All these years later, George King vividly recalls the exact moment he knew he had become a piano tuner.
It was 1963 and he was a young apprentice trying to learn the craft from a relative.
“To tune a piano, you have to tune the beats out, smooth it out,” King explained as he demonstrated with a tuning hammer on a near-century-old Steinway grand piano.
“I was sitting with my hand on the leg of a piano as he was tuning it and I felt the tuning beats through the wood of the piano,” King said, choking at the memory. “I felt it in my hand. It was like it all clicked for me.”
It’s an emotional memory because that moment changed the course of his life.
At the time, he was 24, married with a child and with no clear idea how he was going to support his family.
He’d studied music in college but left without a degree or teaching career, as he originally planned. And joining his family cotton farm in central California was not working out, either.
So he left his wife, LeAvice, with their son and traveled to Cañon City to learn piano tuning from her uncle. It was an intense six months and he’d worked long hours every day trying to grasp all the intricacies of tightening wires until they produce the exact note intended when struck with a hammer connected to an ivory key.
But he was frustrated.
In fact, earlier that day of his revelation, King said he’d prayed for divine guidance.
“I said: ‘Lord, if you want me to do this, you have to open my ears,’ ” King said, stopping to compose himself.
“That day, he did. The Lord has been very gracious and provided everything for me.”
The memories came flooding back as King finished tuning the Steinway and prepared to ship it to Idaho.
This was a special piano and not just because it dates to at least the 1920s and perhaps as early as the 1880s. And not just because he appraised its value at upwards of $40,000. (It would cost $150,000 to buy a comparable new piano.)
This Steinway was special because it was the 15,000th piano King had tuned — by ear, mind you — since his revelation in 1963 launched him on a lifetime of stretching wires, cranking them tight, working from the middle of the keyboard out until all 88 keys are striking perfect notes. (That’s about 300 pianos a year, if you are keeping score at home.)
Remarkably, each of the 15,000 is documented. Every job — from common $18 tunings to more expensive cleaning and reconstruction work — was logged in hand-printed ledgers until he converted to a computer around 1998.
Early on, it took him an hour or more to tune a piano. Today, he can knock one out in 30 minutes or a little more. His prices also have changed over time, with a common tuning now running $85.
But none of that matters much anymore because there won’t be any milestone Steinways in King’s future. Just golf and softball umpiring and other diversions.
This 15,000th piano, it turns out, marks the beginning of the end of King’s tuning career. King, who turned 75 in May, is starting his transition into retirement.
He is shutting down his shop, King’s Piano Sales & Service at 989 Wooten Road, in the coming weeks and hopes to have his inventory of refurbished pianos liquidated by September.
He will continue to service a few long-term customers and corporate contracts. And he’ll do appraisals and odd jobs.
But there will be no more ledgers to fill.
No more uprights, Steinways, Spinets or Baldwins. No more stopping to buy pianos spotted for sale at garage sales or on someone’s porch to be refurbished and sold.
King and his wife of 54 years, LeAvice, can hardly believe it.
“I had no idea I’d ever get to 15,000,” he said. “I’d never ever though about this kind of work. It was the furthest thing from my mind.”
Heck, King didn’t even play piano. Still doesn’t. Can’t even play “Chopsticks,” he said.
“Not a note,” he laughed.
He does play a series of chords, over and over, to make sure each piano is tuned.
But he does have help, in LeAvice. She plays beautifully. Even taught piano for 10 years.
In many ways, she’s the perfect partner for King, who played trombone in his Tulare, Calif., high school marching band and had the honor of performing in Dwight Eisenhower’s 1957 inaugural parade.
As it turned out, King was the mechanic and LeAvice was his test driver.
It was my privilege to see them both in action on Thursday.
The Steinway still had one bad key. He used his tuning hammer to adjust the tension on a tuning pin. Then she sat down and made the instrument sing.
King looked on with pride as LeAvice’s hands glided across the keys, playing “Love Story.”
Watching them, I knew it was the perfect song.