This piece is the first post from our intern, Rachel Cliff. She is a final year Mass Communications student at QUT, and crafted this profile about one of our long term clients, Brian Wilson, from Pianocare for her assessment. It was such a lovely piece that we simply had to share it on our blog. Thank you Brian for your generosity of time in allowing Rachel to interview you!
Piano Tuners are the unseen heroes of the musical industry. They come, they do their job and then they leave again, often fading into the background in the process. It is a thankless job, but for Brian Wilson, piano tuner to the stars, it is all he has ever wanted to do.
“Most people think that you have to have perfect pitch to tune a piano. In reality all you have to do is listen between the notes,” says Brian Wilson. Brian is one of Australia’s top piano tuners and he is always on the move, going where the music takes him. This can mean getting to the venue at 5am to tune a piano for a morning concert, or staying late into the night in readiness for a midnight performance. Being in the industry for 32 years, Brian has tuned for the best of the best including Simon and Garfunkel, Harry Connick Junior and Carrol King.
Whilst he may share the same name and passion for music with the Beach Boy band member, the similarities end there. With a fascination with the piano from a young age Brian, was one of those rare kids who wanted to learn piano. However, after years of practice he realised that he was not destined to be on the stage. Nowadays he can usually be found backstage ensuring that those who have the talent and passion to play at a professional level can play to the best of their ability.
It is a common occurrence for Brian to find himself tuning pianos in very different places. In the morning he could find himself tuning the doily covered piano of a little old lady who likes to tinkle out an old wartime tune every now and again, and in the afternoon he could be tuning for one of the stars. So when in 1992 when Brian received in a call inviting him to tune a piano in the penthouse suite of one of Brisbane’s ritziest hotels he thought nothing of it. Showing up at the place he was greeted by a bright old man who proudly showed off the castor cups that had been carefully placed under each leg of the piano. “He was concerned about the marks the piano was leaving on the carpet so he’d nipped down to the local servo and picked these castor cups to put under the legs,” says Brian.
As Brian got to work the man started cracking joke after joke trying to make Brian smile and to distract him. “Joke after joke after joke. I was being polite and trying not to laugh at this man, the silly old bugger.” Little did he know that this silly old bugger was the late Victor Borge, a world famous piano comic who had been attempting to give Brian a private performance of all his best material.
Brian is never truly fussed with who he tunes for; half the time he doesn’t even know who they are. He’s not there for the people only for the piano. The person is simply a channel through which the music comes. And this shows in his work. “The only difference between tuning a piano to concert standards on the stage and at home is the location,” says Brian. He believes that each piano is unique and brings out the special quality when he tunes, be it for a student or for a symphony orchestra.
On average, a piano tuner can tune up to five pianos in a day. Brian however takes his time to get every detail perfect. He aims to get faultless sound and action out of each individual piano – and he adjusts each piano to suit the person who will be playing the instrument.
“He calls the piano’s his mistress for the day. The amount of care he puts into tuning each one is astounding. He’s truly one of a kind,” said Ingrid Cliff, the woman in charge of putting the magic of Brian’s business into words.
In 2013 Brian was awarded a Churchill fellowship, which is a scholarship that rewards hard working Australian’s with the opportunity to travel overseas and learn new skills that are not readily available in Australia.
With this scholarship he elected to go on a whirlwind tour of some of the most prestigious piano factories across the world and undertake elite training only available in these few places in the world. He starting with a course on sounding and tones held by Steinway and Sons in New York. He then continued to Boston, then onto London’s Steinway Hall and finally Hamburg in Germany.
“Brian is the only man I know that can tell the difference in tone between a Steinway piano made in New York and one made in Hamburg. The difference comes from the felt used. New York Steinways use softer felt and sounds more like show tunes whereas German Steinways sound more like a marching band because it uses harder felt on its hammers. He’s one of the only men in the world able to tell the difference just by listening,” Ingrid said.
But as it stands, Brian is in the centre of a dying industry. With the rise of electronic keyboards and pianos the old upright or concert piano has become a unique item to see within a home. It is estimated that only 30% of Australian homes have a piano. And due to this decline, those who tune the pianos are slowly becoming obsolete.
“Piano’s used to be the centre of entertainment for the home but now thanks to television and the internet the focus has shifted,’ Brian said.
When Brian started in 1984 the industry was so much bigger, however as times changed those who were in the industry became very closed off and secretive with their techniques, resulting in a high level of competition and a thought pattern of money over quality. As it stands there are only 150 piano tuners left in Australia – most of whom are of mature years.
As the older generations begin to retire however, these skills are harder to learn and the places where you can learn the art and skill of piano tuning are dwindling.
“Today it’s very, very difficult, [to become a piano tuner]. The apprenticeship scheme is almost gone. Government training is not interested in us. And the only way now to learn the basics in Australia is a one-year training course in Melbourne. It’s a great course but unfortunately it’s twenty-five thousand dollars up front which puts it out of the reach of most aspiring tuners.” Brian said.
As the industry continues to shrink and become even more competitive, it’s good to know that there is someone like Brian who is there because piano tuning is his passion and he wants every piano to be the best that it can be – tuned to concert standard (even if it is covered in doilies).