Ken Cormier
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THE SECRET PIANOS OF MANHATTAN



.......................[11 min, 13 sec]

INTRO: [Piano music: Chosan plays from Schubert]

By some estimates, there are anywhere from 100-200,000 pianos on the island of Manhattan. At one point or another, they all need tuning.

[Piano music dissolves to sounds of the subway]

It's 10:30am. I'm on the Q train from Brooklyn to Manhattan with Patrick Penta. Patrick has been tuning pianos professionally for eight years now, the last five of those in New York City.

PATRICK: Well, the hotels are the worst, because they're always the worst pianos. They're beat, they're destroyed, and they're no fun to tune. When you spend an hour tuning with noise and people vacuuming all around you, it's horrible. Radio City Music Hall is kind of fun, because it's cool to be in the room, and the pianos are two gorgeous instruments. Some of the Broadway…when you get calls for… [fade]

An average tuning will take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour, but in New York City things tend to get complicated.

PATRICK: Every tuner would probably agree, studio and concert work is not their first choice. Not because it's hard. It's just…you have to deal with handlers, stage managers, annoying guys with headsets and clipboards, security. You know, even getting into Radio City is like, it's like you're going to the Pentagon.

[Sounds of arriving at Ronnie's]

It's 11am. We arrive at our first stop, an apartment building on 101st Street, near Broadway. Ronnie is a concert pianist who supplements his income teaching piano and tutoring math. When you walk into his ground-floor apartment the first thing you notice is the grand piano. Patrick sits down and opens his tool bag while Ronnie brings me to take a look at something in the open-air courtyard out back.

RONNIE: If you take a glance, you'll get to…there's something really special there. That's a Virgil Silent Piano, if you're familiar with that, it's basically an upright with no strings. It gives me 24-hour capacity. I can play under the stars, and play at night, and it also, for performance… [fade]

A ccording to Ronnie, on the silent piano you can improve the accuracy of your key strokes without relying on the sounds of mistaken notes, which can be a sort of crutch. Inside, as Patrick tunes, Ronnie explains that he also practices blind.

RONNIE: If you play with a keyboard covered in velvet, first of all it's a tremendous exercise in knowing where stuff is because you can't see anything. It forces you to relax and see your hands, because you can't see anything else. These white keys become much thinner, so it's really hard to get in. But the main thing is, if you…just touch that, right?...it changes your whole feeling. And if you touch the keys with it, it changes your muscles, right? And there are all kinds of cloths that I have. It forces you to…it changes your tone immediately. And then if you practice this for a little while and you do this mentally, and you cover the keyboard with this particular substance or that substance in your mind, you get different tones immediately.

[Piano music: Ronnie plays from Debussy's “Arabesque”]

[Dissolve to sound of climbing stairs]

It's 1:30pm. We had a quick lunch and traveled 40 blocks south down Manhattan 's West Side. Now we're climbing up five flights of stairs. This is a one-hundred-year-old building, the last of its kind in the neighborhood, and there's no elevator. At the top, we are greeted by Leon . He's been living here for 37 years and attributes his good health to walking up and down the stairs every day. The main hallway in his apartment is narrow, and the place is stuffed with art pieces, knick-knacks, and memorabilia, much of it music-related. Leon leads us to a parlor where he keeps not one, but two Steinway grand pianos. They're positioned diagonally, each facing opposite corners of the room, so that two players would sit with their backs to each other in the center. He also keeps a bust of Mozart in here.

PATRICK: So, what am I doing today exactly?

LEON: Well, you know, I haven't used that one at all because I like this so much, but…it's not the…the tuning of course, it's always out of tune, but…a little bit…not bad, though. But it's the voicing, really, that still bothers me, you know.

PATRICK: Still too dark?

LEON: It's not dark, but it's not that even in places, you know?

PATRICK: Why don't I go through and touch up the tuning, tune it a little, do some voicing to even… [fade]

LEON: And you have the piano and then you need the piano technician. You have to have one. I've got stories and stories about some of the big-name pianists and their technicians. I studied at…I took a course at Columbia. I heard about Robert Belanoff, Ruby Belanoff we called him after I got to know him. He had been at Steinway for four years after the second world war, that's how he became a tuner and everything, but he went out on his own, as most people do at Steinway, they start there and then they go out. He tuned for everybody, Horowitz, Rubinstein, Glenn Gould, Alicia de Larrocha. When they got here to give a concert at Carnegie Hall, or a recording session, they'd call for Mr. Belanoff, because he was just an absolutely fantastic, wonderful tuner.

Leon started playing piano as a child in Cleveland , and he often dreamed of making a career out of it. He's one of these guys who has done a million interesting things. He's taught science in publics schools, he's been a librarian, a property manager, and even a piano tuner. In 1958 he was drafted into the army, where he assisted with the Eva Baker Monkey Experiment, which put the first primates into space. He went on to become a computer programmer and in 1964 he moved to New York City to install the first operating system ever developed by IBM. But he hadn't yet given up his dream of being a concert pianist.

LEON: I came here to study piano, which I did. So that's what brought me to New York . And I was working full time putting the operating system in and practicing from 6pm to 10:30 every night. I wasn't even in a cab for a year. I wasn't off the island of Manhattan. I studied with Sylvia Rabinof. And after two years I found out how much work it was. I like to work, but, first of all it was too much work; secondly I thought I was too old. I was already…I had just turned 30. And most people, when they're 15, you know what it is, they play Brahms, they play anything, Tchaikovsky. And I thought, I really don't think I'm good enough. So I stopped.

[Piano music: Leon plays from Chopin, “Opus 25 Number 1 Etude”]

[Dissolve to subway sounds]

It's 3pm. We're getting off the 2 train in Manhattan 's Tribeca neighborhood. Soon we arrive at the loft apartment of Chosan, our final stop of the day. Chosan is a concert pianist who grew up in Vietnam and came to New York in her early twenties to study piano and performance. The first thing you notice when you walk into her loft is that the walls are completely covered with hundreds of drawings and painting of classical composers, all done by Chosan herself. I ask her what she likes about New York.

CHOSAN: I love New York! Oh! How could you not love New York? [laughs] I love it. Everywhere you go, it's like you meet interesting people, you know? And the best performances, Lincoln Center, Avery Fisher Hall.

When Chosan was a child in Vietnam, her father was determined that she should play the piano.

CHOSAN: Well, my father played classical guitar. So his dream was playing the guitar, and he…because of the war, he could not, you know, do it…follow up. So he used his daughter to continue his dream, I guess.

In the background, we're hearing a recording Chosan did last night with some of her friends and musical collaborators. She brings me over to the stereo to get a closer listen.

[Fade up music]

While Patrick gets underway with the tuning, I ask Chosan about all the paintings on the walls.

CHOSAN: Well, I was reading the life of all the composers, and when I stay here by myself, I just feel like, hmm, maybe if I paint their portraits, maybe they'll give me some of their life melodies. And I pray. [laughs] And I pray, you know? And maybe it works. Maybe it works. You never understand the universe. You don't really understand it. Very mystery, you know? When I'm alone with a candle at night, yeah I feel very connected to them.

She explains that painting is a creative outlet that relaxes her, but it's music that comes first.

CHOSAN: I can get drunk from music. Yeah, I don't really need wine to get drunk. I don't drink. But really, when you listen to good music, you know, oh my god, all of a sudden your face gets hot and you start talking like…like a crazy bird. [laughs] Do you want to hear a song…[fade]

[Piano music: Chosan plays an original composition]

End