If only pianos could talk

written by Brian Wilson
09 3 14

You want to do what”? asked my Manager. “Leave a career in banking to tune pianos?

He wasn’t the only one to ask this question. Why would I want to leave a stable and respected career and go and work on pianos?

Electronic organs are the popular instrument. Pianos are on the way out!

That was 1984, and I started an apprenticeship in piano tuning and repairs, which was then a recognised trade in this country. Thirty years later, I am still working on pianos, and I wouldn’t swap the past thirty years for anything.

During the past thirty years I have completed an apprenticeship, repaired old pianos, tuned second hand and new pianos in warehouses, homes, bars, clubs, hotels, penthouses, concert halls, performances for live radio, recording studios, at the beach, outdoor music festivals and probably a few other venues I shouldn’t mention.

In that time I have met so many people from all walks of life, from the music student or their teacher, to musicians including some famous ones, to Hollywood actors and politicians. I have also travelled to Japan, Germany, England and USA for training was well as being awarded a Churchill Fellowship in 2012.

How do you train to be a piano tuner?

My industry has changed since I started working in 1984. I was offered an apprenticeship and that was the most popular method of training as it served a purpose of finishing school and learning a trade whilst on the job. The alternative was a 2 year TAFE course at a training facility in Melbourne, which I contemplated applying, but when I was offered the apprenticeship, I took that opportunity. In about 1995 the Melbourne course closed, and a one year course started at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, but that also has since closed.

There is now a one year course in Melbourne which is supported by Yamaha and it seems popular, however the fees of about $25,000.00 makes it difficult for younger people to apply. I take pride of having trade papers for my completion of my apprenticeship, though the country of my birth is no longer interested in the old apprenticeship systems; the educated bureaucrats have decided that the industry is too small to be bothered with. Unfortunately the experts controlling my industry are not technicians.

So what do piano tuners do?

I believe I am in the music instrument repair business, the entertainment business, part of the performing arts industry, a good listener with a great sense of relative pitch, a memory for sounds, as well as sometimes a stage hand, lighting technician, Boy Friday, piano polisher, piano mover, and it sometimes seems that I am a therapist.

A piano technician is a person trained in making adjustments in the tension of piano strings to align the intervals so that when the instrument is played the harmony is correct. Every piano is different, so each piano has to be tuned to its own characteristics.

After tuning the instrument and making it sound “in tune” there is action regulation which is the alignment and adjustment of the moving parts so that the instrument can play to it’s potential. Regulation of the action consists of more than 25 adjustments on each note, however one adjustment affects another so the technician is always going back and refining earlier work.

Then there is voicing, which basically is adjusting and evening out the tonality of the instrument. The result of tuning, regulating and voicing is an instrument that sounds melodic and responds to the nuances in the pianist’s touch and inspires them to keep playing.

Then there are repairs, part replacement, restoration, and much more. After 30 years, I am still learning my craft.

I have met so many different characters, that were human, canine, feline but the most rewarding is meeting the pianos themselves; each of which could tell us their experiences if only they could talk.

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