Having grown tired and restless from his job editing material for a hazardous waste company – “I was depressed and wasn’t engaged in the work” – Mark Roe was on the prowl for something fresh that would ‘sound the right chord’. His search ended when he began a new career tuning acoustic pianos.
I met the studious, likable Roe at our church, St. Luke’s Orthodox, in Erie, CO. From my first sip of jo at the coffee hour, I was impressed by his easy manner, his didactically refreshing handling of all subject matter, and his ability to step outside of himself and float honest assessments, not caving to cloying sentimentality. He’s always ready to pound out the sharps and the flats.
Speaking in a slight Texas twang, Roe, 63, offered a Cliffs Notes version of what he does. “A piano technician is somebody who maintains the instrument – tuning, repairs and voicing.” And here’s the disarming part that enriches his quietly flavorful persona: “A piano can be tuned but still not sound good. It’s a complicated instrument.” Pressing on with his kind of State of the Profession address, Roe explained that the general public doesn’t really know how a well-tuned piano – the word means `soft’ in Italian – should sound. “But most people have a sense. It’s the same thing with singing. If you go to a concert and there’s really bad singing, you know that.”
In 1957, with an eye on elevating the profession’s image, he noted, a worldwide organization, The Piano Technicians Guild, was formed. Its bylaws state that anyone fixing pianos for a living or as a hobby, must pass a series of three exams. “There’s a written test, then a practicum, where you demonstrate your ability to repair pianos. The final test involves tuning the piano to the satisfaction of three colleagues.” In order to pass, “all three have to agree” on your performance. The next words out of Roe’s mouth – instead of going on and on about how hard the test is, how only a stultifying 10 or 12 percent of those who dare take it pass – bring out his gracious and polite modesty. “I can’t say the test is terribly strenuous.” Still, tightening regulations with the addition of the exam, he added, made it more difficult to simply “hang your shingle out.”
He then proceeded with the story of his musical journey. Marching ever so close to his destined rendezvous with a tool that falls into both the percussion and string categories, Roe found himself in a piano store. He was mulling over whether to buy. However, things took a slight detour when he inquired about getting a job there. Roe struck up a conversation with owner Chris Finger, currently the choir director at St. Spyridon Orthodox Church in Loveland, CO. (Roe, whose father was a fulltime music minister at a large Southern Baptist church, is a former Orthodox chanter.)
Finger hired him, but Roe had to agree to a five-year apprenticeship. “He told me he was getting tired of training his competition,” referring to the owner’s experience with some trainees who learned the trade and then struck out on their own. “My pay was cut in half,” he recalled, joking that he jumped from one low-paying profession, tech writing and editing, to another. “I wanted to take the middle path. His transition reminded Roe of verses from the Book of Proverbs, where King Lemuel asked for “neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.”
Roe’s desire to make an honest living continues. He oversees a small, one-person operation, bringing patience and skill, working in the shadow of its intrinsic subjectivity. I can’t get enough of Roe’s penchant for standing outside and peering in. Again, Roe summons his quirky talent for exploring all the nooks and crannies of his work, alternating from the inside to the outside. The profession “is dying, but I don’t think it’s going away. There are still young families,” who call on him and who don’t mind paying his $200 hourly fee. There’s another perk to the art of making each of the 88 keys do their thing. “If the electricity goes off, I can tune the piano.”