Rupert Frost shows us round his piano shop, as we delve into the intricacies of pianos and piano tuning.
Rupert greets us on the ground level of his shop, shakes our hands, and invites us up for a coffee. We happily accept and follow him upstairs.
We meet a grand at the top, a shining black Ritmüller, before we turn to see the other pianos, a diverse array, occupying the rest of the floor.
We’re not the first interviewers to visit, Rupert tells us, as he makes our coffees in a kitchen neatly tucked behind the Ritmüller. Only recently Hitchin TV had come to ask about ghost-sightings, he says with a grin. Not fazed himself, apparently others working in the shop had seen a Victorian man with a female companion; top hat and all.
It’s imaginable, given how the building itself looks much older than Victorian; its grand wooden support beams contrasting the gloss of the pianos. Yet there’s a homeliness to the building – perhaps because of the pianos, possibly because of Rupert’s own sense of place – that forbids such association.
Rupert hands us our coffees and, noticing our eyes wondering at half a dozen hanging violins, mentions how Nick, a local violinist, sells them from the shop. Violinists usually need pianos too, he adds with a smile.
Below the violins, there’s a table with wooden models. They’re piano keys, Rupert shows us. Though flimsy looking, they can work for decades without needing repair. There’s nothing high-tech in them; it’s literally wood, metal pins and cloth; held just at the precise tension to make the mechanism work. They’re in all of these, Rupert says, with an open gesture towards the floor of pianos.
Prompted by the variety, we ask if he has a favourite. Many, he says. Rupert swaps out a piano roughly every 6 months to take home. Always an upright; from a cracked-frame 100-year-old keyboard to the latest Japanese model. ‘A guitarist wouldn’t just have one guitar, nor a violinist just one violin; so why should a pianist?’
‘I’m not a big piano player though,’ he says. Laughing, he adds that the highlight of his musical career was playing the bass guitar for Lister Hospital Radio. More seriously, he explains his real love is building pianos. When he was young, he used to take apart and rebuild his mother’s piano, to her annoyance.
His awareness of the piano’s crafting becomes apparent as we gather around the grand Ritmüller’s opened body. Rupert points to the spruce sound-board underneath the brass and strings of the piano. This is the big difference between a great and inferior piano these days, he says. The longer the spruce is grown for, the denser its grains, facilitating the sound waves’ travel throughout the board.
Rupert has to take a phonecall, and retires to his office on the other side of the floor. Piano players ourselves, we take the time to test the pianos on show.
‘Every piano is different,’ Rupert says, returning. Every pianist too, he explains, as he notices us taking a particular liking to the crisp, bright tones, and satisfyingly weighted keys, of a small Yamaha upright.
Continuing, he recounts the story of a customer who bought an old Victorian piano. Beautiful, but so out of tune, Rupert was going to scrap it. Yet this customer loved it. He played Scott Joplin and other classics, and he wanted a piano that sounded like the era’s.
Rupert hasn’t returned to tune it: his customer says it gets better every day.
Bearing this in mind, Rupert’s appreciation of, not only the tuning of the piano, but how it sounds to every subjective ear, becomes manifest. He knows violinists tend to prefer a piano’s upper ranges tuned to what a pianist would find sharp. He uses tuning metres sparingly because they don’t account for the different acoustics of whatever lounge, study, or music hall he finds a piano occupying; he gets the notes to sing.
That Rupert takes home a variety of pianos hence becomes more understandable. Every one is different. And they mean different things to different people. A piano tuner, in Rupert’s own words, ‘breaks down the harmonics’.
Arguably the more technical side of him shows in his attitude towards old and unfixable pianos. If he can’t fix it, he’ll scrap it.
Rupert has especially little time for poorly-built Eastern European pianos from the mid-20th century. They don’t tend to last, and unforgivably under-cut much better, well-made pianos.
Yet rather than scrapping them, Rupert now gives the unfixables away for free. Apparently customers have fashioned great uses out of them: bookcases, drinks cabinets, desks.
Selling pianos is only one part though, and we swiftly return to what has occupied most of Rupert’s days for years, and still does: the profession of tuning pianos.
Business has only increased for Rupert. The population has grown significantly, while pianos have become more affordable. All the while, the three colleges that taught piano tuning, including the one Rupert attended, have disappeared. Only an apprenticeship in Northampton remains.
And it’s not just the education that’s important. When you’re tuning at someone’s home, he says, you must be able to do it in an hour. Rupert, who won awards for proficiency at his college, tells us he took ten additional years to master that.
We finish with Rupert showing us a 1905 Rönisch that he’s restoring. An oak upright, with considerable intricacy to it; a real piece of furniture that sounds great too. He’s sending it away to be repolished; an expensive and time-consuming process. It has to be very special for that.
Thank you for your time, Rupert. It was fascinating.
You can find his shop on 94 Tilehouse Street, Hitchin, Herts. SG5 2DW
Tel: Hitchin (01462) 454244. Check out his website here.