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 Suntory Hall, in Tokyo, Japan, talking to Naohiko Kurata, Concert Technician of H. Matsuo Musical Instruments Co., Ltd. for more than 30 years, a regular tuner for Steinway pianos at the hall. Mr Kurata trained at Yamaha Piano Technical Academy in Osaka and at factories such as Bösendorfer in Vienna and Steinway & Sons in Hamburg and has also tuned pianos for the world’s most acclaimed pianists as well as major festivals.

Naohiko Kurata
© H. Matsuo Musical Instruments Co., Ltd.

How did you become a piano tuner?

I didn't play piano in my childhood, but instead I played baritone tuba in my high school band. The director of the band then suggested I should become a piano tuner. After graduating, I got a job at a tiny piano shop and started training as a tuner at the Yamaha Piano Technical Academy.

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

It might sound a bit strange, but I don't have any favourite piano in particular. I believe that the fascinating sound of a piano is created not in a piano factory, not by piano technicians, but by great pianists. For example, I have tuned all of Suntory Hall's Steinway pianos since its inauguration and each piano, without any exception, has resounded with fascinating expressions in concerts by great pianists from all over the world. The sound they create is always beyond my imagination. Great concert halls seem to be the perfect casks for pianos to be matured, like brilliant spirits. Suntory Hall’s wooden walls, coincidentally, are made in white oak, the same material used for some whisky casks.

What do you listen for, when tuning a piano?

All piano tuners listen to the arising interferences between two sounds such as unison, octave, perfect fifth, perfect fourth and major third. By controlling the interferences at those intervals, well-trained piano tuners are able to tune fairly accurate equal temperament. Another thing I focus on is how the harmonics sounds in relation to the fundamental. It depends on how you add just slight force to tuning pins while tuning. I always look for the "pinpoint" to optimise the balance of harmonics and fundamental tone.

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

In terms of piano quality itself, smaller pianos tend to be more challenging to tune. At concert halls that have several concerts a week, because of the pianos being tuned very frequently, the strings gradually become stagnant, and to tune such strings exactly is very difficult. Also, a piano moved from a cold place, like an outdoor setting or a storage room, should not be tuned until it gets warmer, otherwise even the greatest tuning work will end up being in vain.

Are there pianists that are particularly demanding and why?

Some pianists have been particularly demanding, and in various ways: about tuning, such as requesting Classical (non-equal) temperament, or specifying how to stretch the octave (wider or narrower), or requesting a fine regulation of keys and action. A very unique one I can remember was a pianist who wanted a Feng shui tag to be put on the iron frame of the piano during the concert – as long as it does not damage the piano, I am always happy assist the pianists in any way.

Naohiko Kurata working on the Stainway piano at Suntory Hall
© Suntory Hall

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

I always consider which type of concert the piano I am tuning is going to be used for. We have to find the best sound balance for the piano in each concert. For chamber music, such as duo with a violin or a singer, the sound should be more intimate, warmer, harmonised to the partner. On the other hand, for concertos, it may require a little bit more strength to stand out in the orchestra. The position of the piano on the stage is also very important. Even if you move the piano only a few inches, the sound will be greatly different. In terms of sound balance, the angle of the brass wheels – especially the one under the tail – affects sound, volume and strength. In this way, you can adapt one piano sound for various settings. In some cases, you can adjust the piano sound with regulation or voicing, but from my point of view, you have to be very careful not to overdo it.

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

If I were to play a piano myself, even if blindfolded I would be able to recognise almost 100% of the piano brands I know. If someone were to play a piano in a hall, it would be a bit more difficult for me. And if I were to be listening to a record, the sounds would sometimes confuse me, because it would depend from factors such as recording techniques, situation, location and different era of the piano used for the recording.

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

It depends, but almost every time I tune at a large concert hall, I try to stay for the concerts. During the rehearsal, I listen to the pianist and check the balance of the sound from the audience seats and I consider if there is anything I can do for the pianist. After the rehearsal, I usually double check the tuning. During the concert, I stand by in the backstage for any unexpected situation, such as broken strings.

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

This is a story I heard from a senior colleague tuner I learnt a lot from.
It was well known that Vladimir Horowitz was always accompanied, anywhere in the world, by famous concert tuner Franz Mohr, along with the New York Steinway he selected. At his first concert In Tokyo, our company, H. Matsuo Musical Instruments Co. Ltd, supported the concert, and my colleague was kindly allowed by Mohr to attend the rehearsal as his assistant.
During the rehearsal, Horowitz stopped playing suddenly and called Mohr. He sounded in a bad mood and said: “Franz, there is something wrong with this key! I can’t play repetition well!”
Mohr looked at the key he was pointing at for a moment, then said: “Maestro, in order to fix this, it will take me about half an hour. Would it be possible for you to have a short coffee break in your dressing room while I do it?”
After Horovitz left the stage, Mohr only watched the motion of the key and did not really fix anything. Horowitz came back from his break, checked the key and said, in a good mood: “It seems very good, Franz, thanks!”
Later Mohr said to my colleague: “Did you see what I fixed? I fixed his tired fingers and bad mood with a cup of coffee!”
This is my most favourite anecdote, because it shows the great relationship between tuners and pianists.

Click here to find upcoming piano concerts at Suntory Hall.