Portrait of a piano tuner

Portrait of a piano tuner
23/05/2017
by Nigel Scaife

At The Piano Shop we are very lucky to employ Richard Foster - piano tuner extraordinaire, long-serving Chairman of The Association of Blind Piano Tuners and all-round good egg! Here he reminisces about his work over the last 45 years, gives opinions on his profession, tells some terrible jokes and generally provides a fascinating insight into his working life.

When Richard was 17 he went with some other students to be tested for suitability to do piano tuning. At that time he’d been playing the piano for nine years but had little idea of how the mechanism of the instrument worked or what was involved in tuning. It was a life-changing moment:
I went along, immediately decided this was the job for me, and hoped I'd be considered suitable. Fortunately, I was, starting my training in the autumn of 1968. It was a three-year course, nominally, and I qualified in December 1970. Of course, I realised how much I still had to learn, so I stayed on until the summer of 1971, gaining experience by tuning pianos (under supervision) in different situations. I trained with my first guide dog and started my own business in August 1971, building it up gradually, confident of my ability both working on pianos and using a guide dog. (I now realise how much I still had to learn in both aspects of life, but my training had at least given me a firm grounding upon which to build!) I thoroughly enjoyed training as a piano tuner and technician and remain deeply indebted to those whose excellence in both doing the work and passing on skill gave me a really good starting point. Of course, when you first start to build your business you get all the jobs long-standing operators don't want! I found the almost unending stream of neglected, poor instruments, sometimes owned by people with very little interest, made me question whether I'd made the right decision. Fortunately, I now get to do only the work I enjoy or want to undertake, so I now am convinced my choice of career was the right one for me. I really look forward to undertaking all the work I take on and not many people can honestly say that's how they feel - so I'm a fortunate man!
Many people believe that blind people make the best piano tuners as they are more aurally focused and aware of pitch. This is something Richard refutes:
There is still a widespread belief that blind people are innately more suited to tuning pianos due to their hearing and sensitivity. I know there's no evidence for this at all, in fact there are many sighted tuners who do wonderful work and, sadly, a few blind ones who don't! This has to do with the quality of training received, and each individual's desire (or not) to maintain the highest standards, both in the work they do and the attitude to clients. Please understand, I make no pretence at being some kind of saint - far from it! After a stream of unrewarding jobs and unappreciative people, I'm sure I have been known to be somewhat blunt! (I hope I've mellowed a bit with age, but people who just aren't interested in trying to get the best instrument they can afford for their children will always be difficult for me to accept!)
The challenges of the role for Richard have been around the public perception of the value of his professional ability and the difficulty of working with sub-standard instruments:
The most difficult challenges over the years have been around persuading people I really am worth more money than unskilled operators, and in being able to accept that poor pianos were never able to be tuned to the standard for which I aim, simply because their construction, design, and quality of components are governed by the wish to make something cheap, rather than something good! There will always be people who think they really do know it all, which is quite frustrating! I know after 46 years doing this work, I'm still learning! When I consider I really do know everything, that will be the time for me to give up piano tuning!
So what of the more positive and enjoyable aspects of being a piano tuner?
The most enjoyable aspects of the work are the many lovely people I've had the privilege of working for, the wonderful results which can be achieved when working on really good pianos, and the people who really listen to what I say and then follow my advice.
Over many years Richard has championed the necessity of good training in the piano industry. He is dismayed that there aren’t sufficient high quality training opportunities for young people:
Unfortunately most of the excellent training which used to be available is just no longer here. It's also undeniable there are more profitable ways to earn a living, and without the need to spend three years training. It just isn't possible to get to a good standard quickly and easily. Sadly, mechanical ability is key and the many musically gifted people wanting to become piano tuners frequently just don't have that aspect to their personality.
It's an ageing profession, and that's not going to be good for the general piano-owning public. It saddens me to say this, but I can only describe the situation I observe. I'd just very grateful I was able to join the profession when I did, and have so much fun and satisfaction most of the time!

One of the pleasures of having Richard around is that he has an engaging sense of humour:

Humour is something I've always enjoyed, and there's a particular kind which can be observed in many piano people! There's a make of piano, for instance, Spencer, which many of us refer to as Marks! There used to be a piano called Moore and Moore. These weren't the highest quality, so some of us say "As time goes by, I like them less and less!" I can be a bit naughty, and I remember on one occasion chatting to a very well-spoken lady while we were waiting to board a vehicle which was taking us to a concert. I knew her a bit, and realised she would be up for a laugh, so when she told me she used to have a piano, but had to get rid of it because it had woodworm, I said, "Oh, you should have kept it, because woodworm actually improves the tone! All those little holes help let the sound out, and give it a particularly pleasing quality!" Her friend then appeared, and this lady started telling her this, though I think she noticed by this time I was laughing. Part of the way through, she said, "You're pulling my leg, aren't you?" I admitted I was, and all three of us were, much to my relief, amused!
A couple of silly questions with daft answers: What philosophy do pianos pedals have? Life is full of ups and downs! Why are piano keys sad? They're often depressed!
One of Richard’s most memorable experiences as a piano tuner on the road took place when he was asked to tune an old piano in a village hall:
I improved the tuning and, noticing the sustaining pedal was very noisy, thought I'd investigate. I swiftly removed my hand from inside the piano when I found not only was it absolutely filthy, but my hand touched something cold and damp. A very well-spoken lady said she'd just have a quick look inside and tell me what was going on. I'll never forget her reaction: "Oh dear, oh dear me, that's most unfortunate. There's a dead rat in there!" I regret to say, I declined to attempt any kind of remedial work to the pedal mechanism!

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