The Road to Becoming a Piano Tuner
It was August 1972. I was 20 years old. I had recently dropped out of college after realizing that, aside from gym, recess and lunch, I had never liked school. Like a number of us growing up in the sixties, starting a rock band seemed the quickest path to success. With my older brother on electric guitar, me on drums, and two other nihilistic friends, we started a band. We rented a small, roach infested house in Venice Beach, California, not far from where most of the Hell’s Angels lived. We named our band The Buzzards. The only thing that stood between us and a million dollar recording contract…was a million dollar recording contract.
One day, we decided that what the band needed was a piano. With what little money we had (I was living off my Bar Mitzvah savings) we bought an old reconditioned Clarendon Upright piano, circa 1935, for $135. After it was delivered (by Samson & Delilah Piano Movers) a piano tuner came to tune it. He was a big, sloppy man with silver hair. I remember he told me that he “cried like a baby” when George Gershwin died. (Many, many years later, I would have the good fortune to tune George Gershwin’s sister’s Steinway here in Manhattan’s upper east side, where I got her to talk at length about her brilliant brother). While he tuned the piano, I sat and watched. And while I watched, a seed was planted in my brain, to quote Paul Simon. If I learned how to do that, I thought, I could save money by tuning pianos myself. I actually didn’t know that one could earn a living tuning pianos. If my high school guidance counselor, Mr. Mackey, a matchstick of a man, had been a little more intuitive, he might have guided me toward a career in piano technology. Instead, the one and only meeting I had with him, he looked over my straight C average grade reports, gazed at me indifferently and said, “Have you taken auto shop?”
When the piano tuner finished the tuning, I asked him where one could learn how to tune pianos. He told me there was a piano tuning course in the extension program at U.C.L.A. I enrolled. I didn’t know it then, but this class would save my life. Two things stand out about this ten-week class that met one night a week for 3 hours. One, the instructor was more “human” than any teacher I’d ever had, and two, I enjoyed every minute of it.
Needless to say, The Buzzards never got that million dollar recording contract. The following summer I enrolled at Berkeley College of music in Boston. I was still intent on a career as a drummer. But then everything changed once I got to Berkeley. I tracked down the piano tuner for the school, and badgered him until he agreed to help me with my tuning. Shortly thereafter, I was hired in the student work program to tune the practice room pianos. I realized at this point that I could become a piano tuner if I couldn’t make it as a drummer. Then I met someone who ran a piano shop in Cambridge. I asked him for a job and he hired me on the spot. I dropped out of Berkeley. For the next two years I worked in the shop tuning and reconditioning pianos. Two years later I landed a job as the head Piano Technician at Boston University’s School of Music. I was responsible for maintaining one hundred pianos, most of them Steinways. After four years in this position, I asked to be sent to Steinway & Sons in Astoria for training. After the week at Steinway I realized I wanted to come work for them in the capacity of service tuner in Manhattan. That was 1982. I have held this position every since.
The best thing about piano tuning, aside from the luxury of riding my bike to work everyday (and never, ever having to wear a tie!), is meeting all the interesting people I’ve come in contact with.
The one person who stands out is Carolyn Goodman. When I saw her name, and the West side address on my Steinway service ticket, I thought, “This has got to be her.” Why I was so anxious and excited to meet her I can’t really say.
A maid let me into Ms. Goodman’s apartment. A moment later an old, but very vital, gray haired woman appeared and greeted me warmly. “You’re the famous Mrs. Goodman, aren’t you?” I don’t know why I used the word “famous.”
She didn’t know quite what to say to this. I was only guessing it was her. But then out of the corner of my eye I saw the framed photograph on the wall—her son, Andrew Goodman, the slain civil rights worker. I said, “I’ve always wanted to meet you.” I asked her questions I probably had no business asking. Yet, she answered them all as if we were old, close friends. As a father of two children myself, I could not begin to imagine what it was like for her to lose a son so young and in this manner, how it literally changed the course of life forever. I felt enriched to meet and talk with her.
Being a piano tuner is a unique and unusual profession. People whom I’ve met just once practically tell me their life stories. Maybe they think because I use my ears, that I’m a good listener. I don’t know. All I know is: I wouldn’t trade my job for any other.#
David Elinson is a piano tuner for Steinway Pianos in NY.