If the pianos played during the 2018 Cayman Arts Festival, which takes place this month, sound a little different than in years past, perhaps it is because someone else has tuned them. Wil Steward, who has done the job since the festival’s inaugural event in 2004, isn’t doing it this year.
“I would be, but I’ll be on a jazz cruise,” says the man who is an architect by day and a musician and piano tuner in the evenings and on weekends.
Piano tuning is a special vocation, one that is rare in the Cayman Islands but in high demand. It’s not surprising given there are 200 or so pianos on Grand Cayman. All of the schools and many churches have pianos and there are residents who own an instrument. All of them require regular tuning and Wil is the man who tunes about 100 of them, as well as a few overseas.
Tuning is no easy feat, either, and it takes anywhere from an hour to two and a half hours to tune one.
Wil’s interest in tuning started with a love of music and grew into a passion of its own. Originally from the west coast of Canada where he grew up on an apple orchid in Oliver, British Columbia, Wil played piano from a young age. After becoming an architect and a jazz pianist who performed regularly in Vancouver, B.C., Wil moved with his wife Pat to Grand Cayman in 1992. Wil immediately became involved in the music scene and even played at the earliest Cayman Arts Festival concerts.
He started tuning pianos to satisfy his own needs.
“I ultimately got into it to tune my own piano,” he says. “When I could change its tone, touch and volume, I noticed the ease with which I could then play the instrument. I became a bit more interested, started doing some reading and it went from there.”
Wil’s early attempts at tuning were not always successful — he even broke a string or two back then — but he didn’t give up. Rather, he experimented, working on older pianos and enlisting help from other tuners when he needed it. Then he started looking for a way to educate himself further and discovered the Master Piano Technicians of America, an association in the United States that enabled him to both learn and gain a qualification.
The first class Wil took was with one of the most well-known piano tuners and experts in the world, author of the most important books on piano tuning this century. Inspired further, Wil took on the job of editor for the organisation’s quarterly journal, enabling him to dive more deeply into piano technology.
“It went way beyond tuning,” he said. “I got into the way the instruments are manufactured, restored, sometimes modified to make them more playable, change their tone and touch.”
For his articles, Wil reached out to piano manufacturers Steinway, Bosendorfer and others to learn the latest innovations. Although essentially there has been very little change in the design of a grand piano since the mid 1800s, manufacturers are now implementing new materials such as carbon fibre and finding ways to improve the design. Wil is now pursuing his degree as a Master Piano Technician.
Tuning is no easy feat, either, and it takes anywhere from an hour to two and a half hours to tune one. Pianos have 230 strings in a steel or cast-iron framework that has between 30,000 to 40,000 pounds of tension from those strings, which means there are a lot of places where they can become destabilised. “Tuning pianos is often making the best of a bad situation,” says Wil. “I have to adjust for the in-harmonicity of the strings. Voicing the hammers is part of the work as well, to ensure they sound more even.”
Piano tuning has allowed Wil to meet many interesting people over the years. He has also boarded some visiting yachts to service their grand pianos (including two yachts, owned by Paul Allen, which sport a Yamaha and a Steinway, respectively).
Wil’s preference is to tune for concerts like the Cayman Arts Festival because they give him an opportunity to hear his own work. Tuning for concerts also presents more of a challenge as pianists often play demanding pieces. Ideally, Wil would like to tune even during intermissions to ensure the instruments remain at their peak during performances.
Other pianists and the Cayman Arts Festival continue to reap the benefits of Wil’s passion, but sometimes his own piano is neglected.
“My own piano is like the plumber’s pipe that is leaking,” he says. “I never get a chance to work on it. I’m always working on someone else’s piano!”