At 5 a.m. each day, most Spoleto festivalgoers are still snug in their beds.
That’s the time Scott Higgins, Spoleto Festival USA’s official piano technician, wakes up without an alarm clock, eats breakfast, watches the news and checks his email.
“If I get into a venue before anyone else does, that works best,” said Higgins. “I get to know the cleaners, but I’m in and out before anyone else arrives.”
He’ll check as many as six pianos — poking and prodding, playing scales to listen for knocking keys or odd tones — before most of Charleston opens its sleepy eyes.
Throughout 17 days of Spoleto Festival happenings, few stop to think about the folks behind the scenes, the ones who keep the wheels of Spoleto oiled and spinning: the maintenance crews, press office, page turners and security guards.
Aming this group stands Higgins, who keeps 12 pianos, including Steinways trucked down from New York, in perfect working condition for shows and concerts.
With his spiky brown hair and dark-rimmed glasses, Higgins isn’t a recognizable face, even though he’s been working at the festival since 1987. That’s when a mentor from his alma mater, the New England Conservatory in Boston, realized he’d be a great fit for the job.
“I was 27 years old and I thought, ‘Yeah, that’d be kind cool,’ ” Higgins said. “I drove a Ford Escort with no air and wore corduroy pants all the way down here, and it was hot.”
Higgins remembers Spoleto in ways many people will never know — the years when Memminger Auditorium had pigeons inside, and no public restrooms — and he enjoys his time so much, he hasn’t missed a single festival. It’s his three weeks of annual vacation from a day job at the University of Memphis, where he’s responsible for over 100 pianos.
His wife, Tracy Higgins, says it’s the best vacation for Scott — and the California girl was able to visit the South for the first time by traveling to Charleston with him.
Tracy has a dance background of four generations in her family, but she saw her first symphony and opera in Charleston because of Higgins’s involvement in the festival.
“I fell in love, and it’s my favorite place to go now,” she said. “In a way, his work there does fulfill getting away and getting to go to a beautiful place, just like a vacation.”
When the couple first started dating, Higgins didn’t tell Tracy what he did for a living. In fact, he never told any girl on the first few dates.
“I try to stay away from the piano geeky stuff because piano technicians are kind of like computer geeky guys: they’re a little off,” he said.
Tracy wasn’t intimidated.“He told me he found his job in a magazine, and I told myself as long as he didn’t sell guns I could deal with anything,” she said.
Higgins’ grandfather, father and uncle might have had the same problem on their first dates, since they’re all piano techs as well. At 14 years old, Higgins worked on his first piano in Saginaw, Mich.
At 19, he showed up to tune a customer’s piano for the first time on his own and the woman at the door wouldn’t let him in.
“She said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I expected someone so much older!’ ” he said. “You don’t usually think of someone young going into it; you think of a guy 50 to whatever.”
Higgins has worked for the Savannah Music Festival, Oregon Festival of American Music, Eugene Symphony Orchestra and other musical organizations. In addition to tuning and voicing at the University of Memphis, he teaches piano technology classes using a book of notes he compiled from pianists over the last 10 years.
“There are a lot of good piano techs that are very qualified,” he said. “That’s only 50 percent. The other 50 percent is how you relate to the artist — that they know you’re there for them and you want to make them happy.”
In many ways, Higgins views tuning and voicing a piano like psychiatry.
“I may get a call and not need to fix the piano. It’s how I’ve related to my client,” he said. “The first couple of times that happened, I said there’s something else to this job.”
Michael Grofsorean, director of the Wells Fargo Jazz Series, calls Higgins one of music’s “unsung heroes.”
Grofsorean works closely with Higgins each year to determine where pianos should be kept and rotated to minimize environmental exposure to heat and humidity.
“This is a huge job and he’s done (it) very well,” he said. “He is servicing musicians across a wide spectrum. We never have complaints about his work.”
For Higgins, it’s all about the artist, no matter how famous or amateur.
“If I can be part of something like this and prepare something for someone and they’re happy with it, that’s where I get my thrill.”
Leah Stacy is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.
Scott Higgins, the official piano technician for Spoleto Festival USA, tunes a piano at the College of Charleston. Photo by Leah Stacy.×