Staying in tune with Plainfield's Piano Man

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Plainfield - posted Mon., Feb. 14, 2011
Larry Main - Plainfield's own 'Piano Man' - rebuilds the heart of an upright piano. Photo by Denise Coffey.
Larry Main - Plainfield's own 'Piano Man' - rebuilds the heart of an upright piano. Photo by Denise Coffey.

Larry Main sits on a stool opposite a young boy in a room at the Plainfield Music Center. Drum sets perch in the front windows. A grand piano stands in a corner. Main and the boy have guitars in hand and both are playing, but the boy is having some trouble finding the right chords. When the lesson is finished, Main tells the boy, “Remember all the things we talked about. Play easy. Learn the chords. There will be time for playing hard. Now isn’t the time.” The boy packs up his guitar and walks off through the front of the shop.

To the boy’s mother, Main says, “Bad habits are so hard to break.” He wants to stop the boy’s bad habits and he does so generously.

When mom and son leave, Main gets back to the work before him: rebuilding the guts of an upright piano. Main is in the business of tuning pianos. When a piano goes past the point of tuning, an “action rebuild” is the next option. It’s what he’s doing now. He has taken the whole inside of an upright piano and brought it back into the shop. The piano couldn’t be tuned: the pin block was really bad.

“It was a beautiful, lovely old piano,” he said. “A beautiful piece of wood, about 100 years old.” He is in the middle of refurbishing each of the piano’s 88 hammers. The process is long and involved, but Main enjoys it.

“I worked for a big store selling pianos. I love working on them,” he said. “They don’t talk back.”

Main has been tuning pianos for eight years. He has learned a little bit from everybody. “You learn something here, and you stick it up here,” he said, pointing to his head.

He is not a registered piano technician. RPTs have paid for and passed three different exams. The first is a written exam, and the other two are practical hands-on exams that test tuning and technical skills. RPTs also pay annual dues to the Piano Technicians’ Guild.

Main picks up a worn brown strip of leather dangling from a hammer he has labeled number 54. It’s a bridle strap and it needs to be replaced, as bridle straps deteriorate with age. They are one of the most common piano action parts that need replacing on old pianos, he explained. All of them will need replacing on the piano Main is rebuilding. Once replaced, the hammers should last from five to 10 years.

The hammers are flat, as he takes them out one at a time. He will sand them until they are as round as they’re supposed to be. “We’ll get all those flat spots off. This is just from years and years and years of hitting the strings. After so long, they get hard,” Main says. He shows the indentations in one hammer from where it has been hitting the strings. “Once the indentations are there, that is the only place it hits. It gets hard. It packs it down. What we do is open it here and get a nice fresh surface,” he says. He sands it down. “That will hit all three strings,” he adds. His goal is to bring back the beautiful tone of the instrument. Time and climate and usage can make soft sounds turn bright and tinny. Action rebuilding corrects for those changes. “What I’m doing here should last this piano about 25 years,” he says.

He will tighten all the screws. “There are screws everywhere,” he says, pointing to the rows of wooden hammers. “About 300 screws altogether.”

“You should really tune your piano twice a year, but with the economy, nobody’s tuning their pianos,” Main says. This is the same advice that most piano manufacturers give piano owners. Concert pianos are tuned before each performance. Professional recording studio pianos are often tuned several times a week. New pianos need to be tuned more frequently because the strings stretch out. But the benchmark tuning rule for most pianos in a normal setting is twice a year.

“In six months I guarantee you, the piano will be out of tune. In six months you’ve gone from cold, cold, cold to hot, hot, hot,” he says. Main also suggests putting a humidifier near the piano. “Just a regular humidifier like you use in your house,” he adds. “Twice a year keeps it pretty much in check. The more the piano slips, the more it takes to put it back in. No one likes to play a piano that’s out of tune.”

When he has finished with the rebuild, he’ll put the heart back into the upright piano and regulate it. He will have to make sure that each key goes the correct distance before it stops. The tuning must be complete. “The strings must sing,” he says, and goes back to work, hunched over the hammers before him.

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