Ode to the piano god

When I first began tuning pianos by ear (with only a single tuning fork for reference) in 1970, each piano would take about 4 hours for me to tune the 225 strings. I would listen and get lost in it- caught in unfolding sound. Then I went to work for a piano store. They turned me out, into a room filled with hundreds of green (newly manufactured) pianos. I was paid $10 an hour. While I don’t recall how long I worked in that room, (it may have been three weeks or three months), I gradually began to get faster and faster in completing tunings. Because I was being paid $10 an hour, I stopped caring so much, how exact I could get each string to sound the way I thought it should sound. And green pianos are notorious among piano tuners for quickly going out of tune because of how stretchy new piano wire is. So I would tune a green piano, caring less and less how perfect each string was, or how the final tuning came out sounding. The green pianos did go quickly out of tune- but less and less so, the longer I worked. And something strange began to happen; my tuning times began to go down, and my accuracy increase- This was something the old tuner-technicians knew would happen, and why, I think, that they turned me out, into that vast room with the hundreds of green pianos. I began to trust my body in the way it handled the tuning hammer (wrench). By the time I got out of that room, I could go through a piano in about an hour, which is my tuning time today, after 46 years of tuning.

Now to be certain, when I do a concert tuning, I’ll go through a piano twice, which takes me a couple of hours, to make sure the piano is rock-solid stable before a performance. I learned that my hearing is (and ought to be as a professional) better than that of most people- and so if I listen closely, I can still detect errors in the tuning- and can fuss and fuss over certain uncooperative strings. Yet when I am able to meet the piano, to find what the piano wants, and embrace its natural imperfections, while working with it to come to agreement between the 20 or so tons of tension that is on the piano, and myself, there is this lovely thing that happens, which I’ve mentioned before- the piano disappears- and only the music remains.

Zhuang Zi talks about this as “forgetting the self.” Dōgen Zenji took it up from Zhuang Zi, in saying “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self…” Mihaly Csikszentmihaly has written about this experience in his book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.” How wonderful and curious that I would fall into flow with a piano- The experience becomes a portal to flow that transforms myself, the piano, and the space the piano is in, as far as the sound travels. In my recent talks, I call this state of consciousness the “music of awareness.” Biologist Rupert Sheldrake once said to me in an interview, “All of life is vibratory organic pattern.”

I am deeply thankful for these experiences in partnering with the piano god. And to my surprise, this story has bloomed into a blog entry!

©2016 Anthony S. Wright, Ph.D., All Rights Reserved.

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