ALPENA, Mich. — A layman might not know it by looking at the outside of a piano, but it is a stringed instrument. And tuning it takes about two hours, a bag full of tools and a trained ear like that of Butch Lyon. Now in his 55th year of professionally tuning pianos, Lyon certainly has a knack for the craft.
“At this point, it’s not a hard job,” he told The Alpena News. “Everything is automatic. My ear has become trained. Over the years, your ear gets trained more and more and more. You get better and better and better at hearing the little discrepancies.”
Now 77, he’s been tuning pianos since he was 18. At that time, he was living in Mount Pleasant and playing music in a band with his dad.
“We were hanging around the music store too much,” he recalled. “It was Frank Sage Music Store in Mount Pleasant. And he asked if we wanted to make some extra money, and he put us to work in the back room, and showed us how to repair old uprights (pianos) that he had taken in.”
After that, they moved up to Cheboygan and rented a building and started buying used pianos and restoring them, and then selling them. Then they opened two music stores — one in Cheboygan and one down by Remus, between Mount Pleasant and Big Rapids.
“So, I was doing most of the tuning — my dad and I both tuned — and then I sold out of the music store after I got out of the Air Force,” Lyon said. “I went on my own.”
He met Bob Moors, who later owned Moors Music in Alpena. Lyon was in a trio in Cheboygan. Moors helped him get a job at the bowling alley, so Lyon moved to Alpena from Cheboygan.
“He knew the manager of the Adobe Room (at Thunder Bowl Lanes), and we ended up playing there for 15 years,” said Lyon, who played drums in the three-piece band. “But I also tuned pianos,” he added.
So, when Moors bought the music store, Lyon started working for him, tuning pianos at the store, and church pianos.
“That’s how I get most of my referrals is through churches,” Lyon said.
Lyon said he now has about 500 customers in Alpena, including schools and churches. Many years ago, he used to tune 35 pianos for Alpena Public Schools, but now it’s down to just six.
He recently took a short break from tuning to be interviewed at Thunder Bay Junior High, where he was tuning a Baldwin Studio piano in one of the music rooms.
As he tuned, he explained exactly what he was doing when he played each note and used each tool.
“There are some specialized tools for doing adjustments for sticky keys, adjustments on springs, adjustments for the amount of travel that the hammer has to go,” Lyon said. “There’s adjustments on the dampers that quiet the strings.”
Each time you strike a piano key, the wooden key triggers a tiny spring below another small piece of wood attached to a series of mechanisms made of metal, leather, felt and cloth, before triggering the felted hammer to strike the correct string to create the desired note. It’s an intricate process that Lyon finds quite simple after doing it for so long.
“So, the tuning hammer and the electronic autostrobe tuner are the two most important things, along with rubber mutes, so I can hear one string at a time,” he noted. “So I can deaden two strings and only listen to one at a time. So, what I do is I use the machine and these wedges so I can hear one string, and I set the pitch of the note to where I want it.”
Most pianos that have been well taken-care-of, such as the one he was tuning, can be set to standard pitch. The TBJH piano is less than 10 years old, he estimated, and said it needs to be set to standard pitch so it can be used with other instruments in the band.
“Each piano has about 220 strings,” he said, adding that there are 88 keys on a standard upright piano.
If a piano has not been tuned in a long time, or if it is older, it will need to be “tuned to itself,” Lyon explained. It may be a bit off standard pitch, but it will not be noticeable to most people, especially if no other instruments are being played with the piano. While a stringed instrument such as a guitar can be tuned to the pitch of any piano, instruments such as horns are always tuned to Middle C, so they must be played with pianos set to standard pitch.
Piano owners should get their instruments tuned twice a year, Lyon recommended, and yes, it matters which time of year. He recommends late spring — May or early June — and mid to late November. He said the seasons changing affects the tune of the piano, and especially in Northern Michigan it’s important to tune twice a year. Differences in temperature and humidity can also affect the piano.
“Like all stringed instruments, humidity changes make them go out of tune,” Lyon said.Some pianos, such as the one he was tuning at TBJH, have a humidifier/dehumidifier unit installed under keyboard near the foot pedals in front of the sounding board. It helps keep the piano in tune throughout the seasons. The model he was working on had not been plugged in over the summer, however, so he had to retune the piano.
“Fall going into winter, it dries, so the humidity goes down, and the sounding board flattens out,” Lyon noted.
The sounding board has a crown, a bass bridge and treble bridge, he said.
“So when the humidity changes, it moves the bridge and tightens and releases the pressure on the strings,” he said. “So pitch goes up in the spring and it goes down in the fall. Those are our two big changes. But anytime you have a change of, say, 20% in humidity, that’s enough to make a string move … make a note go out of tune.”
He added that each string in a piano has approximately 200 pounds of tension.
“So this comes out at about, between 20 and 21 tons of pressure,” he said.
The bigger the sounding board, the more stable the tunings are, he added.