Francisco Ramírez
© Palau de la Música
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 Palau de la Música in Barcelona, Spain, talking to Francisco Ramírez. Born in Argentina to a family of musicians, he learnt the trade in Europe and fate took him to Barcelona where he spent most of his career. As a technician at l’Auditori and Palau de la Música, he has tuned concert pianos for the world's most important pianists.

How did you become a piano tuner?

My father was a composer and a choirmaster, my mother and sister were pianists… as for myself, I didn’t want to become a musician! There were three pianos at home, and my mum – a teacher at the conservatoire – used to schedule visits from a piano tuner. At the beginning, I would observe him working with curiosity, but as time passed by, I started to accompany him to other clients' houses. After a while, I decided to go to Europe for a couple of years to learn the craftsmanship. Many years on, I am still learning.

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

The piano world is a varied and rich universe and although pianists usually expect a Steinway on the stage, there are other fabulous instruments. For example, Böesendorfer and Fazioli are also outstanding pianos. Personally, I can’t help it but feeling fascinated by a good Steinway & Sons; it is the piano make with which I work everyday and the one I know best. I feel very lucky to be able to witness the development of an instrument. When I think of it, I like to compare it with growing a bonsai tree, where you trim here, bend a little branch there… but the job it's not complete without pianists, who make that evolution possible through playing, doing for an instrument what watering, sunlight and time do for a plant.

What do you listen for, when tuning a piano?

In our job, there is an intimate dialogue between the piano and the tuner, and for that dialogue to happen there has to be respect and knowledge. You have to understand the instrument, its qualities and what you can expect from it. A lot of experience is also important in order to distinguish when it is important to intervene or not and what is the best approach. As tuners, our tasks on the pianos are essentially in three areas: tuning, cultivating the sound and mechanical work. On one side, we have to think about the upcoming concert, but at the same time, we have to also think ahead and work on the instrument's evolution, keeping in mind how it will develop over the years.

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

Good pianos are usually easy to tune if you know what you are looking for. If a piano is difficult to tune, usually it means that it's a bad instrument. It is true that you can come across some exceptions: instruments with some special character for which you have to work hard to get a good result, but in the end it is worth it. Generally speaking, however, we rarely get a good result from a bad piano, no matter how much effort you might put into it.

Are there pianists that are particularly demanding and why?

It's true that there are pianists that are, let’s say, special. But there's a difference between those and the ones who know what they want and ask sensibly. These cases are usually challenging, but make for a very exciting challenge! Other pianists might ask for very particular and not very rational things. Maybe they feel insecure, I don’t know… working with them is a bit harder, but it's true that these cases are also rare. And we shouldn't forget how difficult we, the piano tuners, can also be... poor pianists!

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

The basics are the same. As stage technicians, we have to make sure the pianist is satisfied, but it is also important to keep the piano in good condition for the long run, with future concerts in mind, which means that we have to be consistent in our work and avoid drastic changes in the instrument whenever possible. This puts us in some difficult situations that we have to manage with diplomacy, since our mission is to make sure that the pianist feels comfortable at the piano.

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

I would say that there are differences, but these are less and less noticeable. Each brand is increasingly improving its qualities, which seems like a good idea in principle, but they do it at the expense of sacrificing part of their own character, in order to adhere to a standard taste, to what the majority of pianists ask for. That is the globalisation in our field. I can understand why this happens, but I also see it as an impoverishment.

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

Not always, although we tend to stay at a concert if the piano has an important role in it. The most interesting part is getting to know the musician and trying to fulfil their necessities, beyond what they can explain us with their words. Our aim is to facilitate a symbiosis, that defines our work: the instrument can’t be a barrier to their freedom of expression.

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

This is something that happened a few years ago. We were going for dinner after a concert with one of the best female pianists in history. At some point, while we were on the sidewalk waiting to cross and chatting, a bus suddenly sped past us, inches away from her head. We were horrified, yet she didn't even turn around, as she had not realised what had just happened. 

Click here to find upcoming piano concerts at the Palau de la Música.