There was a time when a piano was the heart of many homes. In some it still is. But sales of acoustic pianos have been dropping steadily over the last 35 years. And as more people move to digital instruments, the number of piano tuners is also shrinking. Some worry it may become a lost art.
“When I was a kid they asked, ‘What’s your daddy do? He goes ding ding ding," said David Allen.
He, along with his brother Chuck Allen and their father Charles Allen are piano tuners. The family is in visiting from Texas. One brother stayed home. He’s just a part time piano tuner.
“We all can tune by ear. I tuned 32 years with nothing but a tuning fork and a tuning hammer.”
Charles Allen taught them all the tools of the trade."I wouldn’t let them have an instrument at all. When they showed they had a good ear and could tune by ear, then they can get some help from electronic.”
And Like practitioners in nearly every profession, these days that’s what they do
They like a device by a company called Sanderson out of Michigan called an Acu-tuner that measures perfect pitch.. But they stress that doesn’t just mean just anybody could pick one up and tune a piano. And the best tuners they say, are always musicians too.
The Allen family did part of its growing up in Ridgeland Virginia. Older brother Chuck says, for them music, church and piano tuning all came together in the same package “A lot of faith based and that’s where our music comes from is church, we went to church all the time and Dad tuned pianos and we’d fall asleep on the church pews while he tuned pianos.”
The family gets together about 6 times a year for fun and to work on the other part of the business, restoring old or worn pianos.
"We can take any piano and put a new sound board, pin block and stuff, but cost? It’s like an old car some will fix it , some will throw it away.. It just take s a lot of love and time and money.”
The three men head out to a garage where they uncover, what looks like a mint condition, Steinway N. Actually it’s a 90 year old beauty they’ve been lovingly restoring for 3 years.
Two generations of the Allen family make their living this way, but so far it doesn’t look like any of the grandkids are going to go into the piano care and tuning business. And that’s part of a larger trend. There are no schools accrediting tuners, it’s an apprenticeship practice that can take years to learn and decades to master. But according to the Piano Technician’s Guild, fewer people than ever are choosing to.
In a place like southwestern Virginia, they like to say, if you knock on three doors you’ll likely find a musician behind one of them. But those doors are few and many miles apart for a piano tuner. “As much as 150 miles away so I travel a lot. It’s a hard living like anything but it’s a good living.”
David Allen and his wife, Chris, run “Allen Piano Tuning” in Christiansburg. The other Allens do the same in Texas.