Unsung hero and star of the film Pianomania, piano tuner Stefan Knüpfer tells us about his search for the perfect keyboard sound
You've worked with a number of world-famous pianists. Which have been the most memorable to work with and why?
During the last 20 years I've probably worked with most of the world-class pianists. I couldn't single out one because with everybody there were exciting experiences which I'll remember for the rest of my life. Every pianist is different: everyone has his or her quite individual ideas and concerns about the sound and the way of playing. On the one hand these wishes result from their particular physiology and on the other hand from their different attitudes towards the music.
What exactly does your job involve?
A certain manual skill and above all ‘light hands’, as I call it, are a very important precondition. The fingers must be able to carry out the brain’s orders precisely. Having good eyes and of course being keen-eared is as necessary. However, most important is a vivid imagination and the absolute will to achieve something and to satisfy the customers. I don't make a distinction between a concert tuning and a tuning for a normal sitting room. There is only one best possible tuning, nothing else.
Yours is a job that takes extreme skill. What sort of training did you undergo to reach your level of expertise?
I began as an apprentice with Steinway & Sons, Hamburg. During this time I learnt how to build a piano or grand piano. After this I ran through all departments of the factory that are relevant for concert servicing. During these years I learnt above all to coordinate my fingers properly. Although I was also taught voicing and intonating, I learnt that properly when I left the factory and travelled as a kind of 'troubleshooter' around the world for the following years. It was then that I began to understand the different needs of customers who had problems with their new Steinway. And I learnt to solve these problems beyond the common standard. This was the ideal training for my current job as a concert technician.
Our press release about Pianomania describes you as an ‘unsung hero’. Do you think this film will help people to appreciate your and your colleagues’ work in future?
In my opinion the film is not aimed at increasing the acceptance for a profession. I could never complain personally, by the way, about a lack of esteem for my work, not even as an apprentice. No, for me it's the film’s aim to increase the acceptance for the necessity of good instruments on stage. Many concert presenters as well as concert technicians (and also the audience) only insufficiently understand the importance of an adequate piano. Often they don't understand that it's absolutely impossible to play a good concert on a bad instrument, whereas it seems to be perfectly reasonable if a singer cancels a concert because of a sore throat. According to my estimate 95% of all concert grands have a bad flu and are nevertheless on stage every evening. A nightmare for the pianists!
When you hear a concert that has a piano which is not exactly in tune, do you find you simply can’t bear to listen to it?
I love to listen to perfect instruments, even more if they are played by excellent pianists. If a less good 'pianist', however, plays a beautiful piano, it's almost unbearable for me to hear the instrument groaning and moaning under his heavy touch. Often, particularly if the instrument is more being hit than played, I have to leave the hall because an ugly sound causes a kind of physical pain. The same applies to recordings: I can hardly stand a bad piano for more than a minute before I need to switch off the stereo. In contrast good pianos – which one unfortunately does not come across too often – drag me into the loudspeakers.
Pianist Stefan Knüpfer working with comedy duo Igudesman and Joo
Interview by Jeremy Pound
Pianomania opens in cinemas across the UK from Friday 20 August. Click here for participating cinemas. The film follows Stefan Knüpfer, Steinway & Sons’ Master Tuner in Vienna, as he works with some of the world’s best-known concert pianists, including Pierre-Laurent Aimard.