Allison needs 1 note to tune a piano

Staff writer

Depending on the musician, a piano can express the entire spectrum of human emotion from the bleakest moments to the jauntiest of sentiments. However, an out-of-tune piano can diminish the songs of the most accomplished players.

In that respect, pianos are like any other instrument, only they are much more complicated and time consuming to tune than, say, an acoustic guitar which is generally tuned by hand using an electronic tuner to find the correct pitch for its six strings.

In comparison, pianos can have up to 88 keys that, when pressed, trigger a hammer inside to strike either one, two or three strings — depending on the note — that can all fall out-of-tune if not properly maintained.

Local piano tuner and repairman Keith Allison has been tuning pianos since 1955, and he knows how to tune a piano using only a few specialized tools.

“I start with a tuning fork, set to A, which vibrates at a frequency of 440 times per second,” Allison said. “And once I get that settled, I tune by octaves and fifths, that’s the way I was trained.”

In music, the fifth and the octave are intervals that have a level consonance or are notes that sound pleasant to the ear when played simultaneously.

Along with his tuning fork, Allison carries a tuning hammer or lever, a felt temperament strap, and rubber mutes, as well as extra piano parts in his toolbox.

However, the most important tools he uses are his ears.

“I am 82, so I am very lucky that I don’t have any hearing loss,” Allison said. “I tune using a specific technique Mr. Dickey from Dickey Music Company in Newton taught me.”

Allison said Dickey showed him how to set the temperament in a piano.

“He told me how to set the certain notes and that was it,” he said Friday. “In fact, he gave me the star wrench I am using today because I used to just use an old pipe wrench.”

Setting the temperament is a specific tuning system in which he tunes a middle range octave first and then uses it to tune the rest of the instrument.

“Tuning can take several hours,” he said. “I probably drive people nuts when I do this.”

After isolating specific strings with the temperament straps and rubber mutes, Allison said he makes sure there is no other sound, hum or white noise in the room because he has to listen to the quality of each note to make sure it sounds correct without the aid of electronic tuning equipment.

“The science of sound gets complicated,” Allison said. “There are several thousand pounds of pressure in the case of a properly tuned piano.”

Allison said he adjusts string tension to eliminate the warbling or wavering sound out-of-tune notes produce.

“Some pianos can be pretty hopeless,” he said.

Tuning a grand piano is generally easier for him because grand pianos have longer strings that create a purer tone than smaller upright pianos.

“Pianos are just about like cars,” he said. “There are the cheap ones and then there are the Mercedes.”

To test the notes, Allison also plays scales and songs that use different combinations of notes and intervals to test the sound quality. One of his favorite songs to play during this process is “Embrace Me” by Gershwin.

Life in tune

Before becoming a piano tuner, Allison was a music teacher from 1955 to 1965, he said. In 1965, he went to seminary school to become a pastor.

“I tuned through all three years of seminary school to earn money,” Allison said. “I was the main piano tuner for the three colleges in Dubuque, Iowa.”

He said his late wife, Claudia, taught English while he went to seminary school and worked as a piano tuner.

“Claudia married a teacher and ended up with a preacher,” Allison said. “In 1970 I took my first church. I used to joke that if you were a Presbyterian you could get free tuning and some people took me up on it.”

Since then he continued to preach and tune pianos. During that time, he said he had a “hot number” to Yamaha — a musical instrument manufacturer — that he called anytime he had piano questions. He also taught about 10 people how to tune pianos. Those contacts taught him a lot, he said.

“I worked on an old piano for practice too,” Allison said. “I took it apart and put it back together several times.”

He said his wife was very patient with him as he learned piano repair.

Claudia recently passed away. One thing he loved to do with her was sing duets.

“She was a soprano and I am a tenor,” Allison said. “She had a beautiful voice. We had 58 years of a happy marriage.”

Allison said he wished he could tune his life like he can tune a piano because he wants to get more in tune with the Lord.

“Music is one of the few things that goes with us into heaven,” Allison said.

 

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