Piano tuners

Before I began interviewing piano tuners, I didn’t have the vaguest idea about the profession. The blind piano tuner, I recalled, was a second-string stock character in novels and films about wealthy families in the late 19th century, but sightlessness seemed an unlikely prerequisite for the profession as a whole.

At any rate, the tuners I spoke with generously took time to relate the details of their profession, patiently explaining some of the basics of music and wave theory and revealing the surprisingly broad range of bizarre objects sometimes found inside pianos (I heard anecdotes about instruments inhabited not only by mice — both living and dead — but also by the occasional used condom and even a pair of loaded .45s). And if my contacts are representative of their colleagues, I can say that piano tuners are really nice folks.

As well they should be. After all, they’re invited into people’s homes to work on prized possessions that may have profound significance for their owners. That requires a high level of trust, and inspiring that trust is as much a part of the profession as mastering the mechanics of the piano.

As an amateur banjo player, I know something about the kind of intimate relationships musicians tend to develop with their instruments. Beginning, perhaps, with the preference for a particular manufacturer’s design, it evolves over time into something far deeper, as a manufactured object is worn and shaped by use into a uniquely personalized tool.

And as longtime tuner Clayton Harmon told me, repeating himself with a sort of head-shaking reverence, pianos are “so complex. They’re so complex. They’re like a human body, you know? They’re so complex, and every one is different.”

Harmon, a charter member of the Piano Technicians Guild, was born in Asheville but moved to Tennesse in 1934, at age 14. Harmon’s father, a railroad man, had also trained as a piano tuner, and he turned to that profession when illness forced him from the heavy labor of the rails. “I started going with him,” Harmon recalls. “And just sort of like osmosis, listening to him over and over and over, well one day I said, ‘Daddy, that sounds a little bit flat.'” Gradually, Harmon’s father taught him the business. In 1947, Harmon saw an opening for a piano tuner advertised in what was then the Asheville Citizen and hitchhiked his way here, where he worked for a local Steinway dealer. The dealer sold his business a few years later, and Harmon went independent, as he still is today.

Will McGuffin lived in Asheville in the 1940s but later moved away; he was a voice major in college and graduate school. While teaching music at a small college in Tennessee, McGuffin became good friends with a piano tuner there. “The more I talked to her about the piano-tuning business, the more I thought it sounded like something I would like to be doing,” he recalls. So he enrolled in a piano-technology school in Boston. In 1979, McGuffin found his way back to Asheville.

Jerry Gaines became interested in music theory and the science of music while in junior high. In his 20s, he took a job in a shop that rebuilt pianos, where he began tuning. Two years ago, Gaines moved from Florida to Western North Carolina. He still does repair work as well as tuning. In his basement workshop, says Gaines, “I don’t do any refinishing, but I do anything else up to total rebuilding.”

Surprisingly, none of these guys is a serious piano player.

McGuffin still practices as a vocalist, but after a long day of listening to vibrating strings, he says he prefers to spend his free time in relative quiet. As for Gaines, he confessed, “I used to think I was a piano player, but I question that now.”

Harmon told me, “When I get through, I have a little piece that I play and it shows the customer, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s beautiful!’ But I never did play.”

Still, that “Oh, that’s beautiful!” seems to be a key piece of what motivates one to pursue this esoteric trade.

“Piano tuning is an odd job, because it’s extremely tedious work if you do it right,” says McGuffin. “But the good side is, when you sit at a horrible-sounding piano and an hour later it sounds really good, the customer can immediately perceive that. That’s a nice feeling; it’s instant gratification.”

For his part, Gaines enjoys the diverse range of customers. “What I like about it is you meet such a wide range of people demographically,” he says. “I might interact with a rapper in the inner city and two hours later be talking to a Ph.D. at a university.” And despite the inevitable difficult customers, says Gaines, “For the most part, pianists are pretty good people.”

That customer contact gives Harmon the confirmation that makes his work fulfilling. “When I tune a piano, the person is, shall we say, unhappy, because you sit and you try to play a piano and it don’t sound right. It does something to your psyche,” Harmon explained. “And when I tune that, and they sit down and they get a big smile on their face … I guess it’s a question of reaction. In other words, what are the qualities of a good job? Customer reaction, customer reaction. And boy, piano tuning has that completely. Most jobs do not have that immediate, one-on-one customer satisfaction.”

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