Saturday, November 28, 2020

Tommasini on Pianos

Well, not exactly: Anthony Tommasini has an article in the Times called "Why Do Pianists Know So Little About Pianos?"  The URL for the article might be somewhat revealing:

Of course, it's not just about piano tuning; it's about the variability of pianos and the mechanical complexity of the instrument. I would have amplified this:

Not only can violinists, clarinetists, harpists or flutists tune their instruments, and even bend pitches in performance, they also, by and large, know much more about how their instruments work.

If I were writing this article, I would explain how you tune different instruments. On violins (and other orchestral bowed string instruments), you turn the tuning pegs that that are at one end of the instrument, at the top of the neck. On wind instruments, including the flute, you can generally make small adjustments to how the head joint connects to the main body of the instrument, that is, you can pull it out a bit to lengthen the instrument and make a downward adjustment to the pitch. Harpists tighten or loosen the strings by turning a key in the tuning pins that run across the top of the instruments.

Tommasini says this, of instruments used at Carnegie Hall:

(These instruments, by the way, only last about five or six years, and in some cases 10; today’s pianists aren’t hitting the same keys Rubinstein touched.)

And....I'm curious about this one. My bet is that these pianos are taken out of service, reconditioned, and sold. Pianos generally last decades; a friend of mine owns a piano from the 1930s, if I'm remembering this correctly, and another from the 1960s. I read an article some years ago about Stephen Kovacevich buying a new piano, again, one from the 1930s. He is a pro and probably practices four hours a day. But he hasn't replaced that piano every five or six years.


Back at my apartment, the technician finally dropped by, tuned my piano and made mechanical tweaks to a few of the keys. Afterward it felt and sounded vastly better. I have no idea what was involved.

It's not too late to learn some details about piano maintenance, of course. Long ago, I took a weekend-long flute repair class from James Phelan, who is now an important flutemaker in Boston, the US's unofficial flute capital. At the end of the class, I could disassemble a flute, reassemble it, and make some simple repairs. 

Still, when my instruments needed repairs, back they went to the factory, or, if I was at my parents' home in NJ, to the flute technician there who worked on everyone's flutes (I wish I could remember his name...Herbert something, and he was a few towns away). I think the story is pretty much the same for other instrumentalists, especially professional string players whose instruments can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars: they go to the repair pros.

1 comment:

Tod Brody said...

What you said. I know how my flute works, and could disassemble/assemble it and do some minor maintenance in a pinch. But I pretty much leave it in the more-than-capable hands of my flute technician, the redoubtable Daniel Deitch ( It's not the case that all pianists are as clueless as the ones cited in your article, though the many pianists I know all have their go-to people to maintain their beloved instruments. And finally, there are reconditioned pianos even older than your friend's from the 1930s that are first-rate. Not sure why Carnegie Hall gives up on them so early, but it's certainly the case that Steinway, who provide pianos to a huge swath of the greatest pianists, have instruments available to them that are much older than 5-10 years. My mother's Bechstein, which she bought new in 1968 and played pretty much every day of her life, was bequeathed to her grandson (my son) and with a little loving care will be as good as it's ever been -- many decades more of high-quality life there.