The past four decades have been a memorable musical ride for Sally Phillips, putting her in beautiful concert settings far and wide.
She doesn’t play the piano, mind you. Instead, the North Carolina native and Columbus resident uses her fine-tuned skills to make certain that piano players and those listening to performances enjoy them to the utmost.
Phillips, 67, has been a piano technician since graduating from the North Bennet Street School in Boston in 1976. Her career has included work for the Kennedy Center, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic, the BBC Concert Orchestra, Alice Tully Hall and Town Hall in New York City.
“I’ve tuned for famous concert pianists, but your readers probably won’t recognize them,” said Phillips, who is the only authorized Steinway piano dealer in the area, operating out of her Piano Perfect store and workshop space at 6600 Flat Road Road in the Midland area of Columbus. Otherwise, customers and clients would have to look in Atlanta, Birmingham, Ala., Mobile, Ala., or Orlando, Fla., to find a certified Steinway piano and technician.
“The great thing about a Steinway is that they last forever,” she said.
Some of Phillips’ bread-and-butter work locally is serving as an independent concert technician for Columbus State University’s Schwob School of Music, which includes more than 70 pianos for the students learning there. She also rebuilds old pianos at her shop, with the tools of her trade including a radial arm saw, a standing drill press, a table saw and other and supplies such as glue and lacquer.
The Ledger-Enquirer visited with Phillips recently to discuss her job, the career she chose and how difficult it is to keep pianos perfectly tuned for the enjoyment of others. This interview is edited for length and clarity.
Q. How old are some of these pianos in here?
A. This one was built in 1901. (opens the piano top) I’m in the middle of restoring it. When they come in to me, they look really horrible. And this is from 1914. It’s not playable. It was in a storage area for 15 years, but people suddenly realized that it was of some value. So I bought it from them. It’s completely useless unless you rebuild it.
Q. So you bring them back to life?
A. This is what they look like after they’ve been restored. (opens a restored piano top) Everything is new in there. This was built in 1901. It took me about a year to do this one. One of my customers once asked me: Do you charge me for the time that the glue is drying? Well no, not really, because what happens is there are a lot of steps to this. There are 12,000 parts in here that have to be taken apart and put back together. There are a lot of times when I clamp something up and leave it overnight or for two or three days, or I shoot lacquer, I put on varnish or something, and it takes a week or 14 days for it to dry. Those are the kinds of things that sort of slow the process down.
Q. You work at the CSU music school downtown?
A. I’m an independent contractor and I’m not really a school employee, and I’ve been there for five years. I’m really a vendor for CSU. That’s why I usually go in between 5:30 and 7 in the morning and I work until about 9 or 10, because after that every single room is full and I can’t get in there. I tuned for over 300 concerts last year at the RiverCenter. That’s for the (Columbus Symphony Orchestra), everything in Bill Heard Theatre, everything in Studio and in Legacy Hall. And, of course, I’ve got two Steinway Grands in there. I just go in and do my thing when it’s nice and quiet.
Q. Have you ever tuned for well-known performers?
A. The people your readers will know are Stevie Wonder, James Taylor, Carly Simon or Barry Manilow or Herbie Hancock. Those are the pop people I’ve tuned for, but (also) people like Jimmy Swaggart and Mickey Gilley ... Today, 99 percent of my work is just strictly classical music.
Q. You get to meet those for which you tune?
A. Yes. Especially the concert pianists that I work with, I get to meet them all the time because they’ll come into the hall. If they’re working with the orchestra, they’ll show up on Thursday for a rehearsal. They will practice on Friday, get used to the piano and tell me what they want. I tweak the piano on Friday and they come in for a Saturday performance, and then leave town.
Q. Are some jobs easier than others?
A. Sometimes I have requests that take me 12 or 13 hours to do. I’ll spend all day and half the night trying to make something just like somebody wants it.
Q. Piano technicians are a vital part of the preparation?
A. We’re sort of part of the road crew, like the roadies that come in. They can’t do it without us. But we’re always sort of in a different little world. Most concert venues have people who are really knowledgeable and on top of things and really understand what has to get done. Other times, I get there and they have no clue how long something is going to take. Those are the more challenging things, where the pianist is asking for something that’s going to take four hours and they’ve given me an hour.
Q. You’ve seen a lot through the years, I take it?
A. I’ve been doing this since 1976, so this is my 41st year doing what I do, and it’s been really fun. I’ve had some really interesting things happen. Some of the stories I could tell you, you can’t print. Some of the wild things, like tuning for rock groups.
Most of the the big concerts, they pay me to stay through the concert in case something breaks, just like any roadie they would have for the lights and other things. They have to have someone for the piano, too.
Q. How far have you traveled for work?
A. I worked in New York. I was a Cincinnati Steinway dealer for years. I travel now all over. It’s not unlikely that I’m going to be on the West Coast. I worked for a German company for years, so I used to go to Germany all the time.
Q. You’ve been to virtually every state tuning a piano?
A. I don’t think I’ve been to Montana or North or South Dakota. But almost every other state, I’ve been there at some point. When I used to work for C. Bechstein (piano company) and I was their rep, I traveled the whole country. I worked on pianos in every concert venue where they had a concert grand (piano).
Q. You say the number of technicians are dwindling. Why is that?
A. Most training was done in piano factories, and today we really only have two remaining full-time piano factories in the country, either Steinway or Mason & Hamlin in Boston. So those training grounds dwindled. Before the Great Depression there were 3,000 companies around the country making pianos. Pianos are still in existence and they’re still used, and every church and school has one, but the places where they actually train technicians are disappearing.
It used to be that you could apprentice with someone. There used to be piano dealers … You might remember the days when you walked into a mall and there would be four or five piano dealers. There were dealers everywhere and young technicians could train with them and start to learn. Those opportunities have almost disappeared. So it’s very difficult to learn this on your own. Correspondence courses and the Internet don’t really help much because you really have to have someone with you to guide you.
Q. What does it take to be good at tuning a piano?
A. It’s a feel thing. It’s a hearing thing. It’s mechanical. It’s tonal aesthetics. You really have to master all of those areas. Any musician cannot just tune a piano. It’s a really hard thing because you have to set the pins, you have to deal with the mechanical aspects of the strings. There is 30,000 pounds of tension on a piano and if you don’t know what you’re doing you can start at one end and start tuning and by the time you get to the other end, what you’ve done is already gone. So you have to really make it hold. And to do what we call bulletproof tuning for concert work, you’ve got to be able to do a tuning that is not only really, really in tune, but it also stays through pounding. You don’t want the pianist to pound it out of tune.
Q. How long does a piano stay tuned?
A. Most of the concert grands at CSU, I tune them at least three or four times a week, if not everyday. They constantly need attention. Every time there’s a change in temperature or humidity, something moves a little bit. Even the mechanical parts move. That piano action (equipment with keys) behind you, that’s a machine that’s made out of wood. There are 8,000 parts in that piano action and the brackets are metal. So by the time you really account for every little thing and the temperature and humidity changes, all of that moves at least a little bit. That includes being under lights for a concert, being covered and put back stage. Maybe it’s a little cooler there than it is under the lights. It’s going to move enough so that you’ve got to start over the next morning.
Q. Do some projects take a longer than others?
A. A simple tuning on a concert grand is not a big problem. It takes about an hour, if it’s a piano that I’ve maintained all the time. If I show up to somebody’s home and they’ve not had it tuned in 15 years — the strings are all rusty, the parts all dry-rotted — the problem you have is you have to tell the customer that I don’t think this is tunable. What happens is if I start tuning and start snapping strings —which is likely to happen because the strings are all rusty and pitted — then the customer never quite understands that this is not the tuner’s fault. The real squirrelly part is I’m better off saying I’m not touching it. Customers in most cases are really not prepared to understand that grandma’s piano can’t be tuned anymore.
Q. How much does it cost to rebuild something?
A. Thousands and thousands of dollars. Like one of these jobs here, these are between $15,000 and $20,000 jobs. A big part of that is the parts. If I order an action from Steinway and install it, that’s about $7,000.
Q. That’s like replacing a major part on a car?
A. It’s like getting a new engine. And then if you have to put new strings in it, that’s $10,000 to $15,000, depending on what’s wrong with the sound board and what’s wrong with the bridges.
Q. Briefly, how did you get into this?
A. When I graduated from college I could have been a secretary, a nurse or a schoolteacher. Now in rare cases, some of my friends might have become lawyers, might have gone on to academia, might have taught at universities. There were those jobs, but not nearly as many.
So one of my friends suggested I do this, and I thought, oh, I’ll learn how to do this and it will be an income for me until I do something else. I loved it and ended up going to New York and getting a job, and it became more and more intriguing. At the higher level you get, the more fascinating it gets, because you may be tuning for a mostly Mozart festival and you really have to put your ear into the 18th century.
Q. It’s a constant challenge?
A. There’s huge challenge, especially the different repertoire. When you’re tuning for Mozart, it’s definitely different from Brahms. … In addition to that, there are the mechanical challenges of hearing a noise in the piano that’s not supposed to be there and tracking it down in an instrument thats only reason for being is to reproduce the sound of the string. So a squeak or a click or a buzz that is a loose screw or a sound board that’s come off the rim or something like that, those are the crazy things.
Hometown: Grew up in Salisbury, N.C.
Current residence: Columbus
Education: 1976 graduate of piano technology program at North Bennet Street School in Boston
Family: Husband, Gary Huffman, a retired Presbyterian pastor ordained for 50 years; and a grown son who is a tennis pro living in Florida
Leisure time: She enjoys cooking and riding her three horses
Of note: She consults frequently for colleges, universities and music professionals regarding concert piano selection, voicing and regulation. Her advice and commentary has been featured in several industry publications, including the Piano Buyer, The American Organist, and the Piano Technicians Journal