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Piano technician stays in tune

Posted by Cindy Atoji Keene  November 2, 2010 06:00 AM

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For Xiaodan Liu, her “eureka!” career moment happened on a sunny September afternoon as she strolled the streets of a busy Brookline street festival in 2005. The Shanghai, China, native, couldn’t contain her excitement when she happened upon a brochure describing a piano technology training program.

“I always wanted to understand how a piano can sound so good,” said Liu, a professionally trained violinist and former flute maker. “But I didn’t know there was a school where you could actually learn to tune a piano. I thought it was just a kind of genius one has.”

A year later, she enrolled at the North Bennet Street School in Boston, a post-secondary crafts academy, one of the few formal training grounds for piano restoration and repair. And the rest, as they say, is history: today Liu is happily working as a piano technician, helping to care for more than 120 pianos at Boston University’s College of Fine Arts, as well as the school’s Tanglewood Institute.

“I love to look at and work on piano mechanisms,” said Liu, who came to the United States two decades to study western music and escape the chaos in her country after the cultural revolution. “l am a musician and understand how important it is to a musician to have a good instrument.”

With pianos, “anything can happen at any time,” said Liu, the head technician for the Tanglewood Institute, who remembers a concert there when the pianist abruptly stopped playing and demanded the technician work on the piano. “It is really nerve wracking if you’re charged with taking care of a piano during a concert. “You need to figure out what’s wrong really quickly.” ]

At Boston University, Liu is also charged of taking care of the pianos in the faculty and opera studios and the classrooms used for ear training. “Not every piano is so easy to tune; pianists have different opinions; some like the bright tone, and others the darker tone, and you need to have that skill.”

Q: What’s the process for tuning a piano?
I ask the customer if there are problems they’re aware of, like sluggish keys, buzzing sounds, pedal problems. I check how much the pitch went off, check humidity levels, and establish A4 to 440, which is setting up a middle octave to equal temperament. (Equal temperament is when the octave is divided into 12 uniform semitones). Then I do the unison tuning, tuning the octaves for the rest of the piano.

Q: Is it necessary to be able to play the piano to tune it?
No, we are actually listening to the beats, and this has nothing to do with music and has to do more with listening ability.

Q: Is piano tuning a do-it-yourself endeavor?
If you’re not trained properly, you will have difficulty. A long time ago, before I went to school, that’s what I tried to do. I thought, ‘I’m a violinist, I can hear the pitch,’ but I was not able to put equal temperament together.

Q: How many strings have you broken in your career so far?
I can count them: only four strings. Two strings of those were on the same piano, and they were so dark and tired. They had string fatigue because they were very old.

Q: When you are done with a piano, what song will you usually play to test the tuning?
"Songs without words" by Mendelssohn.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
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