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An Obscure Search for Perfection

Piano Techs Humbly Serve The Artists

  • Crystal Fielding, of Townshend, Vt., has been spending 20 hours a week tending to 50 or so pianos at the Hopkins Center for the Arts for three or four years. (Valley News - Libby March)

    Crystal Fielding, of Townshend, Vt., has been spending 20 hours a week tending to 50 or so pianos at the Hopkins Center for the Arts for three or four years. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »

  • A box full of Crystal Fielding's piano tuning hammers sit on a bench next to her tool kit. (Valley News - Libby March)

    A box full of Crystal Fielding's piano tuning hammers sit on a bench next to her tool kit. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Crystal Fielding, of Townshend, Vt., has been spending 20 hours a week tending to 50 or so pianos at the Hopkins Center for the Arts for three or four years. (Valley News - Libby March)
  • A box full of Crystal Fielding's piano tuning hammers sit on a bench next to her tool kit. (Valley News - Libby March)

There was a piano emergency a week and a half ago, and Crystal Fielding learned of it via frantic text message.

It came from the Yellow Barn, a chamber music school and performance venue in Putney, Vt., where Fielding has spent part of her summer tuning, “voicing” and regulating pianos. Perhaps due to the summer’s humidity, one piano’s lower keys were all sticking, the text said. No one could use it to rehearse.

Then a second text: “SOS.” And a third: “SOS.”

She’d be unable to get to Putney immediately, though, caps-lock text messages aside, because she was in the middle of one of her other summer jobs: the part-time, resident piano technician at the Hopkins Center.

Here, there, and in Marlboro, Vt., where she is doing concert tunings on pianos for Marlboro Music’s summer season, Fielding is the unseen force that makes pianos sound the way they do. She tunes the instrument, but then delves much further, into the labyrinthine makeup of its moving parts, filing down felt hammers and making sure keys perfectly align.

“They need to know what to expect when they hit a key,” Fielding said of the performers she tunes for, who often can’t lug their own piano around when they tour.

Fielding learned a sort of hyper-precision, which is eminently noticeable to professionals, in her two years at Boston’s North Bennet Street School, a vocational college that also offers degrees in bookbinding and jewelry making. She graduated in 2006, and started part-time at the Hop several years later.

She’s assisted by Pamela Ely, of Etna, a retired Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center physician who usually spends a few hours at the Hop and Dartmouth, three days a week, tuning 48 pianos, harpsichords and fortepianos largely used for practice and instruction.

“I love doing this,” said Ely, who also graduated from the North Bennet Street School, while tuning a Hop practice piano. “I love tuning.”

On a recent Monday, Fielding retreated into the heart of the Hop and opened a locked door. In the back of the room, full of instruments locked away, was the Hop’s concert grand, a shimmering German Steinway hidden beneath a vinyl cover. She was planning to give the piano its first of several tunings leading to Friday, when famed Russian-American pianist Vladimir Feltsman comes to the Hop to perform.

With her right hand, she anchored her tuning wrench on a peg inside the piano. With her left, she began to play a dissonant collection of notes, judging by ear the distance between intervals, whether each note was sharp, flat or correct. She leaned her head on her right arm and looked away from the piano. She said it wasn’t in bad shape, considering she hadn’t dealt with it since last fall.

There were some issues, small but noticeable, and so Fielding put on her diagnostician hat. The C4 note was sharp. She felt another note “not wanting to be there.” The inconsistencies had to be ironed out.

The piano, Fielding said, should not be an impediment to the music.

The piano, Ely said, should respond to the player absolutely.

The piano, Fielding said, has to tell you how it likes to be tuned.

Ely has played piano since she was young, and decided to return to her passion in some form after she retired. Fielding, by contrast, is not a pianist. That’s an advantage, Ely said, as a tuner who can’t play can hear notes on a purer level. She isn’t tainted by her own prejudices of how a piano should sound.

The job of tuning, regulating and voicing a piano is at an odd midpoint of several vocations. Though Fielding is not working on a living thing as she would if she were a veterinarian — for a time in college she was a biology major, her mind set on working with animals — she still is, in a sense, working on a living thing. The wood is altered by the weather; the keys stretch out of place. Ely likened a piano to a large, domestic farm animal. Fielding said that a piano is breathing all the time. When you turn its pins, it remembers.

And then there’s the science, the fine focus that is getting keys to the 440 Hz frequency pitch standard, the understanding of what frequencies that are slightly off do to the actual sound of the instrument.

“I’m still manipulating the physical world in a way I wanted to do,” Fielding said.

She’s lived in Vermont since 1991, staying in the Green Mountain State after graduating from college. Taking into account the past seven years since her trade school graduation, Fielding self-diagnosed herself as a good, but not a great, piano technician. Ely would later dispute that, calling Fielding a “remarkable lady.”

“I feel like every time I touch a piano,” Fielding said, “I still learn something about it.”

Jon Wolper can be reached at jwolper@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.

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Friday, August 9, 2013

Russian-American pianist Vladimir Feltsman will take to the Hop’s concert grand on Friday night, playing a suite of songs written by composers ranging from the 18th to 20th century. The performance will mark Feltsman’s first visit to Dartmouth College, where he’ll play pieces by Haydn, Schubert, Liszt and Scriabin. There won’t be any by Bach, a composer Feltsman has spent …