The Straz Center official piano tuner Kevin Patterson on what it takes to keep the ivories in the pink.
The average home piano needs a tune up about twice a year, but when your livelihood and music critics are on the line, a good concert piano gets its ivories tickled, twisted, polished and pricked before every single performance.
A piano tuner’s life is a good one: flexible hours, nice pay, a cool skill set with a high tool-level. Plus, if you tune pianos for the Straz Center, you occasionally get to rub elbows with some of the greatest pianists working today. At the very least, you’ll be charmed by our ever-entertaining backstage production staff.
Our official piano tuner is Kevin Patterson, and we like him a great deal. So does Rohan De Silva, whom you may know as the Steinway artist who accompanies world-famous violinist Itzhak Perlman. De Silva liked Kevin’s pre-concert work so much that he thanked our humble piano tuner by treating him to lunch.
“It was one of my most memorable experiences at The Straz. I’ve tuned for them twice now, and they also require a technician to check over the piano at intermission. Both times, the audience applauded when I finished the touchup tuning,” Patterson says. So, sometimes there is such a thing as a free lunch, and, later, people at your job will clap for you. Like we said, it’s a good life.
The work itself requires an intricate and fascinating procedure that involves more than twisting tuning pegs to set a certain tension on strings. “The piano is an extremely complicated instrument,” Patterson says. “It needs constant maintenance at the professional level. They have thousands of moving parts, about 230 strings amounting to around 15 to 30 tons of pressure, depending on the piano’s length.”
A full grown African bull elephant weighs around 7 tons. So a piano has two to four full grown male elephants of pressure on the strings. That’s a lot of force on a lot of strings, so tuning can be a delicate, somewhat surgical endeavor.
To attain the standard concert pitch of “A440” (that’s the pitch A above middle C at 440 hertz), Kevin uses a tuner app on his phone for the first few notes then does the rest by ear, tuning by intervals then playing arpeggios and scales to double and triple-check his work. “It’s not simple mathematics,” Kevin explains about why he doesn’t use a tuner for all of the notes. “Tuned by machine, a ‘perfect’ treble end of a piano sounds flat to the human ear. So, you have to know what you’re doing to find the right pitch.” In other words, there’s an artistry to capturing the tonal context that requires a human ear to tune for other human ears.
Kevin has relative perfect pitch so prefers to tune by ear, which is how he was taught as an apprentice and in his formal Steinway training. His wrench, called a “tuning hammer,” works on the individual string while a “mute strip” or “rubber mute” provides the silencing of the surrounding strings so Kevin can work one string at a time. All in, a solid piano tuning takes about one hour.
But getting a concert piano into tip top shape requires more than tuning. There’s also “voicing” the tone, a low-tech technique of pricking the felt hammer with a needle to relax the fiber. This manipulation of the fibers’ pressure morphs a tinny tone into a warm, strong tone. On the flip side, if a tone is too flat, a drop of a lacquer solution on the felt hardens the fibers to produce a brighter sound.
“It can get detailed,” Kevin laughs. “It’s been said that a pianist is never fully satisfied with the piano condition. But, it’s my goal each time to get the piano as close as possible to its peak level of performance.”