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Chops: Piano Tuning and Jazz

Jim Alfredson, James Carney, and Bill McKaig explain the process of their underrecognized career

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Pianists Talk Piano Tuning
Jim Alfredson (photo: Jessica D. Cowles)

It could be argued that the most underrecognized person in jazz recording and performance is not the producer, the live sound engineer, or the recording engineer, but the piano tuner. There are no Grammys for tuners, but if the piano’s out of tune, we’re all going to notice. 

One of the most surprising things we learned in talking with three different pianists who work as piano tuners or technicians is that there are really only two schools that offer training in the field: the North Bennet Street School in Boston, which has two different nine-month programs, and Florida State University in Tallahassee, which offers a Master of Arts degree. “Yes, there aren’t many,” says Jim Alfredson, a noted jazz pianist and organist from Grand Rapids, Mich. “When I’m asked how to get into [piano tuning], I recommend that they find someone to apprentice with.” 

For his part, Alfredson didn’t have to look far because his father was a piano tuner, who started teaching his son the trade around 2007. “He had been bugging me for years about learning. Before that I was too busy and didn’t have time. He taught me for about a year and a half but then he died. He left me all his tools. I’d been helping him over the years. When I was a kid sometimes there would be four or five pianos in the living room of our house because he was working on them. He raised seven kids on that. He was a musician himself but he got tired of the lack of gigs and being out late at night.”

Pianist James Carney got hooked on the process while at the prestigious CalArts jazz program, where he discovered great European pianos and got to know the piano technician there. After graduating from CalArts in 1994, he bought his first piano and then took some tuning lessons from respected professionals. “I started tuning pianos that I would encounter on the road, at sessions and in studios, with permission, of course,” Carney explains. “By 2000, I was still living in L.A. and I would go on tours and bring tools with me, because the pianos always needed tuning.” He eventually ended up in New York, where he established himself as one of the city’s go-to technicians; he now has approximately 600 clients and tunes for about 15 studios. He estimates that he tunes an average of 750 pianos per year. 

Carney says that tuning pianos has helped him as a professional jazz musician. “Because I understand more about the piano, I feel like I can adapt to any piano a lot more quickly,” he explains. “When you get into things technically and you understand what’s causing what, you can make adjustments on the fly.”

Alfredson believes that his experience as a tuner has helped his ear, which has both benefits and drawbacks. “It’s definitely improved my ear when it comes to playing a tune I don’t necessarily know,” he says. “I can hear changes quicker. But that also means sometimes it can be tough to hear my middle-school daughter’s school band concert.” And he now notices that in some earlier jazz recordings, the piano is out of tune, though he acknowledges that “there is something about those earlier jazz recordings where the piano is not quite perfect—it gives it some character.”

Bill McKaigat work on The Jazz Cruise
Bill McKaigat work on The Jazz Cruise

For a few weeks every year, Bill McKaig from Tampa, Fla., has a challenging assignment, akin to a runner doing a marathon. As one of two tuners for Jazz Cruises, he has to make sure that all five of the Yamaha pianos brought aboard for the weeklong sailings of The Jazz Cruise and Blue Note at Sea are concert-ready for nonstop performances every day from about noon until 2 a.m. “When we start the cruise and come onboard, the pianos are being delivered so there’s really no prep time beforehand,” McKaig explains. “The first three or four days are very intense. We tune the pianos every day, so I get up at 5 a.m. and then they get checked between every performance. In addition to the tuning, they still need a lot of prep to get concert-ready.”

Humidity is the number-one cause of pianos going out of tune and a ship at sea poses real challenges in that regard. “They’re not very stable because they have to acclimate to the ship environment [like] humidity with sea air coming in,” he says. “They usually go sharp, and so for the first three or four days I’m pulling these things back and down, trying to get them into standard pitch.”

McKaig also points out that part of the tuning process is voicing or establishing the tone of the piano. “You have to voice them for the venues. The pianos can be too strong or too bright. Usually, those new pianos are pretty strong. On the jazz cruises, they use them pretty heavily so we’re usually bringing them down. The goal is to get the full dynamic range of the piano without too much distortion at the top end.”

Alfredson concurs on the effect of changes in humidity. “You’re dealing with metal strings that are driven with pins into wooden blocks,” he explains. “And wood and metal expand and contract at different rates. Any time you have a swing in temperature or humidity, it’s going to throw things out.” He recommends personal humidifiers or dehumidifiers for pianos, whether in homes or in churches, schools, and music venues. Beyond humidity, there’s also the effect of the playing. “You’re beating on strings with a hammer,” Alfredson says. “So eventually it’s going to go out of tune. It’s just the nature of the beast.”

“I can hear changes quicker [from being a tuner]. But that also means sometimes it can be tough to hear my middle-school daughter’s school band concert.”—Jim Alfredson

Similar to audio engineering, piano tuning is a male-dominated profession, but all three tuners we interviewed feel not only that there’s no reason for women not to enter the field, but also that things are changing. More women are becoming professional tuners; for example, the accomplished jazz singer and pianist Dana Sandler recently graduated from the Bennet Street program.

Carney, who in 2020 released his eighth album as leader (Pure Heart on Sunnyside), says that one of the benefits of being a pianist/tuner in NYC is the proximity to great musicians. “I’m tuning for some of the best jazz pianists in the city,” he explains. “It’s taught me to be more of a performer and to want to be a serious pianist.” Still, he says there are no real shortcuts for getting into the field: “It’s like going to school for jazz. You need to get your hands dirty. You need to tune a thousand pianos. Nobody can learn this in a vacuum, but in the end, you’re teaching yourself to be able to master all these aspects.” 

Tech Help

Like most technicians, Alfredson, Carney, and McKaig learned to tune pianos aurally, but technology offers some shortcuts. McKaig notes that electronic tuning devices shorten the learning curve for beginners. Alfredson uses a piano-tuning app on his phone called TuneLab, while Carney has a computer program that enables him to track the tuning for every piano in his clientele, so he can tell how each note has traveled since his last tuning.