Why Don’t Pianists Learn to Tune Their Instruments?

Pianists have a much less hands-on relationship with their instrument than other musicians. Besides the added distance of playing a keyboard at the very edge of a beast that wouldn’t fit in most bathrooms, the average pianist’s life is removed from the practical, mechanical aspects of the upkeep of the instrument. Reed players dissemble their instruments for transport and spend hours making reeds (indeed, at Ithaca I remember a room designated specifically for the latter purpose), string players buy new strings, and brass players clean out their valves. But the real difference lies in tuning.

Think about an orchestra concert. When the oboist gives the introductory A, everyone on stage tests their intonation and adjusts accordingly. But if there’s a pianist in the orchestra, you’ll see him or her sitting quietly, perhaps with a serene smile reflecting absolute faith in the piano’s tuning that has taken place before the concert…by someone else.

Piano tuning is a mysterious, separate world. When I was in undergrad, I remember seeing an elective piano tuning class offered one semester, which I would have taken if not for a schedule conflict. But that was the only concrete opportunity I had during my entire time in music school. I’m sure many tuners do play, but I get the sense that for many, the tuning is their primary business. As a kid, I remember visits from a piano tuner who was blind, giving the process an added level of mysticism: the ritual of his assistant leading him to the piano, the implication of a heightened sense of hearing, and my hushed alertness in listening to him work.

But why is tuning not a common learned skill among pianists? Why is it always outsourced, especially when pianists are usually at the mercy of a particular piano at a venue or studio? I can remember countless times that I showed up for some kind of gig, either the day of or at a prescribed rehearsal a day or two before, and noticed a sticky key or sour note in the upper register. In those cases the only option would be to request a tuning, which may not even be possible on short notice and which the venue would likely hesitate to fund, or to simply accept the situation and make it work. There was no middle ground. But what if I had been able to whip out some tools and fix the troublesome note? I’d be a hero, and the piano would sound better.

The truth is that the piano is a complex instrument, and tuning requires a lot of time, focus, and patience. Strings, winds, and brass can retune in minutes, but piano tuning takes hours. Maybe pianists have traditionally seen tuning as taking away from valuable practice time, and that has led to the separate worlds of performance and tuning. Tuning requires its own practice, too; I know I would need dozens (if not hundreds) of tuning sessions, with a variety of pianos, before I trusted myself to tune a piano for a performance. There’s that saying about logging 10,000 hours of a given skill before you can claim expertise. Since pianists are busy logging their thousands of hours of playing the instrument, they’re okay with paying for occasional piano tuning, in the same way that other musicians shell out for repairs for their beloved personal instruments.

As my piano performance activities become more occasional, though, I wonder about pursuing this other, mystical world. I can think of a few pretty good reasons to look into it. As I mentioned before, there’s the practical skill of being able to repair (with permission) one or two troublesome notes that would make or break a performance. Additionally, if you get good enough at tuning, you can take care of your own instrument, and even make pretty good money by offering your services. And for me as a composer, being able to easily retune a piano would facilitate experiments in alternate tunings or preparing for a concert that required a piano in just intonation, a quarter-tone flat, etc. Spending hours listening to pitches and adjusting would likely improve my sense of intonation in general. Quite a valuable asset.

So if I do decide to pursue this, I’ll give an update somewhere down the road.

Two interesting related links:

Why All Pianists Should Learn the Basics of Piano Tuning

A self-tuning piano that might make this whole blog post obsolete someday

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