The Piano Tuner

John Teachout tuned our family piano when I was a kid. He was blinded in World War II but had clearer vision then many sighted people.

By the time I first met him, John was already an accomplished renaissance man. He played multiple instruments in a variety of musical outfits, owned a recording company, was elected to the Ann Arbor City Council and appointed to the Washtenaw County Board of Supervisors.

As a piano technician, he had few equals.

I loved to sit and watch him twist an ear in the direction of the string as he pressed the key for Middle C. Then he would touch a tuning fork against one of the legs of our Baldwin upright and listen to the two sounds slide into phase as he made microscopic adjustments to the screw that held the string on pitch.

Based on that single exercise, he used the foundation note to coax all eighty-seven other voices into proper alignment.

Later, when I was a camper at Interlochen, I saw him moving through the long line of practice huts near our cabins, repeating the exercise with each piano.

“The temperature changes here cause things to expand and contract,” he once told me. “I could tune them every day and need to repeat the whole routine the day after.”

How, I asked in adolescent naïveté, could he suffer through this hard work day in and day out, knowing the instruments would need hours-long adjustments again and again?

“Circumstance twists everything,” he told me. “We have to constantly be aware that elements can profoundly change the melody if we are not vigilant about keeping our instruments properly tuned.’

It took years to understand that he wasn’t teaching me about pianos.