Editor’s Note: This is the last installment of a three-part series profiling artisans who work with their hands.
Steve Walthall shuffles back and forth between the seat and the belly of a Steinway grand piano in one of the soundproof rooms in the Music Recital Hall at UT. Although the guts of the instrument are on display and the ridge of keys removed, he uses the touch of his hands to assess the inner workings.
“That’s one of the body’s most wonderful things — what we can do with our hands,” he says. “It’s just a marvel of your body. Your hands are just a wonderful facility and they can do the things that we want them to do and enjoy the outcome.”
Walthall is one of four piano technicians who tune and repair more than 250 pianos at the Butler School of Music.
While most of the pianos are used by students to practice, there are the few prized possessions, like the nine-foot Hamburg Steinway Grand in the Jessen Auditorium that is reserved for concerts by students, faculty, staff and visiting musicians.
These technicians work with the same precision that concert pianists who use the instruments would to refine their music. Each piano consists of thousands of parts that must work in harmony to fashion the correct note. The stroke of a key triggers a series of movements inside the piano, dropping a felt-tipped hammer called a damper on a tight chord, resulting in a distinct note.
The slightest fault in measure or damage can disrupt the complex puzzle of levers, pulleys and wires.
All of the technicians’ work, from tuning to repair, is done with their hands using a number of specialized tools to complete the more tedious of tasks.
“There’s a lot of precision required and there are a lot of critical parts that are measured in the thousandth of an inch. If we have a millimeter off, it makes a huge difference in piano actions,” says technician Jeff Farris. “Sometimes, it’s sort of a circle of refinement, where you kind of get everything in the ball park and you hone each step.”
While Farris and Walthall, both part-time technicians, have only been at UT for five and seven years respectively, they have been technicians for 22 and 33 years.
Head technician Charles Ball has been with UT since the music school’s establishment in 1980. Ball says childhood enthusiasm piqued his interest in the instrument, but after discovering his lack of musical talent, he pursued the more technical side of the art.
“I started out wanting to be a player and ran up against an obstacle, which was that I don’t have any talent with a musical instrument,” he says. “I started puttering with the innards instead when I was a teenager and found my way to the musical world through the backstage door.”
This childhood curiosity opened more than just a back door to the musical world, however, morphing Ball into the head technician at UT.
“He’s forgotten more than I know about pianos,” says Linn Roath, fourth year full-time piano technician. “He is one of the best piano technicians I’ve met in my life — he’s scary good.”
The care and attention to detail is all in service of the musician.
“A musician is trying to make a piece of music come to life, which is an emotional thing and they are going to do it on this machine, and we have to make it function to the best of its abilities,” Farris says. “That’s the bottom line — really making it sound good to whoever is playing it and making it feel good so they can get more dynamics through the responsiveness of it. The audience doesn’t really see us, but they certainly hear the fruits of our labors.”
All the technicians are members of the Austin Piano Technicians Guild and serve the greater Austin community. In addition to the routine checkups of up to 30 pianos a day at UT, the technicians also occasionally work on up to 15 additional pianos a week for venues and private homes.
Working with the same 250 pianos day-in and day-out, the technicians begin to develop an understanding of the personalities of the instruments. As with any craft, the artisan is an expert on the medium their hands manipulate. In this case, the artisans are technicians and their medium is sound.
“Each piano has their own character, so you develop certain relationships with certain pianos that you service on a regular basis,” Farris says. “They are sort of like living, breathing creatures and they all respond differently.”
Recognizing these distinctions and working with them helps cut down on the costs for the University. While a new grand piano can cost up to $190,000, it only costs around $20,000 to overhaul. Luckily, an overhaul is only required once every 30 years.
The overhauls are the most laborious of tasks for the technicians — the time when their hands are used the most. The piano is completely dismantled and worked on tirelessly for nearly three months until it is back in perfect working order.
It is this detailed work where the technicians truly hone their craft. When a piano is dismantled and thousands of parts are scattered about, it takes precision, care and the dexterity of their hands to put it all back together again.
“We take the piano apart as far as we can take it apart without knocking out glue joints — all 88 keys and hammers come out of a grand piano onto your lap,” Roath says. “It’s taught me patience because you have to do everything at least 88 times.”