Beyond the stage and into the piano: Technicians work to repair, improve

Baylor piano technicians Darren Roos (front) and Jonathan Patterson (back) upkeep over 100 instruments for students to play. Kassidy Tsikitas | Photo Editor

By Tatum Mitchell | News Editor

Tucked away in Roxy Grove Hall and McCrary Music Building is an assortment of pianos, which is what someone may expect to find beyond the stages. But with about 200 pianos in daily use on campus, the instruments need consistent work and repairs.

That maintenance is the piano technicians’ forte: tuning, repairing, rebuilding and more. They oversee the campus pianos, with thousands of pieces making up each instrument. Head piano technician Darren Roos said there’s a lot that goes on behind the keys — 7,000-12,000 parts make up just the piano action, or
the “engine.”

“High-performance instruments will be tuned sometimes multiple times a week, depending on how frequently it’s being used,” piano technician Jonathan Patterson said. “The practice room instruments are usually tuned once per semester, maybe a touch-up in the middle of the semester as needed. And that’s just tuning; there’s regulation, there’s voicing, there’s all different categories.”

Pianos, on the outside, seem to be a collection of sleek black and ivory keys easily obeying performers’ hands. But despite this polished exterior, piano technicians utilize a multitude of tools and spend hours tinkering with the instrument to get it to where it needs to be.

“I like taking something that is kind of disordered and chaotic — and it’s maybe not functioning at its best — and making it to where it makes something beautiful. And I love hearing them play it after that. And hearing people enjoy [the pianos] once they’re in good shape,” Roos said.

Roos has been doing piano work for about 24 years and has been at Baylor since 2014. Patterson started in 2010 and came to Baylor in 2021. Their homebase at the university resides within Roxy Grove, a workshop with things lining the walls, scattered pieces of pianos and whiteboards overflowing with notes. In addition to their countless tools, Roos and Patterson have go-bags stuffed with the necessities — and extra — they take across campus or on off-site calls.

To coordinate what work needs to be done, they operate a system with QR codes around the practice rooms and hallways, and those reports go to the technicians via email. There are 11 practice rooms in Roxy Grove and about 40 in McCrary, and Patterson said during peak hours, all the rooms are full.

Communication can be tricky between a pianist and technician, partly because of differences in terminology and perspective, they said. The job of the piano technician is to communicate well with the pianist to interpret the needs and desires of the performer. With that information, the technician can make modifications to the touch, tone and tuning of the instrument, they said.

“In order to properly determine what is wrong with the instrument, we have to have a wide variety of measurement tools that allow us to get an idea of what kind of resistance these keys [have]. Say a pianist tells us, ‘Oh, my wrists are hurting while I’m playing this piano.’ It could mean a variety of different things,” Patterson said.

Tuning a piano can take an hour and a half or more, Patterson said. To better understand how tuning works, Roos said it helps to take a look at how a piano is structured.

“Tuning is specifically referring to adjusting the pitches of the notes so that they’re where they ought to be,” Roos said. “And the way that happens is by adjusting the tension on the strings.”

Patterson said it’s a series of levers, and each key is like a teeter totter. Inside a piano are a collection of wire strings stretched across a cast iron plate. The plate acts as a structure to hold the tension of the strings, which are activated by hammers through a series of mechanisms on each key. Roos said the tension of the strings is measured in “tens of tons of pressure.”

A dense, felt-covered hammer strikes a string when a key is played. The string vibrates at a certain fundamental frequency, along with a mix of harmonic frequencies. The resulting sound and pitch depend on the length, diameter and tension of the string.

“That’s what we’re doing when we’re tuning,” Roos said. “All of these wires are wrapped around these pins … that are adjustable. So, when we turn these pins on a tuning lever like this, we’re adjusting that tension up or down to get it to where the pitch is tweaked to where it needs to be.”

There are approximately 230-250 pins that need adjusting in order for it to be tuned, Patterson said. Also, the climate, humidity and level of use impact the tuning of a piano.

“Each note interacts with each other note in an interesting way … The whole string is vibrating, but it also vibrates in segments. These are what are called harmonics,” Roos said. “So, when you hear a sound, let’s say a C. You might imagine you’re just hearing a C, but you’re actually hearing a whole sequence of vibrations that are much higher than that, that are related to it, but less powerful. They all kind of blend in to make the sound that you hear.”

Aside from tuning and general repair, the technicians do regulation, which Roos said includes mechanics and voicing. Voicing, which is adjusting the tone, is often up to interpretation and preference, but it’s largely influenced by the felt hammer striking the string. The more separated the felt is, the warmer the tone will be.

“You’re making physical changes to the elasticity of the hammer by inserting these needles into different parts of it, and to some degree, you can’t necessarily bring it back if you go too far,” Patterson said. “So if it starts out more harsh, … you’re going in and you’re putting lots of holes and expanding the felt out. Then, it [can go] so far that it’s muffled and dead-sounding. One of the things we try to do is make sure we communicate really well with the pianist for what they’re looking for.”

In addition to work of that nature, they also give guest lectures in classrooms and do off-campus calls to help others understand how the instruments work. Outside of their workshop, they have an interactive example of what happens when you press a key along with explanations for different scenarios.

Beyond one musician, there are multiple factors that contribute to a successful performance or practice with a piano. And Baylor’s piano technicians put in work behind the scenes and on the instruments to contribute.

Patterson said it’s satisfying to bring something into order and understand how it works through smaller tweaks. Roos described working on pianos and doing maintenance on them as an analogy for life and relationships.

“In life, things can’t always be perfect, and you can’t manage things in a way to make everything perfect,” Roos said. “Because life is full of relationships, you can prioritize relationships so that we make sure more important relationships get higher priority and lesser important relationships, lesser priority. So even though everything can’t be perfect as we imagine it, everything actually works out to be quite beautiful because we prioritize and balance.”

Tatum Mitchell is a senior journalism and political science major from Chicago. She is starting her fifth semester on staff, and she’s on the equestrian team. The Lariat has been the highlight of her college experience. She’s looking forward to spending another semester learning from her colleagues and making memories in the newsroom. Before college, I was the Editor-in-Chief of a student newspaper and was on a competitive journalism team for news writing. I love designing, writing and everything about working on a student newspaper. Over the summer I was an intern at The Plaid Horse magazine. I wrote press releases, features articles, managed social media accounts and took part in a weeklong non-profit event for young equestrians. Combining my passion for horses and journalism was a great experience. In the future, I'm hoping to be immersed in the professional multimedia environment and eventually go to graduate or law school. I'm looking forward to another year on staff and learning alongside everyone!