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Getting in Tune by Joe Mills

I once worked in a research lab as an assistant. Each budget cycle, the director, who was a good scientist but a poor administrator, would go through his own cycle of being excited about the possible funds, then upset. He would see the total figure and imagine the new computers and equipment and staffing he might have. He never took into account what was needed for maintenance, repairs, insurance, benefits, etc. When he realized how much of the overall budget these took, he would become annoyed, frustrated, even angry.

It’s a common reaction. Teenagers (and adults as well) often focus on the sticker price of a car, ignoring the costs of insurance, gas, oil changes, parking. Having spent most of my life in academia, I’ve long known that schools find it easier to raise money to construct buildings – sexy projects — than to fund maintenance and staffing. Some campuses have found themselves with multi-million dollar complexes, and no one to sweep the floors. Soon those new buildings look old.

This is the nature of large purchases. There is the initial expense and then the operating and corollary ones. Now that we have a piano, for example, we have had to be much more careful about heating and cooling the house. We used to leave for weeks, even months, and simply shut the place down, letting the building get warm enough to melt the candles on the mantle or cold enough to freeze liquids in the pantry. Now, we’re mindful that those extreme temperatures are going to affect the instrument. Then there are the lessons and books. And, importantly, there is maintenance. A piano needs to be tuned regularly.

Frankly, I’m glad that this is not something I can do. Because I wouldn’t. Like so much else in my life, I would put it off and mean to get around to it, and it would weigh upon me and make me stressed. Eventually, I would pay someone to do it and then I would feel guilty since, supposedly, I could do it myself. Or, equally likely, I would try to do it and then have to pay someone to fix what I messed up (as so often happens with the car and the house and the appliances…). So, even though there probably are dozens of YouTube videos explaining “How to Tune Your Piano!” we have a professional do it.

Luckily, we know a good one, Bill, who has been tuning pianos for decades. I enjoy watching him work, just as I enjoy watching anyone who knows their craft – carpenters, chefs, mechanics, glass-blowers, weavers.

When Bill arrives, he has a small satchel which holds just a few tools. Cloth ribbons to weave through the strings. Various ratchets. He takes the top off, a process so quick and easy that it always stuns me. Wait, it just comes off like that? Is that safe? Then he puts his hands inside with a casual familiarity. It makes me uneasy, like watching a surgeon handle guts. I know the strings are under enormous tension. The average string has 160 pounds of pressure, and there are around 260 of them in a piano. That means there is approximately 20 tons of pressure in that box. What happens if a string snaps? Could it blind someone? Decapitate them? There is something slightly… monstrous about a piano as if it’s a sleeping beast. When Bill puts his hands inside, I think of lion tamers and Jaws.

While Bill works, I google “piano string blindings,” “piano string decapitation” and “piano string injuries.” I get a lot of hits about the mafia and booby-traps rigged by marijuana growers, but apparently this isn’t an occupational hazard for tuners.

It’s impossible for me to watch Bill work and not think in metaphors. As he touches the keys and adjusts the pitches, I feel I’m watching an alchemist, a magician, a sound wrangler gathering together stray notes. And, I’m struck again by the arrangement of the instrument itself. It seems wondrous how this collection of wood and plastic and wire can be shaped to make music.

And what of us? What, as Hamlet would say, wondrous pieces of work we are. Each of us a collection of bone and blood and tissue shaped into being. What happens when we get out of tune? Sometimes, perhaps too often, we simply ignore it. We muscle along, just accepting the discordancy and dissonance. Or we start avoiding certain notes or songs. Sometimes we say it doesn’t matter. Sometimes we stop playing. Sometimes we self-medicate.

One problem is that even if we recognize we’re out of tune, we try to fix it ourselves (with self-help books and YouTube videos and affirmations and products from Whole Foods or Wal-Mart). That rarely works. We need people who can help, but they can be difficult to find. Although it can be easy to hear our off notes and know something’s not right, few have the wisdom, experience, and skill to know the needed adjustments.

When we do find them, our Tuners, they probably won’t have much. No impressive-looking machines and expensive equipment. They may just have a few simple tools: a coffee cup, a dog leash, a hairbrush. And they won’t seem to do much. They’ll just listen closely, touch lightly, suggest some small corrections. But, we need to see these people regularly, even if we’re tempted to say that we don’t have the time or money right now, even if we would rather concentrate on the “big purchases” – the vacations and moves and large life changes.

The longer a piano goes without being maintained, the more difficult it is to get it back in tune. If left for too many years, there can be fundamental damage, a warping and cracking deep within. It may look fine, but it will never play well.

We need to be careful about letting ourselves be out of tune for too long.


Joe Mills
Joe Mills

A professor at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Joseph Mills holds an endowed chair, the Susan Burress Wall Distinguished Professorship in the Humanities. He has published six collections of poetry, including This Miraculous Turning and Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers (2nd edition), and most recently Exit, Pursued By a Bear. Although he has achieved awards and acclaim for his work, no one, not even the most sympathetic and pitying, would praise the way he blunders through “Amazing Grace” or rudimentary piano pieces. Nonetheless, in his middle age, he has decided to learn piano, and he suspects that it has begun to change his life in unanticipated ways.

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