energetic wunderkind Lang Lang gives a few of the grands at the Vienna Concert House a workout.” — Manohla Dargis

***

After reading this synopsis, I was ready, willing and able to hunt down this benign “pianomaniac,” Stefan K. if only to welcome him to the fold of piano obsessives, and plead for his HELP!!!

It was just under 23 years ago, that my Steinway M, grand, 1917, rebuilt three times, was an involuntary manslaughter victim. I meant to replace “man” with “piano,” but it just didn’t sound right. You get the picture.

I had desperately tried to maintain my musical treasure, a gift from my father upon Oberlin Conservatory graduation– and while it needed “work” when first purchased from an Italian builder in the Bronx, it still hummed like a nightingale and bestowed generous years of joy. Frankly, in those days, I had my pick of the best technicians in New York City to keep my grand tuned, regulated, and voiced. It was never a problem until….

Armageddon:

My 1979 California relocation:

The ebony grand had been shipped cross-country by Continental movers. Holed up in Missouri for 3 weeks, it inched its way to the Promised Land, where it safely arrived in agriculture’s heartland. For the next 9 years it managed to be tuned and maintained satisfactorily. A Sherman Clay affiliated tech, Alfred Ellis, who knew the ins and outs of Steinways, faithfully served my piano for ten sweet years sealing a maintenance marriage made in heaven.

Summer, 1989: Ellis retired and turned his business over to a fledgling. Not exactly a beginner, but a specialist who’d toyed with honky-tonk, Scott Joplin era pianos. (If you played them enough, your ear would be set to the Twangy mode so anything resembling a quality piano, might as well have fallen on deaf ears!)

To make a long story short, the newbie, unauthorized, “filed the knuckles and polished the whippens” of my piano, and falsely brightened my upper register, turning it to glass. In a tailspin, I searched frantically for a Piano Messiah to work a Miracle and reverse the damage! Living with a musical stranger had grown intolerable!

This teaser to a burgeoning tragedy read like a soap opera script with a cast of characters numbering 10. And all of them danced in and out of my California home with their best promised “cure” for my piano’s ills. In a word, the original crime perpetrated against my grand piano, dropped a notch on the list of atrocities after a slew of medicine men applied their potions to my hammers. Two boxes of the brand new Steinway variety, bit the dust, as my whole house reeked of lacquer. (A substance often used to treat and voice hammers.. or to acquire brilliance!) Talk about GLASS.. or ICE!

For certain, a few needle sticks would have worked better than pouring a gallon of that ugly stuff into the action. An air quality assessment team was hastily summoned to monitor toxic fumes.

So where was Stefan Knupfer, the pianomaniac, when I needed him? Probably in diapers at the time, or taking a swig of Enfamil. He probably could have saved my piano if he was of age! (A future King of Instruments in a Nativity scene, perhaps?)

The lurid details of my unfolding catastrophe eventually reached the Piano Quarterly, an eclectic Journal known for its academic focus. Apparently, my screaming tirade caught the editor’s attention as he fought tooth and nail to publish “How Could This Happen to my Piano?!” before Clavier Magazine did. The latter had accepted the article after I discovered its publication in PQ and subsequently I was excoriated for filing two simultaneous submissions. In the scheme of things, who cared? My ailing piano was caught in the middle, desperately needing life support!

As luck would have it, the article grabbed the attention of Steinway & Son’s Technical Department Director, Gary Green, who immediately dispatched Vladimir Horowitz’s personal tuner, Franz Mohr, to Fresno. It was the first notch upward in a downward spiral toward hell.

But Mohr knew deep down that the piano was the victim of a hate crime and all he could do was provide a palliative. Within a few months the instrument was sent on its way to Modesto to be treated by Dale Erwin, the best thing that happened to it since Ellis’s last tuning and voicing. Rushed to intensive care, the grand underwent major surgery, and was returned to Fresno with a new musical lease on life! Amen!

***

Such travails such as mine are widespread, especially in small communities where too many tuners learn the trade by correspondence courses, or decide that buying a tuning hammer and fussing with a few pianos that they’ve torn the guts and out of and re-assembled, equals having a license to kill. Oops, I meant to maintain pianos of every variety, including Steinways, Bosendorfers, to name a few. Add in the electronic stroboscope tuner placed in the wrong hands, and you have a soured outcome. Or at best, honing octaves along the keyboard spectrum with or without one of these gizmos amounts to the same. (It’s better to hunt down a blind tuner, who has an acute sense of interval discrimination and detects harmonics bouncing off notes than rely on a machine tuner with 20/20 vision) One of my best NYC tuners was blind.

The following article, originally published in Scientific American, 1995, summed up the piano technician landscape at the time it was written:

“The Endangered Piano Technician,” by James Boyk

http://www.cco.caltech.edu/~boyk/essay.htm

In summary, Boyk, a concert pianist and college music professor from Southern California, relied on registered piano technician, Kendall Brown to care for his fine piano. When the fellow relocated, all hell broke loose.

“… there is a desperate shortage,” Boyk asserted, “a crisis that came to my attention when Ken Brown moved out of town. Having trouble finding his replacement, I consulted a person who works with many technicians for a major piano maker. He said, ‘I couldn’t recommend anyone to you at this point. There are just too few of those guys around.’

“Talking to piano professionals around the country, I find unanimity on this point. Steinway’s Peter Goodrich says, ‘There aren’t as many concert-level technicians as we would like, or as concert artists would like.’ Lloyd Meyer of (recently defunct) Mason & Hamlin comments bluntly, ‘I think there are very few in the country of the caliber I would want to work on my piano.’

“As the current crop of expert technicians retire, they are not being replaced at anything resembling an adequate rate. Apprenticeship, the traditional training system, seems almost dead.”

As a follow-up to Boyk’s article there are currently some leading schools with fine technology programs. These are located in Boston, Chicago, Washington and Canada, but tuition appears high and out of reach of many who aspire to become excellent working members of this profession. (The list includes the North Bennet Street School in Boston, MA; Chicago School for Piano Technology; The University of Western Ontario’s Piano Technology program; and the School of Piano Tuning & Technology for the Blind in Vancouver, WA) The Piano Technicians Guild lists these in the company of Niles Bryant, a correspondence course. (I would be wary of the mail order route!)

In addition, the PTG, with local branches all over the country, presents its yearly convention, and local spin-offs that feature seminars for techs to improve their skills. Members who are RPTs or Associates can share trade secrets and beef up their competency at these professional gatherings. The Guild also puts out a magazine that I found valuable when researching cracked cast iron plates and their repair in preparation for my blog, “Funeral for a Cracked Plate.”
http://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/10/funeral-for-a-cracked-plate-piano-caveat-emptor/

In an e-mail exchange, James Boyk also defined an “economic problem” that he asserted was tied to the shortage of quality piano technicians.

He pondered, “How do you make it worthwhile for young people to spend many years acquiring a difficult skill that very few customers will appreciate or will want to pay for at anything like a reasonable rate? Moreover, the skill is a “manual one” and we live in a society that looks down on such skills. (except of course where it comes to auto mechanics–my comment) They are a thousand times more in demand than piano tuner/technicians.

“The idea that a tuning machine and a tuning hammer make a tuner is something like the idea that a copy of Photoshop and a library of fonts make a graphic designer, or that a recording engineer is made by a couple of microphones and a recorder.”

***

In smaller communities such as Fresno, good techs are a dying breed, and you have to import one from a bigger city such as Los Angeles or San Francisco. In any case, many of these qualified professionals are unwilling to come to this area because of inconvenience and loss of local business opportunities

In 1988, a year before my piano had suffered the pangs of misfortune, I had arranged for a Los Angeles Steinway tech to tune a ream of fine pianos owned by our local MTAC piano teachers. For that purpose we flew Ron Elliot into Fresno, paid his travel expenses, and experienced some of the finest work since Al Ellis had retired. Mr. Elliot, Steinway & Sons trained, tuned for the L.A. Philharmonic, and handled all nine of its Steinway concert pianos. Unfortunately, he couldn’t make further visits to our area because of his crowded professional schedule.

The Machine Tuning controversy

Gordon McNelly, a retail service manager at Steinway & Sons where he supervised 12 other technicians, stated that he does not employ technicians who rely on digital tuning devices. “Relying on a digital device does not allow your ears to pick up the nuances of an acoustic instrument. Once you set that piece of electronic equipment on top of the piano, you lose credibility.”

McNelly added that “the industry is horribly unregulated. Anyone can open a business and work on pianos.”

Ron Elliot weighed in on digitized tuning: “No computer can hear the subtle tonal differences between two pianos, or along the multi-string unisons within a single instrument….gadgets can’t stretch the octaves, making the bass flatter and treble sharper to suit a performer’s taste..A machine is very rigid but in fact, tuning is creative.”

While piano technicians can take exams through the PTG, Piano Technicians Guild, and achieve Registered Piano Technician status, (RPT) that’s no guarantee that they’re equipped to work on fine pianos, or those of concert level status.

In deference to piano tuners who insist that machine tuning has its merits, it’s really an approach that applies to pianos so badly neglected, that they’re far below standard pitch. According to many techs, the electronic tuner levels the playing field in readiness for ear tuning refinement. But our discussion focuses on instruments that are not neglected, but need constant high caliber maintenance. These pianos may be found in the homes of professional performing musicians and teachers, or in concert halls around the country. If a pianist happens to find himself presenting a recital in a small town with a dearth of capable tuner/technicians, he’s out of luck.

In 1988 Jeremy Menuhin, pianist, performed with the Prague Chamber Orchestra on our Community concert series at the William Saroyan Convention Center. At that time, the Steinway “D”model piano was in shambles and poorly maintained. According to insiders who were present at the recital, Menuhin came to the edge of the stage and apologized in advance for his performance owing to the piano’s abysmal condition.

Flash forward decades later and Fresno now has a 100K plus nine-foot grand purchased from the Long Island Steinway piano factory. From what I understand Steinway’s technical department has a contract with the orchestra to keep the piano in excellent playing condition which is a boon to our cultural scene. (Would be nice if the company spread the wealth around, and helped some of us underlings keep our Steinways humming along) Hint, hint….

A few years ago, I contacted Jeremy Menuhin, in the hearkened spirit of reminding him of his concert experience in Fresno. He kindly responded. “Your email was amusing, bringing back times when I could not restrain myself..

“As for piano maintenance (at the level required for a concert artist), I do not know what to say. Humidifiers if it is too dry, dehumidifiers if too damp, and regular inspections by Steinway if they have a decent technician in one’s area. Above all for concert purposes, hammers that are voiced in order to reduce the instrument to a state of neutrality. I much prefer neutrality to beautiful-sounding unevenness.”

The Best Care for fine pianos

Ron Elliot spoke of three distinct steps in piano care that come before tuning. The first involves the piano’s “action.” The second phase is “tone regulation.” (where all notes are detailed so that they sound even and one is not sticking out more than any other) And finally, there’s “voicing.” (Setting the piano’s tone, by modifying hammers or treating the felts that cover them.)

Finding one highly qualified technician with all those skills is like hunting for a needle in a haystack, especially in this land of agriculture and Rah-Rah Bulldog fever. Am I being redundant?

The Fresno landscape, is likely indicative of other less culturally cosmopolitan communities around the country with a voidable short list of artist-technicians, though some might argue that we have a great legion of piano tuners here.

I can’t agree. Those I’ve sampled haven’t had the skills to voice, regulate and tune my Steinways–the three crucial areas Ron Elliot enumerates to maintain fine instruments.

One local Registered Piano Technician, who did a magnificent job tuning the Haddorff (by ear as I insisted) declined any “regulation” work because he did not feel qualified.

While his honesty was appreciated, it was of no help in my quest to keep all my pianos well maintained.

Certainly, a relocation to the Bay area would be the logical remedy for my problems. The outstanding work of Israel Stein and Jerry Raz was on display when they tuned my El Cerrito based piano. Kudos to both!

But for the time being, the best I can do while living in Fresno, is to pray that a gifted and well-trained piano technician will float into the area and set up shop.

Fat chance since all our piano stores have gone belly up and the raid on Digitals is the trend. Tuning is out, bells and whistles are in!!

P.S. I have a folder swelling with quotes of grass roots piano techs from around the country that I amassed when preparing an article on this subject.

In the days ahead, I’ll share these to convene a fair and balanced discussion.

Links:

http://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/11/06/the-voices-of-piano-technicians-around-the-country/

http://www.ptg.org (The Piano Technician’s Guild)

“The Unseen Artist”

http://www.tunepiano.com/Unseen.htm

About arioso7: Shirley Kirsten

International piano teacher by Skype, recording artist, composer, piano finder, freelance writer, film maker, story teller: Grad of the NYC HS of Performing Arts, Oberlin Conservatory, NYU (Master of Arts) Studies with Lillian Freundlich and Ena Bronstein; Master classes with Murray Perahia and Oxana Yablonskaya. Studios in BERKELEY and EL CERRITO, California; Member, Music Teachers Assoc. of California, MTAC; Distance learning and Skyped instruction with supplementary videos: SKYPE ID, shirleypiano1 Contact me at: shirley_kirsten@yahoo.com OR http://www.youtube.com/arioso7 or at FACEBOOK: Shirley Smith Kirsten, http://facebook.com /shirley.kirsten TWITTER: http://twitter.com/arioso7 Private fund-raising for non-profits as pianist--Public Speaking re: piano teaching and creative approaches
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15 Responses to Treading on hallowed ground: the challenge of maintaining fine pianos after a personal tragedy

  1. Funny you should mention it but we do have a blind piano tuner John Devlin. He keeps our 120 year old upright grand in fine condition. When we had sighted tuners they all just did not do the job right. Perhaps being blind should be a job requirement.

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  2. Jeanne says:

    I just stumbled upon this article in a search for reviewsof PIANOMANIA, and after reading – much sympathy btw – I wondered if you’d ever thought of contacting Knupfer himself & seeing what advice/contacts he might offer you. Just my 2 cents…

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    • I tried indirectly to reach him through the documentary producers, but no response from anyone. Funny that the Piano Quarterly article landed Horowitz’s tuner.. flown from my hometown, NYC. But piano needed long-term work…

      The good techs wouldn’t travel to Fresno. They have their own clients in the back yard.

      Like

      • Jeanne says:

        No response? That’s strange… I’m actually a bit surprised that the documentary people weren’t interested in even answering, when Steinway & Sons responded to your article in such a decisive way – and imagine having Horowitz’s tuner work on your piano! *shakes head in awe*

        But yes, I can see what you mean… I’m not a piano person myself, but living in a remote area could probably make it hard to get really excellent tuners for your instrument. At the same time, if somebody like Mohr was willing to fly out to Fresno for you, I can’t imagine why anyone else would refuse…

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  3. I must not know the ropes.. but thanks for sharing your spin…

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  4. Jeanne says:

    No problem. All my best: I hope you find someone who can resolve the issue!

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  5. Thanks, Right now I psyche out the piano…and know its ups and downs..incubating “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” .. one of my favorites at this season. Sure to blog about.

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  6. Jeanne says:

    Well, you’ve got one new reader!

    Regards,
    Jeanne

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  7. I’m delighted. Still trying to embed my You Tube “Jesu” on my Facebook page..sounds oxymoronic

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  8. David Wong says:

    Some of my experiences… One tuners found all treble keys on my Steinway B not singing. I wrote to Steinway & received a new set of hammers — the tuner wasn’t able to improve the sound with it. Another tuner fixed the problem by moving the treble end of the keyboard by not even 1/8″ so that the hammers struck at the right spots on the short strings,.
    Had one local technician found on piano.com regulate my piano — I felt no improvememnt. A 2nd one came along and found the work not meeting the Steinway specs. Paid him more to redo the regulation. Finally, my latest technician found the 2nd guy way off too — you figure out who’s right. Anyway, the instrument plays quite well now. (I live near Sacramento, CA)

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  9. Thanks for sharing. It can be a real frustration not having the work done properly in the first place.–not to mention fees piling up. I’m glad you found the right tech to finally make your instrument play well…

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  10. Hello to every one, it’s actually a nice for me to pay a visit this site, it includes useful Information.

    Like

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    Like

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