piano tuning

The Finest Piano Tuner – Chapter 5

Chapter 5 told some of the story of Barry, an exceptional tuner I worked with at the piano store in downtown Boston. I told of one incident when I followed up on a tuning by Barry at a radio studio. Another time that I got to follow up on one of Barry’s tunings was at New England Life Hall.  Barry had tuned a grand piano for a recital of the students of a prominent teacher. When he finished tuning, he started to leave.  The teacher admonished him, saying, “Don’t leave yet, I haven’t checked the tuning.”


Barry replied, “You can check the tuning all you want.  I’m leaving.”


The teacher was so irate on the phone to the owner of the store that the owner sent two of us out to placate her.  I was along for show and for training.  Bart, the head technician, was instructing me in how to deal with difficult and demanding people.  He instructed me to watch how calm he remained and how he did whatever they requested.  They were just asserting their authority and he beat them at their own game by never letting them get to him.  In his mind, by acting submissive, he ended up winning.  This teacher was complaining about a bass octave that Barry had tuned optimally.


Bart said to her, “I’ll just gradually change it, and you tell me when you like it.”  Barry had tuned that piano incredibly well.  I know it’s hard to understand, but usually it’s ludicrous for a musician to try to second-guess a great tuner.  If a piano is tuned badly, a musician can tell, but at the level Barry tuned, only a tuner would have the training to be able to check it accurately, and then not completely.  There are things that you could not tell without tuning it yourself to see if that was the best possible or whether it could be improved.  Because of the slight variation in manufacture and therefore in overtone pattern of strings, there are many times where you tune the best possible, and perfect is not possible.  You couldn’t tell that without tuning it yourself.  That is not something a musician is capable of.  Additionally, a musician does not have the technical training to separate the tuning from the tone, touch, inharmonicity, and overall sound of the instrument.  The musician either likes or dislikes the sound, they can’t differentiate whether it is the tuning or some other aspect of the piano that led them to dislike it.


There were numerous prominent musicians who did appreciate Barry’s work, though. One was Neil Young.  When he was in Boston for a concert, he rented a Steinway vertical piano for his hotel room, for practicing and for composing.  Barry was sent to tune that.  They got along so well that Neil invited Barry to go on tour with him, so he would always have a well-tuned piano.  Barry considered it, but concluded that it wouldn’t work for him.  His wife, his friends, and his singing group were all in Boston.  Plus, he knew how to get around Boston.  For him to be in new places all the time would be worse than sitting in the recording studio all day.  He would be bored to death sitting around most of the time, being unable to get around easily in a new place. Still, Barry did appreciate that a musician as great as Neil Young thought that highly of him and of his work.

Playing Piano by Ear – Added after Completion of Piano Dance

My piano tuning career continued after the publication of Piano Dance, so I continued to meet interesting and extraordinary people. This story is about a client for whom I had tuned for several  years. He was a genius at playing piano by ear. After I would tune his piano, he would play tunes that I knew and we would sing the songs together. Gradually over several years, he related details about his life. Here is some of his story:


Richard was a retired nurse, who had had a long career with a large hospital in the Los Angeles area. While he worked as a nurse, he had a side job on a television set helping actors pronounce medical terms. One day during the filming of a soap opera, an actor was not able to reliably pronounce “glomerular nephritis,” an inflammation of the kidney. The director got so exasperated with the actor that he fired him on the spot. The director then turned to Richard and asked him if he wanted the part. Richard said, “Sure,” so he became Dr. Michael Ferguson on daytime TV. Richard was not inexperienced. When he was a young man living on Cape Cod near Hyannisport, he acted in a small theater near the residence of Judy Garland. As a result he rubbed shoulders with both Ms. Garland and her daughter, Liza Minelli. He looked very much the part of a dashing doctor. I saw a picture of him when he was a young man, and he was tall and very handsome with wavy dark hair.


Richard had begun playing piano as a small child. He would listen to his older brother struggling through his piano lesson, then he would sit down and play the whole lesson by ear perfectly. He said it drove his brother crazy. He played throughout his life, but never professionally. He gradually added songs until he could play about 1500 songs by ear or by memory. By contrast, well-known professionals might have 300 songs memorized. It was so easy for him to play by ear that he never learned to read music.


As an adult, he decided to buckle down and learn to read music, so he took lessons with a well-known teacher. It was a struggle for him, but he applied himself and worked diligently at it. At one lesson, after he completed playing a piece for his teacher, the teacher commented on his playing, saying, “That was excellent, except you forgot to turn the page two minutes ago.” Richard had been playing from memory and by ear so automatically that he didn’t even realize it. The teacher continued, “I think it’s time we just acknowledge that your talent is so great that there is no point in you torturing yourself any further trying to learn to read music.”


After Richard retired, he went to various hospital and nursing homes around LA on several days per week and played old songs for a few hours as a contribution. He told me of one day when he was playing in a hospital and noticed a woman who had come in and out of the room a few times during the day, and who finally just sat and listened for a couple hours. At the end of the day, she came up to Richard and told him how much she appreciated his playing. She said her husband had died there that day, and Richard had played all the old songs they had loved when they were young. She said it was like her husband was saying,”good-bye” to her through Richard’s music.


Richard said that he was more moved by that than by anything that had happened during his decades as a nurse.