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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 03, 2006|Constance Meyer | Special to The 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."

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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."

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