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 Philharmonie Berlin, in Germany, talking to concert technician and workshop leader Thomas Hübsch, who is responsible for the keyboard instruments for the Berliner Philharmoniker and also tours with pianists around the world.

Thomas Hübsch
© Thomas Hübsch

How did you become a piano tuner?

I’ve read an article about Alfred Brendel and his difficult relationship with piano tuners. This made me curious. Now, 40 years later, we are good friends.

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

If there is one, it's a Bösendorfer located in the city of Hamamatsu, Japan. Playing on this piano is like having a bath in whipped cream!

What do you listen for, when tuning a piano?

I listen for harmony, expression, length of notes and character. My aim while piano tuning is to get human qualities, like emotions, as well as singing, dancing, rhetoric ability and living balance.

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

After tuning thousands of pianos I have to admit that there were a lot of almost untunable instruments. In these cases one has to spend one's energy on the mechanical work in order to get it tuned and stable; artistic work, as in creating character in the tuning, is almost impossible.

Are there pianists that are particularly demanding and why?

Of course there are! There are a lot of demanding artists. The reasons for this are very different. It starts from individual hearing, technical curiosity and sound vision, and ends in compensating their own nervousness about the condition of the instrument.

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

Not really. At the Philharmonie Berlin we have a huge number of instruments in order to get the right one for the purpose for which is needed. It's important to find the right piano for the soloist and the repertoire.

Yefim Bronfman playing on a piano tuned by Thomas Hübsch

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

Not always. Rehearsals are usually more important. I'm always listening for a bond between artist and instrument. If I am sitting in a concert and I realise that something is going wrong, it's obviously too late.

Is there any anecdote that you would like to share with our readers?

American pianist Shura Cherkassky was always difficult with piano benches. I've had a colleague in Steinway who was tuning for Shura's recital. He called and asked me to bring all available piano benches to the Chamber Music Hall. So I took around 15 benches to the hall. When I got there, the stage was already full of chairs. He found one suitable and played on that one. After the recital they asked him how everything was, and he replied: “the piano bench was excellent, but the piano was terrible…”

Click here to find upcoming piano concerts at the Philharmonie Berlin.