Hitting the right note with Robert Cloutier

When it was time to prepare for a concert, Frank Sinatra could have had his pick of any piano tuner in the world. The same went for Victor Borge, Roger Williams and Bruce Hornsby. When these legendary musicians needed their keyboards prepared for a performance, they called on Robert “Bob” Cloutier.

In the first two-thirds of his 34-year career, Cloutier, an expert piano technician specializing in concert preparation of Steinway grand pianos, earned a national reputation working with a who’s who list of musicians and Hollywood movie and recording studios. 
 
For the past 12 years, the College of Music has benefitted from Cloutier’s skills. As the senior piano technician for the music college, he is responsible for tuning and restoring the college’s 132 pianos.  
 
In his cheery Caribbean blue workshop in the Imig Music Building on the CU-Boulder campus, Cloutier, 61, reminisced about his multifaceted and extraordinary career as he anticipates retirement in April 2013.
 
“It sort of got out of hand,” he joked about how a summer job tuning pianos became a successful career. “Tuning pianos is an art,” he said. “Every piano has an individual personality. That’s the beauty that attracted me to it—discovering the best of an individual instrument.”
 
While an undergraduate majoring in piano performance at West Virginia University, Cloutier had the opportunity to learn how to tune pianos from one of his music professors. As he grasped the techniques of working with the pianos, Cloutier found the work absorbing and, moreover, he was really good at it, earning glowing compliments from the faculty.
 
He decided to advance his skills by taking specialized training at Steinway & Sons in New York and London.  It wasn’t long before his reputation as a concert piano preparer earned him a star-studded following that took him from one end of the country to the other tuning pianos for a wide spectrum of singers and musicians. Cloutier even earned his pilot’s license and flew his own plane to jobs, sometimes as far away as Alaska where he tuned pianos in remote logging camps and fishing villages. 
 
Keeping Hollywood in tune
For 14 years Cloutier lived in a beach house outside Los Angeles and tuned pianos for Sony MGM and Paramount Pictures. He also was in demand by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Hollywood Bowl. As a result, his skilled touch can still be heard on numerous movie soundtracks that utilized pianos. The musical score of Apollo 13, for example, required three Steinway concert grand pianos. All three had to be tuned daily—no small feat considering that it takes an hour and a half to tune just one concert grand piano.
 
Cloutier has also held senior technician appointments at The Manhattan School of Music, Thornton School of Music, University of Southern California, University of Oregon, and West Virginia University. 
 
“I had the best gigs, worked with the best people doing the best work,” he said. “I was having so much fun I didn’t realize how much time I was spending sitting in traffic. And there’s a lot of traffic in Los Angeles. One day I realized it wasn’t as much fun anymore and it was time for a change.”
 
A number of years prior to this epiphany, Cloutier had worked for a season at the Aspen Music Festival. He liked Colorado, so when he was recruited by the College of Music 12 years ago, he jumped at the opportunity to work at CU-Boulder.
 
David Korevaar, professor of piano and chair of the keyboard area at the College of Music, served on the committee that hired Cloutier. “Bob came extremely highly recommended and it was an extraordinary stroke of luck that we could attract him here,” he said. “I recently did a recording session in our newly renovated hall and Bob made our piano sound better than it’s ever sounded. It’s quite remarkable what he can do.” 
 
Two thirds of the College of Music’s stable of pianos are Steinway grands, considered the premier piano for concert performances. The oldest piano in the building is an 1879 Steinway that is still in use. 
 
A busy tuning schedule
More than 300 performances and recitals are held at the College of Music each year. The performance pianos have priority over the studio and practice pianos due to the importance of concerts and the rigorous demands of the musicians. Those pianos are tuned prior to every recital or concert.
 
“The performance pianos have to be 100 percent all the time,” said Cloutier, “because students and faculty will sometimes work an entire year to prepare for one program. It’s their moment so for those 90 minutes they are performing, that piano has to be perfect.” 

When school is in session and the pianos are in constant use, Cloutier often works well beyond a nine-to-five day in order to get the tuning accomplished.

Alexandra Nguyen, assistant professor of collaborative piano has known Cloutier for four years and finds him to be a dedicated and sensitive professional. As she rehearsed the Strauss Sonata for violin and piano with Edward Dusinberre, first violinist with the Takács Quartet, for her faculty recital last year, Nguyen found the sound of the piano difficult to blend with the violin’s tone quality.

“At 5:30 the next morning the day of the recital I received an email from Bob,” said Nguyen. “He was at the school reweighting all the piano keys because he wanted to make it easier for me. Bob had attended the dress rehearsal and heard me struggling with the tone. He stayed all day until the end of the recital that evening and adjusted the piano again at intermission. It was so touching that he would go above and beyond the call of duty for me like that.”

Despite the music building being climate-controlled, a change of season or variations in weather and humidity can knock all the pianos out of tune at once. Cloutier and his part-time assistant must therefore scramble to get to the pianos back to being performance- and practice-ready. And he does it the old-fashioned way.

 “A lot of people tune electronically now,” said Cloutier, who has relative pitch, “but if you want to do concert work you have to have an ear to listen to the vibrations between notes and be able to do it with a tuning fork.”

The tuning fork is a tool that has been used by piano tuners since the 18th century.  After striking it against his leg to start the tuning fork vibrating, Cloutier plays the first note—the A key above middle C. From that first note he works his way through the rest of the 88 keys and 250 strings. 

“Whether a piano has a mellow or a bright sound, that’s my work,” he said. “I can make the sound go either way. From one note to the adjacent note, the tone has to match. What we’re always doing is to even out the piano’s sound.” 

Cell phones and soda in the Steinways
Occasionally his job is more prosaic, as he’s called upon to retrieve stray items accidently dropped into pianos, such as cell phones or nonmusical keys. And he has had to clean up after spilled sodas. “For years I had dreams about people spilling a soda in the Steinways,” he said. “It happens all the time.”

At the College of Music Cloutier teaches a class for pianists in the nomenclature of the piano, its specifications, and how to perform minor repairs.

During his 12 years at CU-Boulder, Cloutier has had the opportunity to work with a number of world-renowned and emerging musicians through the College of Music’s Artist Series, such as Leon Fleisher, Olga Kern, and Andras Schiff.

One of his memorable moments at the College of Music was when Cloutier was able to have delivered at no cost from Steinway & Sons in New York City a cobalt blue, art deco Steinway concert grand piano for Robert Spillman, retired piano professor, to perform Rhapsody in Blue in Macky Auditorium.

After he retires from CU-Boulder next April, Cloutier will continue to tune pianos for a few longtime clients, but his focus in this next stage of his life will be on pursuing a creative endeavor of a different kind: painting. He is moving to northern Maine to join an artist colony. Prints of some of his paintings currently hang in his studio in the music college.

A satisfying part of his job, said Cloutier, is when he has prepared a piano for a performance and can hear his handiwork as the musician plays.  

“Tuning pianos is as much an art as playing them,” said Cloutier. “I provide the palette so the musicians can create beautiful music.”

 

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