As a pianist you become used to bad pianos. Bad pianos in good condition. Good pianos in bad condition. Some notes not working. Things being randomly out of tune. Pedals that won’t behave. Basically, everything. Every time I turn up to a gig, I don’t know what to expect. And don’t think that the prestige of the venue is somehow equitable to the state of their piano. It seems to be a totally random thing.
Last night, I had to “Macgyver” the piano because a few notes in the upper register had gone out of tune. I say “Macgyver” because that’s what my bassist said when he saw me perform my little quick repair and it reminded me of how and when I learned this “quick fix”:
I was in high school and John Hicks came to Oklahoma City. I think he was playing at the Deep Deuce Festival (does this still exist?) with Richard Davis (I don’t remember who was on drums). I didn’t know John, but I knew Richard and he introduced me to John and then told me to sit on the stage with them, just slightly behind the piano, and pay attention. Now, I’m sure the festival had provided a nicely tuned piano, but the weather was CRAZY that year, and even though the festival was outdoors, the temperature must have been in the low 50’s (crazy temperature changes can mess up the tuning of a piano). I noticed John was testing the keys and then filling the piano with these little slips of rolled up matchbook covers. I asked him what he was doing, and the showed me how he was using the matchbook covers to mute the strings, to make the piano more in tune. I’m sure lots of people do this, and some pianists probably even carry these around with them, but it was the first time I had ever seen such a thing and it was really an eye opener.
I haven’t had the occasion to do this a lot (or sometimes I just decide to live with it instead of going through the trouble), but every now and then I pull some business cards out and go to work.
I’m sure you’re wondering, why does the venue or presenter just take better care of the piano? And that’s a good question – but sometimes people really don’t know what they’re doing when it comes to pianos. I once had a very nice gig at an Italian restaurant and the piano was HORRIBLY out of tune. The notes were barely recognizable. I pressured the general manager to get it tuned, even recommended piano tuners, but it never happened. Finally I started pressuring the owner, and she just threw her arms up and said, “Wasn’t it tuned at the factory?!”
And more recently, on a concert somewhere in Europe, a presenter told me (through a translator) that they had provided a keyboard for me that night because keyboards were better than pianos because they never need tuning, didn’t I agree?
I’m always happy to have a piano provided and to be honest, it doesn’t always bother me if it’s out of tune or having problems. In my mind I always think, “Only a poor craftsman blames his tools”, but I know it can be terribly frustrating and I’m glad that John showed me a small way to make it more bearable.
Do you have any tricks to make a bad piano more bearable? Have you had experience with less than amazing instruments?