From performers to painters, artists of all genres have endured an economic year like no other. This month we've been asking them about their experiences for our series “The Creative Grind.”
Today we meet someone who's something of a barometer for the battered live music industry in Boston. His name is Fred Mudge and he's been a piano technician, fulltime, for about three decades.
“Three things throw a piano out of tune,” he explained. “Playing it. Temperature. And humidity.”
On the day we spoke Mudge was meticulously tweaking strings with his tuning hammer at Wellspring Sound Studio in Acton. A long strip of soft red felt muted the other tightly wound wires inside a black Yamaha grand until it was their turn for Mudge's adjustments.
“As you can see it's a circle of refinement,” he explained while slowly moving from the low keys on the board to the high. “You get it close and you can always make it better.”
Mudge has prepared instruments for concerts with big name musicians including 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 toted his tool kit to venues big, medium and small including TD Garden, Fenway Park, the House of Blues and the Berklee Performance Center. Since the early '90s he tuned for the late Chick Corea who praised Mudge during a show at Scullers Jazz Club.
“I got a real nice piano, and a real 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 piano not prepared well and it's a dog.”
Mudge would hang back, at the ready, throughout Corea's performances – just in case.
“The guitarist gets to tune in between songs. So do the violin and the cello. They're tuning in between pieces of music that they play,” he said. “They have four strings or six strings – I have 230. And if you get somebody that's really hitting hard it's going to throw the piano considerably out of tune.”
But Mudge hasn't set foot inside a music venue in more than a year. His only performance tuning job was outdoors in October for a Wynton Marsalis show at the Yarmouth Drive-In.
At the studio Mudge worked to get the piano ready for Boston jazz pianist Yoko Miwa. She was on her way to record a video performance. Mudge hadn't tuned the gleaming Yamaha since December because there haven't been many sessions on Wellspring's books. Before the pandemic he made the trip from Hyde Park once or twice a week. It would've been one of many stops in a typical work day for Mudge that often began at 6 a.m.
He could start at a high school – maybe in Wellesley or Brookline – then Mudge might head over to a private client, hit a recording studio, a church, maybe a hotel, “and then I'd usually end my day at one of the jazz clubs or both the jazz clubs,” he said. “And do anywhere between five and seven pianos a day, six to seven days a week.”
Mudge also tuned pianos on cruise ships in Boston and New York. During the busy season he said he could work on about three dozen a month. There were also colleges and assisted living homes. He even went through security to tune at the women's prison in Framingham.
“Anywhere and everywhere they've got a piano with strings that needs to be tuned, I've made it a policy not to say no,” Mudge said, “whether it's a junk box or a nine-foot concert grand – it all pays the bills.”
Or at least it did before 2020.
“The first two months of the pandemic, when everything shut down, I had no tuning work – zero, none,” Mudge recalled. “I laid everybody off, put my whole staff on unemployment. At the time I was even thinking I'd get a part time job at a supermarket or something just to be able to support my family.”
Mudge said his company Fred's Piano Service lost about $40,000 over the past year because of the grounded cruise ships, and at least $23,000 without work from the dormant Jazz clubs. There's no more income from schools and religious institutions along with performance venues. Mudge received PPP loans – a little less than a month's revenue was forgiven, he said – and he was able to bring back four of his eight employees. Now the bulk of their business comes from tuning for private clients – many piano teachers working remotely from home – combined with a new revenue stream: selling pianos Mudge is restoring at his shop in Hyde Park.
The piano tuner worries about the future of the live music industry with arenas, clubs and restaurants being closed. Many have shut down for good. Last summer he said some hotels with piano bars were getting rid of their instruments. While Mudge has been able to survive, his heart goes out to his colleagues whose careers have been upended.
“The engineers, the back line technicians, the roadies,” Mudge said, “the lighting technicians, the stage managers, the production managers – they're completely out of work.”
When pianist Yoko Miwa arrived at Wellspring wearing a sparkling black mask she mourned the loss of her weekly residency at the now permanently closed Les Zygomates in Boston.
“Beautiful French restaurant, we played there for like 15 years,” she said. “Financially, we are hurt. Especially (because) we were performing every weekend and we had some big shows.”
Miwa is grateful for her teaching job at Berklee College of Music and also for the time she had during the pandemic to compose original songs for her new CD. The pianist hopes her other residency at Monkfish in Cambridge will start up again soon.
The musician was eager to play the recording studio's Yamaha grand prepared by a seasoned expert like Mudge.
“We need him so much,” she said, then shared how she attempted to tune her home piano during the pandemic. “Of course, it's not easy,” Miwa recalled, then admitted, “It was very bad.”
“We usually laugh when someone says they tried to tune their own piano,” Mudge said with a smile. He misses seeing musicians like Miwa on a regular basis.
“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 said, “and they are inspired.”
When Miwa tested the freshly adjusted Yamaha her nimble fingers flew across the shiny keys and she exclaimed, “I love it, I love it! Fred did an amazing job.”
Mudge looks forward to the music scene coming back to life now that venues are allowed to reopen at reduced capacity. Things are looking up for summer, but there's still plenty of uncertainty.
“I was driving by the Boston Garden and there was an advertisement for Justin Bieber in July – which definitely gives us hope,” he said, “But you can't do a big production of the Rolling Stones with a whole bunch of 18-wheelers and crew to 25 percent of an audience.”
One thing Mudge does know for sure is that there are a lot out-of-tune pianos around Boston that will need some serious love.
“There are. And I'm looking forward to the time when we can come back and go full force at this,” he said, adding, “I'm a little worried that if everybody calls at once we could be inundated.”
But the tuner added that would be the right problem to have.
This segment aired on March 31, 2021.