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Physics, balance & 10,000 moving parts

Posted on Sunday, January 29, 2017 at 12:00 pm

Piano technician Alan Keckritz has been tuning & repairing the instrument he loves for 30 years


Kelly Lapczynski


Tullahoma piano technician Alan Keckritz has spent the bulk of the last 30 years doing freelance repair work throughout Middle Tennessee and into Alabama, but when he saw a dire need for a technician in Tullahoma, he decided last February to open a storefront on Anderson Street.

It’s a profession he said he fell into backwards.

A look inside a standard upright piano during a tuning.

A look inside a standard upright piano during a tuning.

“I’ve wanted to play since I was little,” he said.  “I went to music school and one of my teachers there was an accomplished tuner/technician and had a business in Nashville for many, many years.” Toward the end of his life, Keckritz said, Nashville songwriter and music store owner Luther Drummond decided to pass his craft along.

Drummond had retired in 1975, but “eight or nine years later, he came across me and apprenticed me until he died.”

Since then, Keckritz has served customers ranging from Lebanon and Franklin, Tennessee to Huntsville and Decatur, Alabama.  “I cover a lot of ground,” he said.

It’s a business that depends on mobility.  “There aren’t a lot of other people that do it,” he said.  And though some informal estimates suggest that there is a piano in one of every five homes, Keckritz said that most owners don’t keep their pianos tuned. “If everybody in Tullahoma that had a piano would tune their pianos regularly, I’d have more work than I could ever do,” he said.  “Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.”

What keeps Keckritz going is his love for the instrument.  “I respect the craftsmanship and the quality and the workmanship that’s put into a good, handmade piano.”

Because pianos are easy to operate, many owners forget that they are complicated, precision instruments.  “It’s mechanical and physics and balance that are involved.”

A standard piano has more than 10,000 moving parts.  And though a player might recognize that a piano has 88 keys, a technician knows that those keys sound their notes as the result of the precise throw of individual hammers on more than 230 strings.

Each hammer, projected just one-and-seven-eighths of an inch at 70 miles an hour, creates a note by hitting one to three precisely tuned strings. “And it doesn’t just hit it and stay,” said Keckritz, “it hits it and checks back.”

As the hammer must move quickly to strike its strings, it must also move quickly away to allow those strings to vibrate.  It’s the action of the hammer that make the piano a percussion rather than a string instrument.

But each of the hundreds of strings must be precisely tuned, each with around 165 pounds of tension.  The combined tension for an instrument, then, is more than 18 tons – and nearly double that for a concert grand.  All of that tension is absorbed within the piano by a heavy cast iron or heavy metal plate and the sound vibrates within the piano case via a bridge that transfers the strings’ energy to the instrument’s soundboard.

“There are a lot of pieces and parts to pianos,” said Keckritz.  “It’s very complicated.”

To properly maintain a piano’s balance, tension and integrity through changes in humidity and temperature, it must be played and it must be tuned by a professional at least once a year.

“The worst thing you can do with a piano is just let it sit and not use it,” said Keckritz.


Tuning is an involved process

Unfortunately, tuning is an involved process that is often neglected by many owners.

“The value of the piano many times is in how well it was maintained,” said Keckritz, comparing the maintenance to that of an automobile.  “You need to change the oil and rotate the tires.”

And it’s a job best left to a qualified practitioner.

Tullahoma piano technician Alan Keckritz offers complete rebuilding, repair and refinishing services through Mid-State Piano Gallery & Music, located at 319 S. Anderson St. Rental band instruments and accessories are also available. Call 931-434-1002. -- Staff Photos by Chris Barstad

Tullahoma piano technician Alan Keckritz offers complete rebuilding, repair and refinishing services through Mid-State Piano Gallery & Music, located at 319 S. Anderson St. Rental band instruments and accessories are also available. Call 931-434-1002.
— Staff Photos by Chris Barstad

“A lot of people think they can get a guitar tuner or tuning app and tune a piano to it, but you can’t,” he said. “For a piano to be perfectly in tune, it has to be perfectly out of tune.  There are variations and partials on a piano, so there’s a long math equation to beg, borrow and steal to get a wide musical scale.”

In fact, the piano’s tonal range is unmatched among orchestral instruments, earning it the moniker “the King of Instruments.”  Through it’s more than seven octaves, the piano reaches from the lowest note of the contrabassoon and the highest note of the piccolo.

But over the years of an instrument’s life, it’s likely to need more than just regular tuning, and Keckritz is qualified to make any necessary repairs as well.

“There’s a difference between a tuner and a technician,” he said, noting that many young tuners are now trying to do more than they are trained or qualified to do.

“I make a lot of money fixing their wakes of destruction,” he said.  “It makes me a little angry because they are abusing their profession.”

When repairs or replacements need to be made, a reputable tuner will call a technician, like Keckritz, who is also trained and qualified to property rebuild, restore or refinish the instrument.

“I think you should have a license to do this because you’re handling, sometimes, $100,000 instruments,” he said.  “If you don’t know what you’re doing, you do not need to be messing with somebody’s 9-foot Steinway (concert grand) they just bought for $144,000.  You have to be very careful.”

“It used to be a guilded profession.  You could not even obtain the tools without a letter of reference from your mentor or the technical school you went to,” said Keckritz.

But with the advent of the internet, he said, anyone can now buy tools directly from China.  What they can’t buy is the know-how to use them with care.  And proper care is something Keckritz fears is often overlooked by casual piano buyers and sellers.

Too often, an owner looking to sell will ask top dollar for an old and improperly maintained piano, especially if they believe the piano’s age makes it an antique.  But Keckritz is quick to point out that not everything old is antique.


Antique pianos

“Antiques have to be at least 100 years old, they have to have had some value to begin with and they are only valuable if they were also rare.”  An old piano, he said, may be beautiful but not worth much if “everybody had one.”

Online outlets like Facebook and Craigslist “have made everybody’s living room a piano showroom,” said Keckritz.  “The problem is there’s no guarantee, there’s no warranty and there’s no moving.  You pick it up, and moving a piano is an ordeal.  Nine times out of ten, you’re going to tear up something.”

Worse, he said, casual buyers rarely consider the number of things that might be wrong with a piano’s inner workings.  Where they might notice a scratched cabinet or chipped key, they might not notice a cracked soundboard or base bridge or realize that the pin block has separated from the back.  What might initially look like a good deal can quickly become a money pit.

“Folks just don’t know,” said Keckritz.  “They’ll buy them and they’ll be in terrible condition and not just one tuning will fix them.  Sometimes it takes a half a dozen tunings.  So the $50 piano soon becomes an $850 dollar piano — which is what you could have bought it for to start with and have a warranty on it.  If you can buy a new one for $850, why restring?”

It’s not that Keckritz is against a good deal on a used piano, it’s that he wants buyers to confirm that the deal actually is good by checking the piano’s condition first.

“Some tuners around will charge more if a piano is in bad shape,” he said.  “I don’t.  I charge the same no matter what condition it’s in.  I just tell them upfront that I’d rather not start tuning your piano if you’re not going to let me come back in a couple of weeks to do it again and get it to where it will hold.”

And though Keckritz sells new and used pianos in his store – with delivery included in the price – he’s happy to help a buyer select a durable instrument even if it doesn’t come from him.

“I am a piano technician first and foremost,” he said.  “I want to see good people get good pianos.”

He also wants to see those pianos properly maintained.  In the local area, Keckritz said he charges between $85 and $100 for an annual tune-up.  “We try to keep it cheap,” he said.  “We want people to do it.”

And to see that the pianos are also played, Keckritz refers interested customers to piano teachers throughout his service area, including his in-house “teachers’ teacher,” winner of the 2014 Gospel Music Association’s Dove Award for Instrumental Album of the Year, Tracey Phillips.

In addition to the pianos for sale on at Mid-State Piano Gallery and Music, Keckritz also sells vintage and new Hammond organs and rents band instruments to area students.

Mid-State Piano Gallery and Music is located at 319 S. Anderson St. in Tullahoma.

Call 931-434-1002.