Power ToolMaster piano tuner Ulrich Gerhartz on the tool he couldn’t work without.

Power ToolMaster piano tuner Ulrich Gerhartz on the tool he couldn’t work without.

  • Words Elle Hunt
  • Photography Edvinas Bruzas

I’ve been with Steinway & Sons all my life. I started nearly 37 years ago as an apprentice at the factory in Hamburg, manufacturing pianos. Now I’m a concert technician, working with artists and venues to ensure that they have the right instrument in the best possible condition. I know pretty much every concert grand in the UK and Ireland, and there are a number of A-list pianists who want me with them wherever they play.

I do my job the same way as it was done a hundred years ago. There’s no computer involved. I tune the piano completely by ear, using a tuning fork to get the pitch. My tool kit is huge, but this particular tool, the toning needle holder, I’ve had for 35 years—it was given to me as an apprentice for getting good results in my exams. 

It’s essentially just a handle with a way to fix three needles into it, but it has been used by piano makers for centuries. On a concert grand you have 243 strings and 88 hammers, which go from a big hammer in the bass, which will hit a string that is nearly two meters [approximately 6½ feet] long, to a little hammer in the treble that hits a string that is about 40 millimeters [about 1½ inches] long. When preparing a concert piano, the final stage is always the voicing of the hammer heads with the toning needle holder. By changing the texture of the felt, you can precisely balance the sound of the piano and create the best tone and dynamics.

The beauty of a Steinway piano is that it is hand-built—they all have their own personality. Part of my expertise is to use this tool to unearth the personality of the piano in its raw state, and then bring that out and nurture it. There’s a lot of tender loving care and preparation that goes into settling the piano before I’m confident in it. There might be one note that the pianist thinks is too bright or too mellow, but it will really be the finishing touches.

The quality and simplicity of this toning needle holder is such that it is likely to last for decades. All it needs is a steady supply of sharp needles to keep going. I am sure that eventually it will be passed on to the next generation of piano concert technicians.

You are reading a complimentary story from Issue 50

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