This month at Bachtrack we focus on the essential yet often unsung role of the piano tuner. We have asked the piano tuners responsible for the instruments in some of the most important music venues in the world to share with us some of their secrets. Today we are at the Barbican in London, United Kingdom, talking to Ulrich Gerhartz, Director of Concert and Artists Services for Steinway & Sons London. Mr Gerhartz has worked at Steinway & Sons since his beginnings in the world of pianos and has established very close working relationships with the world's finest pianists.

Ulrich Gerhartz, Director Concert & Artists Services, Steinway & Sons London
© Tony Trasmundi

How did you become a piano tuner?

I was planning to learn a handcraft before studying architecture and by chance I ended up in the Hamburg factory of Steinway & Sons as a piano maker apprentice.

Do you have a favourite piano and what fascinates you about it?

As a piano technician, just like a pianist, you have to bond with the piano you are currently working on to get the absolute best out of the instrument. For that reason it has to become your favourite piano at that time.

What do you listen for, when tuning a piano?

Tuning a concert piano is usually the final stage of a long preparation of the piano before it goes on stage. With all the details of action regulation and voicing done as well as possible, tuning is the final quality control during which your ear is constantly listening out for imperfections. Using a tuning fork, I listen to beats to set the pitch, then beats again between strings and intervals to set the scale or temperament from middle A, before moving down into bass and up into treble tuning notes checking their pitch against octaves and intervals.

What is the most difficult piano you had to tune and why?

Difficult pianos to tune are usually older pianos where strings have lost their sound and have become brittle, agraffes are worn and the voicing of the hammers is uneven. There are some pianos, old or new, that have wonderful clarity and a pure tone which makes them special and a joy to tune.

Ulrich Gerhartz working on a Steinway piano
© Toni Trasmundi

Are there pianists that are particularly demanding and why?

There are pianists who are especially demanding. However, these pianists are mostly friends, because they look for the same qualities in a piano, and it is my job to find them in the instrument. Impossible pianists are those who don‘t know, or cannot communicate what they are looking for.

Do you work differently on a piano depending if it's going to be played at a solo recital or with an orchestra?

Of course. Individual players, repertoire or acoustics need different pianos. In their preparation there are clearly defined priorities. Pianos competing with the sound of a full symphony orchestra need to be heard over the orchestra. Pianos used for recitals and chamber music need to blend perfectly with the pianist’s touch, venue and fellow musicians on stage.

Can you recognise the sound of a specific brand of pianos?

Yes, I can!

Do you stay at the concerts/rehearsals after tuning the piano, and what do you listen for?

I attend and sit in the hall of every concert I look after. If I did not, it would be like a chef never tasting their food. Usually the concert is the culmination of a lot of work, and I want to be there to support the person who goes on stage to perform.

Click here to find upcoming piano concerts at the Barbican.