Piano Expert on the ground in Russia…

Voicing and Regulating the Steinway















A personal recount from one of Australia’s leading piano technicians

The Tchaikovsky International Competition is held every 4 years in Moscow and is considered to be one of the most prestigious competitions in the world.  There are 4 sections: Piano, Violin, Cello and Voice.


The competition is held over a gruelling 3 weeks with participants firstly performing in a preliminary round. 30 are then chosen to perform in round 1, but due to many arguments amongst the jury this year, 36 were chosen to go through. 12 are chosen for round 2 and then 6 for the finals where they perform with an orchestra.


The piano section is a major television production with over a dozen professional cameras, OB van and expert commentators – much akin to what we would see in a sporting final. There is a separate media centre at the Conservatorium where the competition is also streamed. The world media is in attendance with reporters, camera and audio operators scrumming for the best grab and shot.


The competition is broadcast live on both television and the Internet with over 5 million viewers worldwide in over 140 countries.  The concert halls are all sell outs even from round 1. There are already scalpers touting for tickets to the finals!


I arrived a week before the start of the competition to prepare the Steinway Concert Grand for the coming performances. Over the next week I was given several hours a day to work on stabilizing, adjusting and voicing the instrument.  I needed the piano to suit the acoustics of the hall and expectations of the ‘young’ pianists who were about to expose their pianistic and musical prowess to the audiences and in particular, the international jury.


There are 4 different makes of pianos offered for selection and after the preliminary round the successful candidates have 20 minutes to select which instrument they would like to play. This in itself is a daunting task for many of them as they hop from one to the other. Do they feel instantly comfortable on one instrument? Do they choose one with a familiar sound or a familiar touch? Do they decide on the one they feel the best at on stage or do they choose the one recommended by the teacher sitting in the hall? Is it a strategic or musical selection? The various manufacturers and technicians all look on with trepidation to see if their time and work will be appreciated and chosen… Some have a whole crew with several technicians, other staff and managers in attendance, others with just a small contingent.


Once the selections have been made each piano is given a time slot for preparation. As this can usually only be done after hours, a rotation system is put into place with the various shifts starting from 10 or 11pm for 3 hours. The worst is obviously the 2am graveyard shift, as it completely disrupts normal sleep patterns. Considering whatever time is allocated, the technician must also be alert during the day as there are numerous touch ups and listening to be done around the clock.


Since most pianists chose the Steinway, I have the lions-share of the on-stage work however, for at least the first 2 rounds everyone has an equal share of service time.

As always there are human stories that emerge. One of the competitors is not informed of his mothers passing until after the first round. He then had to progress through to the finals with this his mind. Is this sadness reflected in his playing? Does it bring out more emotion and musicality, or does it distract him?


There are rumours of a favourite…. Some are eliminated unexpectedly from the first round… The so-called ‘favourite’ progresses to the final round. Is it because of his exquisite performance or are there other pressures afoot? The audience is intrigued, and intricate and detailed discussions go on in the foyer and the coffee house outside.


Then there is the unknown outsider who produces such a unique performance that even the jury members are stunned and show greater applause. But will his Mozart concerto be good enough? He has never played with an orchestra…


On the piano front, the solo performances have all been completed and now for the Mozart. Russian orchestras are reputed to be very loud, even in chamber music setting. This calls for more work on the voicing to allow more penetration of sound from the piano into the hall. After several hours of rehearsals I think we have found a good balance between beauty of sound and sheer volume. This will be needed later in the larger concertos!


We are now at 8 Steinway players out of the 12. 3 Yamaha and 1 Fazioli. There is a collegial atmosphere amongst the technicians however all the pianos are carefully locked after each service….. Don’t want to give away any secrets of the previous day’s servicing!!!!


Finally, the Mozart concertos are all played and we wait for the verdict of the 6 finalists. 11 of the 12 are in the hall and this time the jury makes their call without too much delay. 11 pm and the results are out…


Huge discussion about the results – several of the competitors are philosophical about the verdict as they are not at all pleased with their last performance. At least 3 of the others take it quite hard, and congratulations, commiserations and soul-searching goes on for some time. All of the ‘losing’ competitors are invited to commiseration drinks at the hotel by the piano makers. 4 accept and the drinks go on until after 3am.


4 of the finalists have chosen to play the Steinway in the previous rounds and 2 of them on the Yamaha. We then organize the wok times. Yamaha goes first and I can have a few hours sleep. Now for the finals. We have a full symphony orchestra to contend with, so…what to do. As it turns out the rumours about the playing level of the orchestra is true. There is something about the horns….. Do they really need to be so loud!


As much as I don’t like to change the sound of the Steinway that has been such a pleasure to work with in terms of its voicing and balance, it does require some drastic action! First – the regulation, then of course the dreaded ‘doping’ that I have been successfully avoiding up till now. (This does not involve elicit drugs, this is a process that chemically hardens the hammer felts to make the tone brighter – this allows the sound to cut through an orchestra more clearly).

News comes through from the competition office that both of the pianists who had played on the Yamaha in the previous rounds have now asked to play on the Steinway instead. This is a blow for the Yamaha crew who were looking forward to hearing their instrument played in the finals. I feel for them as they have worked very hard up to this point.


This means more work for me now as all six are performing on the Steinway. Friday and Saturday are taken up with rehearsals with the orchestra from 2 to 9pm – 2 hours with each pianist. All must play either Tchaikovsky 1 or 2 and one other concerto. Prokofiev and Liszt are the favourites. The first 2 hours of rehearsals reveals just how LOUD the orchestra plays. Even the conductor has difficulty in controlling the recalcitrant brass and wind sections. In certain passages, particularly in the Prokofiev watching the pianists play is like watching a silent movie – lots of action but little sound. This means more work on my part! We finally come up with a reasonable balance with the brightness and colour.


This is quite an interesting point in the competition for me as I consult extensively with each pianist to find a happy medium. In the end they are all happy with the balance so now we wait for the actual concerts.  Over the last 3 weeks I have been witness to 124 hours of piano playing and have spent 68 hours on the piano – and there is still more to be done.




From the Moscow Conservatory, Russia

Ara Vartoukian


3 Responses to Piano Expert on the ground in Russia…

  1. Sandy Jacka says:

    Ara, what an incredible account of the competition and so well written.
    The competitors are lucky to have you on hand.
    Thanks for sharing with us, back in Aussie land.
    Warm regards

  2. Pingback: Tiers of dynamics, well-regulated pianos, and expressive playing – Burning Bushes Music

  3. Brian Abel says:

    Thanks for that, Ara. I really enjoyed reading about the competition and your travails.

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