Getting pianos to hit the right keys

Update: June, 29/2014 - 18:13

Pitch-perfect: Dang Nguyen Hao fixes a piano. — VNS Photo Viet Thanh

by Xuan Phong

Dang Nguyen Hao learnt to play the piano but he chose to work as an instrument tuner. He is a special worker, a piano tuner who are well-known to every artist in Ha Noi.

Hao believes that the piano is the best of all musical instruments. It is the highest, longest, widest and heaviest instrument, and has the maximum number of metal parts and types of wood, and is the biggest string instrument.

When the piano is played, it is the sounds of thick forests, winds, bird songs, thunders and storms that play in everyone's imagination. Listening to a piece of sweet piano music, one might think that it is the wind blowing, whereas another might think that it is the sound of running water. The piano is a work of art.

Hao started learning to play the piano at the Viet Nam Music College (now the National Academy of Music) when he was 10. But it was his father's wish, as Hao has been interested in electronics until now.

Hao's father, who worked in the academy's library and was also a writer, has published over a dozen books. He wanted Hao to study an art. But after seven years of music school, Hao decided not to attach himself to an art which was considered a luxury.

Passion's important

"Learning to play the piano is as hard as reaching for the sky. Playing music or working as a mechanic can be done without any training. But it is necessary to have passion to play music and the musician's heart should want to be an artist," he said.

He did not have the passion and could not conceal that fact. He said that a person who does not want to become a true artist cannot play for long if he does not have talent and passion. So, he could not force himself to do something he disliked.

However, Hao is good at testing sound. This was realised by the director of the Viet Nam Music College at the time. Hao and two others were assigned to study piano tuning in the Soviet Union. He said he was lucky because after he returned to Viet Nam, the job of piano tuning brought him a life which few people can have. He became a unique tuner of the musical instrument.

The ‘punch' of sound

At the National Academy of Music where Hao worked for more than 20 years, he worked alone and tuned the strings of more than 100 instruments for several generations of students.

He has retired now but still goes to the academy whenever a lecturer needs him.

"Students practice playing the piano from 7am to 8pm each day, so the wires go down very fast. I fixed this piano five days ago, but today I have to re-fix it," he said.

Hao said that someone could do the work with just talent and little training, whereas some others cannot do it despite learning it for five or seven years. Music has a long and high sound, and a good tuner should be sensitive and subtle enough to identify the standard pitch.

"The most difficult thing for a tuner is that he or she must have ears which can withstand the ‘punch' of sound. Piano music can attract listeners as a supernatural force, but when the strings were down and need a tuner to adjust them, the sound can become extremely difficult to hear.

"A string tuner is like a boxer who suffers straight punches to his face. Before tuning the strings, the tuner must continuously knock hard on the strings to make the sound vibrate clearest and then gradually adjust it. The sound hits my ears from a very close distance so I suffer terrible headaches," Hao said.

When Hao studied how to tune strings, at first he thought that he could not do it because he developed serious headaches and was dazed.

"Should I give up it?" he thought to himself? And then he became determined to find a way out. A few months later, he figured out how to deal with the "punch." He used the "rejecting" method. The tuner must distinguish the right and wrong sounds, which can be considered an abstract definition, and then determine the right sound.

"Doing the work is like standing in the middle of a crowded market and searching for an acquaintance. Thus the 'acquaintance' must be identified not only with naked eyes but also with a special intuition which no curriculum can train.

An expert's job

It's important for an artisan like him to know how to make the piano perform well, and maintain it in such a way that it rarely needs to be repaired and even if it does, with the least effort.

To achieve this, several things need to be done, including the mandatory work of protecting some parts of the instrument from being bitten by insects.

Some parts of the piano are made of wool and felt knitted from fleece but pressed to make them harder. Over time these parts will attract insects.

In addition, the instrument is affected by tropical weather, particularly hot and high humidity. Previously, people used electric heaters or hair dryers, but some instruments were permanently damaged just a day after being dried.

To overcome these drawbacks, Hao spent 20 years making a special chemical to soak the wool and felt.

Thanks to his method, Hao is well known to many people. In many major concerts held in Ha Noi, he is always present before the performance to adjust the strings. Famous artists like Dang Thai Son and Thuy Dung also asked him to fix their pianos.

He said that with this career, he had met many celebrities and swanky people. "They are smart not only because they play the piano well or are rich, but are also smart in their thinking and behaviour," he said.

He earned his living by doing his job, but is willing to take less if he feels his customers' heartiness. He said some families are not rich, but are willing to save money and buy a piano for their children.

Sometimes after having a heart-to-heart talk with the owner of a piano he has repaired, he does not take any money and even invites the owner to go out for a drink.

"I am happy doing my job," he said with a smile. — VNS