The Well-Tempered Tuner

Toronto Symphony Orchestra Performance magazine
By Stewart Hoffman

At six-thirty in the morning, Roy Thompson Hall is a pretty lonely place. There's a security guard posted at the stage door, and a cleaning staff - somewhere. But the auditorium is empty, and there are no musicians backstage to bat around the pucks on the two mini- table hockey games propped up on the piano bench storage crate.

It's even early for TSO piano technician Ted Campbell, but on this late September morning he's got two instruments to prepare for a ten o'clock rehearsal: the TSO's, and that of the week's soloist, Anton Kuerti. Living in Toronto can have its perks, and the eminent pianist is being afforded the rare opportunity to rehearse on his own instrument, as well as the Symphony's, before deciding on which one to perform Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto.

Which means that much of Campbell's morning session will be spent making subtle adjustments to the symphony's Steinway grand. They're adjustments that few but the most rarefied of TSO soloists would consider. For Kuerti, the instrument's depth of touch was a tad shallow, the downweight too light, and the repetition springs, which control the speed of the hammers, were too strong.

The pianist's own instrument, similar to the Symphony's but much older, doesn't need much more than a routine tuning.

It's not uncommon for Campbell to do a customizing job on the instrument. Some soloists may think the piano's too bright; others, too dull. "You might have to harden the hammers a bit, or there might be a few notes that stick out to their way of hearing. You adjust those sorts of things to suit the taste of each person."

And "those sorts of things" can be quite specific. For example, Campbell always sets aside extra time when Alfred Brendel comes to town. "As opposed to perhaps an hour of special work, he requires a day or even more. It's mostly to do with the voicing of the piano and making subtle changes: how even, how loud, how sweet, how mellow - this kind of thing." And if the generally "reasonable and polite" artists occasionally test his patience, the easy-going Campbell always manages to keep a lid on. "You're dealing with a select group of people under a lot of stress. Everything's got to be just so."

TSO pianist Pat Krueger knows how bad things can be out there. She's played solos on pianos that have been half a tone flat - and worse. "One time, I put down the sustaining pedal and it stayed down for the duration of the piece. I kept going, but it was a little blurry." But that was a long time ago, in a venue Krueger refuses to embarrass. Of course, it's not the kind of thing she has to worry about at Roy Thompson Hall, where Campbell tunes the piano before every rehearsal and concert. He's even on standby in the hall for recitals, but he doesn't lose sleep worrying that something untoward will happen. "It's pretty rare there's something wrong; the instrument's maintained and played constantly."

He ought to know. The 46-year old Campbell has been in charge of the symphony's Steinway grands since he earned his piano technician's diploma at George Brown College eighteen years ago. He also maintains other pianos found in Roy Thompson Hall, including the historic Glenn Gould Yamaha in the foyer, and instruments owned by the CBC, Hart House, and those of his many private customers. It's the ideal career, says Campbell, one in which he can combine his love of music - he studied piano as a boy and played lute throughout university - with the art of a craftsman. And it's one he's been familiar with since he was a child.

Campbell's grandfather, Theodore "Red" Hyde, had his own instrument repair business around Queen and Church streets in Toronto. "We'd go and visit him and it would be full of old violins and cellos and drums and guitars. There were hanks of horse hair and glue pots and rare woods, and there would always be a flow of eccentric musicians coming through." It's hard to say how much those visits influenced Campbell's career choice, but his ultimate decision wasn't one that Grandpa encouraged. The business, says Campbell, can get quite rough. "Though my grandfather was pretty successful, he didn't want other people in his family to be tradesmen. He wanted them to be professionals."

Perhaps, but if he could see Campbell today, with a rosewood-handled tuning hammer in hand, gently coaxing acoustic perfection from the Symphony's magnificent eight-foot, eleven-and-a-half inch Steinway, he would surely be impressed.

Campbell has an efficient, no nonsense approach to his craft. He quickly removes a few screws around the frame of the keyboard and hauls out the action - the mechanism that converts the stroke of a finger into a hammer blow against a piano string - then pulls off the keys to expose the thin, round paper "punchings" piled neatly underneath. Armed with a pair of tweezers, and looking like a dentist hovering over a set of eighty-eight teeth, he lifts one punching, about the diameter of a quarter, from the top of each pile. The result? A depth of touch all of seven one-thousandths of an inch lower. Campbell assures that Kuerti will feel a significant difference.

He proceeds to knock out a lead plug from three keys to even out the touch, then, addressing the problem of the repetition springs, presses down on each one with a short, metal rod. With the springs now weakened, the hammers won't rise as quickly. "A lot of pianists," he says, "like the springs a little faster. Others don't because they feel it compromises their control."

After a finishing touch, needling the hammer of a c-sharp "that sounded a little rough when I was tuning," he reinstalls the keybed, screws together the cabinet, and moves on to Kuerti's own instrument.

He's timed his exit for about nine-thirty, when the hall awakens to the steady unpacking of instruments, and a cacophony of warm-ups.

And to which instrument did Kuerti finally give the nod?

The choice, says Campbell, was as expected. "I thought he'd use his own piano. He knows exactly how it plays, he's got it sounding the way he likes, and he's intimately familiar with it. And how many times has he played Beethoven's Fourth Concerto on it, a hundred?"

He impresses the point that there was never a question of having a personal stake in the experiment; the extra hour-and-a-half or so of time invested in the instrument comes with the job.

"It's not like there's a competition. My interest is in serving his best interest - or those of whoever is here."

 


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