Thursday, November 15, 2007

Four Pianos

The holiday season is generally a very busy time for piano technicians. With parties galore, it suddenly dawns on people that they want their piano tuned. Whether a regular customer with a well-maintained piano or a new customer who's piano hasn't been serviced in 10 years, this is the time of year they all call.

I am no exception. I decided to get my own piano in shape. Well, playable at least!

But first...

My Tuesday morning customer. This is one that hasn't had the piano tuned in ten years. Oh, and they did mention that the roof had leaked on the piano. Since this customer was nearby, I offered to do a quick inspection at no charge before scheduling a tuning. I love local customers, particularly with the sky-rocketing gasoline prices! The piano was an old studio sized relic. Beat up case, chipped keytops, and the workings hidden under a thick layer of gray dust. Sort of like the house. It had two keys that were easy fix, and a few hammers out of alignment...another easy fix. I played all the notes up and down the keyboard and was relieved that no individual notes were extraordinarily whacky which would have made me wary of loose tuning pins. I took out my tuning fork and thunked it against my knee cap to get it to sound. As I brought it to my ear, I played the corresponding A on the piano. Expecting to find the note drastically below pitch, I was amazed when it rang remarkably true to the fork. Armed with all the information I needed, I scheduled an appointment for fixing what needed fixing, a "the big stuff" vacuuming, and a tuning. The first date that we could coordinate schedules puts this job almost two weeks away. Then the customer asked for another tuning two weeks after the first. "Why?"
"Because I think it will need another one", he said.
I asked his wife if he were a pessimist. Then I agreed to write the second tuning in my schedule, but instructed him to call and cancel it when the piano still sounded fine.



Then it was time to tackle the monster. My piano. I had been working on it off and on for a few weeks. I had done major work on the piano while it and I were still in Florida including restringing the entire instrument. By this week I had managed to get the "guts" functioning mechanically; each of thousands of parts doing what it was supposed to at exactly the correct moment. Now it was time for the dreaded job. The job that causes me the most stress. The job I had managed to avoid doing very often for the last 15 years. Truth be known, I'd get a technician friend to do this job.

But now I was on my own. I had to yank this piano up to pitch. Starting from massively dissonant tones and string tensions that in no way made musical sense, all 230 plus strings had to be brought a bit above where they ultimately would be tuned.

This is when I fear that nasty, surprising sound of string breakage.

BANG!!!! Just that instant before you realize it's going to happen.

Or worse.

BOOM!!!! Something major was wrong and the increased tension has caused the massive cast iron plate to crack. Pretty much the demise of the instrument.

I had lost sleep the night before, just thinking of the possibilities.

I inhaled deeply and began. I kept telling myself "just go for it" and "if something breaks, so be it, this has to be done". As I progressed I found that I was holding my breath each time I increased the tension on each string. On some tuning pins that were extremely tight, I was clenching my teeth. I had to take a lot of breaks. It's a big upright piano and I had to stand on my tiptoes to reach the top tuning pins with my tuning lever. My right shoulder was aching terribly. But I finished. I did it. I was sooooo pleased with myself. The piano would sit for a day or so before I would attack it again. It would be interesting to see how it "settled".


I was sort of nervous about my Wednesday morning customer. It was just one of those funny feelings you get every once in a while that puts you a bit on edge. David had called a week earlier requesting an appointment for a tuning. He had left a message on my machine and was a new customer. I had returned the call that evening and was surprised when I got an answering machine with a message that stated a different last name than the one David had given. The following day David reached me. He said he had recently moved and his Wurlitzer spinet needed tuning. We agreed on a date and he gave me his address. Not a spectacular neighborhood. I decided that I'd take my chances and if things looked bad once I got there, I'd leave. Well, everything was fine. David showed me to the the bedroom. David had just bought the house and was doing major renovations. He was having to store most of his stuff until finished with the work. Just happened that the floors had been finished in this room, thus the odd furniture combo. Whew. I opened up the piano. It looked strangely at odds with itself. A 1960's spinet with a lovely satin black finish. Not a ding. The innards were sparkling clean. Not a bit of dust. The plain wire strings shone and the copper wound bass strings, although dull in color, were bright in tone.

Someone had blued the steel tuning pins recently. The bluing was on the wire coils of the strings.

Then there was the deserted campground...

of a mouse.

He had cleverly raided the gerbil food from a nearby pet and stored it between the ends of the piano keys and the inside of the case.

Then he had pee'd on his stash of food. Eeeeeeeeew.

Fortunately he had left camp.

The tuning went quickly and easily. Just minded the stench when playing those notes at each extreme of the instrument. I was still puzzled by the odd condition of the piano and asked David a few questions as I was packing up my tools. He estimates that the piano was about ten years old when his parents bought it used from a private party. No dealer involved to clean things up and try to disguise the rusty pins with bluing. None of his answers helped. David took a picture of the old mousie home for his kids and then vacuumed out the gerbil food.


Lanesville is a small community that is part of Gloucester. It sits on the northern tip of the island of Cape Ann. This morning I went to tune the choir practice piano for a church in Lanesville. Don't know where they found this piano. By it's condition, it must have been very eagerly donated. The photograph does it far more justice than it deserves. A beat up, drywall screwed together case, worn hammers, brittle dampers that made crunching noises as they returned to the strings, old Story and Clark spinet. Sticking keys, warped hammer shanks. A pile of little problems and fixes while tuning. And to finish, adjust the pedals as they wouldn't move far enough to work before "bottoming out".


And home to yank up the monster some more. Not nearly so far to yank this time!
It's getting good and I'm smiling.


Here's a short piano related tale from a newspaper clipping that I came across while I was cleaning out my desk. It was Police Notes in the Essex news section of the Gloucester Times several years ago.
A Southern Avenue resident reported a possible break-in at 5:33 p.m. Saturday after he saw a suspicious vehicle on his property and found the door to his office open. Police found the driver of the vehicle, who said he was lost and was trying to find a house where he was scheduled to tune a piano.

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