Harvey Chronicles: The Itinerant Tuner
Convincing piano owners of the need for regular tuning and service – whether the piano is used regularly or not –has been an ongoing problem for all piano technicians since pianos were invented. This subject may be addressed via a separate, more detailed article. However, of all the reasons for not considering the piano as a routine maintenance item, this is but one variant under the heading of piano neglect — one in which there was interest, but where a qualified tuner/tech was unavailable.
This story does not involve me, except as a listener. It was shared with me early in my career by one of my equally early — in fact, my first mentor, Lee.
At some point in his life, Lee decided to relocate from the east to the west coast. Since he was in no particular hurry, he chose to take advantage of his tuning background (a transportable skill) to work his way across the country, and enjoy local sites, people and customs that he had yet to experience.
As described to me, Lee would stop in a small community along his travel route, a location that would no doubt have some pianos, but not enough population density (and obviously percentage of piano owners) to support a local tuner. On arrival, he used various methods to “advertise”, including inquiries at barber shops, post office, diners and other public areas. It was through one of these referrals that this story begins to evolve.
I don’t remember where he was, and am not sure he even mentioned it, but his description of the area fit somewhere in the Midwest. A farm, miles from town, with nothing but flat land around for miles — except more miles of flat land as far as the eye could see.
The lady client was quite happy to have a piano tuner from the big city. For that matter, from anywhere, since she had never had her piano tuned!
Lee failed to mention where the pitch or tuning of the piano was as he found it, but it probably sounded like it had fallen off a truck … several times. Or perhaps it had travelled across country in a covered wagon, and later passed on to succeeding generations of family. In any case, Lee began the arduous task of *multiple* pitch raises and tunings, until finally he was satisfied that the piano was as correct as the instrument would permit. He then invited the lady to check out the results for herself.
With a smile of anticipation, the lady sat down and began to play. After a few notes and chords, she stopped. If the look on her face wasn’t enough to show her disappointment, her words were.
She: “You have ruined my piano!”
Lee: “I’m sorry … I don’t understand.”
She: “Nothing sounds right. I can’t play it.”
Knowing he had used the proper protocols and checks for both pitch adjustments and tuning, Lee asked if he might try it, so they changed places. He then checked pitch, unisons, multiple octaves, and various other intervals that tuners use. And, although Lee had been a professional trumpet player, he played enough piano to musically check his work. After playing a sample of several tunes, he was comfortable with the results.
She: “Hmm. It all sounds right when you play it!”
With a lot of back and forth discussion, Lee determined that the owner had learned to play piano by rote instead of from written music. She would hear a song, perhaps at church or on the radio, then over time, would “pick out” the notes and chords to the extent that the song sounded right. She had been using this method for decades. Whether the piano was ever tuned correctly (if at all) is not known. Meanwhile, the piano’s tuning and overall pitch were getting progressively worse. Now, with the correct pitch and a proper tuning, the notes she had been playing were no longer in the same place!
Unfortunately, this story does not have a happy ending. Although he was paid for his efforts, both Lee and the piano owner were left with mixed emotions that day, mostly bad ones. Lee would forever remember that, by trying to do the right thing, he inadvertently did the opposite. The piano owner had to look forward to relearning the entire keyboard, and all the songs she had spent so long learning to play.
**Epilogue:** I don’t know the actual date stamp on this story. It was told to me in 1972, at which time it was a snapshot (albeit a vivid one) in the memory of my friend Lee. However, not only was it one of the first experiences shared with me by a colleague, it continues to be one of my most remembered accountings over the years. Since then, I’ve had my own experiences relating to piano neglect, but to date none with the extended implications — that of unwittingly destroying the creative efforts of a piano player.