By Barb Van Atta
To pop music, it is Billy Joel, but in the Broome County classical community, the true piano man is Lance G. Hill, who has been a tuner and technician for more than 50 years. Hill, also the host WPEL-FM’s weekly broadcast Music and the Artist, is the 2011 recipient of the Broome County Arts Council’s 2011 Lifetime Achievement Award.
Hill, who did not even know he had been nominated, was “shocked” a few weeks ago when BCAC Executive Director Sharon Ball called to tell him that he had been chosen by the council’s board of directors. “I’m the piano tuner. I’m the radio announcer (not a performer),” he said in a recent interview.
But that’s exactly the point, said Ball, who formally announced Hill’s award today (Sept. 21). A lifetime of achievement in the arts doesn’t necessarily mean being an artist; it can mean tirelessly working for the good of the artists. In Hill’s case, it means being the piano tuners’ piano tuner, who has worked with virtually every musical group and excellent musician in this area.
An Endicott native now living in Vestal, Hill was born into a musical family and at the earliest age was exposed to live opera and symphonic concerts. Together with their soprano mother and trumpeter father, he and his two siblings sang and danced as part of the Hill Family Entertainers, performing everything from popular tunes to opera. At 14, his parents joined him in playing “Bugler’s Holiday” on Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour, although, as he pointed out with a chuckle, he was the only “amateur” among the three.
Although Hill also studied voice and trumpet, he was particularly drawn to the piano and the mechanics and sound of the instrument. “My mother said, ‘You love the piano; why don’t you learn about it?,’” he recalled. His studies with concert technicians concluded at the prestigious piano firm of Steinway & Sons in New York, where he said he also was counseled about dealing with so-called temperamental artists. “My mentor at Steinway said, ‘You’re crazy to go into concert work. You have to be 75 percent psychiatrist, and only 25 percent technician.’”
Hill has been working on pianos in Binghamton, Boston, New York and Atlanta since 1960, specializing in Baldwins and Steinways. He spent 26 years maintaining pianos for the Binghamton University Music Department and all BU concerts and also has been the technician for the Binghamton Philharmonic, Tri-Cities Opera and the Phelps Mansion Museum in Binghamton, where he rebuilt its Steinway grand. Ostensibly retired, he continues a busy schedule.
“He loves pianos so much and cares so much that they sound their best and is such a perfectionist about that sound that,” said Ball, “ despite being this year’s Lifetime Achievement honoree, he insisted on again doing the job he’s done since 2005: tuning the piano (at The Forum) for the Heart of the Arts Awards Celebration.”
And this unsung hero of Broome County’s musical sphere has many other irons in the fire. He is co-founder and director of Classical Pianists of the Future—now celebrating its fifth season—which brings talented young aspiring concert pianists to the Binghamton area, He also has served as an adjudicator for various musical institutions and programs, records live concerts and recitals, and creates, designs and prints programs and posters for musical events.
A classical record music collector since age 17, Hill has accumulated a staggering 70,000 LPs and 35,000-plus CDs, which he shares through Music and the Artist on the Montrose, Pa.-based non-profit radio station WPEL-FM, 96.5. The show, on the air since 1968, is streamed in real time (7 p.m. Saturdays) on the radio’s website (www.wpel.org), giving Hill an international audience. Likewise, the classical music blog/website that he has maintained for a dozen years (www.classicalmusicguide.com) has, among its nearly 1,000 members, persons living as far afield as Australia, Ireland and the Czech Republic, Hill said.
Music and the Artist, produced in Hill’s home studio, focuses on performers. Hill sets a full year’s schedule, using artists’ birth or death dates as inspiration, but does make adjustments to keep current (such as last Saturday’s salute to recently deceased tenor Salvatore Licitra). Should he ever switch to saluting composers or particular compositions, however, he is equally prepared. Say, for example, Hill chose to focus on Beethoven’s “Emperor Concerto” – his collection includes 150 different recordings of the work.
Obviously, as a reviewer for the blog/website, Hill keeps current on recordings and is no stranger to the various online sources. However, he’s concerned about 21st century music listeners who seek out only the recordings that have come to their attention. As more actual (not virtual) music stores close their doors, one of the great joys of the serious collector is disappearing: the thrill of discovering something new or different or “off your radar” in that magical spot known as the cut-out bin.
Someday, Hill said, he’d like to write a book about the performers he’s been fortunate enough to work with. The theme that will run through that volume will be the pleasure he has always taken in knowing that he can “take the worst piano in the world and make it sound better.
“I have the only job I know of in the world,” he said, smiling, “where I can create harmony.”
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