time is six o'clock, two hours before the legendary pianist takes
the stage to perform.The
hall is empty, and still, except for a figure on stage leaning over
the piano. This unseen artist is part of every legendary piano performance.
piano technician is a highly skilled craftsman who has dedicated
years of training and practice to hone his skills, and just like
the famous pianists they work with, they are the very best at what
they do. Preparing the concert piano involves tuning, voicing, regulation,
and repairs, but only after careful evaluation of the piano, the
pianist's needs, and the repertoire for a given performance.
artist starts his performance by playing a series of scales and
arpeggios. His head is cocked while he listens intently. As he plays
he feels the piano's touch, the way the keys respond to subtle changes
in velocity and pressure, and makes a mental note of this piano's
unique strengths and weaknesses. A quick look at the evening's program
reveals that the piano will need to perform equally well for Chopin's
subtle, rich, and melodious works, and Prokofiev's loud and percussive
compositions. He also checks a hand written note left by the pianist,
who has two concerns: a sluggish key, and a section that is too
evaluation complete, the technician starts his tuning procedure.
He depresses the sustain pedal, lifting the dampers off the strings
and out of harm's way, and carefully inserts a felt strip between
the unisons, which are groups of strings tuned to the same note.
He does this to mute all but one string for each note. He then carefully
measures the pitch of several A notes with his laptop computer.
There are as many approaches to tuning pianos as playing them. This
technician uses a combination of aural and visual techniques to
tune pianos. The computer, equipped with highly specialized software,
not only measures the pitch, but also measures the piano's inharmonicity,
a unique quality in pianos that requires that each one be tuned
slightly different. Using the technician's input, and the inharmonicity
measurements, the computer calculates a theoretically ideal tuning
for this instrument. The technician next adjusts the tension of
one string for each note with his tuning lever, while listening
to the pitch, and also watching the visual target displayed on the
laptop's screen. Next he listens to combinations of the previously
tuned notes, and makes several subtle adjustments by ear. Having
satisfied himself that the relationships between the notes, or intervals,
is optimal for the evening's performance, he shuts down his computer
and moves on to tuning unisons.
tunes the unisons by ear, removing the mutes, and then matching
the previously muted strings to those he has already tuned. As he
matches each string for maximum clarity he gives the key a sharp
hard blow to test that the tuning will hold its pitch, even under
intense performance conditions.
now checks the sluggish key noted by the pianist. Sluggish or sticky
keys are caused by problems in the piano's action, the complex mechanism
connecting the keys to the hammers, which strike the strings. The
technician discovers the culprit is a tight hammer flange center
pin. He carefully refits the small, felt bushed hole, so that the
polished steel pin pivots freely as the hammer assembly swings to
meet the string, and then returns to its rest position. He also
finds and corrects several other tight flanges. While not observed
by the pianist in practice, they could have caused serious trouble
during the concert. Using small tools, reminiscent of those used
by a dentist, the technician adjusts spring tension and levels the
height of the hammers. These adjustments, known as action regulation,
will ensure that the action feels even and responsive to the pianist.
Once the technician
is satisfied that the tuning and touch of the piano are optimized,
he concentrates his efforts on the piano's tone. Not to be confused
with the pitch, which is a function of tuning, tone is a function
of voicing, the adjusting of brilliance, attack, and sustain. While
this piano, a Steinway model D concert grand, has a beautiful tone,
the pianist noticed a bright section that was hard to control during
his rehearsal. The technician diagnoses that the affected hammers
are too hard. He carefully slides the action and keys out of the
piano and into his lap. Using his voicing tool, he skillfully jabs
the hammers with its needles, needling the hammers of the effected
section in the shoulders, near the top, to mellow their tone, blending
the bright notes in with the others. He works carefully, too much
needling, or accidentally needling the very top of the hammer, could
ruin them. He replaces the action and plays through several scales
and arpeggios while listening intently for consistency in tone.
He repeats the needling procedure until each note strikes with the
same intensity and voice.
While not an
accomplished pianist, the technician plays the piano. He plays both
fortissimo (loud), and pianissimo (soft), using all three pedals
as he plays, and listening intently, straining to hear and feel
everything the pianist will experience later. His goal is for the
instrument to be completely transparent to the pianist. The piano
should feel and sound like an extension of the pianist himself.
performs beautifully that evening. The audience calls him back to
the stage with standing ovations for two encores. The technician
waits nervously backstage. His audience is not only those seated
in the hall, but also the pianist himself. The artist seen walks
backstage and seeks out the unseen artist, and shaking his hand
he says, "thank you my friend, your work has made this piano
a joy to play tonight". In his mind the unseen artist takes
a bow, he thanks his Maker for the skills, and then he says out
loud, "thank you maestro, it was a joy to hear you play it
so well tonight".
piano preparation involves a combination of highly developed skills.
Piano evaluation, tuning, regulation, and troubleshooting, as well
as good communication skills, are essential parts of preparing a
piano for an important performance.
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