A Q&A with Piano Technicians Charles Ball and Nathan Cook

Monday, February 25, 2019
closeup of a piano being tuned

text and photos by Claire Hardwick

Charles Ball and Nathan Cook are the eyes and ears behind the hundreds of pianos housed in the Butler School of Music. A piano is not an instrument easily tuned by its user, so piano technicians like Charles and Nathan are crucial in maintaining a professional sound for performers. Nathan has been with the Butler School of Music for five years, while Charles has been on staff for decades—he’s celebrating his 39th anniversary with Butler this year.

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How did you get into this field of being a piano technician?

Charles: I started taking piano lessons as a kid, and my mother bought an old piano for me. It was in such bad shape. I started trying to fiddle around with it, trying to get it to work properly. The man that we bought it from, his shop was near our house and I could bicycle over. So I started going over there and hanging out, and then he asked me if I was interested in doing a little work for him. So he put me to work in his shop, and I started learning a few things. Then I took a correspondence course, and that’s how I got started.

Nathan Cook tuning a piano
Nathan Cook

Nathan: I have kind of a similar story of having a very old piano that really didn’t work very well. And since I was a kid, I would always take stuff apart and try and fix it, make it better or just trying to understand how it would work. So I just started doing that and having a lot of fun playing with it and understanding it. And I really enjoyed doing that. And then I read this Studs Terkel book called Working, which is a bunch of interviews with people of all walks of life just talking about what they do. There was this piano tuner in that book, and I thought that would just be the coolest job if that was your job and that was all you had to do. So I sought out another technician and started apprenticing, and then it just kind of went from there and now I’m here.

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What does your job entail?

Charles: Well, here at UT we have a rather large inventory. We have over 200 pianos in the Butler School of Music and Texas Performing Arts that we maintain, and we have a staff of essentially three full time technicians, so we divide up the responsibilities. I take care of a lot of the concert work and preparation for the performance pianos. And so my tasks actually vary depending on the time of year. During the long academic semesters, I usually get here in the morning early and make rounds of our various performance venues and classrooms. And sometimes if I have a request from a faculty member to service their studio piano, I’ll go in and do that before they come in and teach. And then later in the day I’ll schedule different things, or I work in the shop. And so we kind of break up our work. That’s one of the nice things about our job is that we get to move about, and we’re not stuck at a desk all day long. We have a variety of different tasks. Summers, on the other hand, are quite different. There are some festivals held in our facilities, but for the most part we do maintenance in the summer. We hang out in the shop and drink coffee and listen to the radio and rebuild pianos.

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What is the importance of what a piano technician does, and how does it support the Butler School of Music?

Charles Ball standing at a piano
Charles Ball

Charles: Well, every instrument of course has its complexities, and most musical instruments are self-service. Reed players can make their own reeds, and they do a certain amount of horn repair, but many do take them to technicians. String players can replace their strings and their bridges and tune their own instruments. But pianos are not very self-service instruments and they’re very complex mechanically, so they require a fair amount of attention in three different areas. One is the tuning, the intonation and adjusting the tension on the strings to create a musical effect. There’s also what we call voicing, which is very little understood, even among musicians, as being distinct from tuning. Voicing affects the tone quality of the instrument. So for instance, practice room pianos and performance pianos get played heavily, the felt of the hammers that strikes the strings gets very compressed and worn, and the piano can start sounding very harsh, and it can be very difficult to play softly. And so we have to do the maintenance and the voicing of that. And then there’s the mechanical maintenance, which is really sensitive in a piano. Every single one of the 88 keys has a number of moving parts. And then there’s the pedal and damper action to go with it, and they get a good workout and are affected by seasonal changes. You go to most other schools, and they don’t have the staff that we do. Smaller schools don’t have staff technicians. They have people who come in on contract to tune for a specific recital or fix a problem, but the pianos don’t get that kind of regular attention. So they tend to not perform as well, it limits what the pianist can accomplish musically as the instruments get out of condition mechanically and tonally in terms of intonation. So we work very closely with the pianist and the musicians, and their feedback is crucial for what we do because they’re obviously better musicians than we are, and they make demands on the instruments that we may never be able to replicate in our routine service. So they give us feedback about what they need to accomplish what they’re trying to do musically.

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So it’s kind of like a dialogue between you and a specific musician?

Charles: It’s the musicians, and faculty members give us a lot of feedback about their studio pianos. And then usually when someone’s preparing for a recital and they have rehearsal in the hall, they may give us some feedback and say, “Goodness that piano feels very heavy, or this note’s not sounding quite right,” and then in the practice room, the students, some of them are pretty good about leaving us little notes or stopping us and giving us information like, “There’s a broken string on the piano on the sixth floor.”

Nathan: Yeah, I would say that one thing that’s really unique about the piano and other keyboard instruments to some extent is that the player, in a sense, doesn’t actually get to touch the instrument. They’re reliant on this interface of a keyboard to transfer their movements and expression to make the sounds they want to. Whereas a violin player, they use their fingers and bow to do that. You’re really separated by this mechanism, and as it’s getting used, it’s just in a state of decline. And if it’s not maintained well, the ability of the performer just quickly diminishes. And for people to achieve the amazing, high levels of playing that they do here, it would just become impossible. And, of course, the pianos would be out of tune and sound awful too, and they would be very dirty.

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What makes the UT program significant to you?

Charles: Well, when I came here in 1980, this facility, MRH it’s called, had just opened, and with great fanfare. And then a year later the performing arts center, which is now called Texas Performing Arts, opened. And it was the biggest and the best of everything—people came from abroad even. The performing arts center had guided tours regularly, and people came from other arts organizations from other countries. I remember once when I was tuning, there was a writer from Architectural Digest who was getting a tour, and it was the biggest purchase of instruments at the time. The biggest purchase of Salzedo harps, of Steinway pianos, the biggest tracker action pipe organ. So, that’s really what brought me here. A friend of mine who had been out here for some summer workshops was visiting, and I saw an article in a professional journal for a job here. I mentioned to him that there was a piano tech opening at UT music school and he said, “Oh you absolutely must apply, that’s a fantastic school, and they’re about to move into this fabulous new facility.” So I applied and before I knew it, they were offering the job.

Nathan: I was already in Austin, but the attraction of working here for me was to be in a place where there are high-quality instruments and a precedent for them to be kept at a certain standard. And for the feedback that we were talking about earlier to exist between high-level players and technicians and also to work alongside other technicians who have a vast wealth of experience, to look over their shoulders. In that way it’s been a huge learning experience for me as far as developing my skills and being able to do higher quality work. I guess if I’m doing anything, I like to do it as well as possible. So this is the place to be to learn as a technician and grow.

Charles: And in our private clienteles, we may work on a client’s piano and do a substantial amount of work and you may not hear from them again for a year, and they may have very little to say about it and not give you a lot of feedback unless they’re really unhappy. But here, people tell you pretty quickly. Here you have daily, recurring exposure to your work. And you can actually sometimes sit down in the house and listen to your work during a performance and then you get feedback from very high-level performers. So that provides an opportunity, sort of a laboratory, for really cultivating and deepening your skills in a way that’s very difficult to do in private practice.

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