How to Keep 1,500 Instruments Tuned and Toned

By Kerry C. Regan, October 4, 2019
Three full-time music technicians and 10 student employees go to great lengths to keep the IC School of Music’s vast collection of musical instruments in play.

From his not-quite subterranean piano repair shop on the lower floor of the Whalen Center for Music, Ithaca College’s lead piano technician Leonard Ostrander points out that the Steinway he’s working on is older than the college. The piano dates to 1887, IC to 1892. Was this Steinway among the Ithaca Conservatory of Music’s first pianos?

No confirmation has been found, but today that piano is one of nearly 1,500 instruments IC owns, giving the college nearly three times more instruments than it has music majors (about 550).

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

Ostrander is one of three full-time music technicians who are responsible for managing the collection, supported by about 10 students. Two of the techs — Ostrander and assistant piano technician Tom Sayers — work exclusively on tuning and maintaining the school’s 175 pianos. The third, instrument repair technician Neil Adams, manages repairs, maintenance and the 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.

So Many Pianos, So Little Time

Keeping the school’s piano population in good playing condition requires regular tuning, timely adjustments and repairs, and the occasional complete overhaul.

Both Ostrander and Sayers have many years of experience doing just that. Before joining IC in 2016, Ostrander ran the Ostrander Piano Service near Cleveland for more than 30 years, offering piano repairs and reconstruction as well as lessons. He has a bachelor’s in piano performance from the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and did graduate work in choral conducting at the University of Miami and in piano performance at the Cleveland Institute of Music. A tinkerer, he also invented and markets an automated hydraulic grand piano mover.

Sayers 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.

The two share a repair philosophy of restoring pianos to the original manufacturer’s specifications where possible, particularly for the 75 Steinway-made pianos. “Who am I to say to a company with 150 years of well-regarded piano building experience that I have a better idea?” Ostrander asks rhetorically. Well-maintained, quality pianos can be perfectly functional for a century or more, he noted, adding that 17 of the school’s pianos have reached that milestone. 

Tuning accounts for 60 to 70 percent of the team’s work, performed using traditional piano hammers to match pitch to targets sounded with apps on smart phones and iPads.

The music technicians work behind the scenes to keep the instruments performance-ready. (Video by Gabe Shakour ’18/Ithaca College)

One challenge is simply getting access to instruments that are in near constant use. So, they have a standing reservation at the Ford Hall performance space every day from noon-1 p.m. to tune and adjust the concert pianos. Student employees work out schedules for tuning pianos in faculty member studios every three or four weeks, and in teaching studios and classrooms every eight weeks. Pianos in student practice facilities are tuned every three months, on more of a catch-as-catch-can basis.

Small repairs can be made during tuning sessions, but others require a shop visit — a few days for parts replacement, up to two months for overhauls. Several surplus pianos are available to fill in when extended shop stays are required.

Finding a repair candidate is not difficult, Ostrander said: “There’s not a piano out there that we can’t spend half a day working on.”  

The Way to San Jose … and South Hill

Next door to the piano shop, Adams is responsible for 1,300 band and orchestral instruments, evenly split among woodwinds (clarinets, flutes, saxophones, oboes and bassoons), brass (trumpets, trombones and tubas) and stringed instruments (violins, violas, cellos and basses). Most are secondary instruments, but IC also has some top-rated instruments for concert performance and some exotic instruments like the oud, a Baroque stringed instrument, for specialty performances.

Adams, now beginning his second year at IC, spent most of his adult life honing his skills in music repair shops in Webster, New York; Dallas; San Jose; Los Angeles and Ithaca. On the West Coast he maintained high-end woodwind instruments for professional players, including smooth jazz star Dave Koz, as well as ’60s hit-maker Herb Alpert. He’s even done a repair for jazz icon Branford Marsalis.

Adams is skilled at making all types of repairs on woodwind and brass instruments, and he is especially adept at making professional-level adjustments to woodwinds, he said. He has less experience with stringed instruments, but can do basic maintenance, farming out larger repairs, usually to IC faculty member Dylan Race.

He spends much of his time maintaining the secondary instruments, with expectations that he’ll touch every instrument at least once a year. Part of his inspection process is to play the instruments — he is sufficiently skilled to sound at least two octaves on every brass and woodwind instrument.

Life expectancies vary by instrument. “Violins can function well with little work for 30 years, but a clarinet will have pad wear that will need attention in the first year or two,” Adams said, adding that when its physical parts can no longer be repaired, the instrument is replaced.

Some days can be hectic. Adams usually gets a handful of students and faculty each day asking for a quick adjustment to their instruments, which he usually does on the spot. Emergencies are not usual. A clarinet pad might fall out 10 minutes before a performance and replacement also means regulating the sound, a time-consuming process, meaning things can get tense. Whatever the need, he tries to help, once even hot-gluing a musician’ broken sandal strap.

“I love the energy and sense of community on campus,” Adams said, a sentiment he shares with the piano techs. “It’s a youthful, creative environment, and I really feel good about contributing to these students and to what they are doing.”

By the Numbers

1,500 IC-owned instruments

1,300 orchestral instruments

175 pianos (17 of which are more than 100 years old)

2 piano technicians

1 instrument repair tech

10 student employees

IC’s Music Techs Are Also Performers

IC’s three music technicians are also accomplished performing musicians.

Leonard Ostrander grew up playing piano duos with his older sister and sang barbershop quartet in high school before studying piano performance as an undergraduate and graduate student. A highlight was taking second place in a national piano duo contest paired with his now wife, Jeanette Ostrander, who teaches music theory at IC. Over time he came to believe he wasn’t a natural — concert preparation took him much longer than his fellow performers — so he gravitated toward teaching and repair.

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. He was a member of Ithaca-based funk-jazz band Sugar Moan in the 1990s and 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.