A pathologist with a penchant for piano tuning

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Aug 01, 2007


David Pinson
I was the typical 8-year-old boy who did not want to take piano lessons and quit eight weeks after I started them. But some time after receiving my DVM degree and while in graduate school, I rediscovered this wonderful instrument and began taking piano lessons again. I studied for two years with a church organist in Birmingham, Ala., and I have owned some form of piano ever since.

About four years ago, my family purchased a new grand piano, and the store sent out a piano technician for the complimentary first tuning. I was fascinated with this technical skill and decided to learn it. Where does one learn to tune pianos? I went to Google and came up with the Piano Technicians Guild, whose home office is in Kansas City. I ended up taking an outstanding one-year course of study, which I completed in 2005.

A TEST THAT RIVALED MY BOARDS

When I decided to become a veterinary pathologist, I knew there was a test ahead of me. Little did I know how challenging that examination would be. Just as the American College of Veterinary Pathologists is the only credentialing organization for veterinary pathologists in the United States, the Piano Technicians Guild is the only credentialing organization for piano technicians in the United States. And yes, there is an examination and it is quite exacting. Guild registration is not required to be in the piano-tuning business. Thus, not all piano technicians subject themselves to this rigor. But I love a challenge. The process of becoming registered includes a written entry examination, a tuning examination, and a technical examination. The written exam is behind me, and the technical and tuning exams are ahead of me. It is a challenge indeed to match the tuning skills of the fine technicians who have obtained the certified tuning examiner status.

A SKILL WITH HUNDREDS OF YEARS OF HISTORY

Tuning stringed instruments goes back as far as the instruments themselves. Bartolomeo Cristofori is credited with building the first true piano (or pianoforte) sometime back in the early 1700s. Since that time, the technology of piano manufacture has advanced substantially. Parts are more consistent. Piano wire and hammers are better quality.

Pianos are constructed of wood, felt, and metal. The wood and felt are sensitive to changes in humidity. Plus, piano strings have thousands of pounds of tension on them. These two factors make pianos go out of tune and flat. The older the piano strings and the flatter the pitch, the more likely strings will break during pitch raises. Consistent maintenance prevents the need for pitch raises and maintains piano value.

PERFECT PITCH NOT REQUIRED

With the average piano having some 10,000 moving parts, it is a challenge to diagnose ailments and treat them correctly. It is very different from veterinary pathology, in which we only diagnose disease and are never called upon to treat a disease.

Contrary to popular belief, piano tuners do not need to have perfect pitch. Tuning depends more on a sense of rhythm. When pitches approximate each other, but do not match exactly, they create audible interference beats, which essentially is the vibrato of the piano.

But there is more to tuning than that. Pianos have an inherent defect called inharmonicity and a demon called humidity; piano technicians have to treat (compensate for) that defect and temporarily deal with the demon that drives them out of tune. Tuning is a process of compromise to compensate for the piano's imperfection, to tune 12 notes in an octave equally spread (called equal temperament), and to leave the instrument at standard pitch from which it so frequently migrates.

So how can you tell if your piano is out of tune? Play octaves and fifths. Both should sound consonant (clean) with little or no vibrato or noise. Need your piano tuned? Look for members of the Piano Technicians Guild. They are a wonderful group of people.

David Pinson, DVM, PhD, DACVP, DACLAM, is a clinical professor of pathology and the director of the laboratory animal resources program at the University of Kansas Medical Center. He is also the president and part owner of Veterinary Laboratory Resources in Overland Park, Kan., and Note-to-Note Piano Service in Overland Park, Kan.

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