How a piano tuner is a barometer for Boston’s battered music scene
From performers to painters, artists of all genres have experienced an economic year like no other. This month, we asked them about their experiences with our series “The Creative Grind”.
Today we meet someone who is kind of a barometer for the battered live music industry in Boston. His name is Fred Mudge and he has been a full-time piano technician for approximately three decades.
“Three things make a piano out of tune,” he explained. “To play. Temperature. And humidity. “
The day we spoke, Mudge was meticulously tweaking the strings with his tuning hammer at Wellspring sound studio at Acton. A long strip of soft red felt cut the other threads tightly wound inside a Yamaha black piano until it was their turn for the Mudge adjustments.
“As you can see, it’s a circle of refinement,” he explained, slowly shifting from the low end of the board to the highs. “You are getting close to it and you can always improve it.”
Mudge has prepared instruments for concerts with renowned musicians such as Paul Simon, Aretha Franklin, Peter Gabriel, James Taylor, Carole King and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Also for piano legends like Billy Joel, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Emanuel Ax and Dave Brubeck.
Over the years, Mudge has carried his toolkit to large, medium and small venues including TD Garden, Fenway Park, the House of Blues, and the Berklee Performance Center. Since the early ’90s, he has listened to the late Chick Corea praising Mudge during a show at the Scullers Jazz Club.
“I have a really nice piano and a really good piano tuner so we’re good this week,” Corea told the audience. “You know the piano technician is like 80% of the piano. You can have a great poorly prepared piano and that’s a dog.
Mudge stayed behind, ready, throughout Corea’s performances – just in case.
“The guitarist can tune between songs. So do the violin and the cello. They match between the pieces of music they play, ”he said. “They have four strings or six strings – I have 230 of them. And if you have someone hitting really hard, it’s going to detune the piano considerably.”
But Mudge hasn’t set foot in a concert hall for over a year. His only performance tuning job was outside in October for a Wynton Marsalis show at Yarmouth Drive-In.
At the studio, Mudge worked to prepare the piano for the Boston jazz pianist Yoko Miwa. She was about to record a video performance. Mudge hadn’t tuned the brilliant Yamaha since December as there hadn’t been a lot of sessions on the Wellspring books. Before the pandemic, he made the trip from Hyde Park once or twice a week. This would have been one of many stoppages in a typical workday for Mudge that often started at 6 a.m.
It could start in a high school – maybe Wellesley or Brookline – then Mudge could head over to a private client, go to a recording studio, a church, maybe a hotel, “and then I would usually end my day. in one of the jazz clubs or both jazz clubs, ”he said. “And play between five and seven pianos a day, six to seven days a week.”
Mudge has also tuned pianos on cruise ships in Boston and New York. During peak season, he said he could work about three dozen a month. There were also colleges and assisted living facilities. He even went through security to listen to Framingham Women’s Prison.
“Anywhere and everywhere they have a piano with strings that need to be tuned, I made a policy of not saying no,” Mudge said, “whether it’s a trash can or a nine-foot grand piano – everything. it pays the bills. “
Or at least before 2020.
“The first two months of the pandemic, when it all stopped, I had no tuning work – zero, none,” Mudge recalls. “I laid off everyone, put all my staff out of work. At the time, I even thought I had a part-time job in a supermarket or something just so I could support my family.
Mudge said his business Fred’s piano service lost about $ 40,000 in the past year to stranded cruise ships, and at least $ 23,000 without work from dormant jazz clubs. There is no more income from schools and religious institutions as well as performance halls. Mudge received PPP loans – just under a month of income was written off, he said – and he was able to bring back four of his eight employees. Now most of their business comes from tuning for private clients – many piano teachers working remotely from home – combined with a new source of income: selling pianos that Mudge is restoring in his store. of Hyde Park.
The piano tuner is worried about the future of the live music industry with the closure of arenas, clubs and restaurants. Many have closed their doors for good. Last summer, he said some hotels with piano bars were getting rid of their instruments. Although Mudge may have survived, his heart goes out to his colleagues whose careers have been turned upside down.
“The engineers, the backline technicians, the roadies,” Mudge said, “the lighting technicians, the stage directors, the production managers – they’re completely out of work.”
When pianist Yoko Miwa arrived in Wellspring wearing a sparkling black mask, she mourned the loss of her weekly residence at the Zygomates, now permanently closed in Boston.
“Beautiful French restaurant, we played there for about 15 years,” she said. “Financially, we are hurt. Mainly (because) we played every weekend and we had big shows.
Miwa is grateful for her work as a teacher at Berklee College of Music and also for the time she had during the pandemic to compose original songs for herself. new CD. The pianist is hoping that her other residence at Monkfish in Cambridge will restart soon.
The musician was eager to play the Yamaha grand piano from the recording studio prepared by a seasoned expert like Mudge.
“We need him so much,” she said, before recounting how she tried to tune her piano at home during the pandemic. “Of course, it’s not easy,” Miwa remembers, then admits, “It was very bad.”
“We usually laugh when someone says they’ve tried to tune their own piano,” Mudge said with a smile. He misses regularly seeing musicians like Miwa.
“The best part of my job is when I finish tuning for a pianist like Yoko, and they sit down and try it out,” he says, “and they’re inspired.
When Miwa tested the freshly tuned Yamaha, her nimble fingers flew over the shiny keys and she exclaimed, “Love it, love it! Fred did an incredible job.
Mudge is anxiously waiting for the music scene to come back to life now that venues are allowed to reopen at reduced capacity. Things are looking up for the summer, but there is still a lot of uncertainty.
“I was driving near the Boston Garden and there was an ad for Justin Bieber in July – which definitely gives us hope,” he said, “but you can’t do a great Rolling Stones production. with a whole bunch of 18-wheelers and crew at 25 percent of the audience. “
One thing Mudge knows for sure is that there are a lot of detuned pianos around Boston that will need some serious love.
“There is. And I’m looking forward to the time when we can come back and do everything we can,” he said, adding, “I’m a little worried that if everyone calls at the same time, we might be flooded. ”
But the tuner added that it would be the right problem to have.