Piano tuner: a tough job

Bing, bing, bing… A sound interrupts the silence. Loud and forceful, he sounds off to the farthest corner of the rough room. But ludwig vasicek is not satisfied. "Too soft," he says, reaching for a file to carefully work on the hammer head. Key by key, string by string, the master piano maker from piano seiler works his way through the instrument. He needs a good ear for it, but also a lot of feeling.

Piano making has a long tradition in kitzingen: the seiler pianoforte factory was founded over 170 years ago. Long family-owned, the company passed into the hands of the korean samick group in 2008. The high-quality seiler pianos and grand pianos are still made in kitzingen and exported from here to 30 countries. About 250 pianos and 50 to 60 grand pianos leave the factory every year. Many colleges work with rope instruments. Rough artists on stages all over the world play on pianos from kitzingen. "It’s a special feeling to witness this," says ludwig vasicek. In the bolshoi theater in moscow he has already supervised concerts, sab already in the tsar’s box of the mariinsky theater in st. Petersburg and has been closely monitoring whether everything fits with the coarse flugel he tuned on the stage shortly before the concert.

As a layman one is tempted to write that when tuning pianos before concerts, but also at the end of the production of the instruments in kitzingen, he checks if every note is right. A master piano builder like ludwig vasicek is shaken by this simplification. His work is about much more than just the right tone. It’s about timbre, intonation, volume, temperature and brilliance. It’s about whether it sounds hard or soft, how long a note lingers, whether the instrument carries the melody, whether the bass is too powerful and thus overdoes the melody, and much more. "Listen to this?" He asks, pressing a button forcefully. "It wavers!"With a wave movement of his hand he makes clear what he means. And really: if you listen very carefully, you can hear a slight up and down. Ludwig vasicek files the felt of the hammer heads, plucks the copper-wire-wrapped string, strikes the key again and again until he is satisfied. "Bing, bing, bing"… The only sound in the otherwise silent hall. This silence is important, otherwise vasicek doesn’t hear when it wobbles, when one string sounds longer than the other, when it vibrates in the transition from bass to treble.

It takes a good ear to tune a piano, it takes time and it takes patience. Not all people have long. Some trainees almost despair in the first few months. From the beginning tuning is done for half an hour a day, later up to one and a half hours a day. "Uben, uben, uben", says the master piano builder. "Don’t give up, then success will come too." It is then all the more impressive for the trainees.

"The combination of music and craftsmanship has fascinated me." Ludwig vasicek, master piano builder

Vasicek himself completed an apprenticeship with seiler in 1985. "I was fascinated by the combination of music and craftsmanship."In 1999 the frohstockheimer took the master’s exam. He has found his dream job in piano building, which he still pursues with great passion after all these years. Over the years, the 56-year-old has already tuned several thousand instruments and acquired a huge wealth of experience. He passes on his knowledge as an instructor, but also at trade fairs and in further training courses.

Of course he knows the structure of the instruments inside and out. A piano consists of about 6000 individual parts. The bridge plate, the soundboard, the body, the keyboard, the strings, the hammerheads, the tuning pegs… Much is made of wood, which "works" and takes a correspondingly long time to adapt to form or function. The strings are subjected to a tensile force of up to 20 tons. "That first has to stabilize," vasicek explains. There’s always a wait before the staff can get back to work," he asks. It takes three to four months for a piano to leave the factory in the goldberg area, six to nine months for a normal piano of 1.60 meters, and up to twelve months for a concert piano of almost 2.80 meters in length. This is the rough instrument made at seiler, ludwig vasicek was involved in its development. "The longer the flugel is, the coarser its sound volume," he explains. This is important for concerts, because there are sometimes several thousand listeners in the audience, and even the last corner has to be filled with sound.

It’s not easy to precisely match the many components and the living material. A piano is tuned six times in the course of production, and ludwig vasicek carries out the fine tuning and final check before the instrument is sent to the customer. If it is built for a professional musician, he must "think his way into it", as he says. For this he must know the language of pianists. "A pianist has a different way of expression than we technicians do."When a musician says that a piano is "too heavy" to play, one immediately thinks of the key pressure. "But that has nothing to do with it. The instrument’s sound does not react as the pianist imagines it would."There is a lot to consider in the sound of a piano. The length of the instrument, the construction of the soundboard and its tension, the hammer heads, the strings, the tension… Even the right humidity is important. At seiler, a humidity control system keeps the humidity constant. If necessary, fine water mist is sprayed into the rooms. Because if the wood becomes too dry, the sound changes. The concert pitch A, which is set at 442 hertz at the factory, gradually becomes lower over time, even under ideal conditions. If the value is below 440, the instrument should be tuned again.

For that ludwig vasicek has many different instruments on his workbench. He applies the coarse tuning hammer, turns the tuning nail to which the strings are attached. In the bass range, it is a thick steel string wrapped with copper wire. The string had to be over six meters long without the copper spiral to produce the lowest note, the "A first note". For the higher tones, it is not necessary to use the covering, because a tone is sometimes composed of two or three strings. Each one has to fit exactly.

Carefully and slowly vasicek turns the tuning hammer. "It’s about the finest nuances."How the hammer is held, where the arm rests, how the minimal movement of the muscles controls the tool, all that needs to be learned. "You develop a sensitivity," says the 56-year-old – both in terms of movement and in terms of hearing. Finesse is also required when filing the hammer heads. Even if only a minimal part of the felt is removed, the sound changes. If the note stops or fades faster than the adjacent corresponding string? Then vasicek has to reach for the tools again. In between the control: "ding, ding, ding". It sounds loud and that is important. The strings have to withstand rough loads. "A pianist has a force of 20 kilograms in one finger," the master piano maker explains. He himself often presses the keys with two or three fingers to simulate this when tuning.

Working with the gehor all day requires the utmost concentration. "It’s tiring," admits ludwig vasicek. In the evening, he therefore prefers the quiet tones. "Sometimes i just turn off my gehor then too."

Seiler will again train master piano builders next year. Interested parties can contact us at [email protected] report.