The Year I Became a Piano Tuner
Can you really make $80 an hour tuning pianos? I decided to find out.
In the winter of 2014, I decided to become a piano tuner after dropping out of an MFA program and moving to Madison, Wisconsin. I was 24 and felt it was time to “grow up.” Friends I knew were buying houses, getting pregnant because they planned to, and there was a general sense of It’s-Time-to-Settle-Down floating in the air in the same way cheer supposedly does around Christmas.
This wasn’t the first time the thought of being a tuner had crossed my mind. When I was 12 and taking piano lessons regularly, I mentioned to my mom that it would be neat if I could tune my own piano. That Christmas, instead of Lego or baseball cards, she gave me a piano tuning kit.
The kit sat in the attic, as patiently as Jumanji, until I felt myself pulled back to it over a decade later.
Because I thought I should have a career, and I wanted to do something where I would be my own boss, where I could set my own hours, where I could contribute in some way towards the creating of art, and, of course, where I could make good money.
Here are some general facts regarding the business of piano tuning:
- A good tuner makes between $100 and $120 to tune one piano (between $70 and $80 an hour, which gets factored in if repairs, as well as tuning, are needed).
- Because there are more tuners retiring than there are young ones replacing them, the demand for piano tuners is on the rise—and even though electronic keyboards exist and have cut somewhat into the market, pianos (both new and used) continue to be bought and sold at high rates. If you don’t believe me, just look at your local Craigslist.
- Apart from individual piano owners, there are showrooms, concert halls, orchestras, and schools with pianos, all of which need constant maintenance.
When you look at it like this (and this is how I looked at it), piano tuning was the ticket to my shimmering future. All I needed was someone to teach me how to do it.
I began contacting tuners in the Madison area to see who wanted to take on a bright young apprentice. Through one of these contacts, I was directed towards a semi-retired tuner who had significant experience in piano technology. We’ll call him Mr. Baldwin.
I sent Mr. Baldwin a long email about myself, waxing passionate about my desire to become a tuner and my belief in the power of music. Mr. B agreed to meet with me in person to see if I was someone he could teach. We met at Culvers. I bought some coffee, and we talked for 20 minutes.
He told me that the first thing I needed to do was to find a cheap piano online and buy it. Then he would come to my house once a week and work with me and the piano.
He inspected my tools, chuckled over their poor quality, and said to call him when I got the piano.
Two weeks later, Mr. Baldwin and I were standing in my house, looking over the very sad upright I’d bought for $25.
He pressed one of the keys.
“How much did you pay for this?” he asked.
Every Tuesday for the following six months, Mr. B parked his minivan in front of my house at exactly 2 p.m., came inside, and patiently stood there while I tried to follow his instructions.
Before we began tuning, the piano needed extensive cleaning and some basic repair. Here’s the thing about repairing pianos: each time one thing is changed, it needs to be done 88 separate times because every key on a piano is an independent machine, connected to the others by some wooden bars and metal brackets.
After Mr. B left, I spent the following week pulling the piano apart, gluing fabric in place, fitting tiny cork stoppers into tiny wooden holes, using tweezers to slip variously sized paper rings around metal pins, sanding key bottoms, sanding key tops, turning eye-screws I could barely even see with a thin tool that kept falling out of my fat fingers, bending metal wires, tightening some things, loosening other things, shaping felt hammers with sandpaper, and constantly constantly constantly vacuuming.
When the piano functioned to Mr. Baldwin’s satisfaction, we moved on to tuning.
There is a secret to tuning pianos. The only way to really learn is via some quasi-spiritual quest wherein the tuner becomes so familiar with vibrating wires (which, for those of you who are wondering, is all that piano music is) that they — the tuner — permanently transform a part of their brain into a receptacle for several vibrations to interact with one another. Then the tuner looks at how the vibrations interact, and adjusts one so that they interact better.
It’s as simple as that.
Some people do it with electronics, but that is not the way I was taught. Mr. Baldwin taught me to tune with my ear alone, which was a bit like going on a walkabout.
In one hand, I held a metal tuning fork, in the other a tuning hammer. With my fork and my hammer, I was supposed to make something that sounded like dying into something that sounded like life. Every time I saw my upstairs neighbors, I apologized to them.
That September, the Piano Technicians Guild’s annual regional meeting was being held at a Hilton Hotel in Davenport, Iowa. “Get off your couch and come to Davenport,” read the postcard I received.
Mr. B was very excited for me to attend, and since my partner’s family lives in Davenport, she and I decided it was worth going.
It had been about six months since I began taking tuning lessons with Mr. Baldwin, and I felt that the conference would offer me the opportunity to meet other tuners my age (I don’t know why I thought there would be any), make business contacts (something I’d always heard was a good idea), and add some more tricks to the foundation of knowledge I possessed. Maybe it was a mistake to think I had a foundation of knowledge that could be built upon.
My conference experience lasted six days. Three for the conference itself, and three more for the days afterwards when I was incapacitated with an illness brought about because of the ordeal. (The technical term is “con crud.”)
The whole event was set up as a series of lectures, presentations, and demonstrations throughout the day, with each day lasting from 8 in the morning until 5 at night. There was an hour long break for lunch somewhere in there, during which time everyone crowded into the Hilton’s basement and talked to one another about what they’d learned during the various lectures, including, but not limited to: Ergonomic Tuning, Yamaha Service Voicing, Fundamentals of Climate Control, Damper Regulation with 3 Tools, Vertical Regulation, Action Frame Inspection and Repair, Inventronics, Key Rebushing, Vertical Action Regulation, Grand Action Regulation, Grand Piano Pinblock Installation, Downbearing and the Bridge, the Weighted Bridge, Recapping the Upright Bass Bridge in the Piano, and — of course — Installing Hammers on WNG Composite Shanks.
“What,” I asked myself, “the fuck.”
It was the only activity other than skiing that left me with a great throbbing ache over the entirety of my body, which was confusing because I had spent the entire time sitting in carpeted ballrooms listening to quiet, dying men talk about their dying trade.
When the fever finally subsided, I thought “I cannot let these men down.”
After the conference, the next business step was business cards. For $200, I had 1000 cards printed. They were white with black lettering, and they said “Samuel Annis, Piano Technician: Tuning, Repair, Voicing.” At that point in time, I actually did not know how to voice a piano, but I wanted three things on the card, and I couldn’t think of anything else.
Around the same time as I was getting the business cards, Mr. Baldwin decided it was time for me to move beyond the confines of my own home and into the wider world of his shop.
The first time I met him there I was unsure what to expect, but I imagined a creaking floor covered in a fine dust of wood shavings, high ceilings with bright light streaming in from tall windows, the smell of linseed oil, and maybe a radio playing NPR.
The part with the NPR was correct.
Other than that, the space was a windowless and cold garage, and it was hard to smell much of anything other than decaying mice and paint thinner.
“This is it,” said Mr. B, proud of his shop, and I felt sad because I did not share his pride. Because I was now judging him despite myself. Because I built up expectations that were so clearly absurd, but that left me feeling devastated when they were proven false.
“Oops,” he said, bending down to pick up a sticky trap with a dead mouse. “Haven’t checked these in a while.”
Over the next few months, I drove across the city several days a week to work in Mr. Baldwin’s shop. Sometimes he was there, but usually it was just me, the mice, and NPR.
This experience, more than the conference, more than the frustrations I encountered going into stranger’s houses and tuning over the barking of dogs and screaming of children, more than the bewildering nature of tuning itself, this experience of going to Mr. Baldwin’s shop and sitting alone among the shells of seven pianos while performing the same sequence of repairs over and over again finally eroded away the belief I retained in my ability to make this a career.
Possibly because it was too lonely, but I’ve always spent the majority of my time alone either writing or with a book. Possibly because of the darkness, or the cold, or because my brain was engaged in repetitive tasks rather than in ideas, because I was turned, in Marx’s words, into a “fragment of [my]self.” Possibly because the only thing to read in the bathroom was a massive collection of summaries of the world’s greatest novels.
All contain pieces of the truth, but there is another possibility. It is possible that I simply changed. That the person I was when I started tuning pianos was not the person I was when I ended. I don’t know if this person vanished because of tuning or if it was simply the result of being a continually evolving individual. It doesn’t matter either way. What matters is the person I am now, and this person, although he still holds most of the concrete knowledge of piano tuning and repair, cannot fathom a career in which he is a piano tuner. In fact, this person cannot fathom a career doing anything. A career, as my computer’s dictionary explains, is “an occupation undertaken for a significant period of a person’s life and with opportunities for progress,” and how can I, a rapidly changing individual, undertake anything for a significant period of my life? Some people can, and that’s fine, but I have trouble even living in one place for longer than two years. Why force myself into something rigid when I am fluid?
For one year, I was a piano tuner. I still own all the tools, and I still have 950 business cards. I don’t regret my decision to start, and I don’t regret my decision to stop. At the end of my life, these motions, almost like the rhythmic back and forth of underwater plants, will be all I have left to look back on. In my opinion, that’s worth more than $80 an hour.
Samuel Annis is a writer living in Madison, Wisconsin, with his partner and their Newfoundland.
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