Pitch perfect: Piano tuner finds keys to success
SCRANTON, Pa. (AP) — He didn’t play piano, but 15-year-old Joey Aikens had an ear for perfect pitch. When a family friend gave him a small console piano, he could hear it was out of tune.
A hands-on kid who took his electronic toys apart, diagrammed them and put them back together for fun, Aikens went into his dad’s toolbox. He found a hex fitting and locking pliers, which he used as a makeshift tuning lever.
“I never really thought as to whether or not I could actually do it,” Aikens said. “All I had known was it was out of tune, it needed to be done and so I tried to remedy it. I’m kind of like that with everything.”
Twenty-five years later, Aikens is one of the few remaining piano tuners in the region. As pianos continue to remain a centerpiece of classical and modern music, opinions differ on whether piano tuning is reaching its swan song.
After graduating from Mountain View High School in Kingsley, Aikens attended Berklee College of Music in Boston and traveled the country as a working, recording guitarist. While living in California about 18 years ago, Aikens, now 40 and of East Lenox, Susquehanna County, was visiting Northeast Pennsylvania when a friend of his father’s, who happened to be a piano tuner, paid a visit. He was amazed at Aikens’ self-taught skills and ability and encouraged him to pursue piano tuning as a hobby or even a vocation.
“He apprenticed me. He felt I had the aptitude to be successful at doing this,” Aikens said. “I never planned on doing it. He sent me out one day to do some of his work in the field. I blinked and here I am, 18 years later.”
Aikens has turned piano tuning into a full-time job. A typical tuning costs about $100 to $150 and could take 60 to 90 minutes. More time-consuming jobs cost more. Bigger jobs, including rebuilding, refurbishing the action mechanisms, or restringing a piano, are priced individually.
Aikens sets a general boundary of about a one-hour radius around Scranton, a footprint that includes Wilkes-Barre, Stroudsburg, Milford, Towanda, Tunkhannock, Binghamton, and all points in between. He also has tuned pianos in New York City and the Catskills.
“I do this five days a week nonstop, and sometimes it is nonstop,” Aikens said.
While there are occasionally a few slow weeks, this time of year, with some clients gearing up for the holidays, tends to be busier, he said.
Roger Hayden, of Hayden Piano Studio in Clarks Summit, several years ago began calling upon Aikens as a contractor to tune and service clients’ pianos. Also a piano tuner and technician, Hayden at that time had decided to focus on teaching piano playing. Aikens has a “master musician’s touch” in piano tuning, Hayden said.
“It’s very personal. It is completely a scientific art,” Hayden said about piano tuning. “My clients love his tuning.”
‘No worries about having work’
A century ago, pianos were more prevalent in American homes.
A living-room focal point, the piano provided the soundtrack for in-home entertainment and family gatherings for generations. They were eventually supplanted over decades by televisions and, later, computers and now smart phones.
Sales of new pianos have risen and fallen since 1900, according to the Blue Book of Pianos, including 1909′s peak of 365,000 sold that year. Fluctuating piano sales peaked again in 1978 with 282,000 pianos sold that year. Sales plunged to 62,536 in 2007, according to the book.
Sales over the next decade fell to 31,530 in 2017, according to Statista, an online research portal.
Seth Winter, 39, a third-generation piano tuner from Indianapolis, has a waiting list of customers, but thinks that tuning generally may be a job on the wane.
“I talk with old timers who say there is a lot less work,” Winter said in a phone interview.
Chris LaBarre of Phoenixville, the northeast regional vice president of the Piano Technicians Guild based in Kansas, is not so sure. Decreased sales of new pianos over decades does not take into account markets for used pianos, LaBarre said. Unlike cars discarded after a decade or two, pianos tend to last much longer.
“One of the pianos I tuned today was built in 1863,” LaBarre said. “I would guess there are 12 (million) to 15 million pianos at large in the country.”
LaBarre, 34, has been tuning pianos for 12 years and also has no shortage of work.
“I have no worries about having work in 10 or 20 years,” he said.
Electronic keyboards likely took a bite out of the piano market, too, he said. But for many, and particularly for those learning how to play piano, there is no substitute for a real piano, LaBarre and Aikens agreed.
New players are encouraged to learn on acoustic pianos, to learn how to differentiate the touch and finger pressures needed for a piano, compared to the digital interface of an electronic keyboard. With an acoustic piano, a player can touch the keys in different ways to produce different sounds and tones. Pianos themselves also may differ greatly in sound and tone, such as an upright compared to a grand piano.
“You can’t learn how to play piano if you don’t have a piano,” LaBarre said.
The piano’s 88 keys made up the original keyboard, long before flats and sharps gave way to alphanumeric keystrokes and emojis, and tickling the ivories was overtaken by touchscreens.
“The piano was the TV before TV came along. People gathered around it. It was the centerpiece of the home in most places. So that’s changed,” Aikens said. “It (the piano) was the computer of today. The internet and laptops and iPads and iPhones have become what people go to.”
At times over the past 18 years, he has wondered whether work would dry up as pianos generally became less commonplace.
“I was skeptical of that, for many years, expecting at some point it would max out,” Aikens said, adding he thought he would have moved to mentoring other would-be tuners by now.
‘Still recognize the value’
But he’s managed to keep doing the job, possibly because there may be fewer tuners overall nowadays, and demand for services such as his stays strong from the piano players and aficionados who remain, he said.
“There are less people in general, I’m sure, playing music or a piano, but I think you’d be surprised at how many there still are,” he said. “People still recognize the value, parents still recognize the value of a musical education. So it’s there. It’s obviously there enough for me to stay busy all year round.”
Seasonal changes in this region also help by causing pianos to go out of tune, he said. Summer humidity expands the wood of a piano, causing slight movement in the interior metal frame holding all of the strings, which creates tension on the strings and higher pitches. Dry air in winter does the opposite and pitches drop.
During a recent job at the Century Club of Scranton, Aikens tuned a 1939 Steinway grand piano that he called one of the nicest in the area — an all-original instrument, still in great working shape.
Using a tuning lever, he adjusted strings until each was pitch perfect. Pressing down on a piano key causes a “hammer,” a match-head shaped, highly compressed, high-quality piece of wool, to strike a corresponding string or set of strings. Most keys on a piano individually strike a unison of three separate strings all tuned to the same note. Aikens first tunes one of the unison strings, muting the others with blocking materials placed between strings. He then goes back and tunes the other unison strings. Some unisons have two strings, while lower keys strike single, thicker strings.
He can play piano fluidly and rolled off glissandos up and down the keys as he worked.
With the Steinway lid raised and strings exposed, Aikens cited a fun fact: A piano frame supports string tension of 12 to 14 tons.
“Could you imagine that” amount of tension, he asked.
‘It fits me’
Aikens and his wife, Karen, have three children, Evan, 11, Zachary, 10 and Vera, 8.
As much as he loves to play and tune pianos, Aikens primarily is a guitarist who performs and records professionally. His musical tastes are all over the map — he’ll go from listening to a piano concerto one minute to Björk the next. He said he has developed his own “voice” on guitar.
As long as the demand for piano tuning remains, he’ll keep doing it. He likes being entrusted by piano owners to care for their instruments.
“It fits me,” Aikens said. “It covers a lot of areas of interest for me. Obviously, it’s musical, I get to play. I get to take care of something that means something to people.”
Information from: The Times-Tribune, http://thetimes-tribune.com/