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Ralph Gardner Jr: Getting In Tune

Piano tuner Richard Lapo
Ralph Gardner Jr
Piano tuner Richard Lapo

I was reluctant to ask Richard Lapo too many questions since he was in the process of tuning my piano. It was an inherited Steinway baby grand that we recently decided to put to better, more strenuous use than during the previous seventy or so years that it shared my parents’ apartment.

At their house its function was primarily ornamental. It was a piece of furniture that was played occasionally, if only to rationalize its existence. Richard told me that in his experience the instrument’s limited service wasn’t all that unusual.

“When I was a kid everyone took piano lessons and had a piano,” he recalled.

He said that children’s piano lessons remain the primary impetus for getting pianos tuned. However, these days kids often play electronic keyboards; that is if they can be distracted long enough from their phones and computers. I consider myself a mildly damaged result of piano lessons.

Mrs. McMillian, our school’s music teacher, would come to the apartment and attempt unsuccessfully to locate my hidden talent. I don’t remember much about the lessons except the pain and boredom and a dog-eared book of beginner exercises; since I also inherited the piano stool I suspect that if I raised the lid and looked inside I’d find the book in question, with Mrs. McMillan’s patient pencil scratches.

My brothers followed in my footsteps with similarly unremarkable results, as did both my daughters.

I didn’t understand the point of spending money on lessons since the odds were that neither of our children would become proficient enough to play for fun, let alone Carnegie Hall. But my wife Debbie seemed to consider piano lessons some sort of rite of passage. And I suppose it is.

I’ll have to ask Ari Livne how he managed to push through the monotony, gloom and self-loathing to achieve pianistic brilliance.

Ari and his musical partner cellist Clare Monfredo is the reason we were having the piano tuned. They’re giving a concert at our house soon.

Debbie got the idea after we attended a delightful concert the duo gave in Maine over the summer at the home of Richard Estes, the great photorealist painter.

Clare, a Yale graduate and Tanglewood fellow who’s worked with Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax, is the daughter of Debbie’s college roommate, Nancy McCormick. Debbie and Nancy are celebrating significant birthdays. Hence the reason for the concert.

But first the piano needed to be tuned. My recollection is that it had been tuned recently, if by recent you mean the 1980’s. Indeed, it was possible that despite its polished veneer it was an unplayable wreck.

And who knows what wounds it suffered during its move upstate in May? The movers appeared to handle it with kid gloves but piano moving wasn’t their specialty.

However, the day before Mr. Lapo arrived David Smith, a pianist, conductor and the maestro behind Kinderhook, NY’s ambitious Concerts In The Village music series visited and pronounced our baby grand surprisingly playable.

I don’t know if he was surprised; I certainly was. The most concerning aspect of the instrument, to my mind, wasn’t the keys or strings or soundboard but the loose hinges that held up the lid and the lid prop -- that stick that supports the raised lid.

Ari is a Yale and Julliard graduate as well as a Presidential Scholar in the Arts who’s played the Kennedy Center. So it wouldn’t be cool if the lid came crashing down in the middle of Brahms’ Sonata for Piano and Cello in E Minor, Op.38, one of the program’s selections.

Richard Lapo described the piano as “sharp.” He didn’t mean stylish. But he said that was probably just the effect that the heat and humidity had on the instrument over the summer. “It doesn’t sound horribly out of tune,” he said to my relief. “It’s just out of pitch.” That was apparently easily remedied.

I was reluctant to ask him too many questions since I didn’t want to distract him, and more precisely his eardrums, from the task at hand; at that moment he was threading a thick red ribbon through the strings; he explained that allows him to focus on the sound of a particular string while muting the others.

He’s been tuning pianos since the 1970’s. He also rebuilds them. There are lots of pianos around – something over 5,000 of them are listed in his files – but that doesn’t mean people are taking care of them on a regular basis.

He’ll also travel – he has customers as far afield as Rhode Island, California and New York City.

Richard used to be reluctant to brave the city, even though second homeowners constitute a healthy portion of his clientele. They’ve asked him to service their city pianos as well. So now he visits every couple of months.

While Richard plays the piano, he said that’s not essential. “It’s an aural skill,” he explained as he tapped a tuning fork against his elbow. “It took me many months before it clicked what I was listening for.”

My impression was that my parents received the piano new as a wedding gift in 1952 – in all his years tuning pianos Richard said he’s rarely encountered a French provincial Steinway – but the serial number on the soundboard indicates it was manufactured in either 1926 or 1927.

“No surprises,” he said as he shut his attaché case of tools. “No broken strings or leftover parts.” In the sedate world of piano tuning, that qualifies as humor.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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