Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Don Quixote of Piano Tuning

My dad carries piano-tuning tools with him in the trunk of his car. The trunk of his car is rather jammed by the time he fits his suitcase, his tennis racquets, his golf bag with clubs and irons, any medical equipment he needs, his emergency road tool kit, and his piano-tuning tools. There would be positively no extra room in there for a dead body or anything else were it not for the fact that his baby --whichever Martin guitar with which he is traveling at the moment -- takes up the center of the rear seats. The car could be filled to capacity with passengers and the guitar would still have to have the safest spot and its own seat belt. That's where my dad's priorities lie.

The reason my dad carries piano tuning tools with him is that he cannot stand the sound of an out-of-tune piano. I'm the first to agree that a piano that has not been properly tuned is unpleasant to the ear. My way of handling the situation, though, is the way a normal person with a sensitive ear would handle it: A) I don't play out of tune piano; B)If someone else does, I leave. I don't dismantle a piano that belongs to someone else with no authorization whatsoever to do so.

My dad learned to tune pianos because my mom and I both have sensitive ears as well, and my mom was having her concert grand tuned every month or so. At roughly one hundred bucks a pop, this added up very quickly into a sizable wad of cash that could presumably be used for something much more practical. (Clothing for his adolescent daughter would have been my choice method of disposing of his unneeded or unwanted cash, but not his, apparently. He's content to have me be seen in public looking like the child of someone whose unemployment benefits expired just before she outgrew her wardrobe.)

When it was just my mom's piano he was tuning, I didn't give a great deal of thought to the matter. It was her piano, and if he screwed it up, she would probably have bought another piano of equal or greater value and had it delivered to our home the very next day. Now there are two pianos in our home. I have a Kawai ebony baby grand. As baby grands go, it's actually a bit large; the model is sometimes referred to as a "parlour grand."

I should explain a bit about piano makes and models at the upper end. The very finest pianos are made by the Steinway and Bosendorfer corporations; they're considered the Lamborghinis and Ferraris of the piano world. Other companies, including Bechstein, Estonia, Faziolo, Feurian, and Grotrian, likewise consider themselves among the ranks of the elite. While they're all high-quality instruments, and I certainly wouldn't turn anyone down who tried to sell me one for a few bucks in some back alley deal, by and large the other mentioned piano makers are the Rick Santorums, Michele Bachmans, and Ron Pauls in the Great Piano Race. The major competition, the one that takes place after the mere hopefuls and wannabe contenders have been vetted and exposed for their single-issue agendas, lack of substance, and Tea Party/Birther connections, as well as for the skeletons in their closets, in all likelihood will continue to exist in the forseeable future between Steinway and Bosendorfer.

As far as Steinway and Bosendorfer go, both are equisite instruments. Bosendorfer has more than 88 keys on some of its models, with the extra keys going to the extreme bass range. Ironically, Steinway features greater clarity in its deepest tones. Bosendorfer is known for a more mellow tone, and its strengths are probably best displayed in the playing of more subtle and nuanced musical works. Steinway shows its forte in a firmer sound, and, of course, the amazing clarity of the deep tones, which often, on other makes of pianos, sound more like loud and percussive noises than like actual musical notes.

The subject of my father tuning our pianos became more of an issue when my Godparents bought a "parlour grand" (large baby grand) Kawai piano for me. The Godparents' choice of the Kawai brand for me was not a coincidence. My Godparents wanted me to have a good-quality instrument of my own on which to practice while the other piano was in use, yet didn't necessarily want to drop the 100K for a Bosendorfer, or even the minimum 45K for a new Steinwsy. Their choice in piano makes for me was well-advised. It's thought by many people who know about such things that for any given amount of money, one will get a better instrument from the Kawai corporation than from any other. This is not to say that Kawai pianos are the finest on the planet, but if a person is going to drop twenty-thousand dollars for a piano, he will get a higher quality Kawai than any other make of piano. Thus, while my piano is not the Steinway that my mom owns, it is a beautiful-sounding and -looking piano. I don't wish to have just any Tom, Dick, or Harry wander in off the street to take it apart and put it back together again purely in the interest of science. This was initially a source of conflict between myself and my father, as I detest the sound of a piano that has digressed from A=440 and the relative auditory distantces between pitches of keys. I wanted my piano in tune every bit as much as my mom wanted hers to be; I just thought shelling out about a hundred bucks every month was a suitable alternative to having Andy Amateur mess with such a valuable and sensitive instrument, especially since no one was necessarily volunteering to replace my piano when dad inevitably screwed it up beyond repair.

The compromise we reached was that my dad would take a week-long refresher course for people already familiar with the art and science of piano tuning. Following this course, he received certification as a piano tuner. Even following successful completion of training, it initially gave me a slight urge to pluck strands of hair from my head a handful at a time on each occasion that he approached my Kawai with his tools. (This is how a person might feel about watching his or her only child's heart being transplanted by a second-year surgical resident.) I've since grown accustomed to it, due in more than a small part to the fact that I have enough money in the bank to replace my Kawai were my dad to kill it with the slip of a tuning fork or whatever tool he happened to have in his hand.

Now, for me anyway, the issue is one of embarrassment. If my dad hears patrons playing a poorly-tuned piano in a lobby of a hotel in which we're staying, he puts on a white lab coat, excuses himself to the person playing it, and proceeds to open the thing up and make the needed adjustments and repairs on the spot. What is amazing to me is that he has never been stopped at this "tipping his hat to windmills" sort of behavior when it comes to pianos. He goes about his business (which is, in a technical as well s a practical sense, not really his business at all) with an air that implies he's doing exactly what he should be doing. As he leaves, the attending hotel, restaurant or even school employee, will typically bring up the payment arrangement, or lack of one. My dad will just dismiss the topic with a wave of his hand, saying that he'll send the bill at the end of the month. He won't, of course, because it's questionable at best to even perform a service that was neither requested nor authorized, much less to charge for it.

The interesting thing will happen if my dad ever screws up beyond repair an expensive piano. He has lots of medical malpractice insurance, but it, of course, doesn't cover the doctoring he does on pianos. I can console myself with the idea that it will probably never happen, but still, the idea of losing my inheritance to a botched Bosendorfer or Steinway job is never totally out of the back of my mind.


  1. So your whole family is interesting!! How wonderful!
    We have my great grandparent's piano, it's stand up and that is the extent of my knowlege about it. Except I do know it is very out of tune. No one has probably looked at since it was in my great granparent's house, and it's had a rough life since then.
    I do have daydreams about getting it fixed and Little G learning to play. One can hope. :)

  2. Amelia,
    Ther is occasionally more wrong with a piano than just the intonation, but tuning the piano itself, depending upon where you live, is not all that expense. one that hasn't been tuned in a couple of generations will cost a little more, but still, you should be able to get the job done ay around $125 to $150, and that will last you up to a couple of years if you're not terribly picky or discrimination about the sound. Occasionally the strings on a very old pianowill have tightened or lost flexibility to the extent that it can't be tuned to the standard pitch of A - 440 (symphony orchestras sometimes tune to A - 444 for a slightly brighter sound), butthe notes can still be tuned so that their pitch is relative to one another, which is fine as long as you're not trying to play along with another instrument.

    Pianos are good for children. I hope your child oneday takes lessons, but even if not, there's much to be learned about sight/sound/spatial relationships just from a child independently playing with the keys on his or her own. If you child experiments with your piano, research shows that it will raise his or her performance IQ.

  3. Oh she adores playing with it, we let her all the time. I didn't realize getting it tuned was within our grasp, I'll have to look into it, thank you. :))