In search of the perfect tune

March 17, 2003|by KEVIN CLAPP

From time to time, J. Wallace McClure has the opportunity to tune pianos at The Maryland Theatre. Then, he sits in the audience for the performance.

And, while the audience drinks in the performance, he sweats.

You would too, says the owner of McClure's Piano Shop on Pope Avenue in Hagerstown, if world-class musicians swept into town and pummeled a carefully-tuned piano like a prizefighter splintering a glass-jawed opponent.

Despite your best effort, will the piano stay in tune? Will strings, which you've delicately massaged to create perfect pitch, snap?


"You do worry. When they come down on that piano, they're not coming down with their wrists," McClure says. "It's like seeing a falcon come in for the kill."

A labor of love for Hagerstown tuners whose childhoods were marked by the opportunity to tickle the ivories, preparing pianos to perform at their optimum levels is a painstaking process of precision and touch.

The alternative is an instrument in flux, with sometimes ear-splitting results.

"It's discord. The internals are all out. There's no harmony, like a quartet," says Taylor Keyboards owner Jim Taylor of the out-of-tune piano. "If you have a couple of those people singing between the cracks, it's not pleasing to the ear. A piano in tune is pleasing to the ear. Everything is balanced."

The mechanical ins and outs of tuning involve working the instrument's strings, its hammers, its pins. Humidity wreaks havoc with pianos, extreme conditions knocking them out of whack. Taylor, who was worked in this area off and on for more than 40 years, says this winter's bitter cold has done a number on some instruments by drying them out.

Whether grand or upright, tuners say a piano should be tuned at least twice a year. Of course, frequency is adjusted depending on how often an instrument is used. And it's not uncommon for some pianos to go 10 or more years between tunings.

These, Taylor says, are the trickier assignments. Pianos get used to being out of tune, strings and parts comfortable in their positions. It can take multiple appointments over time to massage these instruments back into harmonious playing shape.

Some tuners work with electric devices to bring an instrument in tune. Others, like Taylor and Pamela Borum, tune by ear. Regardless, the end remains the same.

"It's a wonderfully satisfying job to be able to please people with well-tuned pianos and provide a little harmony in the world," Borum, a tuner for 25 years, says. "How many jobs create harmony in the world? And it might seem like a small thing, but when somebody sits down and plays a piano there's just something about their spirit that soars."

So, the beat goes on for these tuners, as each criss-crosses the countryside snagging their own corner of the sizable piano tuning market.

After all, pianos are everywhere, in residential homes and community centers, in schools and universities, in churches and performance halls.

McClure, whose piano shop is one of several businesses the entrepreneur owns, tunes five or six instruments a week. His piano shop has been in business since 1980. Borum will tune two or three a day, while Taylor devotes his mornings to tuning before opening his Dual Highway Yamaha dealership.

Ask each how much time a proper tuning requires, and they agree a good hour is needed to whip instruments into shape, though a long out of tune piano might require longer.

"A piano has over 200 strings. I spend an hour and a half to two hours to tune the instrument," Borum says, "and that's part of my job satisfaction, to take the amount of time to do my very best, that I've given my very best to each instrument."

Because no two pianos are alike, and even two instruments of the same make and model, because of the atmospheric conditions they're exposed to, sound different, Borum says her work is an art.

The tuner, Taylor agrees, is an artist. Just as certain painters are born with an innate ability to create, good tuners possess a talent for their craft.

"The tuner/technician is actually the unseen artist," he says. "He can make or break a musician. He gets the instrument in shape, touch wise and tuning wise. I enjoy that."

McClure, however, prefers to look at tuning as more of a science. In every tuning, the same pitch is sought, so consistency of sound is key from instrument to instrument.

"How each one of us tunes a piano is a lot like a physician's diagnosis," he reasons. "One physician says one thing, one physician says another, and we all have our convictions of what should be done."

Sitting in his Pope Avenue office, in a 3,000-square-foot building used to sell, rebuild and refurbish pianos, McClure is a self-described piano freak.

The soothing sounds of Chopin cascade from overhead speakers as he describes learning to play the instrument as a boy.

Pianos, he says, are a lot like people, in that taken care of properly they can last 65 to 70 years before time catches up to them. What McClure enjoys is playing a part in preserving pianos.

"I like to be able to bring pianos in and do something to them," he says. "I just want to make sure the pianos are the way they need to be."

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