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Don't Shoot the Piano Tuner

Not if you want to hear the music sound like it was meant to sound, that is.

The idea for this column occurred recently, at a venue that shall remain nameless, while eagerly anticipating a solo recital by one of the finest pianists in Western New York. After the first few notes had been played, the person sitting next to me exasperatedly whispered “The piano is out of tune!” Yes, it was, throwing a definite shadow over what was otherwise a superbly nuanced performance, reinforcing the conviction that the work of the piano tuner is a critical component in the success, or failure, of any performance.

East Aurora native Bob Sowyrda, the dean of piano tuners in the Buffalo area, started out by studying piano. “I started playing when I was about six,” says Sowyrda. “But my parents made me wait until I was eight to take lessons, and that was frustrating. I really loved music. I secretly listened to WKBW (initially banned in our house) and learned all the songs on the radio. I was also very attracted to the guitar which was also pretty much banned in our house, but I played my friends’ guitars at every chance. Not surprisingly, I also tuned their guitars for them, since most of them couldn’t keep them in tune very well and until I was in college, guitar was my biggest focus. I only took a few years of piano lessons and then switched to clarinet and finally oboe, so I could play in the school band and orchestra, since piano wasn’t as social an instrument.”

“I grew up in a house where we fixed everything ourselves,” says Sowyrda. “My father built our house and we repaired our own appliances and cars, so I fixed my instruments and those of my friends. I didn’t get involved with pianos, though, until I wanted to get married. My fiancée Darcy, now my wife, sensed that as a musician I would need a ‘real’ job, since nobody seemed to be calling me for gigs. She saw an ad in the Swap Sheet for some used piano tuning tools for $25, and she handed me the money to go buy them. Coincidentally, I was a piano student at UB where I met Vince Illos who was, at the time, the full time resident piano technician for the school. He discovered that I could actually tune a piano and engaged me in tuning all the practice pianos at Baird Hall, giving me the experience and confidence to go forward more on my own. I had already bought an old broken down baby grand from a former piano teacher and was rebuilding it entirely, having taken all the books on the subject out of the library. Word of mouth got around and within a year I was working pretty much full time”.

“I had opened my own rebuilding shop in 1979, but being better at fixing pianos than managing a business, I got in over my head after a few years. Thank God that Vince Illos hired me, so I was able to pay off my debts over a few years and support my family without going bankrupt. Vince had the BPO contract, and I started tuning for the orchestra in1982. The first guy I ever met there was Cab Calloway. He was very congenial and set me at ease quickly, even joking that I might come tune his home piano—in Italy! You don’t always meet the artists, but when you do, they are almost always warm and receptive people. I think that truly professional people know we are all dependent on each other to make a performance successful. You hear rumors about big egos and difficult personalities, but I haven’t found that to be the rule. There’s not enough time in setting up a concert for anyone to be difficult and still get the job done. I’ve got to say that it’s great to work with the Kleinhans and BPO staff. Everyone has seen Dan, Rich and Charlie out on stage moving things around. These guys are completely indispensable and know what they’re doing.”

Recalling a recent tuning with the pianist William Wolfram, Sowyrda says “As he was warming up, he was concerned that the piano wasn’t loud enough to project over the orchestra. This is a universal concern with concert pianists—any surprise? The piano we have now is possibly the best Steinway that Buffalo has ever had, so I suggested that I could play a little and he could go out on the floor and see what he thought. I pounded out some jazz and then the opening arpeggio to Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto as well as I could. He was really impressed with the hall and the piano sound, and was finally convinced that there would be no problem. He didn’t make any comment about my playing though.”

Sowyrda plays piano and guitar in a quartet with violinist Keith Woodin , percussionist William Cooper and bassist Kevin O’Brien. “It’s basically a jazz band because of the improvising nature and structure, but we do anything we want in terms of style. It’s a great band and they’ve been willing to play a lot of the music that I write. These days we only get a few gigs a year but I don’t go out and sell us since I like to keep it fun.”

“Piano servicing has been very rewarding work,” says Sowyrda. “It’s an honest living—you won’t get rich, but as my friend and piano teacher, Wes Chauncey, said, ‘You’ll always have food on the table,’ and that’s good enough for me. Plus, you meet all kinds of very interesting people and not just the famous ones. It’s a privilege to be invited into their lives to serve them all.”

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