Matt Guggenheim keeps pianos in shape for local musicians and visiting stars.
Matt Guggenheim’s first attempt to tune a piano did not go well. The youngest of seven children in a musical family, Guggenheim loved to play. But he was frustrated with the inferior sound coming out of the piano in the Bridgewater, New Jersey, home where he grew up. So Guggenheim, then 12, took the whole thing apart with a Craftsman socket set. “I basically destroyed the piano trying to fix it,” he says. “But that piano turned out to be a blessing.”
Today, Guggenheim’s tools are a special wrench, a trained ear, and a $1,000 app, the Reyburn CyberTuner. Technical skill and decades of detailed piano knowledge have made him the go-to piano technician for the Merrill Auditorium, the State Theatre, and numerous other venues around the state. When musicians like Bob Dylan, Lyle Lovett and Melissa Etheridge perform at Thompson’s Point or the Maine State Pier, if an acoustic piano is involved, Guggenheim is called in to tune it. “I prepare a piano for someone who does nothing but play,” Guggenheim says. “It’s my job to get that piano to a place where there are going to be no surprises. My goal is to make sure that their attention is solely on the music, not on ‘what’s going on with these keys over here?’ and ‘what’s that noise?’”
Pianos go out of tune because of changes in humidity or temperature, being moved, or even because they’ve been played particularly hard. Every piano needs regular tuning, but concert tuning involves more than making sure the instrument sounds the way it should. “Especially with classical music, silence is critical,” Guggenheim explains. “If the artist moves their body on the bench and you hear ‘creak,’ it gets everybody’s attention.” He also checks the lid, the legs, and the wheels on a concert piano’s dolly system, especially if the instrument is a rental. “A piano doesn’t just have to sound nice, it has to feel nice. If there’s any kind of bad experience, it lands on me.”
Listening to Guggenheim explain how pianos work makes it clear that despite many years of lessons, I know nothing about the instrument. “You’ve got the wire that leaves the tuning pin, rises up over the bridge, crosses the bridge, and goes down to the hitch pin,” he says, running his hands over the inner workings of a gleaming Steinway grand. “When you press a key, the damper that keeps the string quiet first lifts, then the hammer strikes the string, sending the frequency through the bridge and into the soundboard—the belly of the piano.” The soundboard, a panel made of spruce and crowned in the center to create tension, is what amplifies and distributes the piano’s sound. “Yamaha and Steinway—the top two piano makers in the world—are so particular about their soundboards,” says Guggenheim. “It’s all about the wood.”
Before he moved to Maine in 2003, Guggenheim tuned pianos in and around Boston. He also rebuilt them in his shop, which at one time employed six people. Now he focuses solely on tuning; his private clients include homeowners on North Haven, Squirrel Island, and “every inhabited island in Casco Bay,” as well as organizations such as Portland Ovations, PORTopera and the Portland Symphony Orchestra (PSO)—which launched him as the house tuner at Merrill Auditorium.
“I had a craving to be a symphony tuner,” says Guggenheim. “I literally knocked on their door, found out who the executive director was, and I said, ‘I know you have a piano tuner but you need to know that I’m ready, willing, and able to be the guy you can call upon if the wheels fall off.’” Guggenheim returned to the office three more times within a six-month period; the director finally told him he didn’t need to come back. About six months later, he got a call from the stage manager at the Merrill asking him to come do a tuning. “I said, ‘What time?’ because my schedule was nuts. He said, ‘Well … now.’ I said, ‘I can be there in a couple hours, can that work?’ He said, ‘Do you want to tune for Josh Groban?’ And I said, ‘I’ll be right there.’ That was my first gig.”
Groban was the first in a roster of A-List performers Guggenheim has now tuned for, including: Bobby McFerrin, Liza Minnelli, George Winston, Rickie Lee Jones, B.B. King, Bob Weir, Aaron Neville, Norah Jones, David Gray, Rufus Wainwright, and Bryan Adams, to name just a few. Who was his all-time favorite? “Tony Bennett,” he answers without hesitation. Why? “Because he’s Tony Bennett.” When he tuned for Arlo Guthrie, they had coffee and discussed current events. But Guggenheim doesn’t always come into contact with famous musicians. “They stay on the bus until right before sound check; they’ll do sound check and walk right off stage, ignore everybody, and hightail it back to the bus.”
He does have stories, though. Before a performance at the Merrill several years ago, John Mellencamp sauntered in smoking a cigarette. “One of the guys who runs the door says, ‘You can’t smoke in here.’ Mellencamp says, ‘I rented the place—I can’t smoke in here?’ And the guy says, ‘No, put it out.’ So he put it out on the floor and picked it up and says, ‘The man told me to put it out, I’ll put it out.’ He made sure it was out and threw it in the garbage; everyone was laughing.”
Guggenheim is still waiting for piano superstars Elton John and Billy Joel to come to Portland. In the meantime, he’s happy to tune for his friend Joe Boucher when he performs Piano Men – The Music of Elton and Billy, the original show Boucher wrote with orchestrator and composer Chris Eastburn.
“Matt could field strip a Steinway in the wild,” says Boucher, who is in his twelfth season as concert manager for the PSO. “He realizes the importance of the PSO as a cultural institution and is willing to drop everything and come to our aid.” Boucher tells me about the time one of Merrill Auditorium’s two Steinways was being moved and a leg came loose as it went over a bump. “I had visions of this $100,000 instrument just crashing down, but I was able to get Matt on the phone and he showed up as if he was an ambulance service.” Guggenheim stabilized the piano so it could be repaired. “He takes the long-term view of these instruments as well,” says Boucher.
Listening to Guggenheim launch into a flawless rendition of Christina Perri’s “A Thousand Years”, I’m aware that he’s not only testing the sound of the Steinway grand he’s just tuned, he’s also been itching to play it. “I have a gigantic passion for pianos,” he says. “I love the way they work.” He finishes the piece, and gently closes the polished ebony fallboard over the keys. For now, his work is done. But he’ll be back.