Longtime tuners say practice makes pianos sing
Traverse City – — Brant Leonard’s career tuning pianos started when a free one, dubbed untunable, practically fell into his lap.
It then fell out of a pickup truck on the way home.
Undeterred, Leonard pulled that old upright out of the snowbank, took it home and cranked on its pins and tweaked its hammers until it hummed the right pitches and tones. He eventually achieved the impossible and made that piano sound pretty good — good enough to find at least two homes after his.
Leonard kept up the hobby, turning his tuning gig into a business about 40 years ago.
Tuning is a craft that takes practice and skill, one where his ears and hands are more important than any tool in his box. Leonard likens the mission to find the piano’s perfect pitch to finding Waldo in a sea of cartoon faces in the “Where’s Waldo?” book series. It’s easy to tune a piano when you know how it should sound.
“What I hear is like Waldo jumping right out at me,” Leonard said. “It’s the touch. It’s the style. It’s the things that are important. That is one of the most difficult things to learn.”
One of his early piano tuning customers was Palma Richardson, at the time a substitute teacher providing for four children.
Richardson was still searching for her dream career, even though she was trained as a math teacher. She needed an interesting, flexible job, and nothing seemed to fit.
Until she found piano tuning, that is. She took up the career with guidance from Leonard in the 1970s.
“There was a lot of business,” Richardson said. “If I didn’t call back in two or three days I figured they would still be there, whereas now they probably wouldn’t be.”
More piano tuners have since moved into town, and Richardson said the advent of electric pianos, or keyboards, cut into business.
Not that she considers those keyboards real pianos, anyway. Only acoustics get that honor.
“It’s a soulful experience to play a piano,” Richardson said. “It has so much more response.”
The piano tuning business is down slightly, although Leonard still is busy tuning for commercial clients including theaters and wineries. The Grand Traverse region has more piano tuners now than when he started, and they compete and drive prices down, he said.
He expects the tides to turn for the better.
“It’s kind of like the Great Lakes,” Leonard said. “One year they’re worried about the lakes drying up, and the next year they’re wondering what to do with all the water. All these things just kind of ebb and flow. There are times, right now, the electric piano is more used, but as time goes on, people are going to want to get back into (acoustic pianos).”
Business is busy enough for Richardson, who considers herself semi-semi-retired. She tries to tune two to three pianos per week. Each tuning job lasts between two and six hours.
Richardson prefers to work on console and studio pianos with lighter, more manageable parts. Older pianos require a lot of physical work.
Leonard also downsized in the past 10 years. He prefers to fix instruments in customers’ homes or their commercial venues rather than take parts home.
His home already stuffed to the gills with pianos. He estimates more than 55 are stored in his pole barn, mostly freebies. He rents the working ones to visiting musicians while hoping to restore the rough ones someday.
Pianos could be tuned every day, but Leonard recommends tuning when the seasons change. The more his customers get accustomed to a sweet-sounding instrument, the more often they call for a tuneup.
“When you learn what a really finely tuned piano sounds like, you’re going to want to tune it more frequently,” he said.