Fine Lifestyles Magazine - July, 2010

Billy Joel, Liberace, Angela Hewitt...
Behind every great pianist is a piano technician


Roger Jolly


He has tuned concert pianos for Billy Joel, Liberace, Angela Hewitt and many more of the most famous artists in classical and pop music. Yet few outside of the industry have heard of Roger Jolly, piano technician. He's comfortable with the anonymity of the job. “As a top-flight concert technician,” he says, “you park your ego at the door and are content with being faceless, stage left. You are there to serve the pianist and the music.”

Though he has taken some short factory courses and had a few mentors, Jolly is largely self-taught. He says his skill as a tuner is the ability to read between the lines and read bodies on the piano bench. “It's amazing how much I pick up from body language. If a pianist shakes their hands, my alarm bells go off. What? Is the touch heavy? Is it light? Is he tired? Did the flight get to him or is the piano getting to him? I'm not afraid to ask the question and I don't take the answer personally.”

Jolly has worked with so many famous pianists that he says it's difficult to find one for his wish list. When pressed, he admits he'd like to partner again with Canadian pianist Angela Chang, who did all the Beethoven concertos with the Regina Symphony a few years ago, a mammoth undertaking. “That was a fun gig because she worked so hard that she pushed my buttons and made me work hard. I've kind of seen her grow up to be a great international star, and I always think she's kind of special.”

“But,” he adds matter-of-factly, “other than that, a gig is a gig.”

What is a piano technician?

In its simplest form, a piano is a collection of keys connected to felt-covered hammers. When a key is pressed, its hammer strikes a corresponding steel string. When the hammer rebounds, the vibration of the steel string is transmitted through a sounding board that transfers the acoustic energy to the air to be heard as sound. Before a piano player takes the stage, their instrument will have just spent up to two hours being carefully tuned. The piano technician must understand the construction of the instrument, with its roughly 2,000 moving and vibrating parts, and have an excellent ear for pitch and tune. Concert A or Middle A serves as the standard for musical pitch. It is notoriously difficult for most people to distinguish—or even to measure electronically—because it is actually, in layman's terms, a combination of several frequencies.

Jolly says many of the top concert technicians— including him—do not play the piano. He says that is a benefit. “I tend to be very analytical. Note by note. Approach the piano one note at a time, one finger at a time. It's a very patient sort of one-on-one test. If you go through the piano 88 times to make sure everything is exact, you end up with very few complaints from the pianist.”

For their essential, but largely anonymous, work, piano technicians might receive thanks from the artist or a credit on the back of a record jacket. The real reward, says Jolly, is being involved in the field of music. “Human beings are tied to music whether they want to admit it or not.

"The more you raise the standards, the healthier business becomes."

It's possibly the world's first recreational activity, you know, primitive man taking a piece of stick and banging it on a log rhythmically. They were certainly doing that before they laid out a soccer pitch.”

The rise to the top

Thirty-five years ago, Roger Jolly was a trained engineer tired of sitting in an office, and dreaming of a more peopleoriented career. As a singer, he naturally gravitated toward the music business. While watching piano technicians at work, he felt he could do a better job. “Being trained as a singer, you learn very quickly about tone and about projection, and that's what I work with on a piano.”

In May 1980 Roger and his wife Marie opened their first Yamaha Piano Centre store in Saskatoon. In competition with nine other stores, the Jollys worked tirelessly to make inroads in sales and servicing, and show the teaching and technical communities that they were operating at the highest level of technical service. Once word got out, says Jolly, business took off, and the couple opened a second store in Regina. Over the past three decades, Jolly has been salesman, technician, rebuilder and designer, and earned world renown. His reputation makes him an in-demand speaker at prestigious institutions, universities, and major international conferences and workshops, where he lectures and gives master classes.

He has even developed a new way of making bass strings that can generate more power out of the bottom end of the piano. They are euphemistically referred to in the industry as “Jolly Loops”, and have received international attention. “To the point,” exclaims Jolly, “that a Czechoslovakian company has copied the idea, as well as a major American company, and a Korean company that I do regular consultancy work for.”

High standards

As technical design consultant for the world's largest piano manufacturer, Samick Music Corporation, Jolly was given free reign to upgrade the design and manufacturing of the company's Knabe grand pianos. The case and belly work is done in Samick's factory in Asia, which uses computer-driven equipment for superior quality. Production is then completed, by skilled hand, in Tennessee.

Jolly established a three-year training program at the factory in Tennessee. There, apprentices can learn how to tune a piano to a level normally found only in the most expensive pianos out of Europe. At home in Saskatchewan, Jolly trains technicians to the same high level.

He says that piano technicians traditionally don't share knowledge in a small market. Using the Regina and Saskatoon stores for training workshops has helped break that paradigm and raised standards across the province. “The more you raise the standards, the healthier business becomes.

Jolly also praises his in-house assistant, Shaun Everett. “After 15 years I should stop referring to him as my apprentice,” admits Jolly, “but I'm not going to! Shaun is one of the best technicians in the province. He has to be or I wouldn't put up with him that long.”

Sharing the gift of music

For all the international attention, the Jollys still reside in Saskatoon, and Roger talks mostly about his work here at home. He is the contract technician for the Music Department of the University of Saskatchewan, and spends a great deal of time assisting clients in Regina, Saskatoon and across the province.

Since 1995, Roger and Marie have contributed scholarship money and donated pianos and keyboards to the Heart of the City Piano Program, through which piano teachers volunteer to give free lessons to at-risk youth. The program originated at an inner-city school and is now found in many Canadian communities. “You see a 14-year old girl suddenly start to get serious about music lessons instead of working the streets—the program has proven itself, in no uncertain terms. A lot of kids have their lives turned around.

Jolly jokes that he's a typical type-A personality, and a workaholic. He watches the calendar carefully because with so many engagements, there is bound to be the occasional double booking. After being invited to be feature speaker at a convention in Italy this July, he was forced to reschedule some other commitments because, he says, “there's no way I'm going to turn down that Rome gig!”

It’s just one more international locale to add to the resume; Jolly has already lectured and given master classes across Canada, and in Australia, New Zealand, Norway, the United States, Czech Republic and Korea.

“Yeah,” he laughs, “it's an interesting sort of existence.”

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