Making music sweet: Experts keep pianos in tune

If you want perfect pitch in your voice, you have to be born with it, but luckily, if you want it in your piano, there’s someone who can give it to you.

They’re called piano tuners or piano technicians, and so far, nobody’s come up with a machine that can take their place.

The Piano Technicians Guild, an international professional organization, certifies piano technicians. The guild has a Central Pennsylvania chapter with five members. Most piano technicians started in the business because they already had a background in music, although most didn’t play the piano.

Kevin Luke of Ashville, a member of the local guild chapter, got into the business not just because he likes music but because he has a passion for what goes into the intruments’ construction.

“I just love wood, all kinds of wood,” said Luke, who is also an organist and serves as director of music at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Altoona.

Luke became a piano technician at the suggestion of another man in the business, Fred Fornwalt of Altoona, who had followed his father into the piano tuning business.

Luke had just graduated from high school and knew he wanted to go into a music-related field but wasn’t sure what he wanted to do.

“Most people who pursue music end up teaching, but I don’t really enjoy that,” Luke said.

Luke, who owns Kevin Luke’s Piano Service, started in music with the trumpet when he was in third grade. He first came to the Cathedral when he was a young boy when his father became a deacon. Luke remembers his first glimpse of the Cathdredral’s Steinmeyer organ.

“I knew I wanted to play that organ,” he said.

He started taking organ lessons and played at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Coupon during high school.

Later, he was choirmaster at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Cresson.

After high school, Luke enrolled at the North Bennett Street School, a professional craft and trade school in Boston. He spent two years learning piano tuning and repair.

Fornwalt took a more direct path into the business.

He said he grew up watching his father work on pianos. After he got out of the military, where he played the trombone in the 28th Division Army Band, and he got his degree in music education at Penn State University, he decided he’d rather tune pianos just like his dad.

“It gives you the ability to be independent and make your own schedule,” said Fornwalt who has operated Fred A. Fornwalt RPT Piano Sales and Service for 42 years.

Fornwalt is good friends with fellow piano tuner Bill Hocherl of Altoona, who started in the business 37 years ago.

Hocherl, who plays drums, graduated from Bishop Guilfoyle High School and started at the Penn State Altoona Campus to get a degree in music education.

While in school, Hocherl would drop in at the now-closed Ford Music Store in Altoona and watch piano tuner Bill Kinser at work. Tuning a piano didn’t look so hard, Hocherl said.

“I found out it wasn’t easy at all,” he said.

The music store owner said he could use another piano tuner and said he’d pay for Hocherl to take courses at Mount Aloysius College in Cresson, which at that time offered a program in piano tuning. Hocherl declined and paid his own way.

When he graduated, Kinser became his mentor and Hocherl eventually set up his own tuning business, Bill Hocherl’s Piano Tuning and Repair.

Along the way, Hocherl has had the chance to meet all types of people.

“I’ve hung around backstage and met some very famous people,” he said, including country singers Johnny Cash and Conway Twitty. “And then, you get into the homes of little old ladies who don’t want you to leave.”

Hocherl said “the coolest” person he’s ever met was the Rev. George Docherty, the man who’d convinced President Dwight D. Eisenhower to put the words “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance. Hocherl went to the man’s home in Alexandria, Huntingdon County, to tune his piano and knew right away who he was when he saw a newspaper clipping in the man’s home.

“He was very calm about the whole thing,” said Hocherl, who now has Docherty’s framed autograph in his home.

At their bimonthly chapter guild meetings, Hocherl, Luke, Fornwalt and the other members check their egos at the door, Hocherl said. They use the meeting to help each other, trading tips about what works for them.

They also trade stories about common problems, Hocherl said. Fornwalt recently had a call when a customer had a problem with a “sour-sounding piano,” Hocherl said. She was using a fan near her piano, which was changing the air flow around the piano altering the piano’s sound, he said. Moving the fan corrected the sour sound.

Humidity is another factor that can change a piano’s tune, Luke said.

“Our humidity fluctuates, because we go from 80 percent mid-summer down to 20 percent in the winter,” Luke said. “All that fluctuation causes a piano to go out of tune.”

However, Fornwalt said there are systems for pianos that can be installed to regulate humidity.

Electronic tuning devices that piano tuners use help guide them to do their jobs. But the men said the devices are only a tool that cannot be used in place of a human piano tuner.

For example, Hocherl said Fornwalt has a very expensive electronic tuning device “but in the end, Fred has got to learn to tune by his ear.”