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.
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.”