Hot Tuner

Benjamin Treuhaft Floats Pianos to Cuba

"Finally Steinway called me two years later. There was an opening in the concert department. I went to all the concert halls in New York and tuned morning and night. I went to Horowitz and tuned his piano. Elton John. Whoever was famous stopped by Steinway to rent a piano. Tuning was quick, easy money. So piano tuning solved my whole problem. It solved every problem I had. I've never had a problem since, well, until I had one about true love."

A Steinway grand piano has tens of thousands of parts. Each part is subject to change, depending on shifts in lighting, air conditioning, climate, movement. A grand piano can go out of tune at a moment's notice. It is a massive situation to control, like trying to keep the universe in order in the midst of earthquakes, volcanoes, and hurricanes. When asked if the situation can make a tuner go mad, Treuhaft says, "You're romanticizing it. The maelstrom happens when you're not there. When you get there, the piano's out of tune, you whap it into tune and leave after an hour or so. A piano is really a simple mechanism. Every note has a hammer, a whippen, a key, and a damper and a string, and then there's the huge case. So it's not all that complicated. I just have to fix it. I don't have to build the sucker."

There are a few thousand tuners in the United States. (They earn around $65 to $125 per job in New York.) Those interviewed agree that they are fiercely independent personalities who do not survive well in a conventional work situation and have had a wide range of former professions. Tuner Paul Larudee says he was once head of a scientific team in Saudi Arabia for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration but then he started tuning pianos and it made him feel "refreshed and better." Stephen Marcy, Steinway's national service manager, says he was a sewer cleaner until he came under the influence of the famous Franz Mohr—he tuned Horowitz's piano, among others—at church in Long Island.

In the key of life: Benjamin Treuhaft, founder of the Send a Piana to Havana International Brigade
photo: Michael Sofronski
In the key of life: Benjamin Treuhaft, founder of the Send a Piana to Havana International Brigade

As for Treuhaft, when interrogated for the tenth time about why he suddenly took on a political cause in 1993 when he swears he remained distant all of his life from politics and the activist activities of his parents, he says, "It just happened." Asked if it was because he fell in love with a woman in Cuba or something—the twice married Treuhaft is always falling in love—and maybe he wanted to turn back ships or rather make them advance out of passion, he says, "No, in fact, the woman I'm in love with is Olga who used to sell poppyseed cake at Moishe's Bakery. She's Hungarian. She doesn't even like Cuba."

More likely it had something to do with his mother. Treuhaft began Send a Piana a few years before she died. It was "her favorite charity," he says. "She passed out leaflets until the very end."

Note: The black bag with the piano-tuning tools has yet to turn up.

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