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A life spent one key at a time
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David Blanton laughs as he remembers some of the odd things he has found in pianos during his career as a piano tuner. The 78-year-old may be the last piano tuner in Beeville; he has tuned uprights and grands since 1965. But his tuning days are just about over.
David Blanton laughs as he remembers some of the odd things he has found in pianos during his career as a piano tuner. The 78-year-old may be the last piano tuner in Beeville; he has tuned uprights and grands since 1965. But his tuning days are just about over.
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DAVID BLANTON may be the last piano tuner in Beeville — and he’s been doing it since 1965.

“It’s almost a dying art,” he laments. “There’s not many around anymore.”

At 78, crippled with arthritis, bent over by Parkinson’s disease and suffering from other slings and arrows of advanced age, he still plays golf and still, but rarely, tunes a piano.

He lives on Toledo Street with Juanita, his wife of nearly 57 years.

“We met at Del Mar College,” she says. “I was majoring in home economics. David married me because of his stomach, rather than someone who plays the piano” — which she does.

IN THE mid-1960s, “we had a hard time getting anyone to come to Beeville to tune pianos,” he remembers. So, armed with a master’s degree in music from Southwest Seminary in Fort Worth — he was a music minister at the First Baptist Church for 34 years — he sought out the late J.V. Rose, a piano dealer and tuner in Victoria.

He still calls him “Mr. Rose.”

“You think I could learn to tune pianos?” he asked.

“A degree in music has nothing to do with it,” Rose replied. “The key factor is your ear. But the main thing is that to be able to tune, you have to be able to repair.”

The mechanical side of piano tuning is no better known than the art of tuning itself.

Piano tuners are the first to arrive at a piano performance — and first to leave. They tune the instrument; the pianist gets the credit.

ROSE WAS repairing a piano while he talked with Blanton. “You’ve been watching me,” Rose said. “I’ve got to leave for a while; see if you can finish this repair.”

“So,” Blanton remembers, “he took off, and I started putting that thing back together.

“Every now and then, I would go look at another piano that had the same action to see how it worked. When he got back, I had it done.”

Once Rose was convinced that Blanton could repair a piano, he then tested his ear.

“A piano tuner doesn’t need perfect pitch,” Blanton says. “Few of them have it. But you need to have a sense of relative pitch.”

TUNING A piano is a far cry from, say, tuning a guitar.

“Each note on a keyboard, from middle C on up, has three strings. In the base area you have two strings and then, finally, one.”

The multiple strings, he explains, gives body to the sound a piano produces.

When tuning a note with three strings, each string must be tuned individually, which requires the tuner to mute, or silence the other two.

“When I tune, I start with an octave,” he explains. “Then I will tune a fifth, then I tune thirds, sixths and then sevenths.”

Discerning the notes from one to another is what is called “relative” pitch.

“If a piano has not been tuned for a long time, it’s difficult to keep it in tune. If it’s a cheap piano, it may not hold a tune at all.”

BLANTON PREFERS tuning grand pianos over uprights, in which everything is more compressed.

“A lot of tuners will charge more for tuning a grand, which is crazy because an upright is a lot harder to tune.”

Each tuning takes between an hour and 90 minutes to complete.

But not always. Blanton cites two Steinway pianos at Coastal Bend College.

“One is always harder to tune than the other. It’s weird,” he says, and chuckles.

PLAYER PIANOS? Forget it.

“They are a nightmare,” he says.

He blames the dwindling supply of available piano tuners on the lower number of students taking piano. “They prefer to use electronic keyboards,” he says.

“They’d rather play the rock ’n’ roll than the classics.”

The biggest mistake people who own pianos — and a lot of folks in Beeville do, including grands — is not to have them tuned frequently enough. A new piano, he says, may require tuning four times a year, sometimes for two years in a row, because the strings tend to stretch.

A piano’s environment also is critical.

“Pianos don’t like to be cold one day and hot the next. The temperature change jerks the strings around; they won’t hold a tune. I went out to CBC one time to tune of the college’s Kwai grands. That thing had mildew all over it – the keys, the strings; it was a mess.”

Part of the adventure of piano tuning is what he has found in various pianos.

“I’ve found pencils, paper clips, gum wrappers, erasers. The worst thing is finding mice in the strings.”

Today, he still will accept a tuning job for grand pianos, but he won’t touch uprights anymore.

“That’s because to tune an upright you have to stand,” he explains. “But you can tune a grand sitting down.”

And, he no longer goes out on the road.

“I miss it. There’s a certain satisfaction in hearing what a piano sounds like when you get hold of it and then after you get through with it.”

His words sound like the refrain of a long remembered song.

“I still sing,” he says. “I’m a bass-baritone.”

To bid a visitor goodbye he raises himself out of a favorite chair by pushing against a closed piano keyboard for support.

It’s the family’s Baldwin studio upright, tuned once a year, despite the difficulty, by who may be the last piano tuner in Beeville.

Bill Clough is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 122, or at beepic@mySouTex.com.
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