Piano Doctor in the House

Classic Arts Features   Piano Doctor in the House
St. Louis Symphony piano technician Liz Baker reveals the keys to a long career.

Until recently, Liz Baker could be seen at all hours at Powell Hall up to her elbows in pianos. With her retirement as the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra's longtime piano technician, Baker leaves behind the backstage rigors of her craft, which have made for many moments of onstage beauty.

Playbill: How long have you been piano technician for the SLSO, and how did you start?

Liz Baker: Twenty-two years ago, Sandra Hyslop, wife of SLSO Executive Director David Hyslop, had me tune her personal piano. In short order I found myself down at Powell Hall tuning for a four-harpsichord concerto.

Playbill: How did you get your training?

Baker: After giving up a promising but dangerous career as a Mississippi towboat cook (by jumping ship at midnight in the Alton Locks), I enrolled in a piano-technician course in Denison, Texas. There were many years of private client work (on plenty of junky instruments); and then, as my skills and reputation grew, top-level training at Steinway in New York City, Baldwin in Aspen, Yamaha in Los Angeles, as well as working side-by-side with top New York technicians both here at Powell and in Marlboro, Vermont.

Playbill: What all is involved in the work?

Baker: Let me give you my top-five list:

1. Top-level performance tuning of all the Steinway Model Ds, which is the concert grand. This means very stable, bang-the-willies-out-of-the-keys tuning, often at top speed, with trumpet players warming up in the wings.

2. Pre-breaking parts: if something is going to break, it's much better that I do it, instead of Garrick Ohlsson, who can break a piano leg with a single blow.

3. Mechanical regulation of the pianos customized to the player‹faster repetition, more delicate touch, anti-gravity devices, whatever.

4. Customized voicing‹sound adjustment on each note or throughout the piano‹often for the individual composition.

5. Holding the hands of the artists, assuring them their every need will be met and that they'll sound magnificent.

Playbill: What's been your proudest moment on the job?

Baker: Early in my Powell Hall career there was a concert featuring ten pianos, in which I ended up as a page turner for Sara Davis Buechner. Leonard Slatkin, to my lasting shock and gratitude, suddenly gave me a solo bow for tuning all ten beasts in one 48-hour day with a nursing baby.

Playbill: What was your most embarrassing moment?

Baker: My very first performance tuning, back when tuning was all I did, at Principia College in Illinois. The visiting Russian pianist left a note in the piano reporting a "double-bouncing" key that occurred during very soft playing. In a sort of "Click and Clack Brothers Meets Rachmaninoff," the piano refused to show its annoying habit to me. But at the evening's sold-out concert, every single measure seemed to feature that evil key, merrily double-bouncing away. In the post-concert reception, Igor stomped across the crowded room screaming, "Vy didn't you feex dat note?!" as I sank below the table and considered waitressing as a career. Of course, now I could fix the problem in a heartbeat.

Playbill: Most likeable pianist?

Baker: There are many, but one candidate would have to be Richard Goode, the co-director of Marlboro. His wife Marcia and my husband, SLSO violist Chris Woehr, are old buddies. After a career-threatening injury, Richard's first orchestral appearance was with St. Louis, and it was wonderful to hear him come back to the performing world. His influence on Marlboro has been profound.

Playbill: What sacrifices have you made in your work?

Baker: Dinner with my family, my right rotator cuff, and low blood pressure.

Playbill: What are your plans now that you've left the SLSO?

Baker: Having dinner with family, fixing rotator cuff, and learning to quilt. I also want to market a class for pianists called "How to Talk to Your Piano Doctor." I have actually given this class many times quite successfully at Marlboro. The artists learn mechanics of the piano, how to recognize different problems, how to tune a unison, what are reasonable requests, and how to communicate them.

I will continue with other performance work around the city. I finally have the time for attention and care for my own business: new and old clients, action rebuilding, regulating, and voicing. My true love and expertise is in voicing. I feel as excited and involved in my craft as ever, and as any musician is in his or her own. Outside consultant work, which has already taken me to other continents, is something I'd like to pursue. Now that I see there are only so many tunings left in this battered body, I would like to teach and write more. There is easily enough material for a book. And, of course, attending my son Robin's chess tournaments, basketball games, and percussion recitals, or going for walks in Tower Grove Park with hubby, or naps with kitties. In fact, this last item sounds really good about now.

Nate Rowe is a St. Louis-based freelance writer.

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