Chief piano technician Elliott has been keeping the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s pianos in tune for almost 20 years.
How many pianos are you responsible for? Six 9-foot concert pianos and two smaller ones.
How often do they need to be tuned? The concert pianos are tuned every time they are used -- rehearsals and concerts. We’re striving for perfection. (I know it doesn’t exist.)
Is there a particular piece of music you play to make sure a piano is in tune? I don’t even need to play something to know what it needs. Really, all I need to do is touch one or two notes. I do everything by ear.
Just one or two notes? Yeah, it either speaks correctly or it doesn’t. They’re finicky animals. There’s so much tension on a piano -- 20 tons of tension on a concert piano -- so the law of physics dictates that things always want to go to a point of rest.
Are any musical pieces particularly hard on the pianos? To me, it doesn’t make any difference as far as trying to make the piano stable; it doesn’t matter whether someone’s playing Mozart or Rachmaninoff. They’re more affected by temperature and humidity fluctuations than playing itself, because they’re made of wood, and wood expands and contracts. The Santa Ana winds are the bane of my existence. They dry the air out. Humidity drops. When we had those fires, the pianos just went crazy. They all dropped pitch. Strings get loose. There’s nothing to push up against the strings, and they change fast.
When you’re out and about and hear an out-of-tune piano, what is your response? I usually get chills down my spine.