Tuned and Toned

By Kerry C. Regan, May 13, 2022
Two full-time technicians and eight student employees keep the School of Music’s vast collection of instruments in play—even during a pandemic.

The piano in retired music professor Carol McAmis’s office has a secret. The Steinway was manufactured in 1887, five years before the college was formed as the Ithaca Conservatory of Music. Was it among the first instruments owned by the college? No confirmation has been found, and the piano hasn’t revealed any clues, but today it is the oldest of the institution’s nearly 1,500 instruments.

The school needs the large inventory of instruments because half of the students pursuing a music degree are in music education, where leading a school band or orchestra requires familiarity with a range of instruments. So students supplement their studies on primary instruments with lessons on so-called “secondary instruments” from IC’s vast collection.

Two full-time music technicians are responsible for maintaining the collection, supported by eight student employees. Tom Sayers, IC’s piano technician, works exclusively on the School of Music’s 185 pianos, occasionally pitching in to help with the 20 or so other pianos on campus. His colleague, instrument repair shop manager Neil Adams, manages the repairs, maintenance, and lending process for about 1,300 brass, woodwind, and stringed instruments, as well as locker assignments for instrument storage. Theirs is a never-ending job—akin to painting the Golden Gate Bridge, which famously employs a staff of full-time painters—and the pandemic has only added to their to-do lists.

So Many Pianos, So Little Time

Pandemic or no pandemic, keeping the school’s piano population in good playing condition requires regular tuning, timely adjustments and repairs, and the occasional complete overhaul. Sayers has many years of experience doing all of those things.

He joined IC in 2015 after working for 10 years restoring vintage pianos at the Country Piano Shop in Burdett, New York. Before that, he was a full-time technician at Boston’s only authorized Steinway dealership, and received training in piano technology from Steinway and at the New England Conservatory for Piano Technology.

Tuning work accounts for about 90 percent of Sayers’s role, which is performed using traditional piano hammers to match pitch to targets sounded with apps on smart phones and iPads. Getting access to the pianos is challenging, however, because they are in near constant use. So Sayers works out a schedule at the beginning of each semester for him and his student employee. They tune pianos daily in concert halls and less frequently in other locations, which include classrooms, faculty member studios, and student practice rooms.

Small repairs can be made during tuning sessions, but others require a visit to the repair shop on the lower floor of the Whalen Center for Music. High-quality pianos that are properly maintained can function well for a century or more, Sayers noted, and 17 of the school’s pianos have reached that milestone. Indeed, several are now existing through a second pandemic, having also been present for the 1918–19 flu pandemic.

By the #'s

1,500 — Ithaca College-owned instruments

1,300 — Orchestral instruments

185 — Pianos

1 — Piano Technician

1 — Instrument Repair Shop Technician/Shop Manager

8 — Student Employees

No Instrument Plays Second Fiddle

Next door to the piano repair shop, Adams maintains 1,300 band and orchestral instruments, which are evenly split among the woodwind, brass, and stringed variety. Most are secondary instruments, but IC also has some that are highly rated for concert performances and some, like the oud, a Baroque stringed instrument, for specialty performances.

Adams joined IC in 2018 after spending most of his adult life honing his skills in music repair shops in Webster and Ithaca (New York), Dallas, San Jose, and Los Angeles. On the West Coast, he maintained high-end woodwind instruments for professional players, including smooth jazz star Dave Koz and ’60s hit-maker Herb Alpert. He’s even done a repair for jazz icon Branford Marsalis.

Adams is most adept at making professional-level adjustments to woodwinds, he said, and also does well with brass. He has less experience with stringed instruments and usually farms out larger repairs to IC faculty member Dylan Race.

Though Adams spends much of his time maintaining secondary instruments—generally inspecting and testing the playability of each of them at least once a year—some days can be hectic. When on-campus classes are in session, he usually gets a handful of students and faculty each day who ask for a quick instrument adjustment, which he usually does on the spot. Emergencies are not unusual. A clarinet pad might fall out 10 minutes before a performance and, as replacing it also involves the time-consuming process of regulating the sound, things can get tense. Whatever the need, Adams tries to help—once even hot-gluing a musician’s broken sandal strap.

A Pandemic Interlude

That spirit of being ready to help in a crisis has served Adams and Sayers well during the pandemic. As they are both considered essential workers, they mostly continued to work on campus, even when studies were being conducted remotely.

For Sayers, the pandemic response was fairly straightforward, with sanitizers and air purifiers available in every piano room and those who played the pianos responsible for disinfecting them after they were done. A few of the special accommodations made in Sayers’s area included shipping electronic keyboards to students’ homes and delivering an actual piano to the apartment of an international student who had remained on campus as the college pivoted to remote instruction.

The pandemic’s impact was more intense in Adams’s area, where he works on instruments that are played by breathing into mouthpieces, making the airborne transmission of the coronavirus a continual risk: “The threat of catching a potentially fatal disease was certainly on our minds,” Adams said.

To sanitize instruments that come through the shop, Adams built an ultraviolet light box that is capable of sterilizing items over the course of several days. He also uses a variety of disinfectants, and sometimes completely disassembles instruments to ensure proper cleaning—adding considerable time to his routine.

The pandemic also unleashed a series of fire drills on Adams’s operation. Many students hadn’t emptied their music lockers when they left campus for spring break in 2020. So when the college suddenly moved to remote learning, Adams handled the logistics of returning the contents of about 300 lockers to their owners, a process that lasted into the summer. Most students returned to campus to pick up their locker belongings during socially distanced appointments.

Then came preparations for remote learning in the fall 2020 semester. Adams shipped and even personally delivered a few hundred secondary instruments to students. “I think I purchased every available box in the city of Ithaca,” he said.

“I love the positive energy and sense of community on campus. I missed it. It’s a youthful, creative environment, and I really feel good about contributing to these students and to what they are doing.”

Neil Adams, instrument repair shop manager

Finally, when students returned to campus for in-person learning, many of them had to catch up on their secondary instrument work, straining the school’s instrument capacity and forcing Adams to take some out of retirement, among other adjustments.

The result? To date, Adams and Sayers are not aware of any COVID-19 cases tied to the college’s handling of music instruments and locker assignments. Of course, the pandemic isn’t over yet, but Adams and Sayers are glad to have students back on South Hill.

“I love the positive energy and sense of community on campus,” Adams said. “I missed it. It’s a youthful, creative environment, and I really feel good about contributing to these students and to what they are doing.”

Tuneful Techs

Getting to know the Ithaca College music technicians

Tom Sayers began playing guitar at age 12, then piano, and played in a rock band while in high school. He left his studies at Rochester Institute of Technology to tour with a school assembly music program and later joined a cruise ship band. A member of Ithaca-based funk-jazz band Sugar Moan in the 1990s, Sayers continues to perform occasionally with his wife, Jennifer Middaugh ’94, among others. Studying piano tuning at the New England Conservatory is what put him on a path to his piano technician career.

Neil Adams grew up playing guitar, attended Monroe Community College as a music major, and, for most of his career, has played weekly jazz and classical gigs at restaurants, weddings, and private parties. (He and saxophone player Marc Devokaitis are the answer to the trivia question, “Who played the final performance at the Rongovian Embassy in Trumansburg?”) Adams has performed less in recent years, focusing more on recording and composing.

Do they ever play together, you ask? Yes! With Sayers on keyboards and Adams on bass, the two IC music techs get together occasionally with a drummer and guitarist performing original funk, jazz, rock, blues, call-it-what-you-will music—on instruments that are, you may be rest assured, impeccably well tuned and maintained!