piano tuner

Used to be that if women wanted to (had to) work, we had three basic options:  teacher, secretary, or nurse.  No more!  All kinds of careers are out there.  One cool career is piano tuner.  Ginny Bear tells us all about it.

WG—What do you like the most about being a piano tuner?

Ginny—It’s a job where you don’t have to work every minute of the day.  If I do ten pianos a week, that’s a good week.  There is travel time involved—I try to schedule my day so I can get there early and walk around the neighborhood a little.  It’s really fun to go to people’s houses.  Some are fabulous homes with spectacular views; some are more humble.  Another fun thing no one ever mentions is that you get to meet people’s pets.  I met a black Lab today who was just a sweetheart of a dog.

WG—That’s true, in addition to dealing with the piano you have to deal with the piano’s people.  But don’t you need to be alone to tune a piano?  Wouldn’t, say, screaming children cause a problem?

Ginny—Screaming children are always a problem, no matter what you’re doing!  But sometimes you have to work with a lot of people around and I’ve gotten used to a certain amount of background noise.  If the noise that’s happening is the same pitch I’m working at, I may have to wait until the acoustic environment improves.  I try to be accommodating.  I don’t say anything unless it’s really a problem.

WG—Do you need perfect pitch to be a piano tuner?

Ginny—No. In fact, it’s no help.  A person with perfect pitch isn’t listening the same way a piano tuner does and doesn’t need to be as accurate as a piano tuner has to be.  We divide the space from one note to another in a hundred parts called “cents,” and people with perfect pitch just need to be able to identify “That’s a C” or whatever, and maybe say if it’s sharp or flat.  I’ve never heard of a piano tuner who didn’t at least start the tuning with a tuning fork. 

WG—You still use tuning forks?  I would think it would all be computerized now.

Ginny—Some people are ear tuners and can tune with just a fork.  Some people use electronic devices of various kinds.  They can be faster.  I have one on a pocket PC that I carry around with me.  It listens to the same note , an A, in five different octaves, and analyzes them to compute a tuning for that specific piano.  I use it together with my ear.  For example, for a note with three strings—all at the same pitch—I’m tuning only one string with the tuner.  The others I do by ear. 

WG—If you have a cold can you still tune?

Ginny—It could affect it.  Or if you have to tune a whole bunch of pianos in one day.  That’s where an electronic tuner comes in handy. 

WG—How do you learn to be a piano tuner?  Do you have to be a musician?

Ginny—The best way is to go to a school to get trained.  It’s very specialized; there aren’t many schools.  One is mainly for the blind in Portland, Oregon, and there’s one with a good reputation in Boston and another one in Canada.  And there are correspondence schools, which can be a good choice when a residential school isn’t an option.  I took the one that is considered to be the best and it took me about a year and a half.  I also joined the Piano Technician Guild so I could get to know, and consult with—and sometimes work with—some of the long-timers in the field. 

WG—Did you know there’s a website that tells you how to tune your own piano?

Ginny—Ha.  Piano tuning isn’t really a thing you can learn from a website.  There’s a lot to it.  You have to learn how to use a tuning lever on different kinds of tuning pins—very loose, jumpy, or whatever—and you need to develop your hearing so that you can hear the various aural tests to confirm your tunings are good.  It’s much more complicated to tune than people think.

WG—Are you also a musician?  Can you play the piano?

Ginny—I’ve been a musician since I was 11.  A classical percussionist.  I earned a BA in music and have been actively playing in orchestras since then.  Recently I took up the jazz vibraphone.  I don’t play the piano very well.  I wish I did.  I had a friend write me a jazzy little piece and I’ve memorized it so I can play if someone asks.

WG—One thing I’ve always wondered—what makes a piano get out of tune?

Ginny—A piano has wire strings that are tightened on metal tuning pegs screwed into wood.  Things that are tight gradually get loose and need to be tightened again.  A piano is mostly made of wood, which can be really affected by the weather and moisture.  The older a piano gets the looser the tuning pegs generally are.

WG—How long do pianos last?  Do some just wear out?

Ginny—Sure they do!  Some pianos get to the point where they are beyond use—we call them “piano-shaped objects.”  But you have to account for people’s expectations.  If this is the piano that’s been in their family for years, the piano they remember their mom playing on, they are attached to it.  You might say to them, Well, when this piano was built they expected it to last only 40 or 50 years.  But they often want to hold onto it.  If you just make it sound better, they’re happy. 

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One Comment

  • Eben Goresko says:

    The term piano tuner has to be distinguished from or clarified to most lay people as being different from a piano technician. A piano tuner primarily is only able to tune pianos and render some minor repairs whereas a piano technician not only tunes but can do more extensive and involved repairs and restoration work.

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