Piano tuners say they've found the keys to success

July 22, 1992|By Robert A. Masullo | Robert A. Masullo,McClatchy News Service

Some 1,000 unfidgety, detail-minded people have come to Sacramento, Calif., this week from all parts of the United States and Canada to tune up.

No, they're not auto mechanics.

They're members -- or potential members -- of the Piano Technicians Guild, a Kansas City-based international association of piano tuners and technicians, who are meeting for their 35th annual convention. More than 50 pianos have been brought into the hotel for their use.

The main reason for one to come to the convention is to attend classes -- such as "The Science of Wool, Felt and Hammers," "Secrets of the Superglues" and "Shop Procedures for Fun and Profit." In all, there are 77 classes from which to choose.

The tuners/technicians also will network among themselves, attend business meetings, a banquet, and, on Saturday night, a special concert of the Billy Taylor Trio in the Community Center Theater. They'll also visit some 50 exhibits set up by manufacturers of pianos and piano-related items.

In short, one might say, they're fine tuning their craft.

Almost all piano technicians, it should be noted, are piano tuners. But not all tuners are technicians. A tuner simply tunes pianos. A technician repairs and rebuilds them as well. Usually a person becomes a piano tuner first and then goes on to become a technician. The guild, which has been in business since 1957 (when two earlier competing organizations merged), serves both.

What kind of people are they?

According to James Bryant of Sacramento, a member of the guild's Sacramento Valley Chapter and the convention's host committee chairman, the ideal piano tuner is "an independent sort of person who loves piano music (even if he doesn't play the piano himself), enjoys being his own boss, is very patient, not too fidgety, and likes doing things that involve lots of details."

Mr. Bryant, 67, should know. He's been a piano technician since 1954 and during much of the time since then has operated a correspondence school for piano tuners, the Kniles Bryant School, which his grandfather founded in 1898.

"When my grandfather got started," Mr. Bryant said, "there were very few people who knew anything about piano tuning. Most pianos were out of tune in those days. When people talk about 'old-fashioned honky-tonk pianos' that's what they're talking about -- out-of-tune pianos -- and the reason they were out of tune was because you just couldn't find anyone who knew a thing about tuning back then."

No longer. Today, there are an estimated 15,000 piano tuners in North America, nearly 4,000 of whom are members of the guild. Many are graduates of correspondence schools such as

Bryant's. Others studied at universities or vocational schools. A few have apprenticed under an experienced tuner.

There is no legally specified route to a career in piano tuning. However, the guild tests and certifies members who wish to establish professional credibility.

This is the guild's first convention in Sacramento. Behind it was a strong lobbying effort on the part of the 50-member Sacramento Valley Chapter and the fact that one of the chapter's own, Fern Henry of Vacaville, west of Sacramento, is currently first vice president of the international guild and is about to move up to president. She will be the first woman to hold the position.

"The number of women in this business has grown dramatically since I started in 1975," said Ms. Henry, 49. "Back then, there were hardly any. But now, probably a third of us are."

She pointed out, however, that some women have always been involved in the field. "Did you know that Beethoven's piano tuner was a woman? Well, it's true. Her name was Nanette Stein," said Ms. Henry.

Ms. Henry had been a church musician before becoming a piano tuner. She got interested in the field "because I wanted to do something connected with music that I could make a living at."

Musicians can rarely make ends meet from performance income, Ms. Henry contends, and, "consequently, most go into some form of teaching." But she had no desire to do so.

Would she recommend piano tuning to men as well as women?

"Definitely, if they have the right personality. The money's good and there's plenty of work."

She quickly notes, however, that there are few rich piano tuners. A full-time tuner with an established list of customers can earn $30,000 to $60,000 a year, she said, "depending on how good a business person you are and how hard you want to work."

James Johnson, 48, of Shingle Springs, east of Sacramento, who has been in the business since 1968 when he earned a college degree in piano technology, entered the field for different reasons.

Mr. Johnson, who will be teaching a spinet tuning class at the convention, said: "It encompasses several of my strongest interests -- music, woodworking, and dealing with a million little odds and ends. I enjoy them but, I know, a lot of people would find them tedious.

"Take the spinet. Because they're so small they present a lot of unusual problems. They have loads of little parts and are one of the most difficult piano types to tune. Some tuners hate to work on them but I find them fun."

That may be a pleasure of which Mr. Johnson will have less and less. With the advent of electronic keyboards, spinets have become the dinosaur of the piano world.

"But that's about the only piano that's had a problem," he said. "More and more people are buying grand pianos today and even the better uprights are still popular. There's no danger we won't have instruments to work on. In fact, we can hardly keep up with all the ones that are out there."

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