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Michigan piano tuner riffs on long run at keys

Darby Hinkley
Alpena News

Alpena — Tuning a piano takes two hours, a bag full of tools and a trained ear like that of Butch Lyon. Now in his 55th year of professionally tuning pianos, Lyon certainly has a knack for it.

“At this point, it’s not a hard job,” he told the Alpena News. “Everything is automatic. My ear has become trained. Over the years, your ear gets trained more and more and more. You get better and better and better at hearing the little discrepancies.”

Butch Lyon explains the parts under the piano's keyboard and identifies the humidifier/dehumidifier unit installed on this piano, Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020, at Thunder Bay Junior High in Alpena, Mich.

Now 77, he’s been tuning pianos since he was 18.

Lyon said he has about 500 customers in Alpena, including schools and churches. Many years ago, he used to tune 35 pianos for Alpena Public Schools, but now it’s down to just six.

“There are some specialized tools for doing adjustments for sticky keys, adjustments on springs, adjustments for the amount of travel that the hammer has to go,” Lyon said. “There’s adjustments on the dampers that quiet the strings.”

Each time you strike a piano key, the wooden key triggers a tiny spring below another small piece of wood attached to a series of mechanisms made of metal, leather, felt and cloth, before triggering the felted hammer to strike the correct string to create the desired note.

“So, the tuning hammer and the electronic autostrobe tuner are the two most important things, along with rubber mutes, so I can hear one string at a time,” he noted. “So I can deaden two strings and only listen to one at a time. So, what I do is I use the machine and these wedges so I can hear one string, and I set the pitch of the note to where I want it.”

Most pianos that have been well taken care of can be set to standard pitch.

“Each piano has about 220 strings,” he said, and a standard upright piano has 88 keys.

If a piano has not been tuned in a long time, or if it is older, it will need to be “tuned to itself,” Lyon explained. It may be a bit off standard pitch, but it will not be noticeable to most people, especially if no other instruments are being played with the piano. While a stringed instrument such as a guitar can be tuned to the pitch of any piano, instruments such as horns are always tuned to Middle C, so they must be played with pianos set to standard pitch.

Piano owners should get their instruments tuned twice a year, Lyon recommended.