The pianist’s hidden secret: a great tuner -- man or woman

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator, International Piano and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 07.04.2016

Tanglewood chief piano technician Barbara Renner once won a $50 bet by proving to a male tuner that she could manipulate the nine-foot Steinway Model D as well as any man. And she has gone on to thrive in this man’s world of piano tuning, never looking back. Equipped with a refined and well-trained ear, she is now in great demand, tuning pianos all over the East Coast of the U.S. with great classical and jazz pianists.

It wasn’t the first time her physical fitness for the male-dominated job had been challenged. While in training,her instructor asked each student to remove the action from an old reproducer (player) Steinway grand that had very long keys and carry it across the room and back. “He wanted to make sure we were physically capable of the task.” She passed the test and was on her way. 

Women in the tuning world, still a small minority, have been forced to face down the men.  And the odds are long. 

But Ms. Brenner has built a strong career, against those odds. For the past five years, she has been tuning at Tanglewood for roughly half of the summer, in addition to preparing pianos for recitals and recording sessions on an ad hoc basis. One of her regulars has been Emmanuel Ax, for whom she has tuned at Jordan Hall, in New York and frequently at Mechanics Hall in Worcester. She has also tuned for some of his concerto appearances with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood and for his trio recitals with Yo-Yo Ma and Leonidas Kavakos.

Ms. Renner’s record reflects her high level of activity, with tuning credits at Carnegie Hall, Avery Fischer Hall, Alice Tully Hall, and from artists ranging from Maurizio Pollini, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Marc-Andre Hamelin to Chick Corea, George Shearing and Dave Brubeck.

Barbara Renner

Her work interested me because I, like many concertgoers, often wondered what the little man in the grey smock wielding odd hammers is doing at intermission. In fact he is trying to satisfy the very peculiar, very precise, requirements of the pianist, who feels, for example, the G above middle C might be a bit tinny or buzzy, he’s not sure which.

Extreme cases are legend. I remember waiting half an hour at the bolted doors of London’s Royal Festival Hall with about 2,000 other paying customers for a recital by Ivo Pogorelich. The faint “ding ding ding ding” of a tuner was audible from inside the empty hall. I asked what was going on. “The artist is not satisfied yet,” said the head usher, rolling his eyes.

Ms. Renner, based in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, where she serves as president of the Rhode Island chapter of the Piano Technicians Guild, has spent her adult years in intimate professional relationships with great pianists, and offers rare insights into their quest for perfection. We exchanged a series of emails last week to explore this netherworld of the music business.


Q. In your experience, are classical pianists more fastidious about the fine points of tuning than popular music players?

A.  Generally yes, but many jazz pianists can be equally particular about both the quality of the tuning and the regulation of the action.  Anyone with good technique can find added inspiration in a well-prepared instrument.


Is it true that most tuners started out as pianists? Don’t they like to demonstrate their playing to test their tuning? Maybe a bit of Liszt or Chopin?

There are quite a few tuners with piano study under their belts. But I think tuning can be effectively tested by just playing chromatic double octave scales. Playing a specific piece might be misleading, since some notes are not exposed in a way that allows an accurate assessment. But playing an excerpt from a piece can provide a useful overall impression.


And you? How do you test your work?

I am far, far from being an accomplished pianist but I was once asked by Vladimir Ashkenazy to play something so that he could hear how my tuning sounded in the room.  My mind was racing and I was thinking there is no way I am going to attempt to play anything for him! He took a step closer, stared at me and teasingly said something to the effect:  “Every piano tuner alive can play something, so play it!’  I took a deep breath and started in on the Maple Leaf Rag (at least my fingers knew all of the notes). He walked around a bit and listened, then marched up to the piano and nudged me off the bench as he started right in where I had left off and proceeded to play a beautiful improvisation on the same piece. Since that day, I learned to be more insistent that I not play anything.


Fine-tuning takes a lot of time. If your client is going to play Bach, can’t you just work on tuning the middle range?

One shouldn't make assumptions about any particular part of the piano that may or may not be used, based on repertoire.  Even if someone is playing Bach Inventions, I always tune the entire piano to take advantage of extra brilliance the open strings in the top section generate through sympathetic vibration.  


The highest octave can be problematic, can’t it? It often produces a dead tinkling sound. How can the strings be regulated to make a more bell-like tone? Do pianists tend to require that?

That highest octave might not be used in a Beethoven piano concerto, one can never be sure. When I once tuned for Marc-Andre Hamelin, he was scheduled to play one of those. His very interesting cadenza made use of pretty much the entire scale, including the highest register. I had done a complete tuning and was ready for him. That wonderful chime-like, high treble sparkle is a product of accurate regulation, tuning and voicing. Tuned a bit flat it sounds sour; but more often I hear it tuned a tad too sharp for my taste, which can make it sound strident instead of bell-like. It is the most difficult area to hear, being far from the range of human speech, and the decay is usually quite rapid, giving your ear little time to lock on to it. 

Have you worked with any pianists who posed special problems or provided special delights in their quest for perfection?

I like to think about what a teacher once said about hitting a baseball that falls just inside the park and is caught for an out, or hitting it only a few feet further and for a game-winning grand slam.  The difference in the distance is minute compared to the result that it produces. Same with the piano. The wonderful pianists that I have had the privilege to work with have provided great insight into the minutiae that assists or hinders their playing. The late Czech pianist Ivan Moravec was quite knowledgeable about the technical aspects of piano action and was extremely specific about how it should be. His requests helped me enormously in understanding my work on a new and more refined level. Similarly, Emmanuel Ax once asked me if one note at the bottom of a run could be made to speak with the same ease relative to dynamic level as its neighboring notes. The remedy was a tiny one and a good reminder that every little thing can make a substantial difference -- every tiny tick of an action adjustment screw does matter.


Do classical pianists ever ask you to travel as their personal tuner?

There have been enquiries but none ever came to pass -- the normally stated reason revolving around the fact the pianists’ wives wouldn’t sit still for it! 


Do you have perfect pitch? If not, do you wish you did?

I do not have perfect pitch, but a refined sense of relative pitch is a necessity. The degree of refinement for setting pitch on a piano is quite precise and the common notion of “perfect” pitch is usually a less specific, meaning that one can differentiate an A from an A flat or a B.  The increments of pitch used for precise piano tuning can be measured in less than 1/10 of a cent (a cent is 1/100 of a semitone).


You work mostly on the big Steinway Model D. Why do classical pianists seem to prefer that one?

I think pianists enjoy playing it for several reasons, but if I had to name just one reason, it would be its versatility of voice.  A Steinway can growl like a lion or purr like a kitten. It has a wonderfully wide capacity for both power and tonal color -- a palette vast enough complement all genres of music. A beautifully-voiced Steinway is capable of communicating tremendous range of emotion from delicate to sweet to sassy to majestic to thunderous -- and so on.


Is any one piano maker – Steinway, Bosendorfer, Bechstein, Fazioli – more likely to hold its tuning than another?

Overall, I have had excellent luck with Steinways being very stable. But to some degree, tuning stability has more about the quality of the tuning than the brand of the piano. The condition of the strings, bridges, soundboard, tuning pins all affect the tuning stability. If an instrument is extremely out of tune, or has to have its overall pitch altered, it certainly needs more than one tuning. Any brand is subject to tuning irregularities if the temperature changes, especially suddenly, as in having hot stage lighting that cooks the strings or an air conditioning blowing directly on it. 


Does the sight of nuts and bolts rammed into the strings of a John Cage prepared piano make you ill? Is the health of the piano at risk?

 A. Yes and yes -- call me old-fashioned!


A professor at Berklee, Marti Epstein, strums and plucks the strings while also playing the keys. Is tuning affected by this kind of interference?

It can be. There is more concern about things like the damper felts being damaged by strumming.  Even when the damper is lifted by the key or pedal being depressed, the wedge felts do not necessarily clear the strings. Damper felt is very soft and is not intended to be deflected sideways. It is a tremendous amount of work install a new set of dampers and have them concert perfect. Additionally, just the small amount of acid and oil in your skin will cause the strings to corrode, and thus plucking often causes damage that doesn’t appear instantly. Corrosion at the string termination points will add an unpleasant sizzle to the tone.


I once wandered around the Steinway basement in London with Martino Tirimo who needed a Model D for a recital. He tried about a dozen of them but said they all sounded too “glassy” and we walked out. Are pianists sometimes oversensitive to an instrument’s sound?

The pianists are the ones that are putting themselves out on stage in front of the public and I would not envy them having to go out there with reservations about the piano!  Hopefully they can work with the technician to find solutions.  


How do you revoice a piano -- to please yourself or your client? What sound qualities are you looking for in voicing?

Some core tenets of voicing might include wide dynamic range, tonal color a palette ranging from bright to warm, note-to-note evenness at all dynamic levels. If necessary, I would do what I call an overall voicing, then dial in the nuances according to the pianist’s comment.  It’s nice when you know in advance what a particular artist wants for specific repertoire.


Glenn Gould worked for two decades with Verne Edquist, a nearly blind Canadian tuner, as his private, full-time technician. Are the blind especially adept at tuning?

I don’t know the answer to this question, but I think it revolves around one’s ability to focus. The belief about the blind being more adept at tuning may have arisen because of their capacity to focus on sound without visual distraction. I certainly can buy that.  But I also think we are all capable of intense focus on anything to the degree we are interested in it.


Are tuners disappearing as the home piano phenomenon fades away and electronic keyboards move in?

I think people will always be attracted to the piano because of the sound of vibrating strings to the ear that even the best whiz-bang electronic keyboard cannot duplicate. There always seems to be a new crop of folks willing to take on the task of learning piano. People who initially purchase an electronic keyboard for their children’s lessons eventually will buy a piano if the kids stick out a year or two of lessons.


Do most serious pianists take good care of their instrument?

This is extremely variable!  I would say that some of the greatest pianists are often playing on someone else’s piano -- at a concert hall, conservatory, or studio, and thus don’t fuss too much with their home pianos. Piano teachers seem to generally have pianos that are on the under-maintained side. Piano maintenance can be expensive and often puts the piano out of commission for a while.


A pianist friend says he bought a tuning hammer recently but threw it in the garbage and called a professional when he realized the whole process was "too dangerous". But there are more than a dozen books in print on home tuning, and tuning kits go for as little for $40. Isn’t home tuning catching on?

DIY does not work well with piano tuning. There is too much subtlety involved. The skill to do a reasonable job is acquired through at least or five years of continual practice. I became interested in it because I simply wanted to tune my own piano. How hard can that be, I thought. I won’t say how many years and pianos it took me. Most DIYers will and should give up after the first broken string or broken anything. 


What’s the real risk if the cost is minimal?

Costs mount up. A good set of decent felt mutes could cost $40.  A cheap tuning hammer -- like using any cheap tool -- only makes things more difficult and may cause more problems.  Good tuning hammer alone goes for $100 and up. Just the tips that I use, the part that actually fits on the tuning pins, are $90+ each.


Still, tuning software would seem to have a future for the amateur. Some of it is free and internet tutorials are a dime a dozen.

I am not familiar with free software or internet tutorials, but knowing what else is out there on the internet, I would be a tad wary. An acquaintance of mine was experiencing some frustration with her piano. After watching a YouTube video on voicing, she managed in short order to ruin all of her hammers. How do you sort out the quality of the information in a YouTube video and add that to the average piano owner’s lack of familiarity with the components of their piano?


"Old school" tuners seem to work entirely by ear. How much electronic backup do you use in your work?

There is no substitute for a well-trained ear, and I do believe that learning to tune by ear is essential to being a first-rate tuner. However, there are many useful advantages to having electronic tuning skills as well. It is certainly handy for tuning in a noisy environment and it is a job requirement for many rock ‘n’ roll shows where the piano technician is given zero quiet time.


Some tuners use Super Glue to “freeze” tuning pins. That sounds like a terrible idea. Does it work?

Some use it for loose tuning pins, but it won’t “freeze” the tuning pins, since glue will not adhere to the metal in any meaningful way. I think the idea may be to stabilize the wood of the wrestplank (pin block).  At the end of the day, service of a piano requires skill, knowledge and overview of all of the components and variables involved to choose the best method for the conditions at hand.

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