The Endangered Piano Technician

As a pianist, I have a recurring nightmare that the piano will disappear as a concert instrument, not because people won’t want to hear it or play it, nor because fine pianos won’t be built, but because good concert piano technicians are vanishing.

Technicians repair and adjust the mechanism of the piano, with its roughly 2,000 moving, vibrating or adjustable parts. A concert technician does all this, plus tuning, under performance-day pressure, while being supportive of the artist. This medley of abilities requires complete mastery and a special temperament, a combination that is increasingly rare.

On tour, we pianists take potluck in technicians, but when I am home I am lucky enough to have the services of Kenyon Brown. For 25 years, he was the Steinway concert technician here in Los Angeles, responsible for pianos used by artists from Elton John to Arthur Rubinstein, in venues ranging from concert halls to recording studios to the Hollywood Bowl. The great Rubinstein, who played all sorts of pianos in his career of 80-plus years, called Brown one of the five or six best technicians in the world.

Brown sees to it that the key mechanism, or “action,” follows the subtlest volume changes and the fastest repeated notes, that the hammers create a rich and clear tone, that the pedals respond delicately and work silently, and that the tuning is beautiful and stable. He also repairs broken strings, tightens loose bearings, and eliminates buzzes.

Consider what must happen when I perform Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. The flowing three-note groups introduce and accompany the famous melody, which arises naturally from them because it is made from their overtones. This relationship is heard only if the tuning is accurate, as Brown’s is. And because he knows how to stabilize the tuning pins in the laminated pinblock, the piano stays in tune even as the arrival of the audience makes the hall warmer and more humid, and as previous works on the program tend to stretch the strings with repeated hammer blows.

Brown may perform any of a dozen adjustments to make the keyboard action responsive. For instance, the hammers fly free for a fraction of an inch before hitting the strings. When this distance is set just right, playing the melody’s subtle rises and falls feels as natural as adjusting a light dimmer. When it is wrong, the keys feel instead like switches: simply on or off, either playing a note or not.

To make the piano’s tone expressive, Brown files the crowns and shoulders (tops and sides) of each hammer to their proper shape if they are worn, fluffs up the hammer felt and, if necessary, brightens the tone by applying a lacquer solution under the crowns of the hammers. Then, during the measurable moment when a hammer hits the strings, its contours and resilience will damp ugly harmonics while exciting the right ones to give a singing tone.

Every technician does these things. Few do them well. When done correctly, work like this spiritualizes my relationship with the instrument. I have a better chance of rising to the heights of performance, where the notes are transparent to the music, and the music transparent to the emotion. Brown tells me that a technician “shouldn’t be allowed to do concert work for 10 years” because it takes that much experience to be ready; thus, there will never be too many fine concert technicians.

In fact, there is a desperate shortage, 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. The only U.S. bachelor’s-degree program in piano technology, at Michigan State University, closed 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 U.S. 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 technicians, owners may never know the pleasure of playing a piano that is in good shape.

Does it really matter if pianos in superb condition vanish, replaced perhaps by electronic synthesizers? These already seem as numerous as a plague of locusts. Unfortunately, they sound like them, too. I have never heard an electronic instrument on which each note was interesting and beautiful, as it is on a fine piano.

This beauty, which entrances novices as much as concert artists, combined with the piano’s ability to play harmony, makes it the working tool of all types of composers and the optimal teaching machine for students. Except perhaps for the human voice, the piano has the largest and greatest literature of any instrument. The life of this literature is central to our musical culture and utterly dependent on “oral transmission” through performance.

The importance of the piano technician can be summed up in a little story. One evening, Brown, having prepared and tuned Rubinstein’s piano at the Los Angeles Music Center, waited in the wings in case a problem arose. Greeting Rubinstein after the performance, Brown exclaimed, “That was very beautiful, Mr. Rubinstein.”

Said Rubinstein, “We have made it so.”

Published in Scientific American, December, 1995. Reprinted in Piano & Keyboard, May-June, 1996. Copyright James Boyk 1995; all rights reserved.

Copyright © James Boyk 2013. All rights reserved.
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