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Arts & Life

This Man Keeps Kansas City's Concert Pianos Tuned For The Day When Pandemic Worries Ease

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Julie Denesha
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Conrad Hulme works on the mechanical assembly which controls the instrument's responsiveness. Lately, he has been tuning pianos in unconventional venues like the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center.

Over the past year, audiences have stayed home and Kansas City’s concert venues have remained silent. But behind the scenes — one man is making sure the grand pianos will be ready when we can all gather to hear them again.

On a Friday in January 2020, Italian pianist Fabio Bidini stepped up to a grand piano on stage at the Folly Theater in Kansas City, Missouri. He was looking forward to performing selections by Beethoven and Schumann later that evening for a concert arranged by The Friends of Chamber Music. After that, a year of music and promise stretched before him.

Waiting in the wings as Bidini warmed up was piano technician Conrad Hulme. He'd spent the morning fine-tuning the Folly’s piano. And he was feeling a familiar anxiety.

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Julie Denesha
Small adjustments make a big difference when tuning for world-class pianists like Italian pianist Fabio Bidini.

“I'm kind of nervous because what if something breaks, or did that note go out of tune?" Hulme said. "I am constantly up there kind of wringing my hands hoping everything goes well." He laughed a little. "And it usually does,” he said.

But outside of the theater walls that day, much in the world was not going well. Neither Hulme nor Bidini had any way of knowing how much their lives would change in just a few weeks.

COVID-19, a virus that originated in China, already was transforming the world. Bidini's Italy would soon be under siege. Eventually the virus made its way to Kansas City. Officials announced restrictions on gatherings in public places. And the music stopped.

“Actually I was on stage, I believe, at the Folly Theater," Hulme remembers. "The manager, Lee, came and said, ‘You can quit what you're doing. The concert's been canceled.’ That was maybe the second week of March, I think. And I have not tuned at the Folly Theater since.”

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Julie Denesha
In a small storage room at The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Hulme makes adjustments on a Yamaha concert grand. In normal times, he would have tuned the piano several times a week. When he tuned it in early March, it had been a year since he'd worked on the piano.

But on a recent Saturday, Hulme made his way back to the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts to tune one of the venue’s five house pianos.

Hulme is a second-generation piano technician. His father, Greg Hulme, tuned and rebuilt grand pianos for more than four decades. Like his father, Conrad works for some of the most prestigious concert venues in the metro.

“I feel like I do have an advantage of being kind of born into this really," he says. "My dad brought me to the concerts he was tuning when I was 5 years old.”

Like the Folly Theater, the Kauffman Center has been dark since March 2020.

“It’s kind of spooky being here when there’s nobody here," Hulme says.

The empty hallway he's walking down should be crammed with stage props and equipment, he said. "There should be so many things going on. "

He sighs. "Someday," he says.

Hulme finds the room he is looking for and unlocks the door, with the help of a security guard. It's a small room, about 20 yards from the stage of the Muriel Kauffman Theatre.

“Whereas I would have tuned this piano sometimes once, twice, five times in a week before the pandemic, this is the first time I will have tuned this piano in a year," Hulme says.

He's not even sure when anyone will play the instrument. "But it still needs to be done," he says, "so let’s hear where it is."

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JULIE DENESHA (913)980-6256
Preparing one of the Folly Theater’s grand pianos for a concert, Hulme makes an adjustment with his father’s tuning lever.

Hulme gets to work. He needs to check each one of the 230 strings on this Yamaha concert grand.

“It’s not that bad,” He says, playing a cascade of notes.

Like the performers he tunes for, Hulme’s life has been in limbo this past year. Tuning for concerts accounts for about half of his income. To help make up for his losses, he's been tuning pianos in private homes.

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Julie Denesha
Hulme works on a concert grand from the Park International Center for Music at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center.

“I can remember saying things like, well, if we just get through this week, we'll figure it out, we'll know what's going on," Hulme says. "But I'm still pretty confused, honestly, a year later."

Hulme says this year helped him appreciate what makes live performances so special.

“I think the shutdown maybe has illuminated this idea that there's no substitute for the real thing," he says. "There is an energy to a room full of people.... Everybody's holding their breath. It's amazing. And you just can't you can't do that on a Zoom call.”

Hulme says he knows audiences will need to be small as entertainment venues begin to open up again. He has vivid memories of the crowded intermissions at The Folly.

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Julie Denesha
Bidini rehearses in a darkened theater to prepare for his 2020 performance at the Folly.

"You're crammed in there like sardines," he remembers. "You got to weave through, you know, find your lane. And it's like a family reunion for me because my dad did it for all those years and he worked on everybody's piano. And so it's hard for me to get through there without shaking people's hands in, you know, in the old days. So it'll be different. But I think there is a real hunger for it."

On the January 2020 day in Kansas City, before the world changed, concert pianist Fabio Bidini talked about the ephemeral nature of his work. Sound, he noted, cannot be touched or seen.

“For me, music is the only art that doesn’t exist," he said. "I mean, The Folly Theater, if I don’t play, is pure silence."

His words seem prescient now. Like other theaters, the Folly has known only quiet for many months.

But audiences and artists can see a time, perhaps soon, when music will again fill the halls. And when it does, Conrad Hulme will be backstage, nervously listening to make certain the pianos are the best they can be.

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