Hands-on workers are hanging on

Kathleen Lantto |

Piano tuner

shadu_b / Flickr

From the Seattle Times

Ginny Bear tunes pianos for a living.

Back in the day, that statement would have been about as remarkable as saying, “Ginny Bear eats baloney.” But here in the new digital economy into which some of us have leapt, and others are still being dragged, it actually makes the West Seattle woman — and others who still have jobs where stuff is accomplished by skilled manual labor — stand out.

The distinction seems especially glaring around Puget Sound, which was “settled” two centuries ago largely by Europeans who fought the war against nature through hand-to-hand combat: hands on crosscut saws, hands on fish nets, hands on plows.

That was then, tech is now. But that postindustrial revolution is, and to some degree always will be, incomplete. It might sound odd coming from a place where new 737 wings are being punched out via robotics, but not everything can be turned over to machines. Nor should it.

Bear’s work, assisted by technology but impossible to accomplish without basic tools, produces a tangible product — a piano that plays in key, itself a potential tool for great artistry. You can look at the piano. You can touch the piano. You can put flowers atop the piano. And most of all, you can play the piano and hear and even feel her handiwork flow from its keys and pedals.

Not that long ago, almost every job was like that. Today, many still are, but they have been relegated largely to the lower tiers of pay and what society might consider “success.” The sociological impacts of that can be, and should be, debated. But there’s value, in the short term, in at least acknowledging the shift.

In an era in which our youths are aggressively warned away from pedestrian, artisanal career digressions — “Every kid in America should learn to code!” a popular magazine treatise recently scolded — we here at Pacific NW thought it might be instructive to pop in on a few random local people still doing “real jobs.” By this we mean older jobs that have survived, for many decades, either by necessity to provide a still-valued service, or by the sheer willpower of workers who value the satisfaction arising from an uncluttered cause-and-effect occupation.

They are fewer, but you don’t have to look very hard to see those people still out there, working, quietly keeping the world we knew, embraced and mostly lost humming right along, like background music to a people and place with an increasingly tech-dominated lifestyle.

The force driving Bear to the piano technician training course was the same one that has motivated many a middle-aged human before her since the dawn of humanity. (Or at least the dawn of the office.)

“I was sick of my desk job.”

A decade ago, Bear, now 64, was an administrative assistant in the health-care industry. In her mind, she was more of a “craftsperson” who had been miscast.

But what craft for this person? She had always been musically inclined, in fact played percussion in local music groups. While noodling all this, her husband, Chuck Sanders, claimed to know for a fact that piano technicians (a job performed by his late brother) were in demand, that the work was easy to learn and that it paid quite well.

None of those things turned out to be exactly true. But Bear didn’t know this until she was already well down the path. Now, she does the work more or less full-time, making enough money to support her share of family expenses. And for the first time, she can say she loves her job, especially the broad range of people it brings her into contact with.

Here is what it entails: Once dispatched on a piano house call — mostly through her website, some through referrals from former customers or music teachers — Bear arrives at a home and assesses the problematic musical beast. This involves opening up the piano, which might be anywhere from, say, 100 years to a couple years old, to get at its guts, especially the tuning pins.

Before messing with those, she takes the piano for a short spin. “I dink around a little,” playing scales, octaves and a short jazz tune a friend wrote for her, to see if it’s even in the ballpark of proper tuneage. If it’s not, she’ll basically have to tune it twice, once to get close, once to hit perfect pitch for all 88 keys. (You would be surprised, or maybe not, at the number of times a foreign object inside the piano is the source of the problem. “I’ve been looking for that sock for ages!”)

Bear can tune a piano by ear. But she uses a digital device to hasten the process — “Reyburn CyberTuner” — on a pocket PC. It listens to her play five notes, then constructs its own tuning for every note on the keyboard. The microphone listens in and refines its note construction periodically as she moves from lowest to highest notes, adjusting the pitch by tightening or loosening piano strings, not unlike on a guitar.

This sounds simple but often is not, thanks to the “Rube Goldbergian” (millennials, Google it) structure of pianos, which will employ a group of two or three strings to make an individual sound for each black or white key.

“When I’m done, I play single notes from top to bottom, then octaves from bottom to top, adjusting tunings as I hear the need,” she says. She plays a few actual tunes (secret info here: These are basically the only piano tunes she knows) to check out the full range. It usually takes up to two hours, and she charges $130 for a basic tuning.

The big picture: There’s really not a “shortage” of local tuners. The area Piano Tech guild already has 50 or 60 members. But long-term prospects look good to Bear. Despite what you might think about pianos being largely “replaced” by cheaper digital keyboards (a much-lesser acoustic experience, Bear warns), old pianos don’t really go away quietly — if at all. They just get hauled by reluctant, sweaty guys on weekends to a new location.

“You have to make a piano go away,” Bear says.

For some people, a successful career is not simply getting out of an office and away from a digital device. It’s all about avoiding them in the first place.

Read the full article from the Seattle Times.