Ancient, lovely services like door-to-door knife sharpening and seltzer delivery have gone the way of the egg cream, or creamed spinach—they’re around, but hard to find. In the particular case of knives and seltzer, things have changed because only a handful of intrepid people in Brooklyn still cook for themselves, and it’s cheaper to buy seltzer in plastic; plus, the terrifyingly ugly, generally despicable SodaStream was invented. But that’s a different gripe-fest.
In the world of piano tuning—a similarly ancient, lovely service—nothing has changed. By nature of the instrument, piano tuning has always happened at home. We might have lost a few true acoustic pianos, but the ones that still exist function the same way they have for hundreds of years, and traditional tuning, which is done by ear and fork, not by buzzing pocket-box, also functions the same way it has for hundreds of years.
Piano tuning remains a thoroughly tactile, intimate, and incredibly necessary role: tuners enter homes twice a year (ideally), get to know the drafts and movements of humidity within the space, and come to understand the very specific way a player interacts with her instrument.
Isaac Wynn is a registered piano technician—one of only 2,500 or so in all of the United States—and has been visiting homes, studios, and concert halls in New York for over six years. He founded Orpheus Piano Co. in 2014, and sees a lot of funny people and tunes thousands of beautiful pianos every year. He explained to me that yes, in fact, pianos and their players are like 101 Dalmations and the parade of matching dogs and owners. He also tried to explain how each single note actually contains a complex interplay of sound, and made me feel like every single person in Brooklyn should be owning and playing a carefully calibrated piano, preferably a vintage grand. As you might imagine, Wynn is deathly exacting and minutely thorough. Here’s a portion of our conversation about his fascinating work.
Do clients and pianos start to look the same after awhile? Like the dogs and their owners in 101 Dalmations?
The reference to 101 Dalmatians is absolutely apt, I’ve thought that many times myself. I really do see clients as composite characters, the person and their piano fused into one creature. Pianos have quirks, dark and bright sides, just like people. Every one is unique, and they each have a voice which is a product of their nature and nurture. Both their origins as a factory made machine—although even here there’s idiosyncrasy from the organic materials, wood and felt, which are never shaped nor behave exactly the same—as well as the hands-on craftsman component, because even assembly-line pianos have people working on them with their bare hands. All of that contributes to the piano’s personality. Then, you have the totally unique personal history of each instrument: they’re not like macbooks, silicon, plastic, metal. The organic materials flex and flow in response to the patterns of human use as well as the environments they live in over their lives, changes in temperature, humidity, etc. The end result is a sum of experiences, just like humans, that result in a unique character.
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