James Carney is an award-winning improvisational pianist and composer who has recorded for some of the leading “record” labels and has performed with several of today’s top jazz musicians. He is also a highly sought-after piano technician who restores and sells older instruments from his workshop in Brooklyn, NY. He is, indeed, a “rare bird” – a virtuoso in both realms.
Jim earned his BFA in Jazz Piano Performance from California Institute of the Arts in the early 1990s, and subsequently worked in the film industry as a composer and music editor in Los Angeles, while also leading his own band. It was in 1994 that he began to delve into the inner workings of his instrument.
“I had just released my first recording as a [band] leader and I was searching for my first grand piano,” Jim told MakingMusicMag.com. “That search was the beginning of my fascination with the technical aspects of acoustic pianos – especially tuning, regulation, and voicing.”
[Note: “Regulation” refers to the adjustment of the mechanical aspects of a piano’s action. “Voicing” refers to the adjustment of a piano’s tone and timbre.]
Getting in Tune
This fascination led to tuning lessons from a pair of respected professional tuners; for the next decade he kept himself busy by keeping his grand piano – a German August Förster model 190 – in tune, while also working on any piano on which he wrote, recorded, or performed, even to the point of tuning pianos provided for gigs.
“It became very important to me to always compose and perform on pianos that were in tune,” he said.
In 2004, Jim relocated to New York City, where he found “an opportunity for someone like me to have real success in the piano tech trade,” he said. “There were very few, if any, professional pianists who were also professional piano technicians.”
In 2008, he joined the Piano Technicians Guild (PTG) and learned all he could. He found an expert mentor, attended numerous PTG-sponsored hands-on conferences, and found work in a rebuilding shop and in a dealership that sold such high-end pianos as Bösendorfer, Steingraeber, August Förster, and Blüthner pianos.
Jim built such a strong name for himself that he “went solo” in 2014. He now works independently with an active client list currently numbering more than 600 and including 15 recording studios. He tunes and services some 50 to 60 pianos each month.
“I’ve prepared pianos for sessions that have won Grammys, and I’m proud to have some of the very best musicians in New York City in my clientele,” he said.
Jim currently operates out of his own workshop and showroom, James Carney PianoWorks, in Industry City section of Brooklyn, NY.
Monitor the Humidity
A piano is certainly a complicated “machine,” with many moving parts. And as with any wooden musical instrument, humidity can cause the instrument’s soundboard (a 10mm-thick piece of glued-together panels made of spruce) to expand or contract.
“The soundboard/bridge structure is the heart of the acoustic piano,” Jim explained. “It’s a transducer, it’s delicate, and it is very responsive to even slight changes in humidity.”
Damage to a piano’s soundboard can result in an expensive and time-consuming process, as the instrument’s dampers, strings, tuning pins, and cast-iron plate must be removed to allow for replacement.
“A very simple concept towards protecting one’s piano is to maintain the relative humidity [RH] in the room between 40% to 50% year-round,” Jim explained. “Even 30% to 60% is somewhat acceptable. Doing so will greatly prolong the life of the soundboard.”
Jim notes that it can be difficult to do this in climates like that in New York, where the indoor relative humidity (RH) can range from 15% to 85% seasonally.
“If 40% to 50% RH cannot be accomplished there are humidity control systems that can be installed directly in the piano, and room humidifiers and dehumidifiers can also be utilized with great success,” he said. “A hygrometer is a small device that measures RH, and I always recommend that my clients keep one next to the piano to monitor this crucial aspect.”
Proper and consistent RH protects a piano and helps keep it in tune.
“Excess humidity will swell the soundboard, causing the pitch to rise, as it stresses the wooden glue joints,” Jim said. “Conversely, dry air will shrink the soundboard and cause the pitch to fall. Both scenarios are to be avoided as much as possible.”
Jim urges piano owners to find a “competent and ethical” technician to keep their instruments in “good health.” He recommends getting a referral from another pianist – a professional performer if possible – who is satisfied with that technician’s work.
“In larger metro areas excellent technicians are usually booked solid and don’t need to advertise due to their clients’ word-of-mouth recommendations,” Jim said. “In rural areas or smaller towns, a good technician may be 50-plus miles away, but will often be willing to travel.”
Another option is to search for a piano technician on the PTG’s website, www.ptg.org
When he’s not busy working on pianos, Jim still finds the time to compose, perform and record his own music. His most recent recording, as leader of the James Carney Sextet, is “Pure Heart” on Sunnyside Records. Released in June 2020, this album features a veritable plethora of jazz talent: Stephanie Richards (trumpet), Oscar Noriega (bass clarinet & alto sax), Ravi Coltrane (saxes), Dezron Douglas (bass) and Tom Rainey (drums).
For more info on both James Carney’s music and his piano restoration business, James Carney Pianoworks, check out his website at: https://jamescarney.net/home