by Hannah Beckett, RPT
“You can get a very unusual view of the mountains from here. Mount Baldy is the snowcapped one. You can’t appreciate the height of these mountains just by flying over them.” Kathy Smith had just picked me up from one of the many airports in Los Angeles and was familiarizing me with the area that she and David Vanderlip call home. The view of the Santa Ana mountains was particularly clear that day. “Sometimes I miss university work,” Kathy says, “But what I don’t miss is slamming through 75 tunings when school is out, only to have a Santa Ana wind blow through the next day bringing five percent humidity to undo all my work. Now I spend almost all my time with just 20 instruments. I love keeping the pianos in good shape.”
Before we go to the VanderSmith (as they are affectionately called by the locals) residence, Kathy is making a quick stop at Segerstrom Hall, one of the five concert venues in her care. Opening in 2006, the spare-no-expense hall seats around 2,000 and hosts around 10-15 concerts per month. I follow Kathy through a hall of fame lined with photos of concerts by artists including Emanuel Ax, Lang Lang, and Jean-Yves Thibaudet. The Steinway D on the stage of the curvaceous and airy hall receives almost daily attention from Kathy, and she is used to working with concert artists from all over the world.
“These artists aren’t looking for groupies or fans when they come for a rehearsal. They’re looking for a competent, working relationship with their technician. My role is to be calm and maintain a reassuring skill level in the center of chaos. I actually love working with the artists. Most of them have come back enough times that they remember me. The collaboration between artist and technician leads to good things sometimes. One time Emmanuel Ax was having a hard time choosing between two instruments so I suggested he use both. He thought about that for a bit and eventually arranged his concert to include both pianos. He played the first half of the concert on one piano, and then during the intermission, we switched pianos. Before he played the second half of the concert, he explained how he had arranged his repertoire according to the unique qualities of each piano. It was a really wonderful concert.”
Kathy has worked out an approach to concert service informed by working nearly 350 concerts a year around Los Angeles. “My deal with hall managers is this: if we sign on together, I’m going to help them manage their fleet. I’m going to tell them when they need new parts, I’m going to help them find covers and benches and refinishers, the pianos will be in tune etc. Basically, I’ll be their resource, but in turn, they have to stay on top of scheduling and meet my prices and my standards of care.
They’ve all signed on to that and it works great. Sometimes it can be hard at first to work with uninformed administrators at a new venue. They don’t understand the demands of keeping a concert instrument performance-ready. They tune their home piano once a year and think they’re doing great, so why should they pay me to tune the concert piano every day all week? Once they realize these standards of care are not some pie in the sky and are actually being done in real life at many other venues they are more willing to adopt a service level they never imagined existed. There’s a huge amount of education involved with providing concert service. The easiest place to work is somewhere that has had their piano rejected by a visiting artist. They’ve learned their lesson the hard way and are ready for the type of commitment I ask of them.”
Kathy’s standards of care do more than just provide concert venues with consistent service, they ensure that her work and reputation is cared for as well. Due to its public nature, concert work can have many pitfalls, but Kathy’s standards put the control of the pianos back in her competent hands. “Scheduling with venues can be complicated. I make sure they know that there are consequences if they fail to plan ahead. If I get a late call, I may have to charge double. I’ll drop anything to be there for them, but if it hurts my other client in the process, I’m going to have to charge them for it. Nine times out of ten, the late notice is can fit in smoothly so I don’t often have to charge them double.”
With the amount of concerts Kathy services, sometimes she is triple booked over the weekends. She has worked hard to develop good subs for those situations. “My subs are people I’ve mentored and fully trust. One misplaced, off-hand comment can easily produce problems for me, so I have to know that my representatives have the right attitude. An inconsequential problem with a piano can easily go from, ‘I removed the paperclip that was inside the action,’ to being translated by the stage crew as ‘Hey Kathy, your sub said the piano was broken the other day before the rehearsal.’ You have to learn to keep your mouth shut and not provide unnecessary information that can be misconstrued. I try to get all of my subs in to all the venues with me. It’s the little things that make concert work uncomfortable: Where do I park? How do I sign in? Where’s the back door? I want to make sure they know these things and are eased into the process. I also try to get them to go to a selection with me so they are acquainted with the artist they will be working with. I want them to be really comfortable so that if I have to call them at the last minute, they’re ready to go in.”
Kathy runs a tight ship, but she’s used to unpredictable situations and thinking on her feet. In another life, Kathy was an adventurer with jobs ranging from working with troubled teens in the wilderness to being a cross-country driver tour guide (before the GPS) for European sight-seeing groups. She’s a horseback rider, glacier mountaineer, and pilot. After finishing a music therapy degree at Michigan State University, she returned for another degree during the time they offered a piano technology diploma. Upon completion of her second degree, she got a job as technician for California State University, Long Beach, a position that would keep her occupied for the next 30 years. Since taking care of 100 pianos wasn’t enough for her to do, she started spending her day off working at the Steinway dealership, where she was hoping to develop more efficient skills. David Vanderlip was also working there, and after two years of dealership work, she transitioned over to David’s rebuilding shop to further her skills along with a few other subcontracting technicians. The rest is history, and the VanderSmiths have been taming pianos together in L.A. ever since.
Our tour of Segerstrom Hall reaches a close and we head back to Kathy and David’s home just around the corner from Disneyland. “David and I have season passes to Disneyland and we go there for a break very often. We aren’t allowed to say the ‘P’ word once we get through the gate.” Getting a break from pianos is something many technicians struggle with, and when both partners are piano junkies, it can get even harder. “Most days, we meet up at the end of the day, share the stories we’ve been saving up and help each other solve the problems we’ve encountered. Being married to someone who is as obsessed with pianos as you are is really special. Pianos are so spectacular and unusual that you just want to share it with someone who gets it too. It’s also so convenient to have someone who understands the demands of your schedule. It’s not unusual for us to have to cancel a date night because an artist’s concert piano selection got moved to the same night. At the end of the day, we have each other’s back, literally. If David’s back is out and he can’t get the concert voicing done at one of his universities, I’ll head over and do it for him. Likewise, if I can’t find a sub, I know David can cover it for me.”
David went from being a drum- and guitar-playing rocker to a Chopin-loving classical piano addict. After a neck injury that prevented him from practicing as much as he wanted, he became interested in piano technology as another way to interact with the piano. “My piano technician ordered a tuning starter kit for me when he heard that I was interested in being a tech. After I destroyed the tuning on my piano enough times he finally said, ‘Go get some training or stop ruining my piano!’ I eventually sold my drum kit to fund my piano technology career and started taking classes from LaRoy Edwards and Francis Mehaffey. At the time, Francis was teaching a class every Thursday night to about 20 technicians at his home. I also spent my day off of my job managing a jewelry store with Francis at his shop. He was always doing something unusual to his pianos. It was great hands-on learning. I had no idea how lucky I had been to land such amazing mentors until I went to my first convention and saw how involved they were with PTG.”
The VanderSmiths were among the first seven instructors tasked to teach the new Grand Action Regulation (GAR) class hosted by PTG that LaRoy was largely responsible for developing. David says, “When I was learning piano technology, a penny’s thickness was our aftertouch gauge. Of course, most pennies vary in size, so that’s been thrown out, and we now have many more precise ways of measuring. Piano technology has progressed so much and information is far more readily available than it used to be. LaRoy was all about how the action actually felt after regulation. In the class, we want you to measure things so that you can understand differences in specs, but at the end of the day it has to feel good.”
The VanderSmiths with a Grand Action Regulation graduating class.
The VanderSmiths have spent a lot of time honing the the GAR class for consistency and efficiency. “There’s just not enough time to get through it all,” David says. “We work so hard to stay on topic so that we can plow through the amount of content we have to cover. LaRoy had a ‘see it, say it, do it’ approach that applied the concepts of regulation to all types of learning styles. We really hope by the end of the class that everyone is confident with their regulation skills.”
Kathy and David are both products of successful mentorship, and as is usually the case, they’re eager to pass on their experiences to the next generation. It’s not unusual to find David teaching a budding technician in the rebuilding shop attached to his house or a practice room at one of the universities he services. Kathy’s mentees often move on from working with her to other positions such as university technicians or independent concert technicians. One of them is now the head technician for the L.A. Philharmonic.
As part of the first exam center in PTG, the VanderSmiths have invested a lot in getting people through the RPT exams. Kathy said, “It’s a good thing we have very carefully designed exams that are consistently strict and fair, because if there was any room to wiggle, we’d always be trying to help them out more than we should. A recent successful tech examinee ended up sobbing from sheer relief and emotional release of tension. It was downright humbling to be a part of their success. Pass or fail, a well-done exam ends up teaching the examinee a lot, and they make that very comment often, so it must seem true from their end also.”
David and Kathy working on an exam jig at an exam prep class.
One person David is currently mentoring told me, “David and Kathy have welcomed me into the Southern CA PTG gang like family. David’s patience and wisdom has taught me how to best approach any piano. The VanderSmith’s high level of workmanship and generosity of their comprehensive knowledge is extraordinary. They have approached the field, the PTG family and its members, and each piano with a humble and admirable attitude.” The dynamic duo of Kathy Smith and David Vanderlip represents a rounded look at all that piano technology can encompass, and also reflects the many places that hard work and dedication can take you. “I love what I do,” Kathy says, “If I didn’t love it, I’d quit. People thought I was retiring when I quit the university job a few years ago, but I never said the ‘R’ word!”