Piano tuner keeping perfect pitch

Piano tuner keeping perfect pitch

Digital instruments sell, but Evan Tublitz is a throwback in a trade where sound in king.

By Paul Grondahl
Published 9:57 pm, Tuesday, March 26, 2013
Albany Times-Union

Evan Tublitz, owner of Used Piano Center, talks about his work at his shop on Park Ave. on Tuesday, March 26, 2013 in Mechanicville, NY. (Paul Buckowski / Times Union)

Evan Tublitz, owner of Used Piano Center, talks about his work at his shop on Park Ave. on Tuesday, March 26, 2013 in Mechanicville, NY. (Paul Buckowski / Times Union)

In our noisy, shrill world, Evan Tublitz is on a mission: to bring a little more harmony, a little less discordance.   One piano at a time. He is a registered piano technician.

Tublitz (pronounced TWO-blitz) is unyielding in his commitment to quality in an era in which cheapo digital tuning devices can be bought on Amazon and YouTube features quickie tutorials on piano tuning.

Evan Tublitz of Used Piano Center

Evan Tublitz of Used Piano Center

Evan Tublitz working on  Rare Art Case Steinway Grand

Evan Tublitz working on
Rare Art Case Steinway Grand

                               Call us for more Information.

                               Call us for more Information.

Used Piano Center Showroom

Used Piano Center Showroom

Evan Tublitz regulating Steinway Grand at Used Piano Center.

Evan Tublitz regulating Steinway Grand at Used Piano Center.

                               Call us for more information.

                               Call us for more information.

Instead, Tublitz speaks of Steinways and Baldwins and Ibachs as if they possess souls deep in the grain of their spruce soundboards. He will spend day after day drawing out the roundest, richest sound while "voicing" a piano.

"I can make a piano sound two sizes larger than it is," he said. "It's all about taking the time. I'm willing to put in the work the manufacturer won't do."

He has worked with numerous concert pianists, including Earl Wild, Ruth Laredo, Andre Watts and Chick Corea. Corea once had a 9-foot-6-inch Bosendorfer Imperial concert grand flown in before he played the Syracuse Jazz Festival. Tublitz was summoned.

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"The action is kind of glunky," Corea said.

Tublitz went to work. But he had limited time before Corea's concert.

"I can only do what I can do," he told the jazz great as he packed up his tools. "It takes a lot of time to get great sound."

There are 88 keys on a piano. Each key has 18 different adjustments. The time it takes to get the sound just right adds up.

Tublitz is 56 and has been tuning, repairing, restoring and selling pianos for 35 years. He was born and raised in South Orange, N.J. He was a music major at Bennington College, but dropped out in his sophomore year due to financial hardship. He became a piano technician's apprentice. He is a skilled pianist, but downplays his ability.

He worked in the 1970s and '80s as staff technician at Hamilton College and Colgate University. He is a former president of the regional chapter of the Piano Technicians Guild. He was a local Yamaha dealer, but his piano store in Latham went out of business after his divorce in 1999. For the past decade he's operated the Used Piano Center in Mechanicville, where he sells instruments he has restored.

At work, he carries a small satchel of tools and supplies — tuning hammer, tuning felt, capstan tool, felt, mutes, an alcohol lamp to heat and bend wood — and an Old World sensibility.

"I'm saddened by how much the quality has gone down in pianos," he said. "I saw the trend with Baldwin. They started cheapening their pianos and then went bankrupt. A mass-produced piano is not a great piano."

His exacting standards have drawn jabs on the Internet, as well as the loyalty of some of the best pianists in the Capital Region.

"Evan is better than anybody," said jazz pianist Lee Shaw. "I've had many pianos tuned by other people and he is by far the best. He has deep knowledge and really loves what he does."

At home, Shaw plays a Yamaha C3 grand purchased in the early 1980s. Tublitz might spend as much as five hours during a session to keep the instrument sounding its best. "He wants things done the right way," Shaw said. "It offends his heart to cut corners."

"He's one of the best around, and he goes beyond technical tuning to make a piano sound its very best," said concert pianist Findlay Cockrell, a retired University at Albany music professor. He met Tublitz two decades ago when he tuned the grand piano in the UAlbany Recital Hall.

Since then, Cockrell has bought two pianos from Tublitz, including a Steinway made in Hamburg, Germany, that Cockrell has at his California home. Cockrell owns five pianos, including a New York Steinway grand at his home in Albany and a used Knight that Tublitz sold him which Cockrell shipped to his vacation home in Barbados.

Tublitz has the patter and delivery of a stand-up comic. He hopped from piano to piano in his shop and demonstrated the gorgeous sound and stunning sustain of an Ibach and Steinways he has in the shop — used models that cost more than a luxury car.

He dishes funny stories about a dinner with violinist Itzhak Perlman, an exchange with flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal, and the briefest of encounters with New Age pianist Scott Cossu.

After Tublitz worked on the concert grand piano, Cossu, wearing red jester's shoes, came on stage for a sound check.

"You think the piano's in tune?" Cossu asked.

"Yes," Tublitz said.

Cossu shuffled off, without touching a key.


Musical mishaps and onstage repairs


Musical mishaps and onstage repairs

When instruments fail in middle of a concert, players have to scramble

Geraldine Freedman/For the Daily Gazette   March 12, 2017

Evan Tublitz tunes a Steinway at his shop in Mechanicville; inset: David Kim and Elizabeth Pitcairn.  Photographer: Marc Schultz

Evan Tublitz tunes a Steinway at his shop in Mechanicville; inset: David Kim and Elizabeth Pitcairn.

Photographer: Marc Schultz

Anyone who plays an instrument knows that mishaps can occur. But for professionals, those pit stops can be deal breakers. For instance, what does a violin soloist do when they’re in the middle of a concerto with an orchestra and a string breaks? Stop the show? Run off stage?

Not if you’re with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

“We have a protocol here. It’s not uncommon,” said David Kim, the orchestra’s concertmaster. “If it’s a soloist, they swap their violin with me and I give mine to the soloist. Then I give their violin to my stand partner who swaps his violin with me. Someone always has an extra set of strings.

“So the associate concertmaster changes the string — it’s usually the E string — in about two minutes and then the swap goes the other way. At an opportune time in the music, I give the soloist their violin and I get my violin back. The switch is done so smoothly and it’s always exciting for the audience.”

Kim himself used to experience numerous breaking E strings, something he attributes to “thinking I had to press harder or play louder when I first became concertmaster. I was immature. Now, six or seven years later, I haven’t had a break. I just ride that wonderful Philadelphia Orchestra sound.”

String players learn to deal with these occasional breakdowns and most come prepared. Kim said he has pockets in his case that hold everything from a packet of strings to throat lozenges and even a pen to sign autographs.

Solo plight

But while a loss of a few minutes in playing time in an orchestral string section might not be missed, what do you do in recital? That happened to Elizabeth Pitcairn, the director of the Luzerne Music Center, who plays on the famous Stradivarius 1720 “Red Mendelssohn” violin.

“I was playing ‘Tzigane’ by Ravel and I got into a very vigorous spot and my E string popped,” she said in an email. “I had to leave the stage.”

But after she fixed the string and resumed playing she noticed blood on her fingerboard. The steel of the E-string had cut her pinky and despite the pain, she waded through all the fast-note passages to finish.

“I felt like Chopin playing for the revolution in the movie ‘A Song to Remember’ ” she said.

Strings aren’t the only things that can go. Mary Gilman, the artistic director for the Capitol Chamber Artists, said not only had her fingerboard once become unglued, which made the instrument completely unplayable, but during a recital she didn’t stop to pull off some broken bow hairs — a common occurrence. Instead, because she continued to play, the hairs got caught and prevented her from bowing. As the pianist continued to play, Gilman had to stop, tore off the hairs and then rejoined the pianist.

“It was horrible,” she said.

Violinists’ strings are made of synthetic gut wrapped with tungsten steel but they’re still prone to breakage, Kim said.  Made in Germany, they are very expensive. In the old days, it was sheep intestines that were not only risky — one can imagine what the 19th century virtuoso Paganini went through — but also were affected by weather and frayed easily, he said.

Violists, too, break strings and if that happens to the Philadelphia’s principal violist, a swap goes to the associate principal, who does the repair. But Kim said in his entire career he had never heard of cello or bass strings breaking, probably because they’re thicker.

Evan Tublitz Working on a steinway Grand                                                         Photographer: Marc Schultz                                                                 

Evan Tublitz Working on a steinway Grand                                                         Photographer: Marc Schultz                                                                 

Piano problems

Guitarists also suffer broken strings and sometimes so do piano strings. That happened in January during a late Saturday Albany Symphony Orchestra rehearsal with pianist Sergei Babayan for Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto. The technician, Evan Tublitz of the Used Piano Center in Mechanicville, said he had barely 15 minutes to fix the string backstage— usually a 25-minute job—  all while music director David Alan Miller was preparing to give the pre-concert talk from the stage. But like all techs, he has a motto: Be prepared.

“Every note has three strings,” Tublitz said. “In this case two of the strings had broken. And I was nervous. You never know how it’s going to go. That’s why I brought not only two cases of strings but also redundancies. And it’s why I came out on stage before the concerto to check to be sure the note was OK.”

Evan Tublitz in the Used Piano Center Showroom                                            Photographer: Marc Schultz

Evan Tublitz in the Used Piano Center Showroom                                            Photographer: Marc Schultz

Pianists on tour often have to contend with pianos they’ve never played before, especially at a new venue.

But an out-of-tune piano was nothing compared to what Charles Schneider, the music director of the Schenectady Symphony Orchestra, experienced during the 1960s. In those days, he worked as a Columbia Artists tour accompanist for opera singers. He and baritone Richard Cross stopped in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, where they were to open a new concert series. Columbia Artists had stipulated that a Steinway grand piano was required.

“We arrived there on Friday and when I tried the piano, not one note sounded on the entire keyboard,” Schneider said. “The piano had been in storage for 10 years and mice had eaten all the felt on the hammers. No tuner had even looked at it.”

Promoters suggested he find a piano in the local churches. A Knabe grand was found and brought to the theater by Saturday, a tuner came and Schneider practiced on it for an hour. But at concert time, disaster struck.

Keyboard in motion

“I played a chord and the piano shot off toward the hall’s brick wall. It was really moving,” he said laughing. “The audience was amazed. I was able to grab the piano and pushed it back on stage. Then I found cinderblocks backstage that I pushed against the wheels.”

Prior to the concert, a janitor had cleaned the stage and had greased the piano’s wheels and put it on a dolly with tricycle wheels.

“You could put your pinkie on the piano and it would move,” Schneider said.

At another stop in Davenport, Iowa, the piano had been left in a school cafeteria.

“When I lifted the lid, I found banana peels, orange rinds, bags of garbage,” he said.

While all stringed instrumentalists have stories, wind players rarely have breakdowns.

“They’re all mechanics who have blades, knives and tools ready for anything,” Kim said. “They also seem to have another instrument around.”

They’re also clever.

Ann Marie Barker-Schwartz, the artistic director of Musicians of Ma’alwyck who plays violin each summer with the Glimmerglass Opera orchestra, reported that before one performance, the bassoonist’s bocal broke. The bocal is an arched piece of metal tubing with one end inserted into a sidewing of the bassoon and the other that holds the reed through which the bassoonist blows.

“He used his cigarette lighter and melted the metal,” she said.

Although there are the occasional moments of forgetfulness in leaving the music or even the instrument at home or in a cab, weather delays or even medical concerns, performers are made of hardy stuff. They live by one mantra: The show must go on.

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