March 3 2015 City Paper
D, E, F, G. G-G-G. The white keys ascend right, but stubborn G resists, so Greg Hudak dives an octave lower before getting stuck on it again. He is watching the dial of a small and heavy computer, but also looking up into the rafters for something. When not bent into the mouth of the big, black grand, he seems to be counting. “Aural piano tuning is basically listening to beats: comparing beat rates between different intervals. Do you hear that?” he asks, but the difference isn’t obvious.
Hudak hits the same high note 20 times in a row while working the tuning hammer from the inside. He hit-hit-hits all single notes within an octave before plunking down whole chords for comparison. After hearing one note smacked so purposefully for a while, a handful of thirds sounds like a dream. He moves to the mid-section where the tone opens up and rounds out and it’s easier to hear the slight differences. “Each note has three strings. When you’re tuning you can only tune two strings at a time, or one sometimes,” he explains while he flosses the teems of tense strings that run in rows with rubber muting wedges.
“We have two basic pianos we use for concerts,” says Hudak, the piano technician for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. “One is a 7-foot Steinway and this, which is the 9-foot Steinway, is used for the concerto soloist performances.”
The stage is set for the evening’s orchestral performance, but the house is empty outside of 2,443 backside-worn, bright red seats. He tunes the piano before most of the performances year round.
When Hudak breaks into a jazzy complex to judge the tuning, the tension eases, but the trap slams shut just a few measures in and he’s back to Johnny One Note. He’s a generally quiet guy at work outside of one peculiar habit. When he checks those notes like he’s claiming them over and over again, he lets out a small grunt that sounds something like Keith Jarrett when he really gets going at the ’75 Köln Concert. Except Hudak never really lets loose for long. He is all staccato and struck and stuck by repetition. There is some sense of release, though, in the technical art he works.
“I just call it noodling, you know,” Hudak says about the actual playing he does during the tuning. “I know the first five measures of 50 classical pieces, but at this point, I don’t practice, and I don’t have anything memorized that I can play all the way through.” As for his original compositions, he says, “It was so long ago . . . and it’s not really appropriate for something like this.”
Hudak studied music composition at the Catholic University of America (CUA) in Washington, D.C., where he earned his bachelor’s degree. Later on at Peabody, he took a number of courses in electronic composition and got into more avant-garde styles. “They were 12-tone, if you know what that is,” he says, “it’s a very dissonant kind of . . . ” he suddenly creates a wall of sound like he grew an extra palm and smashes 15 fingers on 20 keys at once. He seemingly haphazardly moves the difficult group of notes around the whole stretch and quickly. In this short showing, he hears something. He picks one single note out of the bunch and fixes the tone.
Hudak’s been in the business a long time, though he’s attempted an escape once or twice. His first job was at a piano restoration shop in D.C. right out of college and paid $2 an hour. “It was like the early ’70s so, you know, I just wanted to have fun,” he says. “I was looking for work, and something came up. They paid us cash so they felt justified paying less than minimum wage, I guess.”
But he had a little experience tuning even before that. He and his college roommates bought an old upright at a thrift store. It was pretty banged up, but they borrowed books from the library and learned what they could.
Along with aural checking, most piano tuners today use electronic devices to ensure a piano is tuned precisely, like Hudak does, but there are occasional clients who question the mechanics. “I had one guy who was a violinist, and I did what I could, ya know, and he came out and said ‘that fifth, that fifth doesn’t sound right’ and started picking out things like that and I said, ‘OK, forget it. I’ve been out here for an hour and a half, or whatever.’ I was there extra time trying to make it as good as I could,” he says. But in general the clients are trusting and appreciative, especially considering his experience and credentials.
Eventually Hudak became a full-time technician at Peabody Institute, which allowed him to pursue a discounted master’s degree. During those years he also studied jazz piano and fostered his adoration of photography by attending multimedia courses at MICA. In the early ’80s he put on a few impressive pieces. One commissioned piece incorporated dancers wearing all white, while he projected double-exposed photographed images across their bodies with a fade and dissolve unit, and he simultaneously uses ring modulators to affect and alter recorded sounds on tape.
One morning, around that time, things changed for Hudak at Peabody. His boss unexpectedly left a one-sentence memo announcing his resignation, and without someone to head the department, Hudak was promoted. With added responsibilities and a stricter schedule, he had a lot less time or freedom to work his art. He hasn’t produced multimedia performances since. At one point he got into graphic design in his early 50s, but after 12-15 interviews against much younger candidates, he gave in and stuck with tuning full time, where the demand and pay for his services was greater.
“It’s been great,” Hudak says, “I’ve met some of the top pianists in the world working here.” But the monotony and sameness of the technical dance seem to come at a creative price. He’d like to travel and maybe teach ESOL in a place like Senegal someday, and he still enjoys photography and listening to music. “I guess I liked it enough. It’s a steady job. There must have been some attraction and comfort in tuning,” he says. He had no idea he would be tuning pianos for the majority of his career when he started his first gig after college. Possibly as a result, his personal piano is metaphorically gathering dust. “I don’t play anymore. I keep it covered, and I haven’t tuned it for a while. Typical cobbler story, I guess.”