Violinist tunes piano- film at eleven

In the comments to my post on piano tuning, CB’s comment to the effect of–

Have you ever actually tried to tune a piano? I think that would change your mind a bit – if you dont go mad. I spent a great deal of time in HS screwing around on Church pianos late at night when no one else was around – just me a piano key and a couple of wedges and a 440 tuning fork. Its lucky I am still alive and not in hell.

reminded me of another Tim-the-piano-tuner episode.

Somewhere around the altered-inverted-Romanian-well-tempered month or the horizontal-boogiewoogie-magpielampost-meantone month on our piano, Tim arrived one morning looking rather red faced and agitated.

“Have you heard! Have you heard what he did!”

“That man, that madman! Manoogian!”

Manoogian was Vartan Manoogian, long time master teacher of violin at the University of Wisconsin, who passed away much too early last summer. Vartan had a certain genius for winding people up, but I couldn’t imagine what he’d done to get Tim’s knickers in a twist.

“You know, he bought this beautiful piano last year,” Tim told me breathlessly, as if relaying the back story to news of a recent crime.

“Er, I hadn’t heard, but that’s great.”

”No! It’s not great. The man decided to tune it himself! Can you believe that!”

“Oh…” was all I could think to say. Vartan did have rather amazing ears. And nerve.

“He can’t do that,” Time excalimed. “He can’t just start tuning a piano!”

It is a truism that string players think they know more about tuning than piano tuners, and that piano tuners think string players can’t play in tune. Tim clearly thought most piano tuners, with their half-baked, amateurish, unquestioning loyalty to equal temperament, were at best hacks, but at least they were piano tuners.

“Er, no… of course not”


I felt like the lesson was over and I should get up and leave, only it was my house.

“Will he have… messed it up?” I asked in a desperate attempt to fill what was beginning to seem like a long silence.

Tim just looked at me. Had I not been listening?

I started gently, “Er… after all, didn’t you say that back in the day, guys like Brahms and Schubert tuned their pianos?”

“Yes, but those were composers. Composers! And those were different pianos. Just think what he’s done to that poor piano. It was such a beautiful instrument”

“Well, if he’s messed it up, can’t someone just go in and re-tune it?”

”He’d be lucky to find someone who would touch it after it’s been manhandled like that”

It was becoming clear to me- somehow, Vartan’s actions had deflowered the piano. It’s virgin strings had been pulled by unclean hands. The instrument would now sit in his living room, untouchable, as if it wore a scarlet letter “V”…..

“Maybe it sounds okay? I mean, er, he is a great musician”

I might have well told him I’d sold his daughter to a shipload of Vladivostokian smugglers from the look he gave me.

Well, of course, I had to ask Manoogian for his side of the story when I next saw him.

“Hey- I hear you dared to tune your own piano.”

“Yes” he said with his uniquely mischievous half-smile. “I kept getting it worked on and it never sounded in tune, so I did it myself.”

”How’s it sound?”

”It sounds good.” He was smiling broadly.

Now, I’ll never know if he was telling the truth. Perhaps he’d flown in a tuner from the mountains of Tibet who hadn’t heard of the scandal and tried to blame the tuning job on a bunch of roving criminals who had broken into his house and attempted to tune the piano using the modified-Amenian-tone system….

We got a new (old)) piano not long ago, and after a few months I organized our first tuning. The chap worked on it while I was out, so I returned that evening and sat down to play a chord. Ab would be a nice one to start with.

“Don’t start complaining,” cautioned Sue from the next room.

But those thirds…. Surely we can do better than that. I tried G major- same as Ab! They sound so messy, so, er…. hmmm….dirty.

I thought for a moment- I could just get in there  for an afternoon. It’s just an upright. And if I messed it up, I could just get it re-tuned.

And then I remembered Tim’s withering gaze, and thought that I might end up forever on some list somewhere, a list that meant I could never get a piano tuned again, and probably would have to go through extra security every time I flew for the rest of my life, and I decided to stop worrying and learn to love those blurry, dirty thirds.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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7 comments on “Violinist tunes piano- film at eleven”

  1. ComposerBastard

    ROFL!!! Awesome….awesome!

    (But so true…overtighten or undertighten whilse you do it and you can mess up the elasticity of the strings and the pegs ability to hold a tune. And if you ever take out the action, you may not ever be able to get it back in…to be left on some curbside somewhere)

    I thought Ab and G were the same? And what is that middle pedal for?

  2. Anna Hill

    Thank you for such an enjoyable read!
    Whilst not a tuning problem, a pianist friend recently had his middle G string break, in concert. This was closely followed by two other strings, leaving him with 3 ‘spaces’ where the keys should be, and half a concert to complete!
    If that weren’t bad enough, at the end of the performance, he was presented with an award, that he was unaware he was about to receive, and rather than run off and hide in a room, (which is what he felt like doing) he had to smile sweetly and make a speech!
    It wasn’t the best night of his life…
    Bloody strings, they’re almost as much trouble as nails.

  3. Anna Hill

    I shall try and find out for you. I think the pianist involved is just about ready to come out of hiding and talk about his experience!

  4. Guy Aron

    I did read (on a piano tuner’s web site) about someone who decided to save a few dollars and tune his piano using a pair of vice grips. He ended up wearing the corners off the pegs so that a (professional) tuner/technician had to destring the piano and string it all over again with new pegs. I don’t think he saved any money.

    This is not really relevant, but I was at my luthier’s a while ago and he had a funny-looking cello. I asked him what was the story with it and he said (delicately) that the owner had had it re-varnished. When I questioned him further he said that yes, the owner had done it himself. (And no, he wasn’t an instrument maker.) What did it look like? As we say in Australia – pretty crook!

  5. Kenneth Woods

    I was recently talking to a friend who runs a school orchestra program. He got a cello back from a student with the bridge SCREWED to the top of the instrument. Her dad said “when it fell over I glued it back on, but it still didn’t seem stable.” He was rather proud of his handywork…

  6. Bill Brice

    I prefer to tune my own piano. Admittedly, I’m not a “real pianist” and I don’t play professionally, but I’m far happier with my own results (using a rather pricey Peterson strobe tuner) than with the tuners I’ve paid in the past. And, the Peterson tuner actually assists in octave-stretching according to the particular piano. The part it cannot help with is the careful de-tuning of unison string sets that regulates decay. We do the best we can!

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