Disappearing piano tuners

11th August 2023 | Daily Life, Musings | 3 comments

There was an article in The Guardian this week about the dwindling number of highly-trained piano tuners in Australia. Not only is the pool of piano tuners getting smaller, it is in danger of not being replenished because there aren’t enough training courses in this highly-skilled craft. Already, tuners are covering enormous distances to reach all the pianos which need tuning.

As for tuners expert enough to look after concert pianos, that species is even more endangered. For it’s not just a matter of tuning the piano – it’s also a matter of ‘voicing’ and ‘toning’ the piano so that it sounds at its best. This takes technical know-how. In addition, some soloists have special requirements and requests when it comes to the tuning and toning of a concert grand, and few tuners are able to supply the necessary skills to the required standard.

I was talking to a tuner about all this. He said that the situation is not quite as serious in the UK, because there are still a couple of training courses, but even so, the number of top tuner-technicians is small and getting smaller as some of the most experienced practitioners approach retirement. Yes, they should be training up apprentices, but there’s a lack of aspiring tuners coming forward. ‘Being a piano tuner’ now seems to have a slightly old-fashioned ring to it.

I wondered whether, as part of a music diploma or degree, pianists would ever be trained to tune their own pianos? My tuner friend doubted it. At the beginning of lockdown, when it was impossible for pianists to summon a tuner as they normally would, he was approached by a concert pianist who wanted to buy a tuning lever so that he could have a go at tuning his own grand piano. The tuning lever was dispatched along with advice over the phone on how to begin.

Time passed and eventually tuners were able to resume their previous schedules. My tuner friend was called to come and tune the piano of the person who’d asked for a tuning lever. So how had he got on? It turned out that the experiment was short-lived. The strain on his arm muscles of working the lever was intense, because the strings are under so much pressure. He started to develop pains in his arms and, realising that it was silly for a pianist to invite unnecessary arm pain, he stopped. Better to wait for a professional.

But if that is true for all pianists, where does that leave us? Tuners are fading away, it seems, but we cannot tune our own pianos.

I suppose this is where digital pianos could really corner the market. Digital pianos do not go out of tune, because they have no strings. Each note is simply the recording of a note. No string can suddenly slip and jangle and offend one’s ear. Tuners are superfluous. But no concert pianist would willingly swap a fine concert grand for a digital piano (not yet, anyway).

My tuner friend wondered whether it would ever be possible to invent a self-tuning acoustic piano? That sounds like a task for AI to address.

3 Comments

  1. Archie McLellan

    I think we have been concerned about piano tuning disappearing as a profession for a long time. We are fortunate, in this area, to have a fine, young tuner. Perhaps surprisingly, he gave up tuning concert pianos because of the stress (‘pianists flying in from another continent, expecting you somehow to create a completely different piano to match what they had in mind’) – as well as wanting to spend more time with his young family.

    Completely separately, and pedantically, on the word ‘note’ (above) – I remember at an EPTA conference being struck by speakers whose first language was not English, at the precision of language in their use of ‘key’ (on the instrument), ‘note’ (on the page), and ‘tone’ (what we hear). In the UK, we sometimes try to make ‘note’ cover all three, I think.

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  2. Mary Cohen

    I too have been concerned about the steadily decreasing pool of piano tuners for a long time. String players have a similar problem trying to find a bow re-hairer who is able to match the requirements of their individual style of playing, and take into account the strings and set-up of their particular instrument. When people are worrying about AI taking over jobs, perhaps we all need to highlight opportunities for talented human crafts-people!

    Reply
  3. James

    I am in a fairly remote part of Australia, and I can report that we have a wonderful piano tuner who comes every now and again and he does a magnificent job!

    Reply

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