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JohnC Offline OP
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Since this topic has been discussed here frequently I thought some might be interested in this "news" article from today's (Jul 15) LA Times.

Since (free) registration is required I thought I would copy and paste instead of just link.

$200 tuning? eek I wonder what you get for that?

Piano Tuner Blues
Those who keep our ivories in key are rarely in sync themselves, especially when debating whether to work digitally or by ear.





By Paul Pringle, Times Staff Writer


A note about piano tuners: They often are not in accord.

Tuners can't agree whether their ranks resonate with talent or reek of the tone-deaf. A professional guild sets the bar for training, but most tuners won't join it.

Many are sharply critical of how piano owners treat their instruments — and their tuners. Others flatly don't care, as long as the customer pays scale.

And nothing stirs more dissonance in the do-re-mi trade than the debate over tuning by ear versus tuning by technology.

The dispute predates the Digital Age — electronic tuners debuted in the 1930s — but has grown louder as software becomes increasingly popular on the job. The Kansas City, Mo.-based Piano Technicians Guild says computers are now used by at least half the 10,000 tuners who service America's 18 million pianos.

"Piano tuners love to argue," said Jim Ogden, 55, a La Cañada Flintridge resident who got into the business nine years ago. "It's just endless."

Cyber-tuning has drawn a line between the likes of Richard Davenport and Ron Elliott, who otherwise have much in common. They occupy the upper range of Los Angeles tuners, with a combined six decades of experience, big-name clients, and steady gigs at recording studios and concert halls.

The similarities stop when they lift the piano lid and go to work.

Davenport's routine is to wrestle a laptop from his gear bag, place it gently on the piano's cast-iron plate, and power up a program that displays a spinning green disc that measures the pitches of the 88 keys. Davenport watches it as he tunes.

Elliott simply tilts his head toward the strings and listens. His tools are sleeved in a handyman's roll pouch. None requires batteries.

"I've always tuned by ear," he said.

Elliott stood over a nine-foot Steinway on the darkened stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. His task was to improve the "feel" of the piano for soloist Richard Goode.

Elliott tugged his tuning hammer — a misnamed wrench — this way and that on the pin of a B-flat string, adjusting it by hair-widths, while pounding the key. The B flat reverberated like a pipe banging in a storm drain, only purer.

"There are a lot of people who use electronic tuners," said Elliott, a soft-spoken 51-year-old with clipped, graying hair. He wore a suit and tie. "Maybe they never really learned to tune by ear." He said no computer can "hear" the subtle tonal differences between two pianos, or along the multi-string unisons within a single instrument.

Elliott also said the gadgets can't "stretch the octaves," making the bass flatter and treble sharper — to suit a performer's taste.

"A machine is very rigid," said the Pasadena resident. "Tuning is creative."

Elliott has tuned the Music Center's pianos for 17 years. He drifted into the craft after studying piano.

It took him an hour to sweeten the Steinway. The piano is tuned before every concert. Household pianos typically are tuned once a year.

"Richard Goode is a very sensitive player," Elliott said as he tinkered with the Steinway's felt hammers. They bounced on the Swedish-steel strings like woodpeckers peppering bark. Elliott jabbed one hammer with a needle — "sugar-coating" it — to render the string less strident.

Goode appeared from the gloom just as Elliott finished. The impish-faced pianist wanted another rehearsal before that night's performance.

Music to His Ears

Elliott hurriedly collected his tools and retreated backstage. After tearing into a Mozart concerto, Goode complimented Elliott. "Ron is one of my favorites," he said. Elliott was visibly pleased.

It's all about the ear, Elliot said later.

"When you start using a machine, you are allowed to become kind of lazy," he added. "You don't really have to pay attention to what you're doing. The machine becomes a crutch."

That view prevails at some prestigious music academies, including the Juilliard School, as well as at Steinway & Sons.

"We don't use electronic tuners here and we don't advise any of our technicians to use them," said Ron Coners, chief concert technician for Steinway in New York. "We feel you do not train your ear well enough because you're relying on the machine."

That's Luddite nonsense, said Davenport. He described gizmos such as Accu-Tuner, and software packages like CyberTuner, as aids for the ear, not substitutes.

"It's just so absurd to say that, because you're using a machine, you're not tuning aurally," he said.

The Brentwood resident ventured into tuning after earning a music degree at Occidental College and teaching junior high school.

He said that electronic tuning cuts wear and tear on the ear, saving it for the finer adjustments, and that his customers appreciate the precision.

"The folks who aren't using it aren't necessarily the best tuners," he said in a deep voice that fits his bearish frame. Davenport, 55, has a geeky enthusiasm for the mathematics of music; algorithms interest him almost as much as rhythms.

On a recent night, he took his laptop to Fox Studios in Century City, where he tunes in a hangar-sized scoring stage. He opened his computer on the rib cage of a 1928 Steinway. The piano sat in a forest of music stands, microphones and guitar racks, above an undergrowth of floor cables.

Davenport focused on the spinning disc, a CyberTuner feature. He was preparing the piano for an episode of "The Simpsons." A small orchestra would record 40 bits of music — cues — to a videotape of the show. Michael Lang would be on the Steinway.

"I just had a broken string — the high A," Davenport said, as he eyed the whirling circle. A clockwise spin meant the new string was sharp, counterclockwise flat.

Davenport nudged the pin with his wrench and punched the key. The disc froze and the screen blushed, signaling that the A was just right.

"I try to keep the piano in the middle," Davenport said. He polished the tuning with his ear, tightening or loosening the odd string in tiny increments. "It's not too bright, not too dead."

Lang, a robust man in a flowered shirt, arrived at the studio shortly before the orchestra warmed up. "I'm spoiled," he said of Davenport's tunings.

Picky Performers

But he also made clear that even the top tuners can't deliver the flawless tones a pianist craves. "I used to sit down and play and hear the imperfections," Lang said. "And I'd remember them and they'd bother me." Davenport tried to smile.

The subject of picky performers — not to mention software-averse tuners — comes up regularly at Davenport's backyard workshop, where he and three colleagues gather once a week to restore pianos. On this afternoon, the workshop discussion became a group gripe about the tuning life, to the accompaniment of a Beethoven violin concerto floating from the stereo.

"You spend all day with people and they never call you back," said Pamella Consoli, 52, a Claremont tuner.

Kayoko Forrest, 44, a Santa Monica resident who learned to tune as a piano saleswoman, complained about dogs in customers' homes that relieved themselves on her leg.

Mark Abbott Stern, 73, who began tuning in Beverly Hills after retiring as an aerospace engineer, lamented that piano owners don't know when to toss inexpensive or dilapidated instruments — especially family heirlooms. (Other tuners tell war stories of finding rats, rotting food and even stashes of cash in the guts of pianos.)

"The emotional attachment to a piano goes way beyond its real value," Stern said. "You can't get them to sound the way you want them to. The keys just ooze down." He splayed his fingers and lowered them slowly.

"It's like arthritis," Davenport said.

"Rigor mortis," Stern said.

Forrest nodded: "If a piano is cheap, it plays like a Mack truck."

The topic of tuner competence popped up. "There are literally clowns in this business," Davenport said.

He and the others pointed out that virtually anyone can become a tuner, and it's easier than ever because of the computer option. The devices and software sell for around $350 to $1,600; a tuning session usually pays $80 to $200.

Tuners can get started with a correspondence course. The more-ambitious novices undergo a multiyear apprenticeship with a veteran tuner.

"We get a lot of music teachers, musicians whose careers didn't quite take off. This is a way to stay in the field," said Barbara Cassaday, executive director of the tuners guild. "But it takes two years of full-time training."

Not necessarily, said Walt Eckstein, 68, a Palmdale tuner and former Assemblies of God pastor who charges $895 for a six-week course — 24 hours total. "It teaches all the basics," he said.

Eckstein said he considers every customer, no matter how fussy, a friend. And he downplayed talk of disharmony in the tuner world.

"I haven't heard much of that," he said.

Stuart Isacoff has heard plenty.

The New Jersey pianist and author published a 2001 book that celebrated the 18th-century introduction of equal temperament, the now-standard tuning system for bringing all 88 tones into harmony.

"People are still attacking me over it," said Isacoff, who also edits Piano Today magazine.

In "Temperament," Isacoff writes that the debate preceding the adoption of the system — in which each tone on the keyboard is equidistant from the ones before and after it — had engaged the minds of Sir Isaac Newton, astronomer Johannes Kepler and mathematician-philosopher Rene Descartes.

When his book hit the shelves, Isacoff came under fire from devotees of Baroque-era tunings or new variations of them, which produce richer sounds on a limited number of tones. They denounce equal temperament as a corrupting compromise.

'Tuning Taliban'

"I decided to write the book after I began learning there were all these battles over tuning," Isacoff said. "Small groups of people think it's evil. I call them the 'Tuning Taliban.' "

Ogden, the La Cañada Flintridge tuner, has a theory on why such tiffs persist.

"When you work by yourself, you're the final, ultimate check," he said. "There are no committee decisions. Piano tuners tend to be loners, nonconformist."

He was tuning a 1908 Wellington upright at the home of a Glendale chemistry teacher. The piano was partially dismantled, its sculpted panels resting on the dining room floor. Ogden, who uses CyberTuner, directed a flashlight at the innards, illuminating rust and dust.

"And you have to be weird," he said, "to keep your head in a piano all day."


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
See a video report with piano tuners Richard Davenport and Ron Elliott discussing and demonstrating the differences between computer-assisted tuning and tuning solely by ear. Go to latimes.com/piano.


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Well, at least the first paragraph was interesting.

But seriously, thanks for sharing the article. It's definitely a hot debate. Unfortunately a lot of things in the article aren't very accurate. It doesn't need to be a debate. Every tuner should know how to tune a piano. Whether they use a machine or not, they need to understand the fundamentals of tuning (as others like Rick Clark have said time and time again). Unfortunately, the aural tuner in the article would have you believe that those of use using a machine as a tool don't know anything about aural tuning. I might say the same of most of the tuners not using machines...

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JohnC Offline OP
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KB, I did find it interesting that Richard Davenport would hold the views he does. I know from reputation he is considered to be one of the very top techs in So. Cal.

I would agree that one should be able to tune well aurally to begin with. But I can see where the electronics could be used as an aid as long as it didn't become a crutch. wink


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Hi JohnC,

The $200 probably refers to pitch raising. And believe me there are people out there charging less than $80.

Though I am an ear tuner myself, I find Elliot the ear tuner's statements to be most in error. There are some people doing great tunings with machines, and some people doing lousy tunings strictly by ear. Steinway's position is ridiculous from a technical standpoint. I believe it's just a snooty image they are trying to maintain-- their usual superiority complex.

Regards,

Rick Clark


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Electronic tuners are good for training the eyes. I can't name too many well known techs who use a machine exclusively. That being said, there are a few out there who have a thorough understanding of aural tuning who may use a machine to make things go faster. The major thing in my opoinion is that what is scientifically correct is not nessecarily musically correct.


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What got me about that article was the use of the term "computer" when referring to an electronic tuning aid. Also the "aurally fixated" tuner, Ron Elliot, is way off base when he states that the machines don't take into account the octave stretching that he presumably does. Such a statement comes from a narrow minded ignorance.
If he'd simply take the trouble to educate himself he'd see how mistaken he was.

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My biggest problem with the use of electronic tuners is the techs that learn on one and never learn to tune aurally. Mind you, this is coming from someone who learned tuning aurally. I'm not saying that an electronic tuner cannot be used to do a good tuning but I do think that if the operator knows aural tuning, he can let his ears be the final judgement. What the piano sounds like when you are done is what matters after all. Personally I think that using an electronic tuner takes the fun out tuning. Every piano is a little different, even within a given brand. The fun and challenging job of an aural tuner is to solve that pianos tonal puzzle by placing all of the pieces together so that the piano sings. I think most techs that are partial to aural tuning will tell you that they enjoy the process and the results they get.


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Quote
Originally posted by KlavierBauer:
the aural tuner in the article would have you believe that those of use using a machine as a tool don't know anything about aural tuning. I might say the same of most of the tuners not using machines...
I purchased a small grand from a local music store the same day I bought my big one elsewhere. It was a well-constructed little machine at a price too good to pass up. "Just needs a good tuning", I thought, to be upwards of "fine". It had a wonderful tone and great power for its size, but sounded as if it hadn't been tuned in quite some time. Unisons were fine, but temperament was poor. So I bought it and it was delivered. And I called the tuner and told him to allocate at least 90 minutes as this one was a bit more than a little off for its scale. On arrival he said, " I just tuned this piano last week ". I paid him, but did not have him tune it again.

So I got TuneLab Pro and a hammer, and mutes, and did a great deal of reading in books from the library and on-line and retuned it myself, to my own satisfaction, even eliminating any hint of the breaks in the scale and regulated it for evenness and good repetition. I kept it for upwards of a year and during that time, it held its tune quite well, so it wasn't a case of the week-old tuning I'd experienced on the store floor not having held. I recently sold it to the first looker/player, a serious musician, at a tidy profit, after I realized I'd never want to play anything but the big one (or a stage piano with headphones late at night).

This tuner is the only one who resides in this town (other than one who is exclusively employed by an institution to handle about 50). His only competition has just retired (he offered me all his books and journals). Though we are a bedroom community to a larger city, tuners from the "City" charge more to come down here, so I will be paying a premium when (and if) I begin exploring tuners for someone with a better ear or technique with an ETD. I dread the process of evaluating techs almost as much as the task of doing it myself instead.

While I found it interesting to study tuning theory and did that piano, as well as tuning and regulating an upright, prior to its sale (also to the first looker), tuning is the sort of thing I'd prefer to pay an adept professional to do, just to avoid the commitment of my time (I'm slow and very picky), not to mention, to avoid the tediousness of the task.

Fortunately, the remaining piano's rock solid and even after a year and has only needed touch up of two unisons in the heavily-played region. I have a good ear to begin with, but even so, I check it against a digital stage piano in the same room monthly. I did spend about 100 hours regulating it (two extreme experiments, and a final good compromise) and arrived at just the touch and tone I want (couldn't be happier).

After just this limited experience, I have a great deal of respect for piano techs in general, especially those who really understand that it is both a realm of science and and an art--artful compromises are required even with an ETD.

The PTG archives are full of very committed and innovative fellows. But reading there, it becomes very apparent there's not much agreement on tuning methods. And that there's no such thing as the common misconception of "equal temperament" with equidistant pitches (that will sound good, from piano to piano). And obvious that there's a world of tunings that some subset of the group will think "good". And even the best in the field attribute some aspects of piano sound to "it's a mystery".

Touch, tone and tune are very subjective and personal and unique to each piano. And the language to describe exactly what you want of them can be very difficult to communicate. I'm fairly convinced that for anyone a little mechanically inclined, and willing and and able to learn, it's can be very valuable to the player to learn to do much him/herself, not so much to do it regularly, but to learn what it takes to get what you want. I certainly would never anticipate the travelling artist to have time to do so on the venue-provided instruments or ones shipped with them, nor would I expect the less mechanically-inclined to tackle the job.

Players of other tuneable instruments don't hand them off to someone else. But then as the old adage goes, "the piano is not a perfectly tuneable instrument".

That article very much reflected the discussions among the PTG members in their archive.


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