the curious life of steinway concert technician joel bernache
By Rosalie Burrell
Photo: Chris Lee
“I don’t know if anybody starts out with an innate talent for piano tuning, necessarily. In a strange way, it’s actually not that musical. It’s puzzle-like. It’s kind of like an aural puzzle.”
Joel Bernache is one of the most sought-after piano technicians in the world, and one of the hardest to pin down. Artists of every piano-playing genre call months, sometimes seasons in advance to square away a few days or a few weeks of Bernache’s time.
His particular puzzle is a twelve-thousand-part, one-thousand-pound behemoth, capable of both transcendent musical experiences and of inflicting serious personal injury. Copper-wrapped wire strings the Steinway Model D end to end, exerting forty-six-thousand pounds of pressure on the body of the instrument. A snapped string could take out an eye, or worse. Just opening the lid requires an honest exercise regimen, and a moving piano will routinely stop traffic. It is a masterpiece of engineering and of nature. On an island off the coast of Alaska, ocean air and summer fog have settled into a distinct micro-climate, and on the dark side of the mountain, the forest sees precious few hours of sunlight. The spruce grows very, very slowly in these shadows, and their trunk’s ringed growth layers run dense.
‘I usually don’t say anything right away, I just listen.’
After a century of growth, the spruce can be considered acoustically perfect; sound waves vibrate through the dense wood grain of these trees more musically than most any other known material. Their trunks are bodies of carbon — which are cut, weathered, bent, and crafted by hand. Parts are measured to a mind-boggling exactness of 1/32,000th of an inch, and the finest merino wool is pressed to a hard felt and carefully shaped to form the Steinway’s hammers’ heads.
And though they couldn’t look more different from their sapling beginnings, the instruments react to their environment much the same. The wood and wool continue to expand, contract, and breathe, drawing humidity from the air and releasing it. And so the Steinway changes. Everything from the way it feels when you touch it to the way it sounds when you hear it can and does shift with the climate. Observing these microscopic changes, technicians tend to its mechanics — lubricating components, filing and reshaping hammers, settling the instruments back into themselves — preparing the puzzle of parts for some of the most sensitive and demanding musicians on the planet.
You might reasonably picture a concert technician working in a gallery or workshop, seeing to each instrument in an efficient row of pianos, like the assembly of instruments on display at Steinway Hall near Bryant Park. Not so. Steinway Concert Technicians such as Bernache are on the scene at almost every piano concert on the social calendar. The Steinways they visit are nestled in far-flung reaches of the city — in vaulted three-thousand-seat concert halls, jazz clubs both subterranean and aerial, film sets, television studios, and fantastical, sometimes maze-like theatrical stage rigs.
Bernache visits these instruments to care for, maintain, and refine them, journeying from Carnegie Hall to the Village Vanguard and the gilded theaters of Broadway, often all in a single day. He has occasion to travel with soloists for their appearances with orchestra or solo recital tours; he is booked for multi-day recording sessions, and for international piano competitions set in the mountains, deserts, and seaside. Bernache’s pipe dreams include controlled environments, predictable schedules, and a smoothly running transit system.
Concert technicians are on the scene at nearly every piano concert on the social calendar. The schedule is grueling. Bernache is up around 5:30 most mornings, and is seated in front of a Steinway around 7 or 8 a.m. Early morning is important, because the technicians will be working around rehearsal schedules all day. Meal time for the stage hands, actors, and musicians is prime time for tuning, and every quiet moment on the stage will be negotiated and wrangled into an intricate patch-work of a schedule. He visits ten-to-fourteen venues a day, sometimes working on the same instrument two or even three times in a day, if it’s being used in recital. (This is exceptional. Consider for reference, that an average piano technician might reasonably work on three pianos in a day, total.)
He walks ten-to-twelve miles a day, up subway steps, down subway steps. He hand-carries his tool bag — a kit pared down to his exact needs — everywhere he goes. It weighs twenty pounds. He keeps several suits stored conveniently near concert halls, so he can slip into something a little less comfortable come concert time, for he’ll often be scheduled for standby and must be dressed in concert attire when he enters the stage during program breaks. Most concerts sound on nights and weekends. If he leaves after intermission, he’ll be home by 10.
Plenty of solo piano repertoire calls for a genuine key pummeling, with some pianists occasionally digging into the music in such fits of fury as to leave hot streaks of blood smeared across the keys, chipping and cracking the (former) ivories and snapping strings in their pursuit of total rapture. Here, the technician bears a passing resemblance to the medic in the boxing ring or the dancer’s masseur, examining, cleaning, and carefully mending each of the piano’s moving parts. And so to reconsider the contents of his tool bag is to invite Murphy’s Law. The day he takes something out to save weight is the day he will surely need that once annual tool to work on some tiny but critical part of the piano. “And in our business,” he says, “the concert’s happening — whether you have the tools to do your job or not. So you better have everything you need right there with you.” Of course there are additional draws to this concert technician’s deft handiwork and bag of wonders: it seems there is no eyeglass or watch piece he cannot fix with a spare minute.
Technicians are a rare breed. While many pick up an interest in the handiness of the work and move through trade school alongside other craftspeople (like luthiers, bookbinders, and furniture builders) others, such as Joel, are drawn in through modern-day apprenticeships. In his early twenties and somewhat aimless, Joel didn’t quite have an idea yet of what he might like to do. He enjoyed music, enjoyed working with his hands, and especially enjoyed working independently. So he boldly cold-called the local piano technician and asked just what he does and how. The technician put him right to work, exploring the school’s inventory and reupholstering busted piano benches. On Saturday mornings, Joel arrived early at his new mentor’s home to paint the shutters, clean out gutters, and perform other odd jobs around the house. Afterward, they sat down at the Steinway in his living room and began the day’s private tuning lesson. Bernache took right to it — excelling so quickly his teacher soon told him it was time to enroll in a formal training program. By the end of the year, he was teaching and coaching his fellow classmates. He was hired by Steinway & Sons shortly thereafter.
So what are they actually doing to the piano? Obviously he’s tuning it. But more importantly to the concert technician is the ‘touch’ of the instrument: how does it physically feel in your hand? Do the keys feel tight or heavy? When you release a key, does it rebound immediately? How hard do your hands or arms have to work to play the instrument? How light or responsive is the keyboard — and if you could choose, how light or heavy would you want it to be? All of those physical considerations are wrapped up in what’s called the regulation.
Then there’s the way in which the piano produces sound, or, the voicing. A lot of character or timbral traits are attributed to the voicing — think bright, mellow, chocolatey, acidic, warm, round, brash. Are these traits sounding evenly from note to note, or do some notes pop? Is the sound balanced throughout its registers? Each instrument is so different from one to the next in its touch and tone that on one extreme occasion, an artist decided to exploit these differences — choosing one piano for the concert’s first half: Debussy, and a second piano for the second half: Brahms. In any case, these tonal characteristics are all changeable — to a point.
“Ultimately, the tuning is objective. The voicing and regulation are artistic considerations.”
“Ultimately,” Bernache says, “the tuning is objective. The voicing and regulation are artistic considerations.” These characteristics are intertwined and can be easily confused, even by the most veteran pianists. After all, the pianist’s concerns are exclusively musical. The temperament of the instrument and its possible range of color and texture can either expand or box in the musician’s expressive palette. The concert technician must be able to translate musical concepts into practical solutions.
To demonstrate his daily mysteries, Bernache describes a not uncommon situation: the pianist returns from the stage rehearsal to report that the piano is too soft. “I usually don’t say anything right away, I just listen. It’s very important to listen to what a person has to say (even if you think they’re crazy).” He sits down at the piano’s lap and plays it himself. Is it soft? A decision tree branches out before him. Maybe it isn’t really that soft. He opens the keyboard to see if there is something else going on. Is the keyboard stiff somehow? Is it heavy? Is there some friction somewhere — making the piano difficult to play — making it feel like it’s soft? Whatever it is, “I don’t try to lead an artist in any particular way,”
The tonal characteristics are all changeable—to a point. He says. “I take what they tell me and I look for solutions, wherever they might be. And it is often a combination of things. Both the voicing and the regulation of the piano.”
It’s this specific expression of need he translates so generously and seamlessly. “Nobody’s going to sit down and say, ‘Oh geez, I think the let-off is really too far away.’ They’ll say something more like, ‘I feel like I can’t control it.’ As the technician, you can’t just turn the control dial up and say, ‘Here let me give you a little more control!’ It’s an investigation: you look at different aspects that might be causing the artist to have this experience that they’re describing to you.”
It seems as though every artist wants to work with him — if it can possibly be arranged — and it’s no wonder. He listens carefully to people, whether they communicate verbally or not. Messages might take the form of Post-it notes left on the music desk, a furrowed eyebrow and a note plucked repeatedly, or musical demonstrations at the keyboard. He takes each gesture very seriously, and understands that on some level the work is psychological, as well as being technically practical. He understands their frustrations, fears, goals, and particular tastes — and he remembers these things with astonishing accuracy.
Bernache’s mental catalog holds an evolving history of an artist’s preference for say, a light, fast action and rich, powerful sound; a complete list of instruments that fit the bill; and the acoustic profile of the venue in question. The technician may prepare a selection of the best fits for the occasion, and observe from a respectful distance as the artist zeros in on his predicted pick. That instrument will be sent to the concert venue. It’s handy here to compare the piano selection to a wine tasting. Taken side by side, subtle differences are magnified and easily observable — even to a novice. And the jolt of exhilaration from suddenly sensing these differences feels pretty similar to the tasting too. A refined palate may hold these nuances in memory and quickly develop personal tastes. A savant could pair a particular vintage, body, flavor profile, and personal preferences with a specific menu to be enjoyed on a special occasion in late spring, say. The artist’s planned repertoire will often dictate which instrument she chooses, as well as any desired adjustments to the voicing or regulation. Their selection will also depend on the space in which they’ll be performing — or how they imagine the space to sound, once they get in there.
But for all the best-laid plans, environmental conditions can change. Or a piano chosen in a small room could deliver a completely different experience from the stage of a two-thousand-seat hall before a loud orchestra. The technician has to anticipate that potential gap ahead of the artist and be ready. Usually they make adjustments to the piano once set up onstage anyway, to accommodate its specific role for that evening. But, Bernache warns, “the trick is that we don’t have days and days to do this: if you have a couple hours, that’s a luxury. It’s sometimes quite a bit less than that. It can be really high pressure to fundamentally change the way a piano produces sound in forty minutes’ time. But you have to do what you can in the time you have.”
For the artist, this is emotional. Performance nerves can set in, coupled with travel fatigue, little sleep, and a strange and irregular diet of airport food and the bountiful culinary offerings of New York. That would be a lot for anyone to handle, but particularly so for those poised to bare their work in all its triumphs and flaws before a discerning audience. Another exceptional concert technician, Ismael Cunha, describes a not-to-be-named musician who famously sits backstage blanched, sweating profusely, preparing to face the executioner.
Theirs is a tenuous position. On top of all the other unknowns, pianists usually do not travel to the concert with their own instrument, as say a violinist or guitarist would. Not even in their home town. “For most pianists, even the very, very successful ones, they are still at the whim of the place they show up and the piano that’s there for them to play.” The instruments are emblems of craftsmanship and durability, but as Bernache points out, these musicians could be in an unfamiliar place on an unfamiliar piano.
‘For most pianists, even the very, very successful ones, they are still at the whim of the place they show up and the piano that’s there for them to play.’
Artists must assume what amounts to an exhilarating degree of risk. The minutes tick down; the hall fills. Maybe they remember the piano they didn’t pick. Maybe they overhear someone say the word “pedal,” and now they’re consumed with nightmarish pedal-failure -type thoughts. Nerves can be highly contagious, Bernache says, and in those moments it can all become very real. Anxiety can spread to the management, to the orchestra; panic potential could emerge and the situation may quickly unspool from there. A worst-case scenario. Pianists are expert in adapting to their environments and engaging with the instrument’s particular personality — but everyone is allowed a bad day once in a while. Particularly when under pressure. “In that situation,” he says, “you might have to help guide this person through it. Everybody there could be stressed out and when people are upset, you have to be cool. It is so important to be a calming presence.”
The performance begins and he hangs back in the wings, aware that the very fact of his presence may unwittingly suggest: if the fixer of problems is onsite, then perhaps there is a problem here to be concerned about. Few would actually admit to this trail of thought. . . and yet. Bernache has been at this a long time. He keeps a low profile, and wishes for the artist both privacy and laser focus in their pre-performance rituals. “It’s all about the performance,” he says, “I’m just helping out like everybody else. Sometimes my purpose is not to do anything at all. It’s for peace of mind that I’m there — just in case.”
The overwhelming majority of the time, spirals are abated. And part of the reason Bernache is so often called for standby — to literally stand in the wings during a performance — is for the calm he exudes even in high-pressure environments. Chiefly, his work is so pristine, real disasters scarcely have the opportunity to get started in the first place. But the psychological element of a technician on standby cannot be stressed enough. “You have to just be even. The second you’re not, the situation could unravel. And that’s probably the most important thing we do. We’re almost like a backstop against that kind of thing happening.” The technician sets a base line of calm: “I have never told anybody, ever, that there’s nothing I can do. Those would be the worst words you could possibly utter — even if you only have five minutes. You have to do something. Does that sound dramatic?”
For any given performance, even for a single musician onstage, there are entire teams of people working together from across organizations to set the musician up for success on this one night. Some of these collaborations are better resourced or more effective and practiced, but the idea is mostly the same wherever you go. The artist should be comfortable, the audience should be engaged, the house filled, the community involved, the process documented, and the tradition honored. Some of those vested individuals behind the scenes are lauded for their work — Grammy’d, bonused, renewed. Usually successful advancement of the arts means we all get to remain in the business for another season of carefully setting the stage for the music to unfold. Left unsung here is the piano technician, who can be a most critical functioning member of the ecosystem. They are some of the artist’s more sensitive advocates, validating and sound-boarding the musician who may scale up and down a register of the keyboard saying, “there’s something here — some thing, do you hear it?” And to the untrained ear, there is nothing there. But the technician hears them exactly. Knows them. Understands, fixes, soothes. And slips out the back, into the night.