The Finest Piano Tuner – Chapter 5

Chapter 5 told some of the story of Barry, an exceptional tuner I worked with at the piano store in downtown Boston. I told of one incident when I followed up on a tuning by Barry at a radio studio. Another time that I got to follow up on one of Barry’s tunings was at New England Life Hall.  Barry had tuned a grand piano for a recital of the students of a prominent teacher. When he finished tuning, he started to leave.  The teacher admonished him, saying, “Don’t leave yet, I haven’t checked the tuning.”


Barry replied, “You can check the tuning all you want.  I’m leaving.”


The teacher was so irate on the phone to the owner of the store that the owner sent two of us out to placate her.  I was along for show and for training.  Bart, the head technician, was instructing me in how to deal with difficult and demanding people.  He instructed me to watch how calm he remained and how he did whatever they requested.  They were just asserting their authority and he beat them at their own game by never letting them get to him.  In his mind, by acting submissive, he ended up winning.  This teacher was complaining about a bass octave that Barry had tuned optimally.


Bart said to her, “I’ll just gradually change it, and you tell me when you like it.”  Barry had tuned that piano incredibly well.  I know it’s hard to understand, but usually it’s ludicrous for a musician to try to second-guess a great tuner.  If a piano is tuned badly, a musician can tell, but at the level Barry tuned, only a tuner would have the training to be able to check it accurately, and then not completely.  There are things that you could not tell without tuning it yourself to see if that was the best possible or whether it could be improved.  Because of the slight variation in manufacture and therefore in overtone pattern of strings, there are many times where you tune the best possible, and perfect is not possible.  You couldn’t tell that without tuning it yourself.  That is not something a musician is capable of.  Additionally, a musician does not have the technical training to separate the tuning from the tone, touch, inharmonicity, and overall sound of the instrument.  The musician either likes or dislikes the sound, they can’t differentiate whether it is the tuning or some other aspect of the piano that led them to dislike it.


There were numerous prominent musicians who did appreciate Barry’s work, though. One was Neil Young.  When he was in Boston for a concert, he rented a Steinway vertical piano for his hotel room, for practicing and for composing.  Barry was sent to tune that.  They got along so well that Neil invited Barry to go on tour with him, so he would always have a well-tuned piano.  Barry considered it, but concluded that it wouldn’t work for him.  His wife, his friends, and his singing group were all in Boston.  Plus, he knew how to get around Boston.  For him to be in new places all the time would be worse than sitting in the recording studio all day.  He would be bored to death sitting around most of the time, being unable to get around easily in a new place. Still, Barry did appreciate that a musician as great as Neil Young thought that highly of him and of his work.