meet Ulrich, the greatest piano tuner in the world

Finally comes the moment when Gerhartz’s careful work is tested in front of an audience. At major venues he or a colleague are always on hand in case anything should go wrong. “If you did your job properly a piano should stay in tune, even with pianists who have a very heavy touch like Evgeny Kissin. It’s the pianist’s touch which causes the wear and tear on a piano, more than the composer, though the big concertos by Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev can sometimes cause problems. One or two notes might go awry, and we would fix those in the interval.” 

All this care and attention takes time, and time is money. So it’s not surprising that at a time of financial stringency venues are starting to cut corners. Gerhartz says this can create difficulties. “I was called to a major national venue, where the fleet of pianos hadn’t been serviced for almost 10 years. One of the pianos had suffered a broken string mid-concert and that should not happen. I did what I could in the time available to improve things but really things had been left too long. No one would think of driving a high-performance car without servicing it for 10 years.”

Another problem is that piano-tuning is a dying art, as few people are entering the profession. It is true that, once, blind people were actively encouraged, but Gerhartz says: “They have practically vanished now, because the course in tuning offered by the Royal National College for the Blind, in Hereford, no longer exists. We do have one partially sighted person here at Steinway, in Belfast, who does a great job, though he does need an assistant to help him now and then.”

Another reason is that the institutions which offer training in piano maintenance are shrinking in number. Only two remain in the UK, at the Piano Technology School in Rugby and Lincoln College in Newark. For Gerhartz this is a cause for concern. “If you look at music schools worldwide – Asia, North America, Europe, UK – there are so many thousands of students training to become pianists. And how many people are being trained to become piano technicians, compared to those who want to play? Very few. I try to do my bit by taking on apprentices here at Steinway, but it is alarming that no one is thinking about this, because it is going to become a huge problem.” 

Indeed it is – because without the patience, skill and artistry of someone like Ulrich Gerhartz, the pianists’ art would be hobbled.

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