A single note echoes through the empty recital hall over and over.
It is 4:40 on a spring morning. The master sits at a Steinway grand piano on a deserted stage. He bends his ear to the keyboard, left hand pounding the G key, right hand plunging into the open piano to twist its pins. A slight turn to the right, and the note is too sharp. A tug to the left, and it sounds flat.
Phil Sloffer knows he needs to finish tuning the piano now because later that day, a student will perform her senior recital on this piano, her final performance before graduating. She will play a prelude and fugue by Bach, and Bach’s ruthless tempos demand that the piano sounds especially clear and bright, otherwise the notes start to run together. The music will be beautiful, but only if Sloffer can fix the G key and a hundred other problems in the piano no one else knows like he does.
Only one light is on in Recital Hall in IU’s Jacobs School of Music, a spotlight shining down onto the piano in the middle of the stage. Sloffer is bent over, his glasses and his white ponytail nearly touching the keys of New D, the piano he’s working on. Most of the concert pianos at Jacobs have names, and Sloffer knows them all. Nearly every day, he is awake and working on pianos in empty rooms hours before dawn.
Sloffer is 66. He’s been tuning and repairing pianos at IU for more than three decades. He’ll have to retire soon. Before he leaves, he hopes to train a successor, but so far, no one is ready. He worries what this will mean for the school. If he leaves without a properly trained replacement, what will happen to the music?
He hits the key again, twists a pin a little more to the left. The note quavers and fades into silence.
* * *
The Jacobs School of Music is home to more than 400 pianos. Each is a delicate beast in need of constant attention. Overuse, changes in weather and the passage of time create tiny shifts within the massive arrangement of levers, pivots, pins and strings in each piano’s belly. Strings loosen, hammers slide. The music falls flat.
Most of the people who play the pianos have no idea how to take care of them. The instruments are too complex. They are among the best in the world. But without someone to look after the pianos, the music — their lives’ work — would fall apart.
Sloffer finishes tuning New D and pats its lid. Another grand piano, named Harold, sits a few feet away. But it’s usually less difficult and doesn’t need any work that day. Sloffer packs his bag of tools, leaves the room and climbs the stairs to work on two other pianos nearby in Ford Hall. Outside, the sun is just starting to rise. Onstage, a cellist is already rehearsing.
“Good to see you practicing,” Sloffer says. He smiles at first, then turns more serious. “But I’m going to need you to leave.”
The senior technician has no idea if that cellist knows who he is. He has little contact with music students, even the pianists. He passes them all day and shoos them out of rooms, but doesn’t engage.
“It’s not like I talk to them very often,” he said. “Some of them might think I’m a janitor.”
He can play a little piano himself, and occasionally he sits in the back of recitals and master classes. Listening to his pianos makes him happy.
This morning, as always, he opens his bag and pulls out rubber mutes, tuning forks and a heavy tuning lever. The two concert pianos in front of him now are notoriously difficult. One has “wild strings,” a problem where the three strings for a single note won’t match a pitch together no matter how much they’re adjusted. The other has a sound that is “too hard,” so Sloffer pokes tiny holes into the hammers with a needle to dampen each note.
Of the six men in IU’s piano technician department, Sloffer, who cares for most of the concert pianos, is the most experienced. The strings of every piano hold 40,000 pounds of tension, and he knows how to replace each of those strings—more than 200 of them—when they snap. He can control how far a key falls when it’s pressed. He can control how quickly a hammer bounces back to play a note again. He can change the volume and aggression in a single note. He can hear variations and imperfections in a key that sometimes aren’t audible even to those who have played the piano for a lifetime.
He sees the pianos as puzzles. Often, he is the only technician who can solve them.
“It’s absolutely essential, what he does and what the whole shop does,” piano professor Edward Auer said. “Without him, we don’t have instruments. We would have nothing.”
Piano faculty members repeatedly ask the music school dean for more funding for the technician shop. Karen Shaw, a longtime piano professor and a former interim chair in the piano department, said she worries the number of pianos is nearly unmanageable for the few technicians still at IU.
“If it were up to the piano faculty, we would certainly have a more robust shop,” Shaw said. “But the dean is the one who holds all the purse strings, and apparently they have other priorities.”
* * *
The master keeps working, hoping one of his apprentices will soon be able to take his place. Greg Smith is his most likely candidate. Smith, who started work in 2015 at age 28, is doing well, but he still has a long way to go.
One afternoon in March, Smith is bent over an upright Baldwin in practice room 386. He has just finished tuning five notes when a guitar teacher and student walk in.
The two open the door to find Smith sitting in front of the pulled-apart piano.
“We have this room reserved,” the professor says. “We have a lesson.”
“You definitely weren’t on the practice room schedule,” Smith says.
“Sorry,” the professor says. “But we really need this room.”
Smith looks at them for a long moment. He had just started working. But then he sighs and stands.
Smith first took a piano tech class while studying piano performance as an undergraduate at Jacobs. He had taught himself how to play in high school. Most pianists only get accepted to Jacobs after years of lessons with a private teacher. After he graduated, Smith was hired, like all new tuners at IU, in the hopes that he would eventually do the level of work Sloffer does.
“The only difference between a master and an apprentice,” Smith said, “is that the master has failed more times than the apprentice.”
But Smith isn’t sure he wants to become the master. Though he enjoys knowing how his own instrument works and likes having plenty of pianos to practice the craft on, he would rather be a music teacher than do this for the rest of his life.
* * *
A pianist spends days, weeks, months in practice rooms. She sits at an unfamiliar piano and tries to come to know it, to understand how it wants to be played.
For all those hours, the pianist is utterly alone, with only her instrument to carry her through.
“How dismal it is to have no one to go to in the morning to share one’s griefs and joys; how hateful when something weighs on you and there’s nowhere to lay it down,” composer Frederic Chopin once wrote in a letter. “You know what I mean. I tell my piano the things I used to tell you.”
Each piano has its own personality, its own voice. Some are loud and harsh, turning a delicate piece of music into a jackhammer. Some blur the notes. Some cooperate only when played boldly. Some are fragile and overwhelmed by crashing chords.
Some, like Harold, are agreeable. Others are savage. One piano, Robert, was so temperamental the Steinway piano company took it back.
Smith remembers his own hours as a student at Jacobs rehearsing on subpar practice-room pianos. The worry of whether he was playing badly or just using a bad instrument has always lingered in his mind.
As a tuner, Smith has to learn to manipulate the quirks of each piano, to coax it into letting out beautiful music. Without someone to do that, the music becomes nothing but distracted playing, jarring moments, misplaced notes.
To Smith, these instruments are not just machines. They are alive.
Sloffer is in the basement shop one afternoon, leveling a set of keys and working deep inside the action of a piano, when Smith walks in.
“I’ll have you know I didn’t break anything today,” Smith says.
“The day’s still young,” Sloffer replies.
The room falls quiet, except for the creaking of the pianos’ wooden hinges. The shop smells like wood and glue. Everywhere, pianos are shoved in corners, turned on their sides, half pulled apart. Piano innards — spare hammers, keys, strings and wires — cover every tabletop and bench.
Smith goes to work measuring the distances between hammers and strings. Sloffer stops his own work for a moment to show Smith a faster way.
Problems that seem distinct are often connected, and correcting the sound on one part of the piano can mean another area will have to be tweaked.
Smith wasn’t any better at tuning than anyone else when he was hired, Sloffer said. But he was more willing to work at seeing the patterns inside the instruments, how the angles of the levers and pivot change the piano’s sound and feel. When Sloffer taught him something new, Smith understood, or if he didn’t, he would ask questions until he did.
If Smith leaves, Sloffer is back to square one. There will be even fewer tuners, but the same number of beasts.
“I try to put it out of my mind most of the time,” Sloffer said.
There is no denying how much the younger technician cares about the music. One afternoon in March, he finishes tuning a nameless practice piano, packs up his bag and then sits back. He plays a few scales to test his tuning job. He does not stand up right away. His hands rest lightly on the keys and he looks at them for a moment. Then he begins to play.
The piece is “Clair de Lune” by Claude Debussy. He learned it back in high school. The music that rises out of the instrument is sweet, wistful and a little sad.
* * *
By June, most of the music students are gone for the summer. The piano technicians work every day, though, repairing the damage inflicted upon the instruments over the previous school year. One morning, Smith follows Sloffer upstairs as he gos to check on Harold and New D in Recital Hall.
“I have some news,” Smith says.
He thinks Sloffer knows exactly what is coming next.
He’s been dreading this conversation. He hates to disappoint Sloffer after all the guidance he’s been given. But he has to tell him.
Smith tells Sloffer his wife had been offered a job as a music teacher in California. They are leaving at the beginning of July to drive west, where Smith will find a job as a music teacher as well.
He tells Sloffer he hates to go now, to leave the shop even more shorthanded. But Sloffer tells him that’s not Smith’s problem — he should focus on what’s right for his future.
A month later, Smith is gone.
His departure is part of a small exodus. One technician leaves on disability. One retires. By mid-October, there are only three full-time technicians left in the shop. Two new hourly technicians and an occasional contractor can’t pick up the slack. Some pianos will only get tuned once a semester now.
The longer the pianos go without tuning or repair, the more damage they take on. They warp and distort their own sound.
Some will become unplayable and will not survive.
The dean’s office knows how bad things are getting. A new full-time addition to the technician staff is expected to be announced soon, Jacobs School of Music dean Gwyn Richards said. This will still not bring the department anywhere near a full staff.
“We don’t have a lot to show for it yet,” Richards said. “But hopefully we can start thinking about some long-term solutions soon.”
* * *
As always, the master wakes and arrives at the music school before dawn. One recent Thursday morning, he sits in front of Harold.
Sloffer doesn’t understand how to match what the school expects out of its pianos with the resources he’s been given. If he thinks about it too much, he gets overwhelmed. He has to take a very deep breath.
One light shines down on him as he fiddles with the high C and F keys, his ear bent low. Harold is one of the best pianos in the school and will do anything a musician asks. Working on a piano like Harold is the most relaxing part of his day.
But he can’t stay long. So he closes Harold’s lid and pats the top. He walks out into the dark quiet halls toward other waiting pianos, toward a hundred problems only he can hear.
Sarah Gardner, a pianist with 11 years of classical training, followed IU’s piano technicians for several months while reporting this story. She also performed the audio tracks that can be heard in the online version of this story.
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