PIANO TUNER MICHAEL BLACKWELL
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