I just had my piano tuned by someone I would consider a master of his craft. I found him by chance in the grocery store parking lot last Tuesday. He had a decal advertising his profession on his vehicle.
In conversing with him while loading groceries into my car, I found he comes to town once a year from Montana for a couple of weeks to stay with family and while he is here he tunes pianos to pass the time. I asked him to please come over.
Past tuners bring their electronics and tuning forks, but he just brought his ears. He looked at my piano and said, “I know just how to make your Yamaha sound. I know just what she needs. She needs a bright treble and a deep gorgeous bass.”
He proceeded to tune intervals and octaves and runs and chords; not to a tuning machine, but to each other. Within 30 minutes he had freed my robotic piano and I could hear something magical resonating from the strings.
When he was done he told me tales of years past, tuning for famous pianists in famous places. “The secret” he said, “is to tune the mid piano dead on, the higher octaves just above center pitch, and the lower octaves just below center.” Master musicians frequently ask him to stretch the octaves and this tuning technique is what they mean by that.
“The piano is a single instrument, not eighty eight separate instruments. It’s how the notes work with each other, not how they sound individually.”
At the end he took a tuning machine out of his pocket, not to check his mastery, but to show me his craft. Sure enough the fourteen notes from F below middle C to the F# above registered dead center pitch. Amazingly dead-on center without the aid of a tuning machine or forks.
Above the F#, notes were just ever so slightly above center pitch preventing that natural flattening of a waning note, propelling a sound true to the ear long after the hammer strike.
Below the F, notes were ever so slightly below center pitch resulting in a surprising and very noticeable rich sound that was lacking from the last tuning done perfectly to a machine. All together, as I traversed the entire keyboard with a few songs, I realized the gorgeous harmonics and richness of a completely ear-tuned piano.
The master tuner told me he usually never tells his clients these facts because they cannot comprehend why a perfectly tuned piano is not really a beautifully tuned piano. “Why pay for an ‘out of tune’ piano tuning?” a novice would say.
He left me much to think about.
How often do I strive to tune each individual note in my life to perfect pitch? Such exacting precision may make each part of me pitch perfect, but like the piano, I am a whole instrument. My life is of stretched octaves and beautiful harmonics not because I am perfectly tuned, but because I am beautifully tuned.
We can be whole when our parts are not perfect.
And this, I discovered, is what the Master prefers.