For more than half his life, Bruce Bischoff has been playing pianos with his ears. Bischoff, 60, is one of just a few aural piano tuners in the city. That means that, unlike digital technicians, who rely on electronic devices or phone apps, Bischoff uses only traditional tools – a tuning fork, a tuning hammer, mutes, and listening skills – to help pianos sing their finest melodies. His skill is rare and much sought after – Bischoff has tuned at nearly every concert hall in town and has hundreds of private clients, too. Quirky, passionate, and garrulous, Bischoff is the subject of The Secret Life of Pianos, a charming new documentary chronicling his craft and our city’s piano scene.
What does out of tune mean, exactly? What has happened to the piano to cause this?
Bischoff: Pitch is vibrations. The strings vibrate at a certain rate. If a string is vibrating at 220 times per second – 220 Hertz – and if you pluck that string, it’s A below middle C. If I have another string vibrating at 440, exactly double the vibrations, and you play them together, they’re exactly an octave apart and it lines up perfectly. One is 220, the one 440. It sounds crystal clear; it has no vibrato. That’s what we call “in tune.” But if one string is vibrating at 440 cycles per second and the other is at 442, one is going two faster than the other, and you’ll end up hearing constructive and deconstructive interference – wa wa wa wa wa – that extra two beats per second.
Think of two flashing lights in the distance at night. If they’re a bit out of time, they’ll flash together for a few seconds, but a few seconds later they’re exactly opposite. When they’re in sync it’s bright-black-bright-black. When they’re not, it’s this dim light. Sound waves are the same.
Which keys are most likely to be the culprits? Is there such a thing?
Bischoff: There is! Pianos have a head voice and a chest voice, just like humans. The bass bridge represents our chest voice and the long bridge represents our head voice, and right at the bass break, where the treble strings end and the bass strings begin, that’s always the most troublesome area in a piano. We have to make that voice blend, and the smoother that transition, the better the piano. The bass break is different on every piano, but it’s an octave or so below middle C, somewhere in that range, it can be less.
Where do we start? What note?
Bischoff: In North America, the pitch standard for tuning is A440. That means when I hold my tuning fork and strike it, it vibrates exactly 440 times per second and when I touch it to the piano, it sings A. Anyone who brings any instrument out in the orchestra will have it tuned to A440 as well. But Europe is pushing pitches higher. Today in Europe, some orchestras are tuning to A443, even A446. Bsendorfer is now designing pianos so they sound best at A443. Halls have gotten bigger and bigger, so pianos have gotten bigger and bigger. So instruments have to be louder, they have to project more, they have to be explosive. When pitch goes up, tension goes up and the instrument gets louder. Super old pianos have historical tuning temperaments and pitches – A420 or A425 – so everything is a little darker, warmer and smoother and tinier and sweeter.
What treasures have you found inside pianos?
Bischoff: A lot of dead mice, a lot of money, thousands of coins. There’s a saying: if you ever need a pencil or a pen, look inside your piano. Tea, mouldy unrecognizable things, paper clips, cat hair, guitar picks, music books, missing jewelry, and lots of mouse nests. Piano is mouse heaven! There is tons of felt to build their houses out of. Pianos have white, red, and green felt – but mice only pick one colour. One will have a green nest, the next will have a white nest, but you’ll never see a green and white nest.
Does every piano need regular tuning?
Bischoff: Some pianos will develop a beautiful memory. If a piano gets tuned a whole bunch in the first part of its life, the strings will sit in just the right spot. We can come back to tune the piano after three years and we’re just tweaking, because it has a beautiful memory in the wire, a kink in wire. And you can’t ever quite get that kink out, it really holds. It sits there in suspended animation.
Are some pianos beyond tuning?
Bischoff: Very much so. Tuning pins get loose, moving parts get seized up and broken, and to fix a piano like that costs more than a new piano so those become write-offs. A lot of big old uprights can’t be tuned. They’re stuck in a basement and you can’t get them out. They fall under the sledgehammer. There’s a big move to digital pianos for that reason.
Does the proliferation of digital piano technicians worry you?
Bischoff: I don’t feel threatened at all! It’s the wave of the future. It takes a lot more than just a visual assist to tune a piano. And tuning is only part of it. The touch and tone are ultimately more important than tuning and the digital devices are not much help there.