Tuning for a TV shoot

I’ve tuned onstage for concerts, in schools, churches, and federal prisons, but last week for the first time I got a call to tune on the set of a TV production that films here (“In Plain Sight”). Naturally I was flattered, and looked forward to making connections and showing off my best work. Mike Kitt of Kitt Fine Pianos rented them a nice six-foot grand that I had tuned recently. I knew it was in good shape, so aside from the normal effect of stage lighting to make it go flat, I expected that the tuning should be fairly straightforward.

 

The call was for 7:00 AM, and the piano was to be delivered at that time. I would have two hours to prepare the piano before filming. The shoot was on location at an enormous local high school, and as I got near it, I got stuck in the line of parents dropping off students. I went around to the other side, and saw the rows of semis and trailers dominating the parking lot. This was a huge production! A sign pointed to crew parking across the street.

I parked, grabbed my tools, and headed over. A security guard directed me to the check-in tent, past rows of actor’s trailers. It was a busy scene of dozens of people scurrying around with gear, efficient and friendly. I was welcomed at the tent, and guided to a van where I was driven the auditorium on the other side of campus. I was introduced and led to the stage, which held an old oak upright. I didn’t see the movers anywhere, so I let them know that they’d soon be getting a nice full-sized grand. That’s when I learned the director had a change of heart! He didn’t think that would represent a typical high school, so he asked for an old school piano instead (he was right!).

A pianist was rehearsing, so I sat in the audience to wait my chance for tuning. An enormous twenty-foot-long camera crane was being assembled while risers were assembled and taped off to avoid reflections. Soon a group of young people gathered around the piano and rehearsed a song. A young woman’s melody soared over the others, and when she opened up, it was a powerful professional voice. I moved to see who it was. I didn’t recognize her, but I will certainly watch for her in this episode when it airs. The piano, unfortunately, sounded very much like a typical school piano, but overall in tune. I made a plan of attack when I had my chance to work on it.

In a few minutes, they finished and left the stage. As I opened up the piano, the AD told me that they would start filming offstage right away, so I would only have snippets of time between takes. We considered rolling it elsewhere to work on, but it would have to go far to avoid interfering with the shoot, and wasn’t practical. Everyone thought the piano didn’t sound bad, anyway. I asked for at least half an hour to touch up the unisons and do what I could, and they agreed. So I started up, and when the calls “Background!” and “Action!” were relayed, everyone froze in a prayerful position. I never did see any filming, but heard lots of it. When I heard “Cut!”, then I continued on for another few notes.

My goal is to prepare the piano as best as possible for its intended use, which usually means producing the kind of sound you hear on a recording. This once-over was just fine for the role this piano had to play. I even have a method of recreating that honky-tonk saloon piano sound (which is a specific kind of out-of-tuneness).

So they were happy with my work, and I had a fun experience. But I certainly don’t want to get any on-the-air credit for the tuning of this piano!

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