Kaufman’s Steinway Gets Tuneup from a Real Piano Man
Excerpt from Mining Journal, 4/13/2001
By A.M. Kelley
In the 1920’s George Gershwin chose a Steinway piano for one of Marquette’s most notable families, the Kaufmans, and had it shipped from New York City.
Michael Hoffman tuned this very same piano, a concert grand, last week in its permanent spot on the stage of Graveraet Middle School’s Kaufman Auditorium.
“It was one of two in the Kaufman home. The other one is older, and I think it is still at Granot Loma,” he said.
Since beginning his profession as a piano technician in 1982, Hoffman has tuned 15,178 pianos. He said watching a tuner work is as boring as watching grass grow, but Hoffman, 48, is a good storyteller, and his stories are not boring.
For instance, he said the Kaufman piano was made during the ‘golden age of Steinway’ when the companies factory had an experienced work force.
“They had a lot of German and Czech workers,” he said. “And materials were abundant. There was a lot of good wood, solid spruce, and 40 percent of the wood that came to the factory was discarded. It didn’t meet their standards.”
Spruce vibrates more and picks up more energy, he said. That’s why the best violins, cellos, and piano soundboards are made out of spruce. The strings in a piano are stung on a large cast iron plate over a large piece of wood. This is the coundboard.
He and his wife Denise have operated a piano service business for 19 years. She maintains the books and does some repairs in the shop, including replacing worn or missing ivory keeps. Since walrus and elephant ivories are now protected substances, a durable plastic called ivorine is used.
Hoffman’s mother was the musical force in his family. His two older sisters were forced to take lessons, and they didn’t like it. When his mother gave him a choice, he declined because he felt he would be labled a sissy. So he didn’t take lessons as a child but he taught himself how to play.
“I sat at the piano and made noise as long as I can remember,” he said. “I learned paterns.”
At 25, Hoffman took a course in music theory, and began two years of piano lessons, the extent of his formal music lessons.
His wife was his conduct into the business. She managed a music store in Marinette, Wis., and he used to buy music there. His boss, a piano technician, eventually took Hoffman on as an apprentice.
“I had to sit and listen to him tune pianos all day,” he said. “Then you have to get a lot of tunings, 500, under your belt before you sell yourself. It takes a long time to get established. Until you put out a good tuning, you shouldn’t go into anyone’s home.”
Now he is a registered piano technician, one of 2,500 in the country who are licensed by the Piano Technicians Guild. They hold a conference in Reno each year, have classes, update skills, and meet the big manufacturers.
Hoffman said tuning is not just a matter of having a good ear. There are many devices to help the ear.
“It’s muscle,” he said. “Those strings have to stay put. It’s a muscular thing more than an ear thing. It’s like seasoning too much. It’s easy to go too far.”
The piano tuning business is steady. He’s had a contract to service Northern Michigan University’s pianos for 11 years. and works in many private homes, churches, and schools all over the Upper Peninsula.
Changes in humiditychange the pitch of a piano. It will go flat in dry weather and sharp in moist weather.
“This time of year is an easy time of year to tune if I’ve been tuning (the piano) all alomg,” he said.
What a musician plays also influences whether the piano stays in tune.
Recorning artist George Winston played the grand piano at Kaufman Auditorium and played it harder than anyone else Hoffman has ever tuned for. Winston also was more demanding than any other performer, sending four pages of directions for the tuner and his own tuning chart, Hoffman said.
“He’s a master of sound and tone,” Hoffman said. “He takes a wide octive tuning. He likes almost pure fifths. He knocked out three notes that night,” Hoffman said. “He loved this piano.”
Apparently Winston admired Hoffman’s tuning technique.
“He asked for my tuning chart,” Hoffman said.
When he finished his work on the Kaufman piano that day, he tested his product by playing a beautiful Chopin etude to 800 empty seats.
“I would not call myself a pianist,” he said. “I’m more comfortable behind the scenes.”