In the wings of the Bass Performance Hall, a single note sounds—insistent, clear, repeated. Back there in the half-dark, Ismael Cunha, one of Steinway & Sons top concert piano technicians in New York, is working on a grand piano that’s just come offstage. One of the Cliburn’s preliminary round concerts has just concluded, and almost everyone has gone for dinner. But Cunha is hard at work, making sure this very grand piano is in perfect shape for the next performer. He hits that note again, over and over, turning a pin with one of his specialized tools. The tools are stored in a long zippered bag—tuning forks and hammers, mutes, pieces of felt. There are, in fact, a lot of long metal “things” that look like they could put a very precise hole in somebody’s noggin.
“It’s hard to pass through security or customs with these,” laughs Cunha. “I have a special ticket from Homeland Security.” And they still check his bag of tricks—once leaving a container of glue open enough to nearly asphyxiate everyone near him on the flight that followed.
At the Cliburn competition, Cunha will be working from 8 in the morning until 11 at night for nearly a week—until the finish of the Cliburn’s preliminary rounds on June 30.
Another Steinway technician will take over during the semifinals, and still another for the final round of competition.
“It’s the toughest job, just craziness,” says Ron Coners, head concert technician for Steinway & Sons in New York. He was in Texas to prepare the four Steinway grand pianos being used in the competition, then turned it over to Cunha for the preliminaries.
Coners is a 38-year Steinway veteran who’s been working at the Cliburn since the 1980s. He’s been the guy doing that 24/7 duty at the Cliburn and other competitions, and he knows the level of work and pressure involved.
“Hopefully, he’ll just have to be touching them up,” says Coners. “Notes get a little bright from being played, so he’ll do a little voicing, be there in case anything breaks—and he listens throughout every performance backstage.” Coners was in Fort Worth for the selection process, when each of the 30 competitors had the chance to play all four pianos—and pick one. He says there was “a request for one note to repeat faster” and another to check “a little buzz that one fellow heard”, but he took care of both issues.
Coners says he always enjoys watching pianists make a selection.
“You set up five or six pianos and have five or six pianists come in, and each one will choose a different piano,” he laughs. “Where and what and how they’re playing affects which one they will choose: because of how light one is, how heavy the action of another, how fast this one plays. I get a kick out of that.”
We asked Coners to tell us a bit more about the four Steinway grand pianos being used for the competition.
“They own two, we own two,” he says simply. “But it’s kind of a long story.” When he was first involved with Cliburn in the 1980s, he remembers, the Van Cliburn Foundation owned a Steinway that had been bought in New York and named the “Van Cliburn Silver.” (It was retired years ago.) At the time, all other pianos for the Cliburn would come on loan from several different makers.
“There might be seven pianos backstage,” Coners says, “and it would be like a nightmare. So three or four competitions ago, the Cliburn made a deal that it would be all Steinways, and we would supply the pianos.” The Van Cliburn Foundation owns two Steinways that are used in the competition: one an “American” (sometimes called “New York”) picked out by Van Cliburn himself from the company’s New York concert stock; the other a “Hamburg” chosen by former Cliburn head Richard Rodzinski. For this year’s competition, Steinway also sent two pianos from New York, says Coners: another American and another Hamburg.
What would make a pianist say “I’ll take this one” when faced with four perfectly gorgeous grand pianos, all by the same maker? Comers tries his best to explain.
“There are different personalities and a different sound and feel between Hamburgs and New Yorks,” he says. “In general, the New York [model] has more fundamental wave to it, so it has a deep, deep sound; the German tends to have more overtones. [An overtone is an “upper” sound, a frequency higher than the fundamental.] In this competition, the Cliburn Hamburg has been picked by more competitors than any other piano, probably because so many of the pianists are from Europe and Asia. They are used to the sound of the German [style] Steinway. The other Hamburg is a little brighter, but not quite as rich sounding. And of the two American pianos, the Cliburn American is probably the brighter. Sometimes pianists will switch over to that piano for the finals because that’s when they’re playing with the orchestra. I’d say in general, most performers will want a piano with a certain amount of brilliance—and then among the four pianos you want some amount of variation, so they have a choice.” (If you’re attending sessions and hear the announcer mention which piano each performer is playing, you now have some “back story” on what kind of sound that pianist wants.)
Is tuning pianos during a competition anything like the “pit crew” at, say, a NASCAR race, we wondered? Coners doesn’t seem to mind the comparison.
“Well, yeah, like us, the pit crew at a race does most of the work before the race starts, and during the race, it’s quick things—changing out tires, putting in gas,” he says. “All the major prep work on these pianos has to be done ahead of time.”
What’s more, he adds, a piano “prepped” for use in competition needs to have the musical equivalent of a race car’s heavy-duty suspension.
“The tuning has to be solid,” Coners says. “There’s nothing extreme, but you’re tuning in such a way that if you’re playing a Rachmaninov or Prokofiev concerto, you don’t bang it out of tune.” This isn’t the kind of casual piano tuning you might have done on your upright at home, he adds. “That will go out of tune in about 10 minutes. We stretch the strings. There are about seven friction points on a string, and we pound on the piano to make sure that string actually moves over those friction points. You can turn a pin and get a string in tune, but then when you come along and hit it, it will shift. We set the torque on the pin, and then just bang the heck out of it to make sure it doesn’t move. The pianos get very stable after I beat on them for a long time.”
How much of piano tuning is a precise science, and how much is an artistry learned over many years? Coners says the “science” of it all becomes something he doesn’t think about as he does it—like “riding a bicycle.”
“Steinway has been tuning by ear for more than 100 years, which is a rarity in this day and age, and we train for it,” he told us. It starts with “setting the temperament”—the octave in the middle of the piano. “Outside of that, we tune perfect fifths, which stretches the octave slightly and gives more life to the sound of the piano. If you have an absolutely dead-on octave, it actually sounds a little flat. But if it has a slight ‘wave’ to it, that gives a little lift to the sound. But this is all training, and you’re not sitting there thinking: I have to tune this to 244 beats per second.”
And backstage at the Cliburn? Ismael Cunha is at the end of a long day, still in the wings of Bass Performance Hall with a quartet of beautiful grand pianos. With his bag of tools at hand, he keeps on twisting, tightening, playing a run of notes, striking a single one over and over. That grand piano may sound “beautiful enough” to the rest of us—but he’s not finished with it yet!