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Scott Thile, San Diego's master piano tuner

Hammers in the morning

Scott Thile: "I really love music ‘with a passion. But I didn’t enjoy the performances."
  • Scott Thile: "I really love music ‘with a passion. But I didn’t enjoy the performances."

There was once a fine old Sohmer grand piano that fell asleep inside a church — the Seventh-Day Adventist Church of Oceanside. For many years, the church pianist and the 1917-vintage Sohmer grand had created beautiful, beatific moods and melodies for the faithful who flocked to worship and sing His songs. By 1977, however, no matter how frequently tuned, the piano still went quickly out of tune; the tuning pins, used to tighten or loosen the strings, no longer held tightly in the pin-block; notes clashed and discomfited. The piano hadn't that much of a sound, anyway, since many of the levers and flanges were worn so that the hammers didn’t hit the strings squarely, and some hammers didn’t even strike the strings at all. The frame had become scratched, the keys yellowed.

To loosen the glue that cemented the tops of the keys, he placed a dampened cloth on each key and then a hot clothes iron on the cloth for thirty seconds.

To loosen the glue that cemented the tops of the keys, he placed a dampened cloth on each key and then a hot clothes iron on the cloth for thirty seconds.

And so plans were formulated to cast aside the poor Sohmer and buy a brand-new grand.

But to the Sohmer’s rescue came Scott Thile, a fledgling, inexperienced, twenty-one-year-old piano technician who had grown up in Rancho Santa Fe. His stepfather, George Dillinger, was a fine (albeit not well known) concert pianist. The boy had taken lessons since he was eight, but never displayed extraordinary talent. After graduation from San Dieguito High, he played bass for Dance of the Universe, a Del Mar jazz band, and contrabass in the La Jolla Civic Orchestra. "I really love music,” Thile says, ‘‘with a passion. But I didn’t enjoy the performances. I wasn’t a very serious musician. I didn’t want to be famous. I had the insight that I didn’t want to make my career in performance. I had done some piano tuning, and I found that I enjoyed working on pianos more than playing.”

 Many of the levers and flanges were worn so that the hammers didn’t hit the strings squarely.

Many of the levers and flanges were worn so that the hammers didn’t hit the strings squarely.

To learn his craft, Thile joined the San Diego chapter of the Piano Technicians Guild as a student member. Throughout the next few years, he entered several informal apprenticeships. ‘‘He was real green,” recalls Jeff Lehman, a San Marcos piano technician and guild member who in 1979 asked Thile to work as his apprentice, paying him five dollars per hour for three days of work per week. “He had to be shown what to do on just about everything. I couldn’t just give him an action and say put on new hammers. I had to walk him through. But Scott is a real go-getter, and he studied like crazy and studied up on tuning theory and went to as many seminars and guild meetings as he could.”

He makes holes in the hammers to loosen the felt and produce a richer, mellower sound.

He makes holes in the hammers to loosen the felt and produce a richer, mellower sound.

Still, when Thile approached the church piano committee members in 1979, he had never rebuilt an entire piano on his own. “I told them that this was a very fine Sohmer grand,” Thile says, “and that its old, beautiful sound could be reawakened. That I heard a great deal of potential in the instrument. And that a new piano of equivalent quality would cost about $6500.” He offered to rebuild the Sohmer grand for $2700.

Thile realized quickly that he had grossly underbid the job. During the next four months, he put in about 450 hours to rebuild the piano, which meant that, minus $500 for supplies (such as lacquers and various kinds of wood), he made about five dollars an hour. “Not much in light of the intense craftsmanship required,” he says. For instance, the pinblock needed to be replaced. Pinblocks are thick pieces of wood perforated with about 235 precisely drilled holes (depending on size and style of the piano) for the tuning pins. The pins, to which the strings are attached, are finely threaded to keep them in place. To get at the pinblock, much of the piano's harp-shaped rim needed to be removed and disassembled. To build a new pinblock, he had to glue and precisely shape thirty-two laminations of European beech, and it had to fit precisely back into the piano to withstand the forty tons of pressure that the strings would exert upon it. He had to rebuild the action. The action, connected to the keys, enables the pianist to make the hammers strike the strings hard or softly, as well as dampen certain strings; this is the technological advancement that made the piano a revolutionary instrument, beyond the harpsichord and clavichord. But this advance is the result of a complex interaction of levers and flanges and springs, approximately fifty-seven parts in all per key, or about 5016 parts for the eighty-eight keys of a concert grand. And that was only one aspect of the piano on which he had to work.

“I did an incredible amount of work on the piano,” Thile says. “But always in the back of my mind was the fear that ultimately the piano wouldn't meet my expectations.”

The decisive moment came after the first fine tuning. As Thile played the Grieg piano concerto in A minor, it was then that he knew he had revived the Sohmer grand. “It was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life.”

Near the end of an alley, between Nevada and Ditmar streets in Oceanside, are three open garage doors. Classical music lilts its way among the garages. Thile is sanding the rim of a Steinway grand. Once a rich, shiny black, now its finish is stripped and the rim’s color is the paleness of new, unfinished wood. Around him, on shelves along the walls, are legs of upright and grand pianos, portions of rims and soundboards, and cast-iron plates that weigh hundreds of pounds (and which reinforce the rims).

Thile is a large, patient man. As I watch him work, this day on the rim, another day reshaping an action’s hammers, I am impressed by the complexity of an instrument whose beautiful sound I took for granted. This day he has just finished reshaping each of the eighty-eight hammers, which are made of wood surrounded by felt. “This piano is finished — almost,” he says. ‘‘But its tone is a bit too brilliant.” Thile then begins what is known as the “voicing” process. He plays the piano, determining which notes are too loud. Once he finds the culpable keys, he goes to the corresponding hammers. He uses a wood-handled voicing tool, which has three tiny pins, and he makes holes in the hammers to loosen the felt and produce a richer, mellower sound. He must go through the notes again, this time voicing them for soft playing, making shallower holes than the previous deeper ones intended for loud playing.

Later that day, when he takes off all 235 strings of another grand piano, he must follow a certain procedure, because each string exerts about 160 pounds of pressure; if the tension is changed on one part of the piano too quickly, the risk increases that the plate or rim might crack. That would be a serious — and costly — mistake.

For San Diego’s piano technicians, one of the most prestigious jobs is to tune pianos at UC San Diego’s Mandeville Center, where nearly 500 performances are held annually, most of them in the nine months that school is in session, sometimes two or three a day, many of them with either one of the center’s two Stein way concert grands or the Bösendorfer grand. The frequent playing of the pianos and changes in humidity mean they need plenty of attention — constant tuning, sometimes two or three times a day, and light reconditioning.

For the concert pianists' performances, the technician plays an essential role. “Pianists tend to have a certain detachment from their instrument, which is much different from the relationship other musicians have with their instruments,” says Cecil Lytle, a UCSD music professor and concert pianist. “They walk to their instrument. They perform. They walk away. But the clarinetist, for instance, must assemble and disassemble his instrument before and after playing, as well as tune and perform minor repairs. The violinist and other string musicians must constantly tune their instruments; when strings break, they put on new ones themselves. The pianist almost never tunes his own instrument, and should a string break, never puts on a new one himself.”

At four in the afternoon of June 9, the hundreds of seats before the Mandeville stage are empty. This is when Thile begins his work. “Tuning is my meditation,” he says, and adds, “you get into a frame of mind that, if interrupted, is quite disturbing.” During the ninety minutes it takes him to tune the Steinway grand, his comments are terse: “It must have been played terribly hard last night. It’s quite sharp.”

I hear nothing that the tuner hears, because, unlike Thile, who went through 2000 tunings to develop his hearing to merely a competent level, I do not hear what are known as partials and beats. When one begins to delve into the physics of the piano, one understands that the piano’s beauty is the result of its technological imperfectness. The crucial concept, says Thile, is “inharmonicity,” which, very roughly, means that no piano can be perfectly tuned. The Western musical scale has a series of notes, which extend from A to G; after G, the next note is another A that’s at a higher pitch than the first A, theoretically at twice the cycles per second. Each of these A notes has a corresponding string that vibrates, not only along its whole length, but in about thirty-two audible shorter segments; each shorter segment produces a different pitch. But the physical reality is that each of these A strings, which are an octave apart, is of a different length, thickness, and under a different amount of tension; hence the shorter segments vibrate at slightly different pitches and make the A of one string slightly different in quality than the A of another string an octave apart. Thus it is the pitches of the shorter segments — called “partials”— to which Thile listens. He can sometimes hear as many as thirteen or fifteen partials within a note. “If it weren’t for inharmonicity, it would be relatively simple to tune a piano," Thile says. “But since a piano cannot be tuned perfectly, with every piano, you encounter compromises that must be made, and where they’re made is what gives each tuner his individuality. In a practical sense, to tune the piano so that it plays perfectly in one key would make it unplayable in the other keys. If the fourths and fifths were to be pure, then the piano would sound intolerable.

On the first rough tuning, Thile goes quickly through all eighty-eight keys. It takes him fifteen minutes, beginning at the bass-treble division, to move up through the treble keys and then back to the bass portion. Then he begins to tune more precisely. Although normally one hammer will strike as many as three strings per key, only one string per hammer is tuned at a time, the rest of the strings being muted by a long green felt strip that he places against the other strings. After he tunes one string for each key on the keyboard, he goes to the second string for each key. This finished, he repeats the process a third time. With one hand he plays harmonies and notes; in his other hand he holds the tuning lever with which he turns the tuning pins ever so slightly. It takes about an hour for Thile to complete the fine-tuning. Although among tuners great controversy is centered upon whether one ought to use an electronic pitch machine or one’s own ear to tune, Thile relies almost exclusively on his ear. In that way, he can make allowances for each piano’s varying inharmonicity, which a pitch machine cannot.

That night in the Mandeville Center, Los Angeles Philharmonic pianist Zita Carno performed Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with the UCSD Wind Ensemble. The concert went fine, she said. When asked about the tuning, she replied, “To tell the truth, I don’t remember a thing about it.” “If it’s good," says Thile, “they never do."

Most of the pianos Thile rebuilds are from private clients’ homes. The typical client, he says, is “somebody infatuated with having an older piano. They frequently haven’t a real appreciation for the quality and sound of a piano but for the romance of the craftsmanship. Or they want it rebuilt for their kids’ lessons. Then there’s the player who can appreciate the sound and quality, people such as composers, teachers, performers." With only three or four technicians in the county who regularly rebuild pianos, Thile says, there’s no shortage of work. “You have fewer than 10,000 technicians in the nation. And more than 200,000 pianos a year are built by American companies alone.” Beside rebuilding about six pianos per year, he services about 1000 pianos each year at the rate of forty dollars to tune a regularly maintained instrument.

When he talks about the quality of the work performed by tuners in the San Diego area, his words are carefully chosen. As this year’s president of the San Diego chapter of the Piano Technicians Guild, diplomacy is a necessity. What he will say is that of the roughly one hundred technicians in the county, fewer than half are guild members. “Yet, the guild is the only testing body for technicians. Anybody can call himself a technician, but the guild certifies its members. My own feeling is that only time and the inexperienced piano technician are the piano’s enemies; of the two, the inexperienced technician can do the worse damage. It’s frustrating to see what some of the people representing themselves as piano tuners do to a piano.

“You see, after the technician perceives a problem, the solutions are numerous. Say that a piano key sticks and it won’t come up. Some technicians will glue a lead weight on the back of the bottom. Now the key returns. But he has only cured the symptom, not the cause. The way that technicians make a lot of money is to ignore problems or not solve their causes.” Another San Diego technician, however, who asked to remain anonymous, offers another view. “It would be nice if we could do all that is necessary to do top work, but a piano tuner gives the best possible service to the customers for the money.” And if the client isn’t a concert pianist and has a piano that’s played only a few times a year, he or she could become quite perturbed by a technician who insists that to fix the sticking key, the action must be removed from the piano, that the additional time and effort will cost another eighty dollars. Hence, the placement of the lead weight.

Thile, too, recognizes the aesthetic compromises that his craft demands. Early on a recent Saturday morning, he was at work in one of his garages in front of a workbench, on which were numerous keys that he had removed from a Vose & Sons upright he was rebuilding. The piano had certainly led a life, if the ivory tops of the keys were any indication. Some of them were chipped, others cracked, still others bore the stains of ink and crayons that no amount of bleaching could ever remove; one top had been burned by a cigarette. Thile was removing the aged tops, but instead of using more ivory to replace them, he’d used a simulated ivory made of molded plastic. To loosen the glue that cemented the tops of the keys, he placed a dampened cloth on each key and then a hot clothes iron on the cloth for thirty seconds. He said that he would like to restore the keys with ivory, “but ivory coverings cost quite a bit more. And most owners aren’t so serious about the aesthetics of the piano that they can justify the cost.” Thile would like to be in the position where the majority of the rebuilding work he does is for serious artists or for those clients for whom expense is outweighed by the beauty of the instrument. For now, however, he had to steam the ivory off the rest of the upright’s keys. That would take the rest of the morning.

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