As I may have briefly mentioned before, I tune pianos. I currently do about five pianos a week, as well as my few piano students I teach, and my nightly house gig I play at an Italian food restaurant. That’s the same number of pianos I tuned each week in Boston, when I briefly attended Berklee College of Music and worked for them as a technician. It was a grueling five tunings, however. In Boston, the cold snaps were so severe that pianos I’d painstakingly tuned for 3 hours or more(I had only been tuning by ear for two years at that point, the longest I’d ever taken on a piano was 8 hours, so 3 was the least of my worries) would go out overnight, and I’d be back where I started.
Tuning pianos by ear takes immense, if not indefatigable focus; a quality I as an 18 year old student, fresh off my ADHD medications, seemed neurologically opposed to achieving. I stepped away from my audition piano at Berklee, making way for my hopefully soon-to-be-boss.
“The unisons are good,” He said, charitably. “But you gotta get this time down.”
By the last week I was in Boston, limping my way down to Music City, I was tuning pianos by ear in an hour flat.
I know it might sound melodramatic, but there are some days that tuning pianos feels like Chinese water torture. Each note I hit is another droplet splashing against my brain. This was especially the case when I moved to Nashville after Boston, broke as a joke and trying to figure out what to do about that. Realizing that the skill I’d made myself learn for the past 3 years, however daunting and seemingly endless, was now going to need to be the thing that paid my rent, I looked up the Nashville Piano Tuners’ Guild (yes, this is a thing), and went to that month’s meeting at the Steinway Gallery off of highway 40, near where I lived at the time.
The air was arrestingly tempered, as if a wall-sized humidifier and a wall-sized dehumidifier were glaring at each other from opposite sides of the showroom. In the back was a spotlit riser about five inches off the ground, and on it was the Steinway version of a Rolls Royce; its music stand was off and cast to the side of the piano, its lid in the highest open position, the entire framework on display. I looked around the room and felt like I was in the twilight zone: I was a 19-year-old, lanky, blank-faced looking girl; the crowd around me was almost exclusively men, all looking to be about 60, with varying lengths of dulling silver hair, an odd, almost youthful buoyancy to the way they moved their arms and walked, and each one eternally stuck with the same annoyed, if not sickened, expression on his face. This was the countenance of a war-weathered piano tuner. My future.
The meeting was mostly a demonstration for a technician’s tool that I never fully grasped the use of, and did not have the money to buy (my only tuning tools were given to me by my parents for Christmas three years prior). After it concluded, I determined who might be in charge (a couple sitting in the back of the showroom behind a desk, and looking like the owners), and made a beeline for them. As is the tuner’s way, they were not that shocked to see me, despite looking to be on average about 30 years younger than anyone within a mile radius and like I needed to be reunited with my worried parents at an amusement park. I boldly asked if there were any jobs available in town, and they sent me to a piano showroom in Franklin.
I knew very quickly on my first day how this job was going go, but didn’t let it sink in for many months. I was to tune 3 pianos a day, mostly in their warehouse. These were pitch raises, meaning I’d have to tune the pianos twice, stretching the hundreds of slacked strings in order for them to stay in consistent tune. A few were fresh from the factory, which meant that everything was even more rigid and difficult to budge. It was backbreaking work. Literally, I would climb into my car with my $1-200 a week, drive the half hour commute home (feeling every jabbing bump in the road), and hobble to my bed, barely 20 years old, unable to walk for the rest of the day.
So why is this entry called “Tom Jones”, you ask?
When I would be back in that cold warehouse, silent, like the center of the universe where I stood still and all of life continued on without me, I would live for those moments in between pianos. Not necessarily when I needed to crawl across a cobwebbed maze of pianos to get to the long forgotten-about warehouse restroom, because frankly, this wasted time.
There is a moment when you begin every piano tuning that you need to take long red felt strips and mute the outside two strings of every note on the piano, isolating the middle one. It takes about two minutes. But for that brief time, you don’t need your ears. You can listen to something else besides the cascading series of overtones that parade around your head every second of the day. I would reach for my phone, and already cued up was the music of Tom Jones. “It’s Not Unusual”, “Help Yourself”, “Delilah”...all of them.
Someone asked me this week what I do to get out of a funk, and thankfully that’s one question I have the answer to. But it could be that this only works for me, because I have no idea where it came from, or why it’s stayed consistent for the past decade. I love Tom Jones. I think it’s the way he just goes for the notes, with every fiber of his being, like he’s flinging himself off a cliff. It works so well for me that when there’s times I just want to wallow and feel sorry for myself, I will willingly forget about this ace in my back pocket. Tom Jones, vanquisher of all that is depressing.
“It’s not unusual...” would slowly creep into the open air of the deathly quiet room I alone occupied, as I began to feel the life flowing back into my bones. For that brief two minutes, my back didn’t hurt, and I wasn’t in a city aimless, feeling lost, just trying to get by. I was between times. I was in the center of the universe, but now this was just fine. Because if you took the top off the spinning sphere and looked down, you’d see me, feet tapping against the bare cement floor of the warehouse, happy, dancing my worries away to Tom Jones.