AMFS’ piano technicians find the right key

Jul 20, 2017

Thomas Malone, head piano technician with the Aspen Music Festival and School is tunes up the top strings of the piano in Hurst Hall on the Bucksbaum campus.
Credit Claire Woodcock/Aspen Public Radio News

This summer, the Aspen Music Festival and School has 169 pianos being moved from venue to venue, all of which need tuning.


Thomas Malone listens to the sound of the Steinway being tuned all day long. It’s the soundtrack to his life. Just him and pianos, week in and week out. He’s the Aspen Music Festival and School’s head piano technician, and said the pianos usually start off in pretty rough shape.

“They're all shipped out of the eastern United States, so they come out here and they just dry out like crazy and go flat for a month,” he said.


Malone, who doubles as a self-proclaimed weatherman, said it’s imperative that tuners are sensitive to the climate in which the pianos live. But it’s easier now that school’s been in session for a month. Today, tuning one piano with 240 strings takes about an hour.


As the season pushes on, Malone said the pianos grow higher in demand.


“Everybody wants the pianos all the time, right? So then there's no time to work on them,” he said with a smirk.


Even the other day, when students were beginning to flood into Hurst Hall on the Bucksbaum Campus an hour before orchestra rehearsal is even scheduled. Still, Malone kept tuning.


"It's kind of like solving a puzzle everyday,” he said. “Or five times a day ... all the notes, all the frequencies have to fit in their right place and when you show up they're not.”


So he puts the puzzle pieces together with his crew of piano tuners, who are dispatched from campus to Harris Concert Hall, where Justin Holcomb, a professional piano techie, bunkers in the piano room prepping the instruments for the guest artists.


“And then as the artists come we will make them a little more individual to the artist, how they like it,” Holcomb said.


Holcomb is a third-generation native to Denver and has piano tuning in his blood. His father has been the tuner for the Colorado Symphony for over 35 years. Growing up, Holcomb was really into tearing apart and rebuilding these instruments.


“I kind of thought that artists were pretentious and I wanted to stay away from them,” he admitted.


When he was 18, he tuned his first piano for David Bowie’s pianist, which fascinated him.


“But as I got older, I actually grew into the way that they talk and found out that they’re not as pretentious as I thought they were,” Holcomb said.


Holcomb has since tuned pianos for dozens and dozens of artists. Over the years, he’s learned to be a security blanket for the stars.


“They’re like a fighter pilot, they can never feel that it’s their fault because then they’ll crash and burn,” he said. “You are their security, so once you can get rid of your own ego … and that’s what I really found was they may have an ego, but they need it.”


His ego on the other hand, he had to let go of. And that’s been a lifetime pursuit.


“It can literally make you drop in your stomach when somebody doesn’t like something you’ve worked so hard on,” he said.


Come show time, he’s still on duty. Holcomb sits in the audience, analyzing his work, listening for any possible inaccuracies that could be traced back to him.


“My best scenario is to sit through the concert, everything goes great,” he said.


And usually it does. Holcomb gets a copy of the recording afterwards that he listens to on his own time, where he finally can sit back, relax and enjoy the show.