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The Art Of Fine Tuning

Published: November 1, 2016

Sue Babcock tuning things up
Sue Babcock tuning things up.

Twenty-five thousand.

That’s how many pianos Sue Babcock estimates she’s tuned.

For three decades, as her own boss, she covered much of Orange County tuning many of those.

“I loved being self-employed,” said Babcock, “but it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in business or how successful you are, you always worry the phone will stop ringing. Fortunately, my business was very good. For me it didn’t stop ringing.”

Now, however, her focus is on CSULB’s Bob Cole Conservatory of Music. So, instead of serving the clientele she developed over 30 years, she works with faculty, staff and students every day, something she has done only seasonally as a contractor since 1998. When Kathy Smith retired in 2014 after serving in the same role for 30 years, the campus turned to Babcock, who was a natural fit.

“I think a big part of any job is trust, and knowing that someone can do the job and is self-motivated is important,” she said. “Carolyn (Bremer) and Kathy knew my work ethic, so I think that helped me.”

Babcock became a piano technician somewhat serendipitously—by way of a microwave cooking class.

Her mom, who worked at the Yamaha Motor Division, a friend of hers from accounting and Babcock took the class together. The friend asked her to apply for an accounting position at the company. She didn’t get it, but there was another in piano service, which she did.

“That’s where my interest started,” said Babcock. “I didn’t know a thing about pianos, but I just gradually learned.”

She learned for one simple reason—wanting to be better at her job. As a clerk typist, who took parts orders from technicians, she wanted to know more about what she was doing. Eventually, she took a two-year course.

By 1985, she was out on her own tuning pianos. She noted it’s common for technicians to work on about 1,000 pianos before they really know what they’re doing.

“It took me about 1,200,” she joked. “After two years I was like, ‘I think I’m getting the hang of this now.’”

Over the years she’s tuned for some famous individuals—Tracy Chapman, James Taylor, Liza Minelli and the Frank Sinatras, junior and senior. But, it was singer Neil Young for whom she received an off-key request—literally—when asked to tune everything normally, except one note the manager wanted a specific way.

“It sounded horrible,” said Babcock. “You play it in the context of other notes and for a technician it’s very offensive, but you figure they know what they want, so you just do it.” When she saw the show, even her keen ear couldn’t detect a thing.

As the technician at CSULB, Babcock oversees 65 active pianos, noting that 50-55 is considered a full-time job. But, she’s not complaining. Nor is Bremer.

“Sue worked with Kathy to get pianos tuned for fall and winter semesters, so she’s been tuning for us for many years,” said Bremer, director of the Cole Conservatory. “She is so even-keeled and ever-ready to attend to emergencies, such as when a piano string breaks during a class. The transition from Kathy to Sue has been smooth.”

Babcock’s biggest challenge to date at CSULB may have been when she tuned eight pianos to each other for the 10th anniversary of the Cole’s Multi-Piano Extravaganza Benefit Concert in 2015.

“Three pianists played at each piano, meaning 24 musicians performed together on stage,” said Bremer. “There were some things one might not think of like, ‘Where do you store eight grand pianos in a hall built to store three?’ But she figured it out.”

Babcock remembers the challenge well.

“The week before I tuned every one of those pianos,” she said. “I needed to be able to come into the hall the morning of the concert and just do touch up. It went pretty well except for one piano. I had a feeling that one was going to cause me grief…and it did. In the end, everything was great for the show. It all worked out perfectly.”

Babcock is now hitting one of her busiest times of the year. Not because there are more recitals, but rather the change in weather.

“You have this big change in weather and everything goes out of tune,” she said. “I expect everything to completely fall apart here. When they dry out, pianos generally want to go flat and can go crazy out of tune, so this time of year I am a very busy person.”

But she loves it, from the major repairs to minor maintenance. She also takes heart knowing she plays a key role in the success of students, who she now considers her students.

“I’d like to think I have a hand in student success,” said Babcock, who can be found with her head in a piano most any day of the week. “If I’m not doing my job it doesn’t help them shine. My job is to help faculty so their pianos function well enough so they can teach the technique they need to teach. For the students, I need to keep the pianos in good order so they can practice those techniques, so I do feel a real responsibility.”

She’s even got to teach a bit in her new role, sharing her working knowledge of a harpsicord with faculty member David Garrett’s class.

“That was really fun, but it took me all day to prepare for just 45 minutes. I have a new respect for teachers,” she said. “They are phenomenal.”