Good tuning is one man’s
By Bryan McKenzie - Daily
Progress staff writer
Monday, July 1, 2002
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 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig Von Beethoven, and Beverly
Breckinridge. 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
“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. “If
a piano is seldom played, it’s harder to tune. Wood instruments
like to be played. If you don’t play them, bad things tend to happen
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
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
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
“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
Piano will soon play it again,
By Bryan McKenzie - Daily
Progress staff writer
Saturday, February 25, 2006
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
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
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."
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Original story can be found HERE