Winds of Change
I recall that in my undergraduate years, eons ago, the concert piano received a tuning before every senior recital. The tuning often occurred within the hour or so before the recital itself; when scheduling prevented this, a sign was placed on the piano declaring it off-limits to heavy use. Such attention to detail seemed natural in an environment that valued the pursuit of excellence. A well-tuned piano was as much a given as working lights in the hall.
A lot has changed since then, and the news isn't good. This was painfully evident in a couple of guest recitals I gave not so long ago. When I arrived the concert pianos in both. locations were badly out of tune and in need of voicing. After a rehearsal and master class on the piano at school A, not to mention usage by others at the busy conservatory, the poor instrument was on life support. Knowing that an unpleasant experience awaited both performer and audience, I asked if a technician might be available for at least a tuning. Alas, came the answer, we have a part-time technician who only tunes on the weekend (this was a Thursday). The piano at school B was in even worse need of TLC, and you guessed it, their piano tech was not only part-time but lived fifty miles away to boot.
In neither case was the problem an inferior instrument: the schools were proud possessors of relatively new Steinway Ds with good basic qualities. The issue instead could be described as a perfect storm that threatens to swamp what remains of our profession's high aspirations. With music school budgets pinched as never before, the piano technician, that person no pianist can live without, is passing from the status of endangered species to something approaching extinction.
The budget problems are serious-anyone affiliated with an institution of higher learning knows that everything that can be cut has already been cut, and still the demands come from legislatures and governing boards for more, which means to those of us in the trenches, less. In the piano support area, many schools moved from full-time to part-time technicians years ago, and these schools now rely on contract work, otherwise known as outsourcing. Under such systems practice room pianos fall into horrendous disrepair, and concert pianos are subject to the indignities I encountered on tour. I would argue that if a school has any standards at all, it cannot cut back on piano maintenance. We might as well tell the members of the school orchestra to tune their instruments only once a week (or month, or semester, in line with many of our pianos). We claim to be training future musicians, but what can we expect of students who have never heard a classroom piano play their dictation exercise in tune?
Let us not forget that in Western music the exact frequency of any given pitch is determined to an extremely precise degree. The relationship of pitches, according to Johannes Kepler, echoed the laws that kept the planets circling the sun. Pythagoras recognized that beautiful (harmonious) sounds were built out of simple mathematical ratios. The eye might not recognize a slight deviation in a 2:1 relationship; the ear can hear it instantly. That octave just became an unintended dissonance. Is it still an octave?1
Pianists and organists are alone among musicians in ceding responsibility for tuning their instruments to someone else. We are thus tremendously, terribly dependent upon the skills of piano technicians. I feel so fortunate to have had great relationships with several excellent, caring, dedicated techs in my career, but there is no guarantee that someone will always be there.
The situation is particularly severe at Universities. Three years ago my institution had an opening for head piano technician; we advertised nationally and talked the position up through several channels. We had two applicants. I asked colleagues around the country who also had searches in progress about the size of their pool: one had to cancel their search for lack of even one applicant. Part one of the problem is simply a shortage of technicians:
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. The only US. bachelor's- degree program in piano technology, at Michigan State University, dosed recently when its director retired. At least four other programs have shut down in the last few years, and none has opened. The four programs remaining in the US. offer just one or two years of training, and among them graduate only about 30 students a year. Because of the lack of well-trained techniciam, owners may never know the pleasure of playing a piano that is in good shape.2
These prescient words were written in 1995. By now the problem has advanced nearly a generation. Part two is even more alarming: the best techs tell me that working for a university is against their economic self-interest. We simply don't pay enough; they can. make more and endure fewer hassles working on their own. If your school is lucky enough to have a full-time tech, find out what the salary is--you may be shocked by the low figure. Of course the part-timers make even less--the administration may save money, but you, your students, and your audiences are paying a different kind of price.
I want to end this with resounding praise for the full-time university techs who do go the extra mile every day against significant odds. Last fall, just as the change of season was wreaking havoc on all our pianos, I asked the UMKC tech for help with the voicing of our concert piano. He came in on a Saturday afternoon and accomplished miracles, staying through the beginning of my recital that night to make sure everything was in order. Any success I had that night belonged measurably to him. At a different guest recital, I encountered yet another piano that had been banged mercilessly for three straight days, in a competition. Arriving in a foul mood for my warmup, I was delighted to meet the school's technician who was there on his own time. When I said I was glad to see him, he told me that as a matter of pride, he wouldn't want "his" piano to go out in public in the condition I had previously found it. By recital time it was in very good shape. And at my last stop on the tour I sat down for an early morning rehearsal to a piano that was not only in tune, but also was voiced with great care. Playing the piano was a dream. I insisted on meeting the technician so that I could compliment him on his work. He seemed genuinely pleased. I told him I didn't know how much he made, but whatever it was, it wasn't enough.
Treasure your piano tech! He's keeping the planets in orbit.
1 If you don't know Stuart Isacoff's book, Temperament, you owe it to yourself to read this marvelously insightful and poetic examination of equal temperament (Knopf, 2001).
2 James Boyk, "The Endangered Piano Technician," Scientific American, December, 1995, reprinted in Piano & Keyboard, May/June, 1996.