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Piano technician relies on senses, technology

Sun., Dec. 16, 2012, midnight

When celebrity pianists perform in Spokane, chances are Alan McCoy tunes their instrument. And if he does it right, they won’t even notice.

“My job is to make the piano disappear,” McCoy explained – “to make pianists so comfortable when they play that they’re totally focused on the music itself, not fighting the piano.”

If the mention of piano tuning reminds you that your upright hasn’t been touched in a decade, and your grownup, once-upon-a-time-piano -playing kids will be home for the holidays, you’re not alone. This time of year, McCoy and his peers frequently get calls from desperate parents requesting piano tuneups on short notice.

“I’ll do it if I can,” McCoy said with a knowing laugh. “But I schedule jobs as much as a year in advance.”

McCoy works half time as Eastern Washington University’s piano technician. He also maintains concert pianos for the Fox, and occasionally works at the Bing Crosby Theater and the INB Performing Arts Center. The balance of his workweek is spent tuning, voicing and occasionally overhauling pianos for private clients.

He discussed his craft and offered tips about buying and maintaining pianos during a recent interview.

S-R: Were you a tinkerer as a kid?

McCoy: No. I didn’t discover a mechanical aptitude until I was in my early 20s, after I’d earned a degree in geography. I’d had a lot of jobs and knew what I didn’t like. I didn’t want to sell insurance or widgets. I read Studs Terkel’s book “Working.” There was a piano tuner in there, and it occurred to me that this might be something I could do.

S-R: Did you play an instrument as a child?

McCoy: No. In fact, looking at my background, there’s no reason I should be a piano technician. Normally, they’re either musicians or their father was a tuner.

S-R: How did you learn your craft?

McCoy: I attended a school in Ohio that no longer exists. It was a six-month program, which really isn’t enough. But they hooked me up with the Piano Technicians Guild, and I took a lot of guild workshops after that.

S-R: What’s the difference between a piano tuner and a piano technician?

McCoy: These days we call ourselves technicians instead of tuners because we do more than tuning. Tuning is how we get our foot in the door. What people don’t know is that we can voice the piano to change the tone. Pianos are machines, and technicians can adjust them to play better.

S-R: What personality is best suited for this career?

McCoy: Like a good musician, a piano technician pays a lot of attention to detail. People think tuners have to have a great ear, but once you learn what to listen for, hearing is the easy part. Feeling what the hammer, the string and the tuning pin are telling you is more of a mechanical act.

S-R: How has the technology of your job changed?

McCoy: I used to use a (tuning) fork. Now I use my iPhone. It listens to the piano and shows how sharp or flat a note is. But I tune aurally at the same time, because you can’t turn your senses off. You use your eyes, your hands and your ears to tune a piano.

S-R: How often should a piano be tuned?

McCoy: I get asked that all the time, and the answer depends on the player. How good are they? How much do they care? Active recording studios in Nashville and L.A. tune their pianos every day. When the Spokane Symphony has a guest artist come in, I’ll tune their piano Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, twice on Saturday and once on Sunday for their concerts. I tune Eastern’s recital-hall pianos once a week, and the band-room and choir-room pianos once a month. On the other hand, in an average home one tuning a year may be enough.

S-R: What are some other considerations?

McCoy: New pianos go out of tune much faster than old ones, because they’re still getting used to being a piano. There’s a lot of tension in a piano. The combined pull of all the strings is something like 20 tons. And pianos are large hydrometers – they’re very sensitive to moisture changes.

S-R: Is Spokane’s climate friendly toward pianos?

McCoy: We have a great climate for pianos. I can always tell a piano that has come from the coast or the South or Hawaii, because they’re rusty as hell. People from Boston come out here and say, “Oh man, your soundboards are still decent. Your strings aren’t rusty.”

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

McCoy: Working with pianists. And the more they push, the better. I really like trying to satisfy people who care.

S-R: What do you like least?

McCoy: Working on pianos that are poorly designed or poorly put together. They’re frustrating.

S-R: What unusual things have you discovered inside pianos?

McCoy: Live mice. Silver certificates. In music teachers’ pianos you find little stars they put on students’ papers.

S-R: What advice would you offer someone considering a career as a piano technician?

McCoy: If they’re willing to devote their full attention to it – not as a hobby or a part-time thing – I’d recommend taking the yearlong program at North Bennet Street School in Boston. At the end of that year, they should be able to pass the guild’s exam and become certified.

S-R: Are most piano tuners certified?

McCoy: Probably not. There’s something about our profession that attracts oddballs and part-timers. People think it’s easy, but it’s not. And bad tuners can make things worse. They can make a stable piano unstable.

S-R: How do today’s electronic keyboards compare with pianos?

McCoy: They’ve made amazing strides with keyboards – weighted touch and all that stuff – but the sound still comes out of a box. With keyboards, you can get cool effects, record yourself and print out music. But they’re not a piano. There’s something about acoustical instruments – they speak to you in a different way.

S-R: What do you recommend for someone considering buying a used piano?

McCoy: They should consult “The Piano Book” (by Larry Fine). It has a great section on what to look out for. Also, hire a piano technician to look at the piano to make sure they’re not buying something that’s untunable.

S-R: How much does an inspection cost?

McCoy: Maybe $30.

S-R: Technicians who are musicians usually play something after tuning a piano – sort of road-test it. What do you do?

McCoy: I can play a few chords.

S-R: Do you ever wish you could play piano?

McCoy: Frequently. I’ve had lessons, but I’ve never been willing to take the time to learn, because that would take time away from other things I want to do – bird watching, reading, gardening, woodworking, hiking.

Spokane freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached via email at This story has been edited to correct an error in the authorship of “The Piano Book.”

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