'Piano Man' Is Set To Tune Out

June 05, 1995|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Sun Staff Writer

The keyboards of the two pianos look the same with their 88 white and black keys, but technologically they are centuries apart. For Ray Jaworski, however, this step across time is only as long as his repair shop.

The keyboard of the upright acoustic piano is a bulky arrangement of levers, springs and felt-padded hammers. Using a special wrench to tense the more than 200 wire strings, Mr. Jaworski tunes each note by ear.

Although it is more compact than its acoustic counterpart, the electronic piano's keyboard unit is an infinitely more complex arrangement of resistors, capacitors, transistors and other components.

Mr. Jaworski needs a high-powered magnifier and a testing machine to scan the integrated circuit board for the cracks in hair-thin wires that prevent some notes from sounding.

"With an acoustic piano I can usually look at it and see what the problem is," the Glenarm resident said. "With the electronics, you're fighting the unknown. It's like a mystery because they are almost invisible and you have to check everything to find the problem."

Since 1975, Mr. Jaworski has been the Baltimore County school system's "piano man," responsible for keeping the system's more than 1,000 acoustic and electronic pianos playing, sometimes virtually rebuilding the instruments.

However, Mr. Jaworski, 61, is much more than just a piano tuner; he is a diversified craftsman, a piano technician. His shop, most of which Mr. Jaworski built to meet his needs, is at Sudbrook Magnet Middle School. It reflects the various skills required in the job: carpentry, metalwork, welding, painting and electronics.

He also is a working musician. He took his first violin lessons in third grade, later became a professional pianist and now plays tenor banjo in the Starvation Army Dixieland Band.

Mr. Jaworski was a skilled machinist at Bethlehem Steel when he saw an advertisement in 1963 for a piano tuner and repairman. It turned out to be at the city school system's piano shop on 20th Street, and there he stayed until 1975 when the county job was created.

Why did this Highlandtown native give up the machinist's job for which he had trained so long?

"I just wanted to do it," he said. "I just loved music so much. The job brought me closer to music, and I could take on [paying] music jobs that I couldn't have taken while I was at Bethlehem Steel."

Two veteran employees working in the city shop when he arrived taught Mr. Jaworski the tricks of the trade, dealing with more than 1,200 pianos a year. When Mr. Jaworski left in 1975, the shop had five employees. "There I was one of five, but here I've been the only one all these years," Mr. Jaworski said. "I had control over the piano inventory and the service, including the contract tuners who were called to individual schools."

But his authority is being phased out now, he said. "Each principal has control in his own school and can call in a contract technician."

Mr. Jaworski told school authorities recently that he intends to retire in September -- after he finishes repairing the 14 pianos now awaiting his attention.

That pending retirement is bad news for Clinton Marshall, music coordinator for county schools.

"That shop is vital to the school system," Mr. Marshall said. "The savings to the system from that shop is significant."

Finding a successor is a daunting prospect, he said, because Mr. Jaworski is skilled at so many things. "My hope is that we'll find another Ray Jaworski," he said, "but it will be very difficult."

Along with his top-flight craftsmanship, Mr. Jaworski is, frequently and more importantly, "a problem-solver," Mr. Marshall said. "Regardless of what we ask him to do he finds a way, usually at a savings to the school system. The end result is a quality job, better that you expected it would be."

No job is too small for Mr. Jaworski if it will help the students and teachers, the coordinator said. "He works behind the scenes and he doesn't take bows after a concert, but if you don't have a Ray Jaworski, the kids can't give the concert."

As electronics began to dominate the music field, Mr. Jaworski studied industrial electronics for nearly three years and then took computer science courses at Loyola College.

The additional study not only helped him keep abreast of advances for his job but also for his personal musical career. Using keyboards and his computer, he programs accompaniment for himself on banjo.

This is just another step in a broad musical education that started in childhood when he and his siblings sang along as their parents played piano. He played violin from elementary school through Patterson High. As an adult, he bought and quickly mastered a chord organ, and then an electric spinet organ. Lengthy strikes at the steel plant gave Mr. Jaworski the time to enhance his skills even more.

Mr. Jaworski and his wife, Alice, moved in 1962 from Dundalk to Rosedale, where fate helped launch his professional career. A neighbor had a relative who owned a restaurant-night club on Pulaski Highway, and soon Mr. Jaworski was playing six nights a week in various spots.

He said he is taking retirement early to devote even more time to music, particularly the tenor banjo with which he entertains in sing-alongs at nursing homes and senior centers and at private parties.

His most recent gig has been playing banjo for the show "Papa's Pride," by Jane Schnepfe, about Baltimore in 1903, being presented by the Providence Players Dinner Theatre at the Kenwood Presbyterian Church, 4601 Fullerton Ave.

The final performances of "Papa's Pride" will be at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the church. Tickets for the dinner and show are $19. Information may be obtained by calling (410) 828-6912.

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