Days with a Piano Technician

Text and Photography · Date 09/08/2016

When I received an email with an assignment to follow a piano technician during the course of his work, to explore the instruments and places he encountered, I found it hard to resist. I spent a few days on the road in Seattle with Stephen Brady—a soft-spoken, no-nonsense, award-winning piano technician who, in his spare time, also happens to DJ tango parties. As a young piano student, Steve had enjoyed playing—but, like many, he did not enjoy practicing. Over a quick taco stop between clients, he told me how one day his teacher had put the choice before him: Are you going to be a serious piano player, or not? Steve gave it some thought, went to school to become a piano tuner, and has been working on pianos quite seriously ever since.His clients graciously welcomed us into their homes, offering tea and hours of delightful conversation.

Boyka.

In Capitol Hill, I met Steve’s longest-running client: former high school English teacher, music teacher, paralegal, and interior designer Boyka Thayer.

“When the piano arrived at our small farmhouse outside of Redmond, we realized it was so big, the only room where it would fit would be the dining room, so that’s where it went.”

Thomas Bordeaux House.

Another morning, I found myself carrying the guts of a piano—the action—into an elegant mansion built by a lumber baron in 1904.

The current owner recently restored the mansion, and the piano with it.

He told me: “When I saw the piano for the first time, I thought it looked as though it had always been there and that, like so much of the rest of the house, it had been well-used and well-loved and just belonged.”

Larry.

We made our way up through a stairwell half-exposed to the outdoors and draped in lush ivy, then down a hallway lined with textured lipstick-pink walls, emerald doors, and old furniture. Larry Mayer, a software tester, threw open the door cheerfully, revealing a cozy apartment with a piano at its epicenter.

“My grandparents had a piano at their house—but I was never allowed to play it. When I was in first grade, my neighbors had a piano, and my mother worked early, so I went to their house when my mom left. I was sent downstairs—with their piano—and played by ear.”

He bought a grand piano during the recession, and now hosts duet parties at his own apartment.

Molly.

13 years old and drawn to the living room to watch, despite the drowsy sleep-in summer sunlight.

We looked on as keys were transplanted to the dining-room table.

When all the bits and bobs had been returned to their places, lubrication applied, and the piano tuned: Molly sat and played, barefoot. I listened, already eager to hear it again.

When she finished, I asked: What is that, who wrote it? “I wrote it,” she said.

And off she went. ¶