It’s not public knowledge beyond my closest circle of friends and family, but I rather enjoy hacking at the piano. Nothing technical, nothing formal or rigid, just relatively freeform music. Piano is one of those few instruments that can take you somewhere else. You sit down with a decent glass of wine and forget the world and its then distant problems. Doesn’t matter if you’re any good; you just play.
When I came to college, I never realized how much I’d miss the old upright grand my parents had restored at their home. I used to play on it for hours. Our whole family tree (cousins, grandparents, you name it) is very musically inclined and I probably fit somewhere in the “okay” range. Still nonetheless, I enjoy it.
My mother found an old piano from a woman who was trying to downsize her home and purchased it as a very gracious gift to me. Now this piano was in great shape, but terribly out of tune – something that my wallet and I could live with for several months. But thanks to a donation from dad and a kick in my own rear to invest in something I enjoy, I decided it was time to get it in tune.
Enter “the Elder Henry W. Bell aka Mr. Piano”, as his van said.
A soft knock followed by a friendly, “Mr. Piano here, do I have the right address?” The grey-haired African-American gentlemen came in and promptly removed his shoes, per a dwindling old-south tradition. He immediately moved over to my piano and began undoing the panels from the 1950s (“or so”, according to Mr. Bell) Story & Clark console. We conversed for a bit – mostly small talk – where I learned he had an ill ex-wife, whom he currently drives 4hrs each week to tend in Baton Rouge, several kids, and served our country in two wars. As he continued, he assessed that the piano was entire half-step out of tune and would take a good bit of time. As typical with my tightly-gripped wallet, I sort of sighed to myself.
But continuing conversation, jokingly I said, “You’ve had some experience at the piano, I take it?”
“No sir, not really,” he said. ”I started when I was age 20 or 21. And since I’m just now 86, I really haven’t had enough time to gain much skill.”
After a laugh, I then asked a simple question, never expecting the conversation that would follow: “So what got you into tuning pianos?”
Well, ya see, I’m a preacher — not the kind that stands at the front of the church waiving his hands — the type that the good Lord wants us all to be. People at my church think I’m a little bit crazy, but you know I think everything in life you do should be for a reason.
Curious, I pressed him further. He continued,
Yeah, you know. People just wander around all the time doing things and complaining bout their troubles. I don’t got any troubles. I’m a young man in good health and got nothing to complain ’bout. Because I have a reason for everything – a purpose.
Naturally I asked why he tuned pianos. I only wish I could relate his deep-south accent that is really required to give his dialog full justice.
Well sir, you see these strings? There are 230 strings on this here piano that are supposed to be a certain way… not figured out by math, figured out by your ear and your soul. They are only right when they sound right…. when you play and it sounds like it’s supposed to sound.
Piano tuning is like getting a lost soul to come to the Lord. You ask em once, ‘Brotha, you coming to church tomorrow?’ And he’ll give you a long excuse of why he can’t come. But that’s okay, you just wish him the best that week. Ya don’t give up on him though. Next Saturday ya see him again in the store: ‘Brotha, you coming to church tomorrow?’ And he’ll say, ‘Well, maybe we’ll see.’ Once again, you wish him the best, but see now he’s almost halfway through the door. The next week you ask him again, and then finally he says, ‘Okay,’ and you see him in church on Sunday. A few months later, he’s come to know Jesus.
And that’s how tuning this piano is. Each string is out of tune, until it’s just right. Now, your piano’s pretty out of tune here, and I’m going to have to work each string — I know that sitting down. I could easily just say, ‘Naw, naw this is go’n to be too hard,’ and not fool with it. But then I always know, this here piano won’t be in tune. So… I tug a little bit and it gets closer, tug a little bit more and it gets closer, and tug a bit more and finally, it’s there! Just how it was intended. It resonates right? Hear it? It fills the room up, not just makes a simple sound. And that’s my reason, I see it just like I see life. Each piano different, but all with the same intent. Just needs a little tug.
Piano tuning gets me into people’s houses to talk to em. Some people don’t want to talk, and that’s okay. Others do. Doctors, lawyers, students, average people… you name it. Hell I don’t care, they’re all a lot smarter than me, but they are brothas in the Lord all the same.”
I must confess, I was rather speechless as he turned and proceeded to pluck at the strings. I offered him something to drink or eat and then proceeded upstairs while he worked. I pondered for awhile, his incredible outlook on life and how if everyone – including myself – could have that kind of perspective. Hours later as I was in concentration on some work project, I heard a few simple chords… a pause… minor corrections, and then this house was filled with music like I’ve never heard.
I slowly came downstairs around the corner to watch this gentleman play true, genuine southern blues, as you only find in the great state of Mississippi. All 60-some years of piano experience was engulfing the house, the mellow blend of stretched octaves aligning. He didn’t notice me standing there for a good ten minutes, as he took time to enjoy all of the keys, “sounding like they should.” When he saw me he said, “There now, dont’cha hear? They’re all singing together with soul. Isn’t it fulfilling?”
I paid him. He shook my hand with a smile. He said thank you for both the nice conversation and a fine piano to work on. With the typical gait of an 86-year-old man, but the determination of a 10-year-old boy, he left.
As he pulled away, I couldn’t help but smile to myself. And it wasn’t because I knew my ol’ piano now “sounded as it should”, it was that I knew Mr. Bell was off to pull on more strings — just as he had done on mine.