And thank you!
A little about me, to get us started:
I have been servicing pianos professionally for fifteen years. I’ve been playing pianos for, well… *cough* many more years than that. And I’m probably not as good a pianist as I should be for all those years. But I know the instrument. And I know what this glorious, 88-keyed creature means to the musician who wields it. I guess you could say that’s how I got into this crazy profession.
I grew up playing a little Kawai console piano. It was my best friend and at times my only constant. So, when a cranky old guy calling himself “The Piano Doctor” showed up to tune it one day, grumped about it not being an American piano, then proceeded to take four hours to tune it, only for it to sound a week later the worst it had sounded in 21 years…
I took it personally. I thought the guy had ruined my best friend. It felt awful.
The piano was fine. Turns out, he was just a grumpy old guy who didn’t like Kawais and used it as a scheme to convince unwitting piano owners to buy his rebuilds. The second tech I called was familiar with his ‘work,’ and had encountered upset customers like me before. The worst part? This shyster was even a Registered Piano Technician. So, the Piano Technicians Guild, one of the only gauges for “quality” in this line of work, couldn’t even protect me from wasted money, stress, and temporary heartache. NOT the PTG’s fault, btw. They are a great source for information and education for both the technician and the piano owner. Unfortunately, though, all the information and education in the world doesn’t necessarily serve as guarantee for, well, anything.
Did I mention I took this personally?
That was when I decided, if I ever had a chance to learn how to tune a piano, I would take it. Then, no one else would touch my best friend, ever again.
Amazingly, a year or so later, I walked into that one random chance.
I’d moved back to Boston (god, I love that city), in the hopes of finishing up my degree at Berklee College of Music. Unfortunately, once I got there, I discovered that my financial aid paperwork had fallen through the cracks. I was working a temp job and had been offered a $30k/year starting position as admin assistant to accounting for a major insurance company, when I walked into a little piano shop on Boylston where a very young-looking man was tuning a piano. I’d only ever seen old men tuning! So I asked him where he learned the trade, and he informed me that they had a paid apprenticeship program there, and gave me the boss’s number.
After much begging and pleading, I was offered $7.25/hour to learn how the trade of piano technology. In Boston’s cost of living. It wasn’t that long ago, either.
Hell, yeah, I took it! I was still young and
stupid full of ambition and hope and dreams.
Ironically, my campus for learning this invaluable trade would turn out to be Berklee. Dennie Chambers, my mentor, was contracted to maintain the school’s pianos at that time, so every year he hired on a small handful of hopefuls at minimum wage, taught us, and eventually the
wheat would separate from the chaff the sane ones would run away, EVENTUALLY, a smaller handful would remain, and we’d continue doing the piano technician thing under Dennie’s tutelage.
It was kind of trial by fire, really. Since we didn’t really know anything starting out, Dennie taught us the basics and put us in Berklee’s worst piano practice rooms: the ones that were made available to all the students, even the guitarists and drummers. Pianos that were banged on, smoked on, defaced, occasionally set on fire – they all had to be tuned twice a year, per contract, as well as kept mechanically in working order. If we could make them function like a piano should, we got to graduate to the nicer piano practice rooms – the ones for piano majors only. Eventually, we were tested, and the one who could get a piano closest to ‘tuned’ in an hour (me!) got to graduate to classroom pianos, then teaching studios, then concert halls and recording studios, etc.
In addition to Berklee pianos, Dennie did concert rentals and stage tunings. And sent some of us to do stage tunings. Again: trial. by. fire. My first piano tuning ever happened in a January (and took eight hours, btw – the insanity happens when you keep practicing the tuning process over and over until you’re down to an hour). Some time in the summer of that year, I was sent to do my first stage tuning. (Lyle Lovett.) Terrifying and exhilarating and serious as hell. We had to get in and get out, and we had to do it all by ear. While they were running sound check and putting the stage together. And we damned well better not complain, or try to talk to the artist, or any of that nonsense.
In the all too brief time I was in Boston and working for Dennie, I did a BUNCH of stage tunings. The Boston Pops, Carly Simon, Alicia Keys, Dave Brubeck, Natalie Merchant, Harry Connick, Jr. (he was the only artist I ever actually met, and it is still a point of pride that I only *almost* giggled when he gave me “the smile”), Eartha Kitt… to name a few.
I owe Dennie so very much. Yeah, it was an insane leap of faith and a bit of 20-something foolishness to take a 50% pay cut. But what I got in return was a lifetime’s career. Wherever you are now, Dennie, from the bottom of my soul, thank you. And I know I’m not the only one whose life you changed by teaching us this skill.
I’m the only one who touches my piano(s), now.