PIANO TUNER MICHAEL BLACK­WELL

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - — James M. Keller

Michael Black­well pays reg­u­lar calls on a wide cir­cle of mu­si­cal Santa Feans who de­pend on him to keep their pi­anos tuned and well reg­u­lated. But they know bet­ter than to try to sched­ule an ap­point­ment in July or Au­gust. For the past 34 years, he has given over those months ex­clu­sively to the Santa Fe Cham­ber Mu­sic Fes­ti­val. “I plan to con­tinue again this sum­mer,” said Black­well, in gen­tle tones that rarely rise above a mezzo piano yet are con­toured in a way that makes it sound like he is shar­ing a par­tic­u­larly juicy se­cret. “It rep­re­sents about seven weeks of work for me. I start a week be­fore the fes­ti­val be­gins, and then I tune and ad­just in­stru­ments ev­ery day a piano is played in a con­cert — and some­times there are two con­certs in a day, maybe a record­ing ses­sion. I tune for con­certs at the St. Fran­cis Au­di­to­rium and the Len­sic, and also for off-site con­certs. I tune for re­hearsals, and I tune other pi­anos the artists may be us­ing dur­ing their stay here.”

A na­tive of up­state New York, Black­well was a rel­a­tive novice as a piano tech­ni­cian when he moved to Santa Fe 36 years ago. He had been in Bos­ton teach­ing gen­eral cur­ricu­lum cour­ses at an in­sti­tute for the blind. “It was very in­ter­est­ing,” he said. “I learned how to fin­ger-spell, sign, type with a Braille type­writer. They had a piano-tun­ing depart­ment for the blind stu­dents. One day, I walked into a so­cial room in a dorm and there was a man do­ing a piano tun­ing. I just stood there ob­serv­ing for a while. I was fas­ci­nated. Within two weeks, I learned that a friend of a friend was grad­u­at­ing from piano tech­ni­cian school. And then an­other friend told me he was go­ing to study piano tun­ing, and I went with him to a place called Tuner’s Sup­ply, which sold ham­mers, strings, and all kinds of piano parts. I found it very in­ter­est­ing that these coin­ci­dences hap­pened in a twoweek pe­riod. I ap­plied to study to be a piano tech­ni­cian at the North Bennet Street School, a trade school in Bos­ton. The course was ten months. Seven months in, peo­ple were burn­ing out, but not me; I thought it was great.”

Nearly all of his work at the Cham­ber Mu­sic Fes­ti­val takes place away from the public’s view, but if he didn’t do it, they would hear the dif­fer­ence. Soloists some­times make re­quests about de­tails of the in­stru­ment’s prepa­ra­tion, but there are lim­its. The fes­ti­val rents its pi­anos out of Al­bu­querque, and they come with rules about what may and may not be al­tered. “They want min­i­mal in­volve­ment — es­pe­cially with nee­dles,” said Black­well, mean­ing he would not be al­lowed to prick at the felt on the piano’s ham­mers to change its voic­ing and, by ex­ten­sion, its ba­sic tone.

“The Cham­ber Mu­sic Fes­ti­val is a dream to work for,” he said. “Even go­ing all the way back to Ali­cia [Schachter, who co-founded the fes­ti­val with her hus­band, Shel­don Rich] — she was a pi­anist so she had an ap­pre­ci­a­tion for what I needed: dead si­lence, no ush­ers stuffing pro­grams. I needed to be alone in the hall so I could hear the sub­tle things.” Black­well sits lis­ten­ing in­tently through ev­ery con­cert, and some­times he re­turns to the stage dur­ing in­ter­mis­sion for a touch-up. “It’s noisy at in­ter­mis­sion,” he al­lowed, “but you al­ready know your tar­gets, roughly, so you know what you have to do to ad­just that last bit.” Might tun­ing the same 88 notes day af­ter day grow weari­some? “But it’s not just the same 88 notes,” Black­well in­sisted. “Ev­ery piano has its own fin­ger­print, in­di­vid­u­al­ized to that piano.” He points out that, while get­ting the pitch right re­lates to the part of the string that ex­tends be­tween pins that cut off the vi­bra­tion near the front and back, the ends of the strings that an­chor to the piano be­yond those points are not in­con­se­quen­tial. “About 20 years into do­ing this, there I was tun­ing and I re­al­ized: Wait a minute, there’s a long string here, and you’re only wor­ry­ing about one part of it? It took a while to clar­ify that I’m in charge of the whole string. I see now that it’s a puzzle you have to solve.“Peo­ple — pi­anists as well as lay­men — some­times re­fer to his min­is­tra­tions as mag­i­cal. Black­well doesn’t share that view. “Ev­ery­thing in the piano is con­nected to the struc­ture. Ev­ery­thing about the struc­ture con­trib­utes to how this piano is work­ing or not work­ing. There’s no magic; it doesn’t ex­ist. The piano is not alive. Peo­ple may see the piano as alive or mag­i­cal, but I think it’s bet­ter to be in con­trol of it.”

ABOUT 20 YEARS INTO DO­ING THIS, THERE I WAS TUN­ING AND I RE­AL­IZED: WAIT A MINUTE, THERE’S A LONG STRING HERE, AND YOU’RE ONLY WOR­RY­ING ABOUT ONE PART OF IT? IT TOOK A WHILE TO CLAR­IFY THAT I’M IN CHARGE OF THE WHOLE STRING. I SEE NOW THAT IT’S A PUZZLE YOU HAVE TO SOLVE. — MICHAEL BLACK­WELL

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