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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You get to see the inside of so many incredible homes (and pianos). Can you tell me about your favorite clients? I appreciate the high energy hospitality of the concert pianist and piano instructor from Japan who lives in a tiny apartment in a Hasidic section of Williamsburg, who is always so enthusiastic and welcoming, provides me with water and fresh fruit while I work, always tips big, and who has a temperamental black upright that goes absurdly out of tune due to the drafty apartment, way too much for a professional pianist. She had me make the touch of the instrument absurdly heavy so she could train to play on concert grands which often have a weightier touch.
I love the Bushwick music producer and virtual reality designer with an incredible basement studio who adopted a Mathushek “upright grand” piano over 100 years old (which is remarkably playable and stable for its age—they don’t make ’em like they used to) and has loyally had me perform service after service on the instrument to keep it viable. We update each other on our music careers at every tuning, I get to see what virtual reality space he’s working on on his suite of computer monitors.
I also love the elderly lady who brings me in to work on a grand piano where every key top is grotesquely peeling off, rendering the instrument virtually unplayable. While I’m working she’s cooking something delicious. I finish and join her in the kitchen, where she describes it as “shoo-kroot”, a german dish of slow cooked apples, sauerkraut and bratwurst. I snap a photo of the recipe on a yellowed notecard and make it that very night to my fiancée’s delight.
I also love the more personal connections that sometimes develop out of this work. One of my clients has become a dear friend and musical collaborator, and is now the officiant at my wedding late this October! He had a crumby little piano that would never stay in tune, so about a year ago I accompanied him on a piano search throughout southern Brooklyn and we got him a better instrument just in time for family to come over for his daughter’s first christmas.
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What do you like about your work? I see playing music on acoustic instruments as a perfect antidote to the distance that inevitably arises from increasingly pervasive digital abstraction. It’s real, tactile, satisfying. The human wetware craves the analogue environment that birthed us: the piano’s tones possess infinite nuance and a subtle level of intrinsic randomness in the sound that tickles our neurons in an incredibly satisfying way.
I love seeing new people and places every day, jetting all over New York. And tuning pianos feels really good to me—the somatic sensation of pulling a lever to twist a pin to tighten a string to then hear pitches slide into harmony is deeply satisfying. Then, 1-2 hours later, my client comes in from the other room while I’m playing a celebratory song, and is obviously delighted to hear their piano’s voice restored. That’s the final satisfaction. It’s a good life.