Piano Tuning: Action Men

John Robert Brown

'I've worked in Buckingham Palace. I overhauled the action of a piano in the public rooms. The security was fantastic. How on earth reporters can just wander in and get jobs as footmen I don't know. We had to go through all sorts of hoops to get security clearance.'

Today, Ken Forrest is a long way from a royal palace, for he's called to tune my home piano. But to describe Forrest simply as a piano tuner is to undersell him. He has built pianos, lectured on college musical instrument technology courses, even travelled to China to advise piano makers on the installation of grand piano actions. These days he tunes pianos in Yorkshire. His clients includes colleges, universities, concert halls, stately homes and private houses.

'There are two sides to tuning,' he says. 'One is the accuracy, where you put the notes. The other is the stability, because it's possible tune a piano so that when somebody sits down to play, it goes completely out of tune. If you are properly trained, you learn why it goes out of tune. In theory, not a single string should go out because of playing alone. In practice, what happens in a concert hall is that you tune the thing, then they put on the lights - and it all moves. I always try to do the final pre-concert tuning with the lights on. I ask them to leave them on, switching them off only when the audience comes in, then put them back up again. That way it stays in tune. If you tune without the lights on, by half-time it can have drifted significantly. If you have tuned a harpsichord or early fortepiano, without care for the environment, the tuning can be appalling by the interval.'

How long should it take to tune? 'With 243 strings on a concert grand I take about an hour-and-a-quarter,' he says. 'A pitch raise takes two hours, perhaps.'

Clearly, there's a lot of force on the tuning lever. 'On a nice new piano you've got about 80 to 100 inch/pounds of torque. For an old piano with loose pins we're still talking about 30 to 40. Controlled force,' he says. 'You have to brace your whole body. In order to move your wrist or your arm you've got to have a strong back. Nevertheless, the strength you need you can develop. You can have a longer lever, stuff like that.' Some sounds render a tuner's work impossible. 'One is white noise, such as a jet going over, or the noise of a washing machine. At the Festival Hall I was tuning a piano for a party. They started laying out 300 sets of cutlery. That was that.'

'Unless you've got the upper partials in tune, the note isn't in tune. You are hearing the upper partials, not actually listening where the note is. You get 30 harmonics on good bass strings. At the top you might get two, but you are listening high all the time. Any hissing noise, or a water noise, you can't hear it. Down in the bass, if there's a Hoover going, or somebody chattering, you can't hear.'

'There isn't so much a decline in piano making in this country as a complete collapse already happened . Yet I don't know of any piano teacher without a long waiting list! Yamaha have factories in China, but if you want the best piano, you still go to Germany,' he says, glancing at my Japanese instrument.

So I go to a German, Ulrich Gerhartz, who came to Britain from Hamburg 19 years ago. Gerhartz is director of concert and artists services for Steinway and Sons. We chat in Leeds Town Hall during the Leeds International Piano Competition.

'My responsibility is to have concert instruments ready in venues for performance,' he says. 'So what I say is relevant for performance instruments, where pianos are tuned three or four times a day during a piano competition. The piano that you have at home gets tuned maybe once a year, if it's lucky. The whole treatment of the pianos maintained through our Concert and Artists Department is much more intense. Therefore the quality of tuning that you can achieve is much higher. Hand-in-hand with that goes the quality of the instruments. A good piano you can tune much better than a poor piano where you can't hear whether it's in or out of tune.

Very often, when a tuner is used to a make that is cheaper, but tunes them all the time, the tuner has a knack of tuning them so that it is alright. Then they come to a high quality instrument, where one can actually tune much finer. But because they never tune to that level they never get there. Therefore, somebody who works on high quality instruments will always have in his head a higher standard of result than somebody who tunes for a beginner, on a not-so-good piano. So it's a very different kettle of fish.

'In our department we take tuners who have worked on other makes for twenty-odd years. Anybody who joins the team needs to be shown how to tune the Steinway piano. In cheaper pianos the tuning pin goes through a wooden bushing then into the pin block. The Steinway tuning pin goes clear through the cast iron frame without touching it, then into the pin block, which is a high-quality six-layer hardwood.

'Concerning tuning stability, a piano competition is a prime example. Think of stage one, stage two and the semi-finals of Leeds Piano Competition. The piano was tuned in the morning for a 9.30 kick-off. The piano was played throughout the day until about 10 o'clock at night, with tuning in every break time. If a piano can get through that and still sound good, it's a very good piano.

'If you have one piano and ten different pianists playing, that one piano will sound different ten times, because every pianist makes their own sound. The reason why the Steinway is so successful is because it allows the pianist to find colour and transparency that they then use pianistically, rather than having a very bland sound.

'In my department in London I have 12 concert grands that go out on hire for recordings and music festivals. If I have a new piano I say: 'Try this piano, what do you think?' So you can then create the sound on the piano. Some pianists, for any repertoire they play they have a different sound in mind. Other pianists have one piano that does for everything - concertos, recitals and chamber music. Steinway New York made three pianos for Josef Hofman (1876-1957). The keys were, I think, two millimetres narrower, so the keyboard was smaller, because he had small hands.'

Today the piano is more standardised. Most pianos are mass produced. Steinway pianos are still completely hand built, but usually with the standard keyboard.

'Should you want something special it could be done for you, at a price,' says Gerhartz, who reveals that the Steinway 'secret' really is no secret, other than that it is a hand-built instrument with the finest ingredients and a very good construction. 'Because we have now built pianos for over 150 years continuously, always marketing the pianos for the concert performers, we've never had to compromise on quality, nor on price, or service intervals,' he says.

If there is any Steinway secret, it is the design of the case. 'They went from a softwood case to a hardwood case, designed with no joins, where you put all of the pressure from the strings onto the case,' says Gerhartz. 'The case supports the soundboard, to stay flexible and project the sound. A one-piece rim, the case has eighteen layers of hard-textured wood, with horizontal grain, bent into the shape of the grand piano that we know.'

Once the case is glued together, all the tension in the world won't shift the construction. 'The case survives the tension so that the pianos stay dynamic, even if they are 100 years old,' he claims. 'That's where makes differ. If you buy other makes of pianos from 1900, say, they might be fine for playing at home, but they would certainly be unsuitable for performance or for professional pianists. The dynamic range is now so narrow that you simply haven't got the variety that you need for pianissimo to fortissimo.'

Today, piano-making and maintenance is a global profession. 'In every hall, pianists expect a piano that is prepared to a standard. In 98% of all venues worldwide there is a Steinway piano,' Gerhartz says. Clearly, Steinway makes a huge effort to train people to look after these pianos. Gerhartz reveals that pitch varies a lot, between 440 for the UK orchestras, 442 for a lot of the European continental orchestras, going up 443 for the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra at the Proms, and to 444 for Russia. 'Because it takes to much time to raise pitch in a venue, when you have a music festival going on where stage time is very limited we bring in pianos that are already at that pitch,' he says.

However, tuning today is much more standardised, with a well-tempered octave in the middle, where you adjust all intervals within an octave, then take the tuning from there. 'On some instruments you might stretch the octaves into the treble so that you make the octaves slightly wide. In a big room, that helps to avoid it sounding flat because the sound has to travel so far,' he explains.

'My job with Steinway is to travel with pianists like Alfred Brendel. He, his agent and I will decide before the season which piano will be travelling where. Brendel owns two concert grands. Either we take one of those, or we use the resident piano, if it's suitable, or we use a concert hire piano. There are quite a few artists in this category, but the most known are Brendel, Andreas Schiff, Mitsuko Uchida and Maurizio Pollini. Christian Zimmerman will actually travel with his own piano, put it on a truck, then drive with it to the venue. But the majority of pianists have to make do with what's in the venue.'

Steinway has a close relationship with Dame Fanny Waterman, founder of the Leeds International Piano Competition, who is adamant that all competitors can practise on a Steinway. 'Each of these Steinways sent into a home retails for between £40,000 to £60,000, say Gerhartz. 'Send 15 to 20 pianos out and it's a lot of money. With transport, it's a sponsorship of around £30,000. Ideally, a host will fall in love with the piano that comes into his home. We then have a sale, which goes towards paying for our sponsorship of the competition.'

First published in Classical Music magazine, March 14th 2007. Used by kind permission.
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