By Carl Radford, RPT
(Reprinted with permission from the June, 2016 Partial Post, official newsletter of the North Shore Chapter of the Piano Technicians Guild.)
I get a call from a girl with a young sounding voice named Nina, who wants me to tune her parent’s piano.
“I need to have it tuned as soon as possible.”
Warning lights immediately start flashing in my mind. “Has she asked her parents?” I wonder. “And who is going to be paying for the tuning?” I should probably qualify her about these things, but I don’t ask.
“I have to practice!” she says.
Well, ok then. I can’t argue with that.
It seems to be a more common occurrence these days, no doubt due to the power of the Internet and social media, for me to receive requests from teenagers, who play the piano and get fed up waiting for their parents to call for a tuning, and make the call themselves.
Fortunately for me, she lives just four blocks away on the same street from my home, so on the day when our scheduled appointment arrives, I hop in my car, two minutes before the appointment, and arrive just in time; an easy commute for once.
A skinny young boy, presumably her brother, opens the front door and gives me a blank look, but doesn’t say anything. There’s an awkward pause while I wait on the porch for him to invite me in, and as he waits for me to say something.
Most of the time, when people open the door to greet me, they are expecting me, and excitedly exclaim something like, “Oh, Mr. Radford’s here!” or “How are you? I’m So-and-so. I’m so glad to finally meet you!” or “I’m so happy you’re here, the piano needs you!” and of course I gush and guffaw appropriately.
But on those rare occasions when the door opens and I just get the, “I-have-no-idea-who-you-are-but-we’ll-have-a-nice-time-staring-at-each-other-until-you-tell-me” look, then I figure I should head it off at the pass and remind them who I am and why I’m there.
After I tell them, it typically elicits a response something like, “Oh, I was expecting you on Thursday...” or “Oh, I completely forgot you were coming!” (Despite the fact that I called to remind them the day before), or “My wife didn’t tell me you were coming.”
“Hi, I’m here to tune the piano,” I tell the kid.
So, with another look, this time of indignant indifference, that only government employees and teenagers are capable of, the boy says, “I’ll have to tell my mom.”
He turns around leaving me in the doorway. “Moooooooooooom! The piano tuner is heeeeeere!”
After a few moments he returns, escorts me down to the basement playroom, and shows me to a Chickering console, which is completely buried underneath games, toys, books and ongoing school science projects.
He courteously helps me dig out the piano. I notice some sheet music for an Ed Sheeran pop song that has been playing on the radio lately, which presumably his sister is learning.
“Do you play the piano too?” I ask.
“A little, but mostly my sister,” he replies, and then disappears.
I start setting up my tools to prepare to begin tuning and then go to open up the piano.
Unlike most pianos, which the lid props open from the front, and with hinges in the back, this piano is one of the types that open from the side, so that in order to remove the lid, you have to remove the hinge pins, which requires a bottle of lubricant, pliers and tow truck.
As I am yanking on the hinge pins, I hear a disembodied female voice from the next room.
“Helllooo? My husband says he didn’t order a piano tuning…”
Uh oh. Well, clearly the daughter never told them, and apparently she’s not here. I make a mental note to come up with a company policy about this for the next time an underager calls for a tuning.
“Well, actually your daughter set up the appointment.”
“Do you want me to continue with the tuning?” I ask.
“Sure. That’s fine...” she replied, not sounding very committal.
The hinge pins eventually come out with a grunt, and as I begin tuning the piano, I start thinking about some of the various mishaps, mistakes and misunderstandings that have happened to me and other piano technicians I’ve heard about over the years.
For instance, there was the time, towards the beginning of my career, when I was tuning a Mason & Hamlin for some doctors. They said they wouldn’t be home, but told me where to find the key and to just let myself in. As I was tuning the piano, I heard the door open and two uniformed police officers burst in with their hands on their holstered weapons. With an amused chuckle, one officer said to his partner, “It’s just a piano tuner...”
Apparently, the doctors neglected to disarm the security system.
Then there was the time I walked into a small town library with my tool case, as I always did, went to the librarian’s desk and quietly pulled the the piano key out of the drawer, and went into the auditorium to tune the piano as usual.
Not too long afterwards, a maintenance man, with a very concerned look on his face, approached me. “You’re tuning the piano?” he asked very seriously.
I never know what to say to that question without overstating the obvious or being incredibly sarcastic. When the only things in the room are a piano, and me, going “ping, ping, ping” on it, clearly, I’m tuning the piano. But the best thing I’ve come up with so far is to look around and say, “…What piano…?”
I didn’t say that though. I just nodded.
“A couple of the patrons saw you walk in with your black bag and got worried that you might be a terrorist.”
We both burst out laughing. We weren’t sure what was more ridiculous; me being a terrorist piano tuner, or that anyone would consider a local library branch a high-risk target.
And then, of course, over the years I have forgotten my tool case several times. I would arrive at the customer’s house, and open the trunk, only to suddenly realize it was still in the shop, exactly where I left it while working on my rentals. Fortunately, because of these instances, rather than drive all the way home to get my tools and come back again, I have become a master at tuning with my bare teeth. So, now not only do I tune aurally, I can also tune orally. It’s a gift.
Now, I myself have never done this, but I have heard of other technicians, who have actually driven over their tool cases with their car. Knowing this fact, I have made it a habit never to, even temporarily, put my tool case in front or behind my car. However, I did manage to leave it on the curb once. I didn’t realize it until I got a call from a Good Samaritan, who found the case with my business card inside. I thanked him profusely, and drove back to get it.
So, anyway… I’m about halfway through tuning the Chickering in the basement, and chuckling to myself about all the situations I’ve been in over the years, when the father appears beside me and introduces himself.
“How far off is it?” he asks. “It shouldn’t be too bad, we had it tuned not that long ago.”
“Well, it definitely needs tuning,” I say.
He pauses. “So, who exactly asked you to tune the piano again…?”
“Your daughter, Nina,” I say.
“I don’t have a daughter named Nina.”
I grab my iPhone and fumble with it to look up the address. I am at the right house number all right- but the wrong street. I am supposed to be one block farther north.
Despite all the technology such as apps, smart phones and GPS that we use today, these things still have the same inherent problem that the good old paper maps, address books, and calendars had - they only work if you look at them… Oh well.
We awkwardly laugh at the situation, while I try to figure out what to do about it. I call Nina and explain to her why I’m not there yet, and we decide to reschedule for another day, and I go about finishing up the tuning as quickly as possible.
Briefly, I consider the idea of asking for payment like a friend of mine once did, who also tuned the wrong piano, but nevertheless managed to schmooze the customer into paying him for it. Somehow though, I don’t get the feeling that’s going to happen this time.
The father returns again a few minutes later, apparently wondering why I’m still tuning his piano and haven’t packed up and left yet.
“The musician in me would never let me leave the piano half-tuned,” I explain.
He seems to understand. “You’re a musician?”
“Yes, I play piano,” I say.
“My Mom thinks so…”
As long as I have his attention, I take the opportunity to point out the sluggish hammer return in the piano from the excessive humidity in the basement, give him a brochure on a humidity system, and explain to him how it can help protect his piano. He listens intently and appreciates the dedication to his piano. Maybe it’ll be a future sale some day, and maybe not, but the piano actually does need it.
I finish the tuning, put everything back together, and play an abridged version of a flashy Scott Joplin Rag, and then I head back upstairs.
“Oh, that was great! We’ve never heard it sound that good,” the mother says. “We’ll definitely use you again next time!” They are now very happy about the whole situation. And why wouldn’t they be? They just got a free tuning. I give them a business card and take their contact information, so just in case if they ever do call there won’t be any more confusion than there already is.
Maybe this could be a great business model - just walk into someone’s house and start tuning their piano. You might not make a lot of money the first year, but what a great way to pick up new customers! Hmm, then again, maybe not…
I leave thinking, what are the odds, that two houses, at the same street number, a block apart, not only both have pianos, but also have a daughter who plays the piano? Go figure.
You know, sometimes you just have to accept things as they come, mistakes and all, and just go with the flow. If you tune a thousand pianos or so a year over the course of twenty-five years, eventually things will happen that you weren’t planning on, and sometimes they are just out of your control, so why not laugh at the situation, and make the most out of it?
If life gives you lemons, make sweet music.