Tuning a piano is an act of concentration. Steve Bovie plays a note and hears inside it.
“When I hear that note, I’m hearing something that is about an inch thick. It’s a piece of meat. The wider it gets, the more I can do with it,” Steve said.
Steve, 56, of Casper, has tuned pianos since the late ’70s. He is the tuner who will get the 9-foot Steinway grand concert-ready for Ian Hobson, guest artist for Wyoming Symphony Orchestra’s upcoming concert and a pianist who performs regularly with the world’s major orchestras.
Saturday’s concert will feature Beethoven’s piano concerto No. 4 and Fourth Symphony on the same night, just as the works were debuted together in March 1807, said Matthew Savery, music director and conductor for the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra.
Hobson will play the piano concerto on the NCHS Steinway.
“Concertos show off everything you can do on an instrument and the virtuosity of the person playing it,” Savery said. “This piece is very elegant and exciting, yet it is not a pompous concerto. This is really for a superb musician to play.”
To prepare the Steinway, Steve will tune it at least twice before the concert. He’ll play the piano harder than Hobson to ensure his adjustments hold. He’ll concentrate on each tone individually and each tone as part of the whole, preserving the temperament of the Steinway and its flow from one key to the next.
Like painting a car, you find the color you want and make sure it’s the same from the front to the back, Steve said.
Steve’s father, Robert Bovie, picked the NCHS Steinway personally.
Robert loved pianos. He retired as the NCHS orchestra director so he could tune pianos full time, Steve said.
Robert knew that the Steinway factory in Long Island, New York, plucked choice pianos from its assembly line and kept them in a crowded showroom. In the early ’70s, three Casper arts organizations — the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra, the NCHS music department and a now defunct group that worked to bring in guest performers —pitched in $3,000 each to buy a Steinway piano they could share. Robert flew to the factory and played several Steinways before picking this one.
Steinways are handmade, start to finish. A Yamaha piano will take 2 ½ weeks to build, a Steinway will take 13 months, said Steve, who is trained to tune both piano brands. Yamaha makes a quarter million pianos a year, Steinways make about 2,500. Craftsmen sign their Steinways like painters sign their canvas.
“No other piano plays like it. It doesn’t play like it, and it doesn’t sound like it,” Steve said.
“Steinways are the heirloom pianos. They are the ones you never sell outside the family.”
In 1979, Steve finished college at North Texas State and started selling pianos for Les Parsons. Casper was in the middle of an oil boom and Parsons had 40 to 50 pianos on his showroom floor.
On Christmas Eve, the store would sell six or seven Steinway grands, and an entire crew of workers would be waiting to take them to the customer’s house and tune them for Christmas morning. Oil men used to come in with wads of cash, some missing two or three fingers. Steve remembers one man counting out 100 $100 bills to pay for his piano.
Tuning was his dad’s thing, but his dad couldn’t keep up with demand.
Steve went to the Yamaha Little Red School House piano technician school in Buena Park, Calif. – an intensive one week program taught by, among others, Richard Davenport, a tuner of pianos for Hollywood movie studios and concert halls.
Steve still tunes by ear. Most others tune by machine. Steve thinks of it like painting-by-numbers, piano-tuning by math. Every piano is different, each has its own sound. Math can’t account for that, Steve said. Machine-tuned pianos sound like machine-tuned pianos.
For Ian Hobson, Steve will tune the Steinway again on Saturday after the last rehearsal. Hobson is a dynamic player, Steve said, and he will play that piano hard. Hobson may choose to give Steve notes, tweaks Steve needs to make to suit Hobson’s preferences.
Steve lives five minutes away from NCHS. Sometimes, he’s called in to fix something at the last minute. Once, a blind soloist didn’t like the sound of the Steinway, but couldn’t explain why. The pianist’s manager was going nuts, Steve said.
Steve noticed that the Steinway still had its music rack, the place where players set their sheet music. The blind pianist never used a music rack and was used to the strings’ vibrations blasting unobstructed from the piano to his face. Steve removed the rack and solved the problem.
Steve still tunes pianos, but his dad was the tuner of the family, he says. While Steve learned functional piano in college, people gathered to listen to Steve’s father play. His dad tuned pianos, including the NCHS Steinway, up until the last week he was alive.