All tuned up and ready to go

Today was one of the highlights of my life as a pianist and piano teacher: the bi-annual visit by Rolf, my piano tuner from Chappell of Bond Street (where I originally purchased my piano). He has been looking after my piano for nearly three years, and lavishes care and attention on it every six months when he comes here.

As part of the after-sales service when you purchase a piano from Chappell, or indeed, Steinway, you have a complimentary follow-up tuning, 6 weeks after the instrument has “moved in” with you. This is important, not least to check that the instrument has settled into your home. Pianos are fickle creatures (growing more fickle with age, like old ladies), and do not like change. They prefer an even level of humidity and temperature and react badly to being placed near radiators and such like. Sunlight is also an enemy: unfortunately, my piano has to reside in the conservatory, not the ideal home, but the only place for it until I move house or rebuild the conservatory and turn it into a proper studio. It suffered a bit during the hot summer, but my conservatory never gets humid, which is the real enemy of the piano.

When I was growing up, my piano was an old Challen upright (circa 1930s), rescued from a friend’s greenhouse in Shropshire, where it had lived, neglected and unloved, for two years. It was not in great condition when my parents acquired it, but thanks to the perseverance of the tuner, and a considerable amount of money, it was reconditioned, refelted, and gradually tuned up to concert pitch. It was on this piano that I learnt to play, endured the treadmill of exams, and grew to love Bach, Beethoven, Schubert et al, after graduating from Swinstead, Dunhill, Czerny, Clementi and co. My tuner in those days was a rather scary man with several stumps instead of fingers – one did not dare ask how he lost his fingers – yet he was a very skilled tuner, and would play the most amazing cascades of Liszt and Chopin when he had completed his work. Sadly, my father sold my piano when I moved into my first flat in London, because he didn’t want it any more, and I didn’t have room for it.

When I bought my current piano, I went up to the new, bigger, and much grander Chappell showroom on Wardour Street, in the Grade 1 listed ‘Novello’ building. Before the move from the Bond Street premises, the piano department was consigned to a cramped basement and had to share the space with all the sheet music. Now, the piano showroom is a large, elegant, wood-panelled room, stuffed with pianos of all sizes and specifications, including a Liberace-style white grand. I took a friend there last year (she was looking for a digital piano) and she was completely gob-smacked, especially that one could just sit down and tinkle the faux-ivories of a full-size concert grand. Arriving at the showroom in January 2007, I was greeted by the salesman who I’d been dealing with over the ‘phone. He introduced me to my piano (he actually said “this is your piano”) and invited me to play. No sooner had I played the opening measures of the slow movement of Schubert’s Sonata in A Op 120, than, over in the far corner of the room, a young man started on a very heroic and virtuosic Chopin Scherzo. “Oh no!” said the sales assistant. “He’s here again! He comes in every day to practise. He shouldn’t really be here”, and promptly went over to chase the young man off the piano and out of the showroom. Chappells like you to try their pianos, but they don’t want you taking up residence in the showroom on a regular basis. Meanwhile, from another corner of the showroom came a medley of songs from the shows and some very vamped-up Scott Joplin. I gave up trying to hear myself playing, concluded that the piano would suit me very well, and went to organise payment and delivery. Still reeling from the effect of putting such a huge sum through my Visa account, I went downstairs (the sheet music is still in the basement) and purchased some new music: Schubert’s Drei Klavierstücke, pieces which I had been listening to endlessly, and playing from flimsy sheets, downloaded from the internet, and the Grazer Fantasy (which I still haven’t learnt) .

The piano arrived the following week, amid much ceremony and obligatory huffing and puffing by the piano movers. Fortunately, it was easy to deliver, as my house is a normal size and shape (unlike a friend’s, whose grand had to be manouevred, by crane, through an upstairs window of his 18th century vicarage). I was so thrilled with my new instrument, I spent the entire day learning the first movement of Schubert’s last sonata. I would say, on reflection, it took me about six months to properly make friends with my piano and get used to it. Last year, in a bid to tone down its very bright sound, I had it regulated (by Rolf) and ‘voiced’, and he did some work on the hammer felts, which, much to my surprise, altered the sound quite significantly. It is richer now, more mellow, less “shiny”.  I do really like the bright treble, though. The hard surfaces in the conservatory (windows, limestone floor) do not help, but with Rolf’s help, I put a picnic blanket under the piano, and it has various fleecey bedspreads and rugs behind it. I will put some curtains up for the winter, ostensibly to help soften the hard sound further, but also to make the space a little more cosy. And to ensure I do not have to stare at my neighbour’s wall the entire time when I am practising.

A maintenance tuning takes about an hour. After the obligatory “is-it-really-six-months-since-I-was-last-here” chat, I usually leave Rolf to it until he summons me back to play after he has finished. When he was here in March, I played the opening bars of the slow movement from Beethoven’s Archduke Trio. It came from nowhere, and sent Rolf, who is German, off into huge exclamations of dewy-eyed delight about Beethoven. Rolf never seems to be in a hurry to go to his next appointment, so today we enjoyed a chat about obscure religions of India – prompted by the Buddha which I have in my piano room – the pleasure and discipline of writing, and the fate of Kemble pianos. Eventually, Rolf strolled off to his next appointment in Clapham, and I spent a happy hour or three working on Debussy, on an in-tune piano once again.

I think most pianists would agree that one has a special relationship with one’s tuner. Other instrumentalists tend to their instruments themselves (when I played the clarinet, I got very good at taking it apart, mending the pads, and keeping all the chrome and cork in good nick), but a pianist must turn to another specialist to maintain his instrument, and a specialist whom one trusts to do a good job. Tuners spend years learning all the nuances to become skilled at bringing out the full tonal beauty of the instrument, and a piano is a complex piece of machinery, comprising some 5000 parts. Being a piano tuner is a highly skilled occupation, requiring  a good ear, practice and, above all perhaps, patience.