Ray Charles Band

Tuning for Performances – Chapter 35

Tuning for performances is an interesting endeavor. I frequently get to meet the piano player and hear how their tour has been going. We also discuss any concerns they have about the piano. Usually that amounts to their wishes as to the brightness of the tone of the instrument. Not all of those meetings are interesting enough to fill a chapter in a book, but it is exciting for me just to be around performers of that caliber. For example, I tuned for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of London, and was paid to attend the concert. For the piece of music they played, the piano was just a part of the orchestra and I never heard it at any time in the performance. I could see the pianist playing, but the volume of the orchestra completely covered up the sound.


Another interesting experience was tuning for the Vienna Choir Boys. I found it amazing that in the middle of December they would be giving concerts in the US rather than in Austria. They marched in single file down the hall from their bus, already dressed in sailor suits, as if they were in the Sound of Music. They had perfect upright posture and professional demeanor as if they were miniature adults. I imagined what a contrast it could be to a group of American youngsters who might be kidding around and laughing with each other. These Choir Boys were very serious people.


Another time, I tuned for the Ray Charles Band. These were instrumentalists who actually played with Ray Charles in the 60’s. They hired a young person to play the piano and sing, but the rest of the band were all in their eighties. They were very friendly and a lot of fun. On breaks they would be walking up and down the halls to keep their joints working. I asked them about the accuracy of the portrayal of Ray Charles in the movie, and they agreed that it was pretty accurate.


George Winston was one of the most appreciative pianists that I ever tuned for. I would say that he demanded perfection, but I never use the term “perfection” for piano tuning. The best any tuner can do is “ideal for that instrument”. We are dealing with organic materials here that can vary in composition. One reason he was so demanding was that he uses harmonics in his playing, similar to what some guitarists do. He would place his fingers at the halfway point of a string, and when the note was struck, the resulting pitch was an octave higher than when the string was regularly played. He was extremely appreciative for the careful tuning I did, and even acknowledged me by name to the audience in the second half, after I had checked the tuning during the intermission.


There have been others, but they were just normal tunings and did not generate an interesting story. Those performers included Vanessa Williams with her band, The Scottish National Orchestra, Wynton Marsalis, the Joshua Bell Trio, and many lesser-known artists.


Tuning for performances can be a lot of fun, but it takes a certain level of dedication. While I tuned at The Soraya concert venue for years, it frequently meant working on Saturday nights, usually only until 8 pm, but sometimes until 10:30 pm. Typically, I would be hired to tune the piano in the afternoon before rehearsal, then again before the performance. That last tuning would not take very long, as the piano would not be out of tune very much after just one rehearsal. Usually the rehearsal would end at 7 pm, and I would have until 7:30 to tune before the doors opened. Rarely I would be hired to check the tuning during the intermission and sometimes I would be hired to attend the entire concert in case something were to go wrong with the piano. So far, I have been fortunate that nothing has ever gone wrong with a piano during a concert. In order to continue that streak, I check the most obvious possible problems as part of the tuning.


Possible Problems During a Concert

The most common problem comes from a pencil being dropped into the piano behind the key cover. Usually that results only in a slight clicking when the keys it is resting on are played. The problem is that the movement of the keys will move the pencil around so it can lodge between an action bracket and the keys. If that should happen, some keys could suddenly stop working and the concert would stop. A piano cannot be played if even just one key stops working. To prevent this possibility, I remove the key cover of each piano both before the rehearsal and before the concert. I then examine for pencils and for raised balance rail pins, which can work themselves loose and disrupt the function of a key. Other things to check are the trapwork hinge pins, which can also work themselves loose and allow the pedals to malfunction. Also, concert pianos are moved around a lot, which can loosen the legs. It is important to check that the legs are on tight, as well.