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The Piano Doctor

One job: Making 170 stringed instruments pitch-perfect

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In the video above, College of Fine Arts chief piano technician Martin Snow demonstrates how to service a Steinway & Sons concert grand piano.

Day in, day out, nearly 10,000 people show up at Boston University—not to go to school, but to go to work. Often unsung, their efforts make everything possible. This is one in a series of stories about jobs on campus and the people who do them.

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 24 years: as CFA’s chief piano technician, he begins every morning by inspecting 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.”

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 CFA piano and harpsichord, 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.”

That lack of knowledge extends beyond academia. Professionals such as Murray Perahia, Jorge Bolet, Paul McCartney, Peter Gabriel, and the late Fred Rogers (Hon.’92) 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.”

Some pianos, like the seven-foot, 62-year-old Steinway Model B concert grand currently stored in the piano shop, require more care than others. “Given its age and daily usage, it was really time to do a comprehensive restoration,” Snow says. “The original strings were so rusted and corroded they no longer transmitted good tone.”

He spent last summer restringing the piano and installing new hammerheads and action parts—a project that took hundreds of hours. The cabinet was refurbished out-of-house. “It’s nearly ready,” he says. “We’ll move it into one of the practice modules soon.”

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.”

Daily inspection and timely repairs extend the instrument’s lifetime, and in the case of the Steinway, the extra effort pays off. “The piano was rarely played because of its mechanical and structural problems,” Snow says. “It’s always rewarding to return such a beautiful instrument to the school’s working inventory.”

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.”

3 Comments

3 Comments on The Piano Doctor

  • Jeff Flowers on 01.19.2010 at 11:15 am

    New Respect

    After reading this, I have a new found respect for piano players. I honestly had no idea that so much work goes into the making of these instruments, as well as maintaining them for perfect sound.

  • Anonymous on 06.23.2010 at 11:47 am

    Beautiful piece, thanks for sharing.

  • Claude R. Spiro, MA, ACMT on 06.23.2010 at 3:59 pm

    The Incredible Thing

    The incredible thing about piano tuners is how sensitive their ears are to the slightest issue. For a musician who is a non-pianist, things like tuning according to the well-tempered system rarely come up. This means that if I, a trombone player, attempt to tune a piano myself, I run into problems, because pianos (and harpsicords) are tuned like no other instruments. So unless we somehow know how to tune a piano the way a piano needs to be tuned, we’ll be out of tune everytime. And there are other perils along the way for us non-pianists/non-tuners. Once you’ve roughed up the hammers on a piano, as described above, there’s no returning to the original quality. All of this makes the idea of tuning a piano ourselves a daunting one—if even possible.

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