I had the invaluable opportunity to interview various Registered Piano Technicians around the country about various aspects of their profession.
First, to become a RPT, the candidate takes an exam that’s administered through the Piano Technician’s Guild (PTG) which has branches in cities all over the country. Since piano tuning is not a licensed profession, PTG “has set up standards of quality workmanship and examinations to test for them.” These cover tuning, regulation and repairs, as well as basic knowledge of piano building and design.
The Guild has two types of members: “Registered Piano Technicians” and “Associates.” “Associate membership is open to anyone with a “professional or avocational interest in piano technology.”
RPT, Israel Stein, a tuner in the Bay area, is one of the PTG Examiners. He’d mentioned in passing, that a time factor is integrated into the tuning segment of the examination. I found this fascinating because some tuners will spend hours tuning a piano, while others might be in and out the door lickety split.
Off the top of my head, I can think of two tuners, both RPTs, who have contrasting tuning styles. One tunes by ear without electronics, and the other comes with a Verituner. The latter tuned a student’s Knabe medium size grand piano with the “machine” in 15 minutes flat, and left the piano “out of tune” when she left. I stood there, jaw dropped, observing the proceedings. Since I had helped the pupil acquire the piano which had not been tuned in approximately two years, I had a keen interest in the quality of follow-up maintenance. A big disappointment!
The machine-dependent tuner, by the way, didn’t play any harmonic intervals in the course of her tuning which surprised me. She calibrated the gizmo, or set the temperament and that was it. I was frankly appalled by the results.
The second tuner, Terry Barrett, who “tunes” by ear will spend hours with my Steinway grand, fussing over every interval, in 5ths, 6ths, 3rds, 10ths, you name it, and by the time he’s wrapped up the whole afternoon, the piano is in excellent “tune.” For repairs, I’m out of luck so my piano remains painfully unregulated.
Sight compromised, by the way, Barrett rides a bicycle to his appointments, bogged down by bags of tools that are carefully weight balanced over both back wheels.
This well-built RPT uses a powerful magnifying glass to inspect the intricacies of a piano’s complex assembly and in fact, solved the mystery of my Aeolian spinet’s date of manufacture using this very implement. SEE Blog: https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/26/a-table-style-piano-with-three-leaves-the-whole-story-in-lurid-detail/
I honed in with his digital cam, and photographed deep into the key bed to capture the “1936” engraving.
Terry is mum about machine vs. ear tuning, so I don’t engage him in any related discussions.
The Central Valley climate, by the way, is kind to pianos with its low humidity in the 40% to 55% or so range. So most pianos will have a decent life span if kept here and tuned every 6 months to a year. (that presupposes a set of strings that are viable; and hammers that have enough felt to give them a lease on life.) Technicians will also argue with reasonable assertion, that the piano, to stay maintained, should be voiced and regulated; checked for moths and mice critters that can attack at any time and eat their way through the action, and updated if parts of the hammer assembly need replacement.
Rick Clark, Piano Doctor/technician at Artistic Pianos in San Diego, says in this regard, “that just about everyone thinks their ancient upright is in good shape and ‘just needs a tuning.’ In fact, these pianos are for the most part highly deteriorated inside where it counts, and age alone takes a great toll on felt and leather.” Kick in the climate on the Eastern seaboard and you often get “rust and Stress Related Deformation to the wood.” He notes that plain old “wear and tear” on the piano from years of playing also “takes a toll”…In essence, most of these pianos are ready for the scrap heap.
But Clark posits a last ditch resuscitation with some reservation: “Sometimes you can improvise/patch up the worst problems and get all the keys to work, and some resemblance of a tuning, but if you’re looking at a total rebuild, “it may be too expensive to justify.”
I should add that rebuilding my 1940’s era, New York City based Sohmer upright was cost prohibitive. It had unsuccessfully braved East Coast weather changes/elements, and stood as a pretty piece of furniture taking up space in the living room. Recently, I mourned its death during my trip back home in upper Manhattan.
Back to “voices” of Registered Piano Technicians:
In this segment, I posed about 20 questions that were sent out and answered by email.
Dave Estey, an RPT working in New Jersey shared his thoughts on pertinent tuner related issues.(He’s a tuner/techician that also does restorations and rebuilds in his shop) http://www.esteypiano.com David Estey Piano Service
First, I asked him where he received his tuner/tech training?
“I apprenticed in a rebuilding shop under an old-timer for about 3 years. I learned the basics under my apprenticeship, but learned much more by hands on experience. This would be the case for all those in the business–you learn by doing and experiencing different problems–pianos–etc.”
My next inquiry focused on the use of machines to tune pianos, always a hotbed of discussion:
“Machines are OK–but also require experience to use. The Sanderson Accutuner is one I’m familiar with, as I own one–using it for training purposes. From my perspective, tuning by ear, the machines are awkward requiring way too much time to work with. If one learns to use them, learns to set them to each individual piano, they are good enough for Jonnie and Suzie taking lessons, but I would not send a tuner who used such a device to a client such as yourself.
“Bottom line, no one can be a decent tuner using a tuning device and not have the basics of aural tuning or a trained ear to some degree. Again, bottom line–the main ingredient to any accurate tuning is raw experience. In my first year of tuning (about 30 years ago) an old timer told me that I wouldn’t know what I was doing until I had tuned 1,000 pianos. I chuckled inside–saying “you gotta be kidding,” but the old guy was right.I don’t care what kind of device you use, including your bare ear–the extremes of bass and treble require practice and experience to be tuned correctly due to imperfections (wild strings) and tonal variations on any piano including a concert Steinway.”
Christopher Hill, concert piano technician, working in the New Jersey area, praised his Sanderson Accutuner:
“I resisted buying a Sanderson Accutuner for FIVE years as my friend/mentor pestered me. I had been tuning for 18 years at the time, and at the concert level. This machine is the best tool I have ever owned. And Yefim Bronfman and others in his business did not say a word when they saw me take it out of my tool case. Even the inventor, Dr. Sanderson, always said at conventions that you MUST use your ear. If it’s a crutch and not a tool you are in trouble. In the past ten days I have worked with Alfred Brendel and Andre LaPlante and neither asked me how I got the piano in tune. They smiled and thanked me, for which I am most grateful. I still thank my friend for his push eleven years ago. (and he has worked for more artists than I ever will….)”
My questions continued in the following order:
How do you think the Piano Technicians Guild can reach out to the community to inform piano owners about the need to regularly tune and maintain pianos?
“They have made great strides with the PTG website but have failed in this effort to put the interests of RPT’s first. This has hurt the organization. The PTG to date has not been working with this website in synergy as they could. PTG gives no preferential order to dealers and re-builders who are RPTs. They are in alphabetical order–so even though I support the Guild, pay for the web site with my dues, have meetings in my shop, I am lower on the list than those who do NOTHING to support the PTG. As a matter of fact, if you look at the piano dealer list, you will find the first listing bumps you off the PTG site to another listing of dealers who have NOTHING to do with the support or interests of the guild.
“I think PTG marketing has a long way to go–they need to encourage more to join as RPTs by making it a distinct BUSINESS advantage to do so. By doing the proper marketing–which would be the website–e.g. working closer with Pianoworld.com–and giving advantage to its members who pay for the site and support the guild–the revenues and marketing budget would increase thereby enabling the piano market to be better informed.”
How can PTG improve services to its members? (Was I being redundant?)
You have my rant about the website. I think PTG is overly paranoid about discussing the business end–pricing, etc. The average tuner in this area is charging about $100 to $110 per tuning, including RPTs. Call GE or Sears to come and fix your dryer–$149.95 to walk in the door and another $25 to turn a screw. Generally, RPTs are charging too little for their experience. Imagine spending decades to hone your skills and charging less than someone who fixes a dryer (no insult to the Maytag guys, but you get my point)
Since you are from New Jersey, I would imagine that the high humidity might require the use of damp chasers. Do you recommend them?
“We have had fantastic results with the pianos equipped with a Damp Chaser system. As a matter of fact, I like to put them in any piano I sell or rebuild. I highly recommend them.”
Finally, a question that was particularly dear to my heart, concerned the choice of hammers placed in a NYC vintage Steinway grand. When my instrument was finally re-built to recup its damages from an untimely assault by a piano technician, I was fussy about the type of hammers the re-builder would install. There was an issue related to employment of Steinway NY hammers vs. the German, brighter sounding Renners. My piano had the NY Steinway variety when it was originally purchased which preserved its singing tone. On the other hand some rebuilders wouldn’t think twice about installing the German Renners (used in the Hamburg grands) in a NY manufactured Steinway.
In the end, after sampling each, I had signed off on the NY variety.
Estey weighed in with his opinions:
“As a matter of fact we use Renner most of the time, unless the client insists on Steinway parts. (He acknowledged the use of Renners in the Hamburg Steinway, which for me has a bright and angular sound)
“The Steinway parts have generally required much more labor to install–I have found their pinning to be inconsistent–the hammers require considerable voicing, and their rep lever springs are just plain obsolete, in my opinion. With Renner rep levers you adjust by turning the screw that can be very exacting. Steinway rep lever springs must be manually adjusted which is a crazy waste of time in my book. Renner hammers (Blues) come out of the box consistent and requiring much less labor to voice properly. Steinway hammers need to be lacquered and romanced. We are capable of doing this work, but unless a customer insists on Steinway parts, I’ll choose Renner in a heartbeat.”
This is a sore point for me. As a performing pianist, in possession of a very tonally beautiful Steinway that now needs much work, I tend to lean toward putting the compatible NY Steinway hammers in my vintage treasure. When Dale Erwin of Modesto resurrected my piano from the dead in the early 90’s, he spent inordinate time “voicing” my piano with my constant feedback. Part of the process was letting me sample the tone produced by a Renner vs. NY Steinway hammer.
In my mind, short-cuts with Renner hammers, that produce more of a brassy sound that belongs to the Hamburg Steinway, or is the DNA of this European instrument should not be gene-cloned into the East Coast manufactured piano. I doubt the builders in the Long Island Factory in New York are putting the Renners in the crop of new and even vintage era pianos. It would make no sense, genetically.
Here’s what Dale Erwin had to say. (Erwin’s Piano Restoration, Inc) I give this shop ***** rating! The man saved my piano! And he viewed it as a singing tone instrument, plying and treating the hammers in such a way as to milk every note for its maximum cantabile effect.
My opener to the discussion:
“Dale, I remember when you rebuilt my Steinway that you let me sample the tone yielded by a Steinway vs. Renner hammer, and I readily chose the NY Steinway hammer that you then voiced and developed magnificently. I was curious as to whether in the long years of your Steinway restorations if you have come to a consensus about whether its best to use the NY Steinway hammers in the vintage instruments to get the Steinway sound? I’m also confused when I hear about re-builds where Renner actions are used in tandem with Steinway hammers. The Steinway factory seems to say that the Steinway pianos need Steinway hammers and other Steinway parts. They insist in the Concert and Artist Department that the Renner implanted hammers in Steinway pianos are changing the gender, so to speak, of Steinway pianos.
Dale: I agree. But the action parts and the hammers are two separate issues. Renner parts are fine parts but I dislike the hammers. The average consumer is overwhelmed by confusion in regard to this whole rebuild area. And I must say that I am compelled to do research and find vintage rebuilt Steinways that have only Steinway parts, en toto to compare with the Renner modified.
Me: The other thing I heard is that replacing soundboards by technicians is a major compromise.
Dale: “What a crock. Yes, it’s the marketing hype of Steinway and Sons. They’d have you believe that they have magic wood and they are the only artisan soundboard makers. Their soundboard-making method is archaic, antiquated, unreliable and outdated. If you ever hear my pianos you’ll know what they say is not true. I saw their Convention display of a Steinway A, 1900. The board was already collapsed even though just rebuilt. Horrible!
Me: When I read James Barron’s The Making of a Steinway Piano, I realized the arduous work that goes into tendering a soundboard, starting with trips to the forest in the Pacific Northwest–and that much of the purchased wood is tossed out with grain, moisture, and other problems…what about modifications to the lyre. Modifying a lyre does not sound right.
Dale: (side stepped my comments)
“So much rebuilding I see is garden variety commercial grade disappointments. Very little artisan quality work in the world.”
Me: I’m fortunate that my Steinway, “M” grand has the original soundboard with a patchable crack. While it needs a going over since its rebuild in the 90’s, it still sings and provides satisfying hours of playing.
To conclude this blog segment, that will be followed by more shared “voices” from the technician community, I’ve chosen a riveting quote of James Boyk, concert pianist, who wrote the “The Endangered Piano Technician,” published in Scientific American, 1995.
In the course of our e-mailed correspondence he questioned my intent in writing an article about the universe of tuner/technicians.
Boyk: “I admire you for all this. I would only suggest with respect to your undertaking, that you keep a focused idea of whom you’re trying to convince, and of what, precisely.
“A) if you convince everyone that they ought to engage top quality tuner/technicians, but such people don’t exist, it won’t change anything. Contrariwise, (B) if you inspire a thousand young people to become tuner/technicians–and even if they are in a position to devote years to training–and they were ready to embark on a career, they would have no work unless customers had been educated to want them–which is where I started this circular paragraph.
“Like all such ‘chicken and egg’ problems, this one is tough to crack.”