Making 170 stringed instruments pitch-perfect| From Commonwealth | By Vicky Waltz. Video by Devin Hahn
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CFA piano technician Martin Snow demonstrates how to service a Steinway & Sons concert grand piano.
Martin Snow arrives at the College of Fine Arts before 7 a.m. In just a few hours, the hallways will swell with music, but for now, the building is eerily silent. His footsteps echo as he makes his way from room to room. His routine hasn’t changed in twenty-four years; as CFA’s chief piano technician, he begins every morning by playing a few notes on each of the school’s 105 concert grands and 65 uprights.
Slipping into one of the fourth-floor studios, Snow leans into the opening of a nine-foot Baldwin concert grand and scans for broken strings. Taking a seat, he plays a passage, listening for tonal abnormalities. To the untrained ear, the melody is pleasing, but Snow is not satisfied.
“The notes are a little harsh,” he says, removing the piano’s key blocks and fallboard. Sliding out the keyboard, he takes a three-pronged voicing needle from his tool roll and carefully punctures several of the instrument’s felt hammerheads. “There should be note-to-note consistency throughout the whole piano,” he explains, brushing the hammerheads with a wire brush. “Otherwise the pianist can’t express the range of musical dynamics the composition calls for.”
He plays another passage and nods approvingly. “Much better,” he says. “The notes are more mellow now.”
Martin Snow has been repairing, restoring, and tuning the pianos and harpsichords at CFA, the Castle, the Tsai Performance Center, and Marsh Chapel for more than two decades. Photos by Kalman Zabarsky
Snow grew up in England and graduated with a degree in music education from Bretton Hall College in West Yorkshire. He taught music in London before settling in Boston, where he completed an advanced program in piano technology at the North Bennet Street School. Since 1986, he’s overseen the repair and restoration of every piano and harpsichord at CFA, as well as those at the Castle, the Tsai Performance Center, and Marsh Chapel.
By the time he finishes his rounds in the school’s new practice rooms, the halls are crowded with students. He ducks into his basement shop and compiles a list of instruments requiring tuning or adjustment; later in the day, he’ll dispatch a crew of five part-time technicians.
“The number of pianos needing work can be a bit overwhelming,” he says. “Making those daily morning rounds is the most effective way to stay on top of the repairs.” With its intricate ensemble of strings and hammers, a piano’s interior tends to mystify students. “String players can replace a string, and woodwind players can fashion their reeds,” Snow says. “But pianists generally know very little about their instrument.”
It’s not just students who lack the knowledge. Professionals such as Murray Perahia, Jorge Bolet, Paul McCartney, and Peter Gabriel have called on Snow for help. “Piano tuning isn’t glamorous,” he says with a chuckle, “but every once a while, you meet someone famous.”
The last time the University made a significant purchase of pianos was in 1984 — most of the Steinway concert grands were bought even earlier.
“If rarely used and properly cared for, pianos will last for decades, even centuries,” Snow says. “But CFA’s pianos are played by thousands of students, year in and year out. It takes a toll.”
Later in the morning, the rich rumbling of a piano draws Snow to the first-floor concert hall. Eyes closed, arms crossed, he listens as two pianists rehearse. “Sometimes it’s important to step away from the technical side of the work,” he whispers, “and just drink in the performance.”