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Good tuning is one man’s piano forte.
Piano will soon play it again, Sam
By: Bryan McKenzie - July 1, 2002
By: Bryan McKenzie - February 25, 2006
Here in the living room of a Waverly home in Albemarle County stands a box of finely finished wood surrounding a sounding board with 220 steel wires each strung with as much tension as an air traffic controller, about 150 pounds per square inch.
It’s a pianoforte, otherwise known as a piano. Since its perfection in the late 1700s, it has attracted brilliant musicians like Ludwig Von Beethoven, Frederic Chopin, Duke Ellington and Thelonius Monk, to name a few. It has inspired talents like Franz Joseph Haydn, Frederic Chopin and Margaret Johnston.
It can be sad, soft, angry, and hard. It’s capable of great expression, just as soon as David Weiss is through with it.
“Most people don’t believe it, but a 10 percent change in humidity will affect the tuning of a piano,” he says, his right arm up to the elbow in instrument.
Knowing is the Key
Mr. Weiss knows pianos. He played on and off Broadway as a professional musician in New York City. He gave up the late night lifestyle, got married and moved to California, where he worked as a forest ranger for nearly a decade.
But he missed music. Unwilling to live the life of a performer while raising a family, he looked for another way to play and found a love of tuning and repair and moved his family to Canada to study.
Now he makes possible the music of others. He brings notes into line. He makes repairs. He adjusts felts, hammers, pads and the thousand parts that make up the instrument.
“I was trained to tune by ear,” he says, striking a chord and adjusting the waver between notes. “I start out with concert A and tune the 12 keys around it. Then I move out octave by octave. I don’t listen for pitch, I listen for harmonics.”
He sits on the piano’s bench. With his right hand he makes miniscule adjustments using a piece of wood with a metal head placed over the piano tuning pegs. With his left hand he strikes a series of notes and chords.
He listens to the wavering harmonics generated among the notes and adjusts the strings one at a time. There are as many as three stings per note in the piano.
It’s not quick work. It can take as long as an hour to tune a well maintained, oft –played piano.
“If it hasn’t been tuned for three of four years it can take a lot longer, because the strings stretch when you tune and tend to go back out of tune quickly. As you change tension of one side of the piano, it changes tension on the other and what you’ve just tuned can go back out of tune. So you tune and retune and sometimes you tune again, he says.
Chords, intervals, single notes struck with force; the repetitious procedure to tune a piano is aurally monotonous. To Mr. Weiss, however, it’s music. It may be music in the raw, but it’s still music.
“I love what I do. I’m proud of it. I make it possible for other musicians to sound their best,” he says, adjusting and tuning. “I may not be performing, but I am making music.”
A rack of 88 century-old, felt-covered, wooden hammers lifted from a 1908 William Knabe piano sits on the floor.
"It's not as easy as it looks," says David Weiss, sitting cross-legged next to the rack, carefully removing one of the hammer mechanisms for repair. "What you're looking at when you look at a piano is about 5,000 moving parts and every one of them can fail at any given time. And they do."
There are seven hammers marked for repair. Mr. Weiss will carefully remove them. He doesn't want to bend, snap or break the leather, wood and brass parts that push, slam and pull the hammers on, at and off the strings.
"At the time this piano was built, in the 1900s, Knabe was one of the best pianos made," he says. "I thought I'd take a look at it because it seemed like music is an important part of [the seniors'] lives."
Music as life Indeed. The Mary Williams Senior Center attendees are in another room, singing along with a Karaoke machine. They sing old songs. They sing soul tunes. They sing hymns. To them music is an important part of life. It's a connection to their past. It's a reflection of now. It's a promise of the future.
The piano is a major part of that music. Volunteer pianists come in on a regular basis to lead songs or entertain and members have listened to the old instrument slowly work its way out of tune and repair.
"The piano is important to the people here because music is very important to them," said Wanda Cabell, the center's director. "They sing a lot and we have a lot of folks who come and play the piano and it's hard to play it if it isn't working right."
The center recently sought help. Mr. Weiss, a professional piano tuner and repairman, volunteered his time. A former pianist on Broadway, he learned the art of piano repair and tuning to keep in touch with his music while raising a family.
Now he expresses his love of music by perfecting an instrument for others to play.
Piecing it together Mr. Weiss carefully positions a small wood piece, called a jack, on the end of a hammer from which it broke, pouring watery glue across it.
The glue flows where he wants it - the piano part - and where he doesn't - on his hands.
"This is a special glue that sets almost immediately. Hospitals will use this for surgical procedures rather than sutures so I'm not too upset if I get it on me," he says. "It comes off in a couple of days."
Mr. Weiss will make several trips to the center to rough tune, repair and finish the tuning. The piano's age requires that he take his time and pay attention.
"There are a lot of small parts, a lot of cloth and felt and everything you touch is 100 years old and liable to fall apart, making more work," he says. "This piano is in pretty good shape for how old it is and how much use it gets. It was built well. It will definitely be playable, again."