Monday, January 21st, 2019

The Piano Tuner

Posted on November 12, 2016 in Community
By USM Free Press

By Cooper Krause, Free Press staff

It’s safe to say that there are plenty of avid music lovers on the USM campuses. This past Thursday, dozens of music majors attended the Portland Jazz Orchestra at One Longfellow Square in Portland. On the same night, the open mic in Brooks on the Gorham campus was well attended. Just take a stroll into the library, and of all the students buried in their books, half of them probably have headphones plugged in. Take a cruise through downtown Portland during Art Walk on the first Friday of every month and you’ll get your fill of guitar strummers and bongo bumpers. Yes, USM and the Portland area are abound with exciting events, performances, music education and opportunities for all. There are certain figures who exist in the midst of this scene however, who, although they play an important role, may slip under the radars of most people. Russ Peckham, USM’s (and Bowdoin College’s) honorable piano tuner is one of these figures.

What with all the computerized beats, synthesizers and electric pianos these days, many readers may not be aware that USM has a piano tuner, let alone that the job even exists. The job is actually a very important one. An average piano has eighty-eight separate keys; these keys activate a hammer which strikes a string, or a series of strings, which sound a note. As some keys strike several strings to sound one note, there can be upwards of a couple hundred strings in an average piano,each one potentially needing to be tampered with. Even then, it’s not quite that simple. Each piano is an individual and experiences its own unique conditions, from angry musicians spilling coffee everywhere to dry winter breezes. The malleable materials that compose a piano are affected, and a piano can never be tuned perfectly. At USM it’s Russ’ job to equal temper tune pianos, ’ where the goal is to achieve the most evenly tuned piano by compromising the perfect intonation of individual notes. Oh, and the school of music keeps upwards of 39 pianos in stock. You do the math.

Besides the inherent difficulty/specialization of the job, piano tuners are important for other reasons. As the portability and efficiency of tools are becoming valued more and more, as we are relying more and more on automation to do the job for us, beginner pianists might be more inclined to go out and buy small electric pianos. Advanced pianists might be tempted towards the legions of effects which electric pianos can employ. In the words of Russ, however, “99% of the time electric pianos just don’t capture the touch. The warmth of the wood, and dynamic strike of the hammer are lost.” In the past, pieces, such as Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” were written for particular pianos, tuned in particular ways, to obtain particular sound qualities.

Now that we all know that piano tuners exist and have jobs, one might expect the person to be, well, older, tall and lanky, wearing glassesa sort of librarian esque figure. Not Russ. One of Russ’ favorite things to do is go to the gym, and it shows. It looks like he could beat up just about anyone on campus, even with his impermanent limp, the result of impaling his leg on a rototiller. If Russ sounds intimidating, however, rest assured, he’s actually very nice. Despite his wonderful experiences working with famous acts like B.B King, Richard Marks and Wynton Marsalis, Russ relishes the rewarding sensation of finishing any piano, up on a concert stage or in a practice room. If anything, Russ would actually like to be working on USM’s pianos more. Apparently the music school is a little overstocked with quirky pianos that could actually be taken apart and completely refurbished.

You may be wondering, “How did such a character arrive here at USM?” Russ was born in 1963 and grew up on the coast in Rye, N.H. As a little kid, Russ always enjoyed his grandmother’s piano, and looked forward to inheriting it someday. That didn’t happen, as his grandmother lived to be over 100 years old. Russ bought his first piano after graduating high school, and showed as much interest in refurbishing the piano as playing it. After paying to get the piano tuned, Russ’ mother suggested he learn to tune the piano himself. The idea slowly caught on. Russ ended up attending North Bennett Street School, a famous piano trade school in Boston, for two years. He spent his first year learning how to tune pianos and during the second, focused on rebuilding pianos. Russ learned woodworking skills at school that would continue to help him in a variety of areas in his life. After graduating, Russ worked a variety of jobs, including construction, until he met a piano technician and worked under him for six years. This piano technician introduced Russ to Bowdoin college and ultimately introduced him to the college piano-tuning circuit. Piano-tuning has been his career ever since.

Some other interesting facts about Russ: He has owned and maintained a horse farm for the last thirty years. He has three cows, seven horses and many chickens. He supplies the music school faculty with fresh eggs. Russ has been with the same partner for about thirty years, but just got married four years ago when same-sex marriage was legalized in Maine. An milestone that was, “surprisingly, a very powerful experience.”

If you happen to run into Russ on campus, he’s always ready to share the facts about pianos that even lots of professional piano players may not know. He’s also willing to recommend brands for pianists of all levels. Don’t tell him this joke: “I heard you can tune a piano, but I bet you can’t tuna fish.” He’s heard it before. You can, however, harass him about how he spends more time weekly on the Bowdoin campus than the USM campus.

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