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The secret joys of piano tuning

CSO staff tuner Jim Houststarted late 1960s. “It’s all I’ve ever done for career” he said.  |  John

CSO staff tuner Jim Houston started in the late 1960s. “It’s all I’ve ever done for a career,” he said. | John H. White~Sun-Times photos

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Updated: July 3, 2012 9:44AM

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has a lot of pianos. At least 20, at any given time, scattered throughout Symphony Center, including three concert grands, three baby grands plus uprights in rehearsal spaces and studios.

And now, with its “Keys to the City” piano festival going on until mid-June, there are even more, brought in for the occasion. The CSO’s Chicago Piano Day Sunday, an afternoon of free performances, lessons and activities, culminates with a “monster finale” of eight Steinway concert grands on stage, thundering through “Stars and Stripes Forever.”

No matter how talented the artists who play these pianos, none will sound good if the pianos are not in tune.

Which makes this an ideal moment to examine a vital yet rarely considered aspect of music: piano tuning.

A piano has hundreds of strings of varying lengths and thicknesses — 243 in a Steinway concert grand — plus hammers, dampers, pedals.

Someone has to know how to make all those parts sing together in harmony.

“The piano is an intensely complicated instrument — 12,000 parts — and all of those parts have to work as one,” said Paul Revenko-Jones, director of the Chicago School for Piano Technology in the West Loop.

Piano tuning is not a calling heard by many. A dozen students at any given time attend the Chicago School. The Piano Technicians Guild, based in Kansas City, Kansas, reports just 61 registered piano technicians in the Chicago area.

To be a registered technician, you have to pass a test.

“It typically takes somebody new to the field upward of five or 10 years or more to get to the skill level to pass the test,” said Revenko-Jones. “They’re essentially learning on their clients’ backs while they gain skills.”

The test isn’t required, however. Piano tuning is one of those rare corners of commerce not overseen by the government.

“It’s an unregulated profession,” said Revenko-Jones. “You don’t have to be licensed or certified to be a piano tuner. The way you become one is by saying, ‘I’m a piano tuner’ and no one would know the difference.”

That’s how Jack Zimmerman got into the business in the early 1970s.

“A guy thought I was a piano tuner and hired me to tune his piano,” said Zimmerman. “I needed money, desperately, so ran out and got a set of tools, got a book, and tried to teach myself.”

That first tuning was “a disaster,” but Zimmerman took a class — at the Moody Bible Institute — and end up working as a tuner for 15 years.

“It’s a good profession,” said Zimmerman, who now does subscriber relations at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. “You can make a good living at it, The one problem with it, there’s so much work, and if you can’t say ‘no,’ you wind up working all the time.”

There’s a lot of work because, despite changes in entertainment habits, there are still a lot of pianos, which tend to last for decades, if not centuries, and must be tuned periodically.

Revenko-Jones said that piano tuning used to be an “appallingly male dominated” field, but now about 20 percent of tuners are women. (It is also a profession associated with the blind. There is a School of Piano Technology for the Blind in Washington State, and an international Association of Blind Piano Tuners based in England. Some old timers expect their piano tuners to be blind — Revenko-Jones said he has tuned for customers who assume he has difficulty seeing).

Sight is optional, as is knowing how to play the piano.

“It’s easier for someone familiar with playing pianos, but not necessarily a requirement,” said Jim Houston, who tunes for the CSO. “A good ear is a crucial ingredient, and then you develop a sensitivity to what pianists want in terms of touch.”

In fact, most piano tuners don’t play.

“Probably 75 percent of tuners including the really, really good tuners don’t play or don’t play much,” said Revenko-Jones. “We have to play something, we all have some tiny repertoire in order to hear what we’ve done. The skills are entirely separate.”

Indeed, it might be better for a piano tuner not to know how to play — musicality can interfere with piano tuning.

“You’re listening inside the sound being produced by the piano to hear comparisons between notes, in order to establish intervals properly,” said Revenko-Jones. “It’s not something that a performer really wants to listen to.”

In addition to Houston, the symphony center has three other tuners — Bill Schwartz, Ken Orgel and Charlie Terr.

They rotate being on call, each taking a week a month; otherwise, they work around town, at colleges and other venues.

The day before Chinese superstar Lang Lang played at the Lyric earlier this month, Terr headed over to the Civic Opera House after Steinway & Sons Chicago delivered a nearly 9-foot-long, Model D concert grand. Terr first let it sit for a few hours, to warm up — a change of temperature will throw a piano out of tune, as will changes in humidity. (Harpsichords are notoriously susceptible to humidity — the moisture in the breath of an audience can put the fragile baroque instruments out of tune, and they often must be re-tuned during intermissions.)

Even though this particular piano, from the local Steinway revolving bank of “concert and artist pianos” was in tune for all practical purposes, since one of the world’s most famous pianists was going to play on it, it had to be adjusted to suit his preferences.

“I need to work on the tone of each note and brighten it up a little bit — he likes a bright piano,” said Terr, who has been tuning for 41 years.

He first worked mutes — strips of grey felt — between the strings to isolate each string. He hit one key, then stopped, got up, and checked the brass wheels of the piano to make sure they were locked.

Rolling into the orchestra pit will put a piano out of tune in a serious fashion.

“It has happened before,” he said. “Just not to me.”

The $148,000 piano secure, he took a tuning fork out of his tool box and hit it against his knee, sounding one of the most famous notes in music: A440, the “Concert A,” aka A4, or the A above middle C, the 440 standing for 440 hertz, or vibrations per second, a standard set in this country in 1926.

“It’s a historical, traditional standard. They should be exactly the same,” he said. “Some European orchestras tune to a higher pitch, for different reasons, supposedly for a brighter sound. The Vienna Philharmonic is A446. Barenboim used to tune to a higher pitch. Mutti now tunes to A440. Most pianos around town are getting tuned to A440.”

From that A, Terr tunes by octaves, working his way down the piano to the bass notes.

“I’m always playing two notes together,” he said. “I’m listening for how the harmonic series interacts with each other.”

After Terr tuned the piano, he “voiced” it for Lang Lang, adding drops of liquid acetone to many of the felt hammer heads inside the mechanism, to give a brighter sound.

“For me, it’s very important to have a piano that can do lot of range of colors,” said Lang Lang. “Also, I need a very strong sustaining sound, ringing tone. A piano can be quite percussive sometimes. We need to make the piano more lyrical.”

Besides sound, what does a piano tuner consider?

“Touch and how fast the key comes back to rest position,” said Houston. “How fast a key repeats, the resistance a key gives the pianist’s fingers, those sort of things.”

The job is not without annoyances — though the stage of the Lyric is completely empty, there are noises from the wings: the clank of an elevator, the whir of a blower fan. Still, there is something serene in Terr sitting in the dim vastness of the stage, getting this magnificent instrument ready to play. Piano tuners report a high degree of job satisfaction.

“It’s all I’ve ever done for a career,” said Houston, who started in the late 1960s. “You are entrusted with a lot of responsibility. You get to rub elbows with great artists. Tuning itself is a very enjoyable activity.”

It usually takes about an hour to tune a piano — sometimes less for a CSO piano, because they seldom get that badly out of tune. It still takes intense concentration.

“That concentration, that focus, is the prime ingredient of a good tuner,” said Houston. “I think we all share that, you have to really really pay attention to what you’re doing. You kind of get involved in it to the expense of everything else. I like that plunge into intense involvement.”

“Getting three strings to make one note, that becomes a Zen moment,” said Zimmerman. “Sitting alone, trying to get three strings to sound as one, it can be quite remarkable.”

It takes a particular kind of person.

“I once went out with a master tuner — Virgil Smith, a legendary tuner,” said Zimmerman. “Watching this guy tune, I thought, ‘This guy has no more talent than I do. He has no secret trick,’ What he had was a much greater commitment to making this piano perfect than I had. It was his will. Seeing someone like that work, you realize, if you apply yourself to anything with that kind of thoroughness, you’ll succeed. That was a revelation to me, watching that guy work.”

Zimmerman tuned a piano in a church a few weeks ago, for a friend.

“It was just one of the most peaceful things, just me and the piano,” he said. “If that’s what tuning is, it’s pretty wonderful, You have these certain physical laws you have to obey, you sit there and do it and make this piano sound better than it ever sounded. With the business end, and travel, it becomes a lot more conflated than that. But the actual tuning of the piano I find very pleasurable.”

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