CONSTANCE  MEYER                                                     Articles
Pulling strings to get it right

When the stakes are high but the instrument's an unknown, many pianists insist on the technician they trust to put a performance in its best light.

September 3, 2006 | by Constance Meyer | The Los Angeles Times

UNTIL just recently, a violin soloist took for granted that she could carry her fiddle with her on an airplane. A concert cellist was able to buy a seat for his instrument whenever he flew. But even before heightened airline security, concert pianists were not so lucky: Almost all of them must leave their humongous, beloved instrument at home and make do with one they've quite likely never played before.

To ease their discomfort, however, these musicians have an indispensable ally, the unsung hero or heroine of many a concert and recital -- the piano technician. That's the person at each venue who prepares the piano in every respect, doing whatever possible to make a soloist feel at home when he or she sits down to perform. Ron Elliott is going into his 20th year as the Los Angeles Philharmonic's piano technician, handling all nine of its Steinway concert pianos at the Hollywood Bowl and Walt Disney Concert Hall. And as he puts it: "I am on standby for all soloists until they're finished."

Obviously, we're talking here about more than your garden-variety piano tuner. Piano technician Gordon McNelly is retail service manager at Steinway & Sons in New York, where he oversees 12 other technicians. And according to McNelly, a piano tuner "just tunes. He doesn't get into the subtleties, adjusting little nuances of making that piano what the instrumentalist needs." Gerhard Feldmann, president of Bosendorfer New York, the only exclusive showroom for Bosendorfer pianos outside Vienna, likens a tuner to someone in the car business who "works at Jiffy Lube and just knows how to change the oil -- as opposed to a Mercedes-Benz technician, who knows how to maintain and service the entire vehicle."

To most people, in other words, the piano may be just a parlor instrument. But, says Elliott, a concert pianist is like "a race car driver who takes it around that track, and his life depends on it. It has to be able to perform."

Multipronged approach

IN fact, as Elliott explains, there are three distinct steps in piano care that come before tuning, which consists basically of adjusting the tension in the instrument's 200-plus strings so they vibrate with the correct frequency, or pitch. He calls that "the icing on the cake."

The first step involves the piano's "action." "The instrument consists of a box that has wood, steel and strings strung on it," Elliott says, "and the action, which slides out of the piano like a big drawer with perhaps 4,500 moving parts in it. The action is everything in between pressing the key down and the sound coming out of the instrument. I have to assess what has to be done to get that end product tone." McNelly likens the action, which determines how hard the hammers hit the strings, to "the engine of the instrument. That key, when you push it down, has to have a specified amount of resistance. It can't be too much or too little."

The next phase of maintaining a healthy piano is tone regulation, when the technician "goes through the piano chromatically to make sure that every note sounds even, that one is not sticking out more than any other," McNelly says. And finally, there is voicing -- setting the instrument's tone, usually by modifying the hammers or the felt that covers them. When Feldmann prepares a piano for an artist, his first question is, "What is the program? Brahms? Debussy? Both?" "You can't voice the piano for every piece," he says, "but if I know what is being played and who is playing, I have a rough idea. You want to see how they attack, how they hold their fingers, to get an idea how to work on the instrument for them." McNelly adds: "Every instrument has its own voice. The ability to change that speaking voice falls to the piano technician. If the piano is used for accompaniment, you don't want it to overpower, be too harsh or too bright, so voicing would be the process of backing it off, making it a little more mellow."

Each of these steps demands intuition, experience and technical expertise, whereas many piano tuners nowadays rely on digital tuning devices. But on that subject, McNelly is unequivocal. "I don't employ technicians who use them," he says. "Besides tuning, you're listening for clicks, things that need to be fixed. Relying visually on a digital device does not allow your ears to pick up the nuances of this acoustic instrument. Once you set that piece of electronic equipment on top of the piano, you lose credibility."

Elliott remembers working in New York in the '80s and frequently going to Carnegie Hall "10 minutes before a performance -- the audience is seated and the piano sounds terrible. It's survival. You can only rely on your brain and your ear. You have to go through it as quickly as possible, bring the thing together to be usable. And it's not possible with a machine. Every piano's not the same. To make it sound beautiful and resonant, you don't take the same approach."

"The sad truth," says McNelly, "is that the industry is horribly unregulated. Anyone can open a business and work on pianos. There's no licensing, no certification, no union, no anything. You don't even need to be insured. Even the used car business has regulations now. I don't know of any other industry like this. Maybe bowling ball drillers. It's pretty bad."

A passion for the piano

HENRY STEINWAY, 91, great-grandson of the founder of Steinway & Sons, still goes to work most days at the firm's West 57th Street headquarters in Manhattan. Seated behind his desk one afternoon last spring, he observed that piano technicians are "very interesting people." Standing amid her vast collection of music boxes with her two Pyrenees mountain dogs nearby, Tali Mahanor, considered one of the New York area's finest piano technicians, puts it somewhat differently. "We're a weird and odd lot," she says with a laugh.

Today, Mahanor has her own business, called Cantabile Piano Arts, in Yonkers, N.Y. But she says she was "around 12 when I acquired my first piano, for $25 -- it had one ivory on the keyboard" -- and she recalls the first time it was tuned as a well-nigh transcendent experience. There was "a purity, a beauty in that gorgeous clear sound of a tuned piano. I was in tears pretty much that day. But of course it eventually started losing that beauty, like windows that become dirty again."

Mahanor's parents couldn't hear the difference, though, and refused to pay to have the instrument retuned, "so I took a wrench and deliberately put it way out of tune." After that, "I don't know how she found it, but my mother actually bought me a home study course from the American School of Piano Tuning, which is now online. There were 10 lessons and a little test at the end of each one. I was in seventh grade when I made the decision that this was what I wanted to do. By the time I reached high school, I had piano tunings every day after school."

When she was a junior, Mahanor went to Steinway & Sons in New York to talk about job opportunities. "I passed the tuning audition," she says, "and it was arranged that I would work there when I completed a one-year program in Sioux City, Iowa, which I wanted to attend. It closed up a few years ago. It was a dying art back then."

Elliott, for his part, started out to be a pianist before learning the craft of tuning and taking a job in the concert department at Steinway in New York. After several years, he came west and ran the Steinway concert/artist department at Sherman Clay in Los Angeles for a short time, then went to work for the Philharmonic. But even he acknowledges that to be a first-rate piano technician, you need something beyond the physical and aural skills. You need an understanding of emotional fragility.

"One of the things about doing standby -- it's not just in case something happens," he says. Pianists "feel more confident if I'm there. A lot of it is psychological." Feldmann agrees, noting that "sometimes these artists, who go all over the world, like to see a familiar face. The piano may have been neglected, but when they know that you're coming, they know that you will do whatever it takes to make this thing play well and make their work easier."

Feldmann says he enjoys being at concerts but also finds them "nerve-racking, because you're always listening. Did something slip or is something going out of tune? The greatest concert is when someone plays a heavy two-hour program and at the end you still don't hear any out-of-tune notes on the piano. That's the ultimate as a piano technician."

Certainly the prospect of fame is not a motivator for these dedicated individuals. Yet they sometimes receive their due. "Years ago," Elliott recalls, "during a televised concert of a piano concerto at the Bowl, a string broke, hit the inside of the lid, rattled the strings, fell on the sound board and continued to rattle."

The conductor signaled him, and the broadcast announcer gave a blow-by-blow description: " 'Here comes Ron Elliott....' I looked in and pulled the string out." Then, his accustomed anonymity gone, Elliott was astounded to find 18,000 people applauding. "The pianist got up, shook my hand and bowed."



Copyright 2006 Constance Meyer. All rights reserved