18 May 2014

Lesson for an amateur

It's not just the music that fascinates. The piano is a complex and beautiful thing and it was honoured when Ara Vartoukian gave a workshop for the CIMF Fringe yesterday. Ara is a piano technician based in Sydney; he looks after the pianos in the Angel Place Recital Hall amongst others; the session was called the Piano whisperer. He was talking of pianos, especially Steinways, and tuning. It was the tuning that particularly interested me, being myself a very amateur tuner of an old piano. Ara spoke of equal temperament; how it's necessary but scientifically incorrect; how it has a human element (we hear high notes as flat and low notes as sharp); how he uses thirds and cycles and intervals; how he tunes not just for pitch but for maintenance of that pitch (releasing stress with fortissimo staccatos then, unlike guitar, tuning down to a note); how often he tunes and registers instruments; how he stretches the tuning and how different stretches serve different purposes; how to make a piano sound honkytonk. If I got it right, tuning is built on overtones and the beats between intervals: around 0.7 sec for a major third. It all happened quickly with his experience. Firstly the strings are damped with felt, so only the middle of three strings plays; he tunes the middle octave, then spreads over the piano, then removes the felt string-by-string and adjusts the partner strings. It's quick, although I noticed even on an ANU Steinway grand there were a few notes that demanded extra tweaks. He removed the keyboard and the mechanism was laid bare. It's a strange sight: an open mouth on a grand piano and the complex, repetitive mechanism of the keys laying on a table. This is all a mix of craft and art and even some science on the most essential of instruments and the product of a year's training and subsequent experience. Fascinating and aurally challenging. Ara Vartoukian (piano tuner) talked pianos and tuning at the ANU School of Music for the Canberra International Music Festival Fringe.

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