Have tuner will travel.
That’s how Ken Owens looks at his job. As a piano tuner and technician, Owens travels throughout Kitsap and Jefferson counties making sure there are no sour notes when musicians sit down to play the piano.
“You don’t necessarily have to play the piano to be able to work on them,” Owens said. “But you have to be able to hear when they aren’t sounding right.”
Owens isn’t really the piano man, although he plays some and took lessons as a child. But he is musical. He started by playing the saxophone. But when his high school band needed a bassoon player, he took on that challenge. He was so good at it, he played first chair at Walla Walla College.
“I thought the bassoon was really a neat instrument,” Owens said. “I did well with it. So I just stayed with it.”
But his interest in numbers led him to major in accounting and after graduating, he spent years as an accountant, a salesman, the president of a credit union and a bank auditor. He even taught accounting for a while in Oregon.
“The stress got to me,” he said of that career. “I decided I’d had enough.”
So about 12 years ago, he began looking for a career that would include his love of music. He opted to become a piano technician. The schooling for that was a year-long program at the Randy Potter Piano Training School in Bend, Ore. It included a variety of classes where he learned to diagnose “piano illnesses” and practiced any repair a piano might need.
“Being a technician is a lot more than just tuning pianos,” he said. “There’s so many things that can go wrong with a piano.”
For example, he said, repairs typically include broken strings, putting on new hammers, tightening loose tuning pins and replacing missing or broken parts.
“Some of the pianos I’ve worked on are so old that parts are no longer available,” he said. “That means I may have to actually carve the needed piece. And I have business associates – welders and machinists – I can call on to when I need something done that I can’t do myself.”
The typical tools of the trade are tuning hammers. Each one can cost from $150 to $1,000. Owens has six tuning hammers that travel with him. Sometimes he can use up to three of them on just one tuning job.
“They each have a different function,” he said of the hammers. “In the business, they tell us to buy the tool when you need it. So over time, I get more and more of them.”
Generally, pianos need tuning every season, he said.
“Humidity affects them,” he said. “It changes the tension on the strings. So when it’s humid, strings tighten and the pitch goes up. When it’s less humid the opposite happens. And even the wood can swell causing the crown of the piano to go up.”
While he has a loyal customer base including pianos in homes, churches, community centers and even professional music halls, he does get calls to tune pianos that haven’t been touched in years.
“Those can be a challenge,” he said. “Adjustments make the piano play more smoothly and some of my customers will have me come every three months. Others I do every six or nine months. But I do get those calls where the piano hasn’t been tuned in years.”
His fees for repairs and tuning aren’t something he makes public, he said, because every job is unique. But he is competitive with other technicians in the area and participates in continued training seminars with the Piano Technicians Guild in Tacoma.
Owens suggested that a piano should have a complete tuning and check-up at least every couple of years.
“It’s like that 80,000 mile check-up for your car,” he said. “It needs all the fine adjustments so that the piano will play even and gives you better control of the sound.”
Some calls are routine. But his job isn’t without surprises.
“I had a lady call and tell me she just couldn’t get the keys to play on her player-piano,” he said. “When I went to her house to check it out, I figured out why. She had at least a pound of dry dog food under the high notes and about that much white rice in the mid section. It was an older piano and we figured that mice had been storing the food in there.”
At one house, he was asked to check on a baby grand that a music composer was having trouble with.
“The composer often wrote at the keyboard and he said there might be a few pencils that had rolled off the piano into the strings,” Owens said. “I found 27.”
Owens doesn’t keep track of the number of pianos he’s worked on in his years as a technician, but he figures it’s in the thousands.
Regardless of how busy he is, he has one rule for his work.
“It doesn’t matter if I’m working at an expensive home on a grand piano, or at a more typical home on an old piano,” he said. “The customer comes first. I treat everyone the same, with care, concern and respect. It’s just the right way to do business.”
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