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Piano Tuner Blues

Those who keep our ivories in key are rarely in sync themselves, especially when debating whether to work digitally or by ear.

July 15, 2003|Paul Pringle | Times Staff Writer

A note about piano tuners: They often are not in accord.

Tuners can't agree whether their ranks resonate with talent or reek of the tone-deaf. A professional guild sets the bar for training, but most tuners won't join it.

Many are sharply critical of how piano owners treat their instruments -- and their tuners. Others flatly don't care, as long as the customer pays scale.

And nothing stirs more dissonance in the do-re-mi trade than the debate over tuning by ear versus tuning by technology.

The dispute predates the Digital Age -- electronic tuners debuted in the 1930s -- but has grown louder as software becomes increasingly popular on the job. The Kansas City, Mo.-based Piano Technicians Guild says computers are now used by at least half the 10,000 tuners who service America's 18 million pianos.

"Piano tuners love to argue," said Jim Ogden, 55, a La Canada Flintridge resident who got into the business nine years ago. "It's just endless."

Cyber-tuning has drawn a line between the likes of Richard Davenport and Ron Elliott, who otherwise have much in common. They occupy the upper range of Los Angeles tuners, with a combined six decades of experience, big-name clients, and steady gigs at recording studios and concert halls.

The similarities stop when they lift the piano lid and go to work.

Davenport's routine is to wrestle a laptop from his gear bag, place it gently on the piano's cast-iron plate, and power up a program that displays a spinning green disc that measures the pitches of the 88 keys. Davenport watches it as he tunes.

Elliott simply tilts his head toward the strings and listens. His tools are sleeved in a handyman's roll pouch. None requires batteries.

"I've always tuned by ear," he said.

Elliott stood over a nine-foot Steinway on the darkened stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. His task was to improve the "feel" of the piano for soloist Richard Goode.

Elliott tugged his tuning hammer -- a misnamed wrench -- this way and that on the pin of a B-flat string, adjusting it by hair-widths, while pounding the key. The B flat reverberated like a pipe banging in a storm drain, only purer.

"There are a lot of people who use electronic tuners," said Elliott, a soft-spoken 51-year-old with clipped, graying hair. He wore a suit and tie. "Maybe they never really learned to tune by ear." He said no computer can "hear" the subtle tonal differences between two pianos, or along the multi-string unisons within a single instrument.

Elliott also said the gadgets can't "stretch the octaves," making the bass flatter and treble sharper -- to suit a performer's taste.

"A machine is very rigid," said the Pasadena resident. "Tuning is creative."

Elliott has tuned the Music Center's pianos for 17 years. He drifted into the craft after studying piano.

It took him an hour to sweeten the Steinway. The piano is tuned before every concert. Household pianos typically are tuned once a year.

"Richard Goode is a very sensitive player," Elliott said as he tinkered with the Steinway's felt hammers. They bounced on the Swedish-steel strings like woodpeckers peppering bark. Elliott jabbed one hammer with a needle -- "sugar-coating" it -- to render the string less strident.

Goode appeared from the gloom just as Elliott finished. The impish-faced pianist wanted another rehearsal before that night's performance.

Music to His Ears

Elliott hurriedly collected his tools and retreated backstage. After tearing into a Mozart concerto, Goode complimented Elliott. "Ron is one of my favorites," he said. Elliott was visibly pleased.

It's all about the ear, Elliot said later.

"When you start using a machine, you are allowed to become kind of lazy," he added. "You don't really have to pay attention to what you're doing. The machine becomes a crutch."

That view prevails at some prestigious music academies, including the Juilliard School, as well as at Steinway & Sons.

"We don't use electronic tuners here and we don't advise any of our technicians to use them," said Ron Coners, chief concert technician for Steinway in New York. "We feel you do not train your ear well enough because you're relying on the machine."

That's Luddite nonsense, said Davenport. He described gizmos such as Accu-Tuner, and software packages like CyberTuner, as aids for the ear, not substitutes.

"It's just so absurd to say that, because you're using a machine, you're not tuning aurally," he said.

The Brentwood resident ventured into tuning after earning a music degree at Occidental College and teaching junior high school.

He said that electronic tuning cuts wear and tear on the ear, saving it for the finer adjustments, and that his customers appreciate the precision.

"The folks who aren't using it aren't necessarily the best tuners," he said in a deep voice that fits his bearish frame. Davenport, 55, has a geeky enthusiasm for the mathematics of music; algorithms interest him almost as much as rhythms.

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