Piano tuner Alex Moore makes sure Cliburn pianos are pitch perfect
"Listening to piano tuning can drive a lot of people nuts. The Cliburn office clears out when I'm there to tune their piano. Everyone takes a long lunch that day."
The 16th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition continues at Bass Hall as a dozen pianists, out of a field of 30, vie for a grand prize of $100,000, a gold medal and international fame.
There are many skilled professionals working quietly behind the scenes to ensure the prestigious competition goes off without a hitch — among them, Alex Moore. Moore is TCU’s chief piano technician and is charged with tuning the pianos at the university's new Van Cliburn Concert Hall.
We caught up with Moore after a very busy week to ask him about his craft, pianists that play with extreme gusto and earworms.
Tuning a piano is a very technical and precise line of work. Explain to me like I'm five years old; what it is you do to tune a piano?
Tuning is an essential part of preparing a piano — making sure it's in tune. And that refers to adjusting the tension of the strings so that they're at the right pitch, so that they're in tune with each other.
Piano strings are a steel wire that’s wrapped around this metal tuning pin with a coil on one end that is driven into a block of wood inside the piano. And it's held there by friction.
And so I'll put a wrench or a tuning lever, a tuning hammer, they call it. And, and I'll turn it one way or the other to make the string, to make it more tense, give it more tension or less if I whether I want the pitch to go higher or lower.
I think there are 243 strings on a concert grand, so you end up going through all of them and adjusting them and readjusting them because it might change as you go. One section might even affect the ones you pre-tuned previously. So you keep going through it and make smaller and smaller changes until everything is in tune.
Is there a machine that tells you it's in tune? Or do you just hit a key and just hum me, me, me, me?
We use our ears. I did it strictly by ear for ten years. And now I do have a machine that's kind of like an odometer reading that I'll use as a reference. It kind of cuts down on the amount of time I have to stop and check how the tuning is changing or holding, but it’s more like a tool. You still have to listen, and sometimes I'll disagree with it.
I didn't realize that. For some reason I thought you used some sort of diagnostic tool to determine if it was in tune.
Yes, absolutely. I think the fancy term is “kinesthesia.” It's like you're using the feeling of your hand on the wrench on the tuning lever and you're feeling the tuning pen and the tension of the string. And actually, what's more difficult than hearing it, is setting it where it needs to be so that it is correct and that it stays there so that when it gets pounded by these crazy good musicians, it stays there.
When they're playing with gusto, right?
Yes, exactly. Extreme gusto!
How is the Cliburn different than other jobs that you've worked on?
It’s a higher pressure because they're the best. The best analogy would be like a race car driver relying on their vehicle. It needs to be functioning at its highest possible level in order for them to play at the highest possible level. So every time it better be adjusted as well as you can get it in order for them to be for it to do what they need to do.
What are three qualities a piano tuner needs?
My parents nicknamed me Captain Relentless because once I got into something, I wouldn't quit. So, you have to be very patient and willing to go back and keep critiquing your work and trying to make it better and better. And it never ends if you're striving to put the best quality out on stage. So I'd say persistence and determination are pretty important, as well as a good set of ears.
And you have to be willing to be in a supportive role because you’re facilitating the artist. It's not about you. You're not the star. You're supporting the star. So you have to be willing to do that.
What’s the most unexpected thing you've ever encountered while tuning a piano?
I was an intern at a trade school at the Tanglewood Music Festival in Massachusetts. And they bring in like 70 pianos out there and they have a concert hall and an outdoor amphitheater but it's very rustic, like old fashioned —barns with $100,000 pianos inside of them for people to have classes on and stuff. And, you know, there's wildlife out there, and once I was working on this piano there was a mouse inside of it. It had chewed up some of the felt inside the piano and was making a nest for itself. I was like, “Oh no.” I pulled the keyboard out, and there it was, still running around in there.
Everyone gets earworms —a catchy song or tune that runs over and over in your head that you can’t get rid of. Do you ever have a song that gets stuck in your head?
Yeah, and it's funny they can be kind of random sometimes. They're all kind of buried in my brain and who knows which one's going to bubble up to the surface. I get Stravinsky’s Petrushka piece, it's a very common showpiece. So that’s one that will get stuck in my head a lot. There's also one called The Devil's Staircase by György Ligeti. It's like the heavy metal of classical music. It’s very modern and atonal, but also very organized. And it's very fast and percussive and it is a musical painting of its title. It's running slowly up the keyboard with lots of fast, repeated notes. It's wild.
Besides pianos, can you also tell when other instruments, or even singers, are out of tune?
Yes, I can. I think that comes more from my musical training, in trying to play the trumpet in tune. When you're at the piano, you're using those beats to tell you if you’re in tune and it makes it obvious when something's not right. It's a very nice yardstick but you don't have quite the same thing when someone's just singing a note by itself.
It's funny, though. Sometimes in certain music, it can be more obvious. Like when it comes to electric guitar, if the whole recording is low, like if you listen to Radiohead, the band's opening in the song Planet Telex, I think it's sharp by 20 to 30%. And the space between one and another next to it on a keyboard is 100%. So, it's like 20, 30% off. It's like way up there either way up or way down. I can't remember. But it's not as noticeable to me as an acoustic piano. So, it's funny. Your mind plays weird tricks sometimes.
What keeps you awake at night?
A string. The possibility of a string breaking. You would hate for that to happen during a concert or during auditions. If it happens during a performance, then they have to stop if they want to use that note again. So during stuff like the Cliburn —keep your fingers crossed for me.
Makes you wake up in a cold sweat, huh?
Yeah. That's really a big one. And you can't really see any sign that it's going to happen until it's happened. It just pops on you when you strike the key. And with a bassstring, it will shoot out of the piano like a slingshot.
If you could be the personal piano tuner for any artist living or dead, who would it be?
I love jazz pianist Brad Mehldau. I did get to sit at the piano when he was here in Dallas once and that was the thrill of a lifetime. Even before I worked on pianos, he was my musical hero. He listens like a tuner. It's rare that a pianist will have that degree of being able to discern technical things like that, but he listened to those beats and stuff that I'm talking about, like a tuner would listen to them.
He would be great to work for. I admire his music so much because he's a jazz musician, but there's heavy compositional training and sophistication with him. Like Johann Sebastian Bach wrote all these fugues and counterpoint where it's multiple melodies as opposed to like harmony and one melody, but it's like multiple melodies working together at the same time. And he can improvise like that. He can cover a Radiohead song and he'll slip into that style of composition just off the cuff, on the spot. It's beautiful and amazing.
16th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition continues through Saturday June 18 at Bass Performance Hall. If you can't make it to Bass Hall, head to Sundance Square on Friday for a live simulcast of the Finals Concert.
In Good Question, we're getting to know movers and shakers in the arts a little bit better with a few quirky and thought-provoking questions. Who should we talk to next? E-mail me at email@example.com.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
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