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Pitch Perfect: The Technical Complexities of Tuning a Piano

 Photo: lash9420/Flickr/ Creative Commons License.
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Ory with a student. |  Photo: Courtesy of The Colburn School.
Photo: Courtesy of The Colburn School. 

In partnership with The Colburn School: Located in Downtown Los Angeles, the institute provides the highest quality performing arts education at all levels of development in an optimal learning environment.

Neema Pazargad runs a different kind of health care center.

He and his team look after nearly 170 patients, some of them newborn and some over 100 years old. The services they provide run the gamut from well-baby care to major organ replacements. They see some patients often -- two or three times a day -- but others less frequently.

Here’s what the patients all have in common: 88 keys.

Pazargad, the Colburn School’s director of piano technology, and his team are responsible for the health of all 167 pianos at the school. Many of them occupy practice rooms and teaching studios, where dozens of players take advantage of their availability each week, while others must remain in top shape for performances in the school’s concert and recital halls.

Consider this: the pianist uses just 88 keys and three foot pedals, but a modern piano has over 12,000 components in total. Each key is made of over 50 pieces and has 25 adjustment points. Some 5,000 components are working parts that control what’s called the “action,” the mechanism that transfers and amplifies the key touch to the 243 strings.

Keeping a piano in working order at a place like Colburn is far beyond the skills of the storied itinerant piano tuner, equipped with a good ear, a tuning fork, a tuning hammer, and the patience to smooth keys sticky with children’s soda. All this complexity, multiplied 167 times, is why the school needs highly trained professionals.

The tuning hammer, basically a modified socket wrench, is still part of the piano technician’s routine. Pazargad proudly displays his beauty, its handle crafted from cocobolo, a heavy wood from Central America. The tuning fork -- while not completely obsolete -- has largely been replaced by a smartphone app that allows for automated calculation of the stretch required in tempering the instrument to achieve the not-perfectly-symmetrical musical distance of an octave.

Seeing each of the pianos as individual patients is not so strange. As Pazargad says, “The piano is a living, breathing instrument. It’s mostly wood, so it’s extremely sensitive to its environment.”

Temperature is an issue, but a larger one is humidity. Even relatively slight changes can affect the regulation of the action and even the tone of the piano, as moisture changes cause the wooden soundboard to shrink and expand. “When humidity is high,” says Pazargad, “the pitch goes up. When the Santa Ana winds blow through, it comes down.”

Then there is the instrument itself. String musicians pluck or bow their instruments to create tones, while inside the piano, a member of the percussion family, felt hammers strike the strings. And that hammering occurs on strings under enormous pressure. Pazargad says the cumulative tension of the strings of a concert grand piano amounts to 25 tons, which is enough to lift, well, 30 grand pianos.

It is that tension that may ultimately cause pianos to lose their useful lives. The soundboard is built convex (crowned) and, by design, nearly flattens out under all that strain. Over time, the board may become no longer flat but actually concave, losing its tonal quality irretrievably.

The technicians adjust pitch using the tuning hammer on the tuning pins to which each string is attached, but they must also calibrate the pedals, regulate the action, optimize the touch of the keyboard, the voice of the hammers that strike the strings and, occasionally, replace the pin block upon which the tuning pins are carefully mounted.

The technicians adjust all of these moving parts so that the artist can efficiently control the power, speed, and dynamic range of the instrument.

And finally, there is the tone of the instrument. The vernacular used by some of the world’s great pianists who come to Colburn to play and lead master classes includes words like warm, mellow, round, bite, attack, bright, brittle, harsh, ugly, and glassy. When they hear these words, Pazargad and his team are at the ready to make the required adjustments.

Neema Pazargad. | Photo: Courtesy of The Colburn School.
Neema Pazargad. | Photo: Courtesy of The Colburn School. 

It is hardly a mystery that things fall out of perfect adjustment so readily. That’s why the team checks and adjusts each stage concert grand piano before every rehearsal and performance.

Pazargad speaks passionately about his craft, one he shares with his two assisting technicians, Ryan Maas and Luke Taylor, and with the 4,000 registered technicians of the Piano Technicians Guild of the United States.

While he has worked as a piano technician for six years -- a relatively short time for someone in his position in a major music school -- he has his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in piano performance. Sensitive hands, knowledge of the piano, and a gift for detail are the things that help him succeed.

Some fine pianists, he says, know remarkably little about how a piano actually works. In contrast, Fabio Bidini, holder of the Colburn Grigor Piano Chair at the school, “is very knowledgeable, which helps him describe to me what needs adjustment to achieve the sounds he wants.”

Piano knowledge is something encouraged by Dr. Adrian Daly, Colburn’s provost, who has asked Pazargad to teach an elective course next year in piano technology.

While the Colburn School’s team of piano technicians never run out of patients to visit, there is, of course, a pecking order in Colburn’s pianos. The concert grands on stage in Zipper and Thayer halls require the most frequent attention. After that, technicians work on pianos in teaching studios, chamber music rooms, and practice rooms. 

But Pazargad is proud that every one of the pianos is carefully and regularly looked after. As he says, “Colburn is exceptional in its devotion to the quality of the instrument.”

If the patients could talk, they would most likely agree heartily.

Jimmy Shen. | Photo: Courtesy of The Colburn School.
Jimmy Shen. | Photo: Courtesy of The Colburn School. 

Top image: lash9420/Flickr/Creative Commons License.

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