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Wherein forces beyond a mere mortal tuners control conspire to make his life utterly miserable.

OR

The Most Disastrously Terrible Concert Tuning Of My Entire Career.

***

So, if ya don't know what the Buena Vista Social Club was/is, you can catch up here.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buena_Vista_Social_Club

At the time of this story, they were a huge big global deal. Every latin jazz hipster in the world just had to see these people play live. Most were very very old and had a finite number of concerts left in them (quiet part out loud). There was no such thing as a BVSC concert that was not instantly sold out and standing room only. Anywhere in the world. Filmmakers were competing for the right to make a documentary about them. They were, for a period, the hottest concert tickets on the planet.

Somehow, someone in Santa Fe managed to book them for a concert here. When tickets went on sale, they sold out in minutes. They were going to play in the largest indoor seating capacity venue in town, which unfortunately for me, meant the convention center downtown, that was part of the municipal city hall complex.

And that meant that my client (as in whose name was going to be on the check) was the Santa Fe city government. The same people in charge of fixing the potholes were going to be in charge of managing the hottest cultural social event in years, involving a massive big jazz band from another country, composed mostly of geriatric jazz masters that spoke no English, some of whom were having ongoing visa issues. This was going to set a record for the biggest indoor audience for a musical event in the city's history. And the people that handed out trash permits were in charge.

That shiver of dread that just went up and down your spine? Justified.

At the time no one tuner had the contract for the city, when the city needed one of their horrible rotten no good piece of garbage baby grands needed tuning. A random employee from a random city office would call a random tuner out of the phone book and set things up. I drew the short straw and got the gig.

The city had two pianos, one being a low quality Howard 5' 2"-ish sour-tone-generator, a terrible terrible piece of junk, and an even shorter piano shaped object, maybe 4' 10", that had no identifiable manufacturer or purpose for existing. Other than tuner torture and humiliation.

I'd tuned both before, (for classical gigs I wish I, and I'm sure the pianist, could forget), and no, just no. Not for this show. Please.

I begged and begged the city to not be &*^$)@ cheapskates and spend a grand renting a real grand, the show was sold out and the tickets were astronomical and they knew they were going to make some coin off of this show.

My contact commiserated, but no go. Someone had actually *codified into city ordinance* that all shows held under city auspices had to use city owned pianos. Of which at the time there were two, one merely very bad, the other designed by sadists who hated music and pianists and audiences and above all, tuners.

(By contrast, the real concert orgs in town were drowning in world class 9' Steinways and Bosendorfers and Bechsteins and Yamahas...)

There was a brief window in which I could have walked away, but no. I wanted very much to see the show, I wanted very much to have the tuning for this band on my resume, I'd already told everybody I was the tuner, and as always needed the money.

The city had peculiar views on piano maintenance, ie, they only needed maintenance when a non-piano playing beaurocrat randomly decided they needed it, ie, could convince their boss the expense was justified, ie, never.

Technician input? Surely you jest!

It was also apparently city policy to lie baldfaced to all tuners about... well, everything.

"Of course you can come in the day before and pick which piano to use."
"Of course you can tune the one you pick the day before in case it's flat."
"Both pianos were concert tuned just last month, nothing to worry about."
"You'll have all the time you want the day of the show."
"Of course it will be quiet while you tune."

Arrived the day before to pick the Howard and try to get it somewhat musical. No one with a key to the storage room could be found. My contact was unreachable. After an hour wandering the corridors of city hall (this was pre-cell-phone) trying to find someone that could help I gave up and went home and just counted on getting there super early the next day and doing however many tunings it'd take.

Got there early the next day, only to find massive onstage activity, a jillion instruments and people doing sound checks etc.

And no piano onstage yet. That's fine, lots of time. They knew to bring the Howard and not the no-name. Guessed how long till they get the piano onstage, go have lunch to kill time.

Come back, the 4'10" no-name is on the stage. No one around to swap them out, and no time to anyway. They're still setting up. It's a huge freaking band. OK fine, I'm a pro, I'll deal.

Manage to squeeze in onstage enough and not trip on stuff to check the pitch.

40 cents flat in the middle, 60 in the treble.

(&^&%#^%$%&)

Now it's hang out in the seats time, waiting for the first chance to get my toolbox onstage and frantically begin a pitch raise.

By the time that happens, there's just under three hours left before the gates open.

OK fine, that's still barely enough time to do a fast pitch raise and a fast (kinda sorta) tuning and some last minute unison touchup.

Get my mutes in finally, hit my Deagan bar to set the pitch, and steel my nerves to work at warp speed for the next three hours and ignore the voices of doom in my head.

Suddenly, the hall is filled with a roaring. I can hear nothing coming from the piano.

A small sqadron of four janitors had entered the hall with industrial vacuum cleaners and were going down the four main aisles and getting the carpet clean.

I looked at the carpet and yep, it was filthy, totally unacceptable if I'd payed big bucks for a ticket for the biggest concert in city history.

That carpet had to be cleaned, but someone had decided that during my tuning time was the best time to do it.

Oh crap.

Sat for a couple minutes trying to calculate in my head when they'd finish based on feet of aisle per minute. Not good.

Tried to tune anyway. Part of my training in school had been to literally tune while a loud vacuum cleaner was next to the piano. (Yes, my school was awesome.)

No luck, this was far louder.

Jump off stage with the intent of begging the janitors to work as fast as they could. Turns out none of them spoke English well enough to understand my request. So they just kept on working at a relaxed clip.

Find someone walking by to translate for the janitors. They look at me funny once they get it, and just keep on vacuuming at the same pace.

OK, now 2.5 hours till the gate opens, the piano is still catastrophically flat, I haven't even STARTED, my rep and sanity are on the line, what do?

Only thing I could think of was to run up and down the halls and hope to find someone I could quickly explain to that massive disaster was imminent unless I could get nonstop silence from now till the gates opened.

I'd have to convince them that the piano being in tune was more important than the carpets being clean.

And they'd have to have the authority to act on that, and this had to happen soon, the clock was ticking.

I cannot find such a person. I return to the hall. The carpet is about half done. The tuning hasn't started. It's still a quarter step flat. There's less than two hours left till people flood the hall expecting some world class music. Every music reporter from every media outlet will be there and submit stories the next day.

I begin to really freak out. For the first in my career, I can feel tears welling up.

I hop back onstage and try to tune anyway, pounding the notes loud enough to hear over the vacs and trying to tune before the decay is drowned out by the noise. Somehow I manage to do the worst sloppiest pitch raise of my life in about 1/2 hour. It still sounded horrific, but at least it was in the A-440 ballpark.

There's about 1.25 hours till the gate when the vacuuming stops. Still salvageable. Not gonna be a tuning to brag about, but maybe escape with my life.

Begin to start a "fine tuning" (yeah right), and suddenly, the massive AC system that cools the hall turns on. Yep, the hall was too warm. It needed the AC.

Oh crap.

A fine mist of white noise blankets the hall, covering the piano and obscuring all the but the loudest lowest partials from the no-name 4'10" thing that had just been pitch raised a quarter step, and there's an hour left, and the notes I'd just tuned were already dropping like rocks.

Begin to do my best under the circumstances, but then someone from the city comes up to the stage and informs me that the gate is going to be opened earlier than I'd been told, and I have about 1/2 hour before I need to done and off the stage.

I'm still trying to set an acceptably not-horrible temperament over the noise of the AC. The no-name beast has jumpy pins, and the pitch is dropping like a jet whose engines have died.

The odds that a majority of my most important clients will be in the audience tonight are excellent, and the odds I can keep them from knowing this was my tuning are low.

For the first, last, and only time in my career, I lose it, publicly totally lose it.

I begin to wail and scream. Tears are running down my face, I'm now sobbing uncontrollably. I throw my tuning hammer into the hall and hit a chair 100 feet away.

I sit sobbing for a few minutes in an empty but soon to be packed concert hall.

I stop, run and get my hammer, and do emergency battlefield triage.

Only the worst octaves.

Only the worst unisons.

Focus on the middle, the ends are hopeless in the time left.

It's only about which wounds are leaking the most blood.

I have never tuned at that speed or made calculations so fast in my life.

I hear noise, look up, the gates have opened, people are streaming in, and I'm being frantically motioned to get the heck off the stage.

I exit sideways to backstage, where the musicians and others are massed.

I beg the first person who speaks English to find the pianist so I can talk to him.

Find him, get someone to translate.

"I am so so so SO very sorry, but the tuning is HORRIBLE, the piano is HORRIBLE, and I am so so SO sorry!!! I wanted to warn you!!!"

It's pretty obvious I'd just been crying and was still not OK.

He looks at me with great compassion.

He replies. The translator says that he said that he understands completely, and he'll be careful not to play any solos tonight, and will even pull back and take care to not stand out too much over the other musicians.

He gives me a long hug, lets me go, and winks at me, like it'll all be OK.

And that is exactly what he did.

All night, whenever I thought I detected some tuning foulness, he'd pull back and play more quietly. In sections where the others would look at him to take a short solo, he'd decline, they got it, and someone else would solo. He managed to find the handful of actually in tune notes, and play brilliantly musical ostinato patterns that worked perfectly. He did all that in a subtle way such that no one but me knew there was a problem.

The concert was a smashing success that got rave reviews, no one noticed the piano one way or another, and I dodged a career killing bullet only because an old Cuban jazzer was on the ball and had a heart.

And that was the LAST time I tuned for the city!!!

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Wow, sorry to hear. Glad the pianist 'got' it.
Sort of reminds me hearing Franz Mohr speaking at a PTG convention of his experience tuning for a concert with Michelangeli playing. He said Michelangeli kept playing the piano on stage up until a couple minutes to curtain time. He said he no time to do much at all.

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Was that Ruben Gonzalez?


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Originally Posted by joggerjazz
Michelangeli kept playing the piano on stage up until a couple minutes to curtain time. He said he no time to do much at all.

OUCH.

That's even worse.

YIKES.

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Originally Posted by BDB
Was that Ruben Gonzalez?

Had to Google his photo and YES!!!! Pretty sure that's the guy!!! smile

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I tuned for the group several times, under much better conditions, although security was tight the first time. After that, everyone sort of relaxed. I do. not remember many of the musicians, except that one of the concerts was on Ibrahim Ferrer's birthday. Those musicians could eat, so sometimes there was not much left for me, as I tuned while everyone else had dinner.


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Originally Posted by BDB
I tuned for the group several times, under much better conditions, although security was tight the first time. After that, everyone sort of relaxed. I do. not remember many of the musicians, except that one of the concerts was on Ibrahim Ferrer's birthday. Those musicians could eat, so sometimes there was not much left for me, as I tuned while everyone else had dinner.

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What a story. Terrible that you had to go thru with that experience. I'll have nightmares tonight.
Thanks for sharing. You done the best that anyone could do.

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Another wonderfully told story Old Square...those moments in life when you expect anger, but instead receive compassion and understanding are pretty precious...

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Great story!! It feels like a nightmare which makes for a great read at 3 in the morning in Alabama. Well told! What you described is why I don’t do event planning.There are too many forces beyond your control! I can feel the passion for your craft.

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Originally Posted by MarlaJackspiano
Great story!! It feels like a nightmare which makes for a great read at 3 in the morning in Alabama. Well told! What you described is why I don’t do event planning.There are too many forces beyond your control! I can feel the passion for your craft.


Thanks!

That was truly the single worst gig in 40 years of doing this. I've no stories of any jobs that were worse.

It was like cosmic forces were conspiring against me, and each time I adapted to one setback a worse one was set in front of me.

I have no such literal belief, it was all just pure dumb coincidence of course, but at the time...

The thing that made it SO nightmarish was that I knew with absolute certainty, that quite a large number of my very best clients, including one for sure, and possibly two Oscar winners, and at least half a dozen Grammy winners, WERE going to be in the audience.

No amount of explaining the sequence of bad luck was going to convince them of anything, they all had a choice to call someone else if they thought I was at fault for a horrific tuning for such an important gig.

THAT thought is what caused me to throw my tuning hammer, which was the sole, solitary, singular moment I'd EVER lost my composure while at a job.

Were it not for the pianist working with me, selflessly being willing to be quasi-absent that night as it were as a star, that might have been the last concert gig I ever did.

WHEW!!!

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My palms began sweating, just reading this.


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As just an avocational technician, but huge jazz fan, I really thank you for sharing this story.

At least being a jazz concert, the pianist (being as good as he was, both as a musician and as a human) could do what he did and nobody noticed. I don't want to even think what would have happened if it were a similarly famous classical event (even though probably a classical orchestra would not have put themselves in such a unknown venue)

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I once tuned a piano something like a day before some classical pianist who was too full of himself was going to play, and he insisted that I had to tune it again before he played, but I was booked then. He could have booked me earlier, and I might have been able to squeeze it in, as I recall, but it was too late by then. In any case, he ended up cancelling the concert. The manager of the venue did not care, as they got paid anyway, and I did not care, as I got paid, too. It was not like it was anyone that important. That piano does not go out of tune much, and it would have been fine. A while ago, I looked on YouTube for videos of that piano. I found one from almost 50 years ago, before I started tuning it, and it was poorly tuned, probably worse than it has ever sounded since I started tuning it (barring the times I had to replace strings because of broken agraffes). The pianist then was Erwin Nyiregyhazi. Of course, he was long past his prime by then.

Jazz pianists tend not to be so picky. Their road managers, on the other hand...


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That was quite the experience and you, sir (madam?), have a way with words.

Thank you for sharing your story with us.

Jeanne W


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