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Piano Maintenance– About hammers: all or partial replacement? (Video)

When my Baldwin Hamilton 1929 grand underwent exploratory surgery in the capable hands of Mark Schecter, RPT, I had some pointed questions.

Given that the piano had a glassy-sounding upper treble due to worn down hammers, would installing a partial set of new ones be a reasonable route to take?

Mark didn’t think so, and explained.

My guess was that the weight of the hammers could be a variable, making one part of the piano feel qualitatively different than another.

More about hammers on video:

And a valuable Piano World Forum post from Keith Aikens, RPT conformed with Mark’s opinion:

“It is important to realize that there isn’t any “partial set of hammers” readily available on the market. Here’s why:

“Hammers are made as one long piece of felt pressed around one long moulding. Then the completed pressing is cut into individual hammer heads. (We just call them hammers).

“The costs to make a partial set will be close to the costs to make a full set of hammers. So there is no economic incentive to a hammer maker to make a partial set — even if there were a sufficient demand. And, if a full set is broken up and sold, who will buy the remainder? The costs are still the same = 1 full set.

“That’s the story from the hammer maker’s side. From the side of the piano/pianist/technician, it’s really quite simple. The piano as an instrument is an organic whole and when parts are worn, it’s best to replace them in sets, rather than trying to set a standard of “how worn is still acceptable” and then measuring them to determine pass/fail according to whatever (necessarily arbitrary) criteria are established.

“So, even though the treble hammers may be worn down to the wood and the bass ones aren’t, the bass are still worn and merit replacement. But, beyond that, the new hammers simply won’t match the old ones. It’s like having heavy, lugged snow/mud tires on one side of your car and racing tires on the other side. It won’t be a pleasant driving experience.”


The Back Story:

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The voices of piano technicians around the country

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:

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) 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–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.”


"The Endangered Piano Technician", James Boyk, Los Angeles Philharmonic, piano technician, Piano Technician's Guil, piano technician's guild, piano tuners, problems with maintenance of fine pianos, PTG, Scientific American, voicing pianos, word press,

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:

Just a snatch:

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….


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

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.”

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: (The Piano Technician’s Guild)

“The Unseen Artist”