What The Piano Tuner Taught Me

As an early Christmas gift of sorts, my wife agreed that it was finally time to get our piano tuned. I’ve already covered my foray into the world of piano so that’s not what I’m here to talk about today. Today I want to talk about Howard the piano tuner.

When we got the piano almost six months ago, I asked the nearby piano store if there were any piano tuners they could recommend. They gave me a short list and I called them all to get prices. None of them were available and I was surprised at how inflexible they all were, some even noting they were no longer working in the field. Then as I was browsing the classified ads, I noticed an ad for a piano tuner. The ad simply said, “Professional piano tuner, 34 years experience, $80 for a basic tune. Call me (Howard)”

Something about the ad struck me as brilliant and I saved it with the list of other piano tuners. When I finally approached the task of finding a tuner again, Howard was the only man I called. I didn’t want someone tuning my piano that doesn’t care and 34 years experience has to mean that Howard has a continued passion for piano tuning.

I was right. Howard was a nice old man, a little eccentric like all old men are, but he had skill, experience, and knew his way around the piano.

I had researched what it would take to tune a piano myself. It’s not an easy thing to do and it’s expensive to collect all the tools required to do a decent job at it, even if you have the ear for tuning a piano. Howard came armed to the teeth, most of his tools being customized or custom made entirely.

I asked him about the tools, which surprised him, but it gave him the open door he needed to launch into his passion. He described each tool in detail. Howard told me of his quest to find the perfect tools and when things he ordered from piano tuning factories failed him, he set out to make the perfect tools for him to be the best at tuning pianos. Each tool was customize not only to do the job the way Howard wanted it to be done, but they fit his hands, were customized to his vision and his way of doing things. Some oddities in his tool collection included a bottle of tuning oil with a hypodermic needle as the spout which exhibited Howard’s attention to detail, and a paring knife reworked to lift felt pads from key stops without even slightly bending them which shows Howard’s love of every piece of the piano itself.

Howard ball-parked a two hour tune for my piano when I spoke to him on the phone; he stayed four hours. Not because my piano needed a significant amount of work, but because Howard didn’t want to leave until the piano was in perfect condition in every way, cosmetically and harmonically.

As he got started, he first cleaned everything. He blew the dust from places I didn’t know existed, he scrubbed nail polish from the white keys and made them sparkle again where I had failed, and he repaired the sheet music rest that had come loose in the move.

During the tune, Howard explained every little piece of the piano to me. He explained what they do, how they get out of tune and how to put them back in tune. Every few minutes during his work, he would stop and play a few chords on the piano to make sure everything was sounding and feeling perfect. With confidence once everything was back in its proper place he said, “This is an amazing instrument and sounds magnificent. You won’t find anything in a piano store so well tuned.”

I learned a lot from Howard that night about the piano, music, mechanics, passion and business.

As I wrote Howard a check, he asked that I write the check out to his wife as she handles the accounting for the business.

Lesson Learned: Your job doesn’t end when the whistle blows. Howard has been tuning pianos for 34 years, but his wife handles the accounting for the business. Most people bring their work home with them in one way or another and that involves the whole family. If you are doing things you don’t believe in, your family is sure to know but your work is also sure to involve them in some way.

After Howard was all finished, we talked a little bit about music. I have a passion for music and Howard could tell I was a kindred spirit. I could tell he was still completely in love with his work and the instrument, as he reminisced about his past and his early beginning into the world of piano playing and tuning.

As Howard was leaving, we got to talking about his past. I was very curious if all Howard did was tune pianos. With 34 years experience and him looking no more than 55, 34 years doesn’t leave room for much else. It turns out that Howard tuned pianos part time while he got a degree in teaching music. He taught one year and was burned by the principle and office politics so he went back to tuning pianos full-time.

Lesson Learned: Working for yourself is not about becoming a millionaire overnight, or ever. It’s about enjoying your life. Howard has worked for himself for 34+ years and shows no sign of quitting. He loves what he does, has a passion for it and knows the ins-and-outs of the job well. He is living the dream as it used to be, enjoying life while still providing for his family.

Howard is an interesting man, but what I find most intriguing is that his life is so simple yet his enjoyment and happiness is loudly apparent. He tunes a dozen pianos a week and loves his work. He is a shining example of what life can be like if you follow your passion and let everything else settle where it may.

Are you like Howard, still in love with your work after all these years?

Image by chelseagirl

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14 People have left comments on this post

» ctreitNo Gravatar said: { Dec 9, 2010 - 10:12:01 }

Great story! Howard proves that you can lead a very happy life without making a ton of money. I know lots of such happy people, too. I also know lots of people who make a bit of money, but who are pretty unhappy.

Jesse MichelsenNo Gravatar Reply:

Exactly! It’s easy to lose sight of what really matters which is overall happiness. Money can’t buy that, and you have to love what you do! ( at least most of the time)

» Khaleef @ KNS FinancialNo Gravatar said: { Dec 9, 2010 - 04:12:04 }

Great story! I love it. If everyone in business handled themselves they way that Howard did, things would be so much more enjoyable!

» retirebyfortyNo Gravatar said: { Dec 9, 2010 - 05:12:12 }

Great story! I would love to have an enjoyable 9 to 5 even if I make less money. I had a guest post that wrote about leaving her office job to teach yoga and it worked out very well for her.
I’m still working a cubicle job, but my exit strategy is in the work. 🙂

Jesse MichelsenNo Gravatar Reply:

RB40, I think we all start there. It’s especially hard when that kind of lifestyle, the 9-5 work until you die, is pressured upon us so much during school years. No one really mentions that there is more to life than money 😉

» Jesse MichelsenNo Gravatar said: { Dec 9, 2010 - 08:12:52 }

I agree Khaleef, people really don’t run business like Howard runs his own anymore!

» Car Negotiation CoachNo Gravatar said: { Dec 10, 2010 - 08:12:50 }

I think I need Howards phone number. Does he do any software development?

Jesse MichelsenNo Gravatar Reply:

While Howard was skilled with his hands, I really doubt that translates into computer smarts 😉

» DIY InvestorNo Gravatar said: { Dec 12, 2010 - 07:12:59 }

Great story. It brought to mind “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” which changed lives of a whole generation.

Jesse MichelsenNo Gravatar Reply:

Wow, I’m flattered 🙂 I wouldn’t mind changing the lives of a whole generation 😉

» Kevin @ Thousandaire.comNo Gravatar said: { Jul 2, 2011 - 08:07:31 }

Crazy that he only tunes 12 pianos a week. 12x$80 is $960 a week, or about $50k a year before taxes and expenses. He must love it because I don’t know if I could live on $50k a year at my young age of 26!

I wish I had the opportunity to meet the man. He sounds incredible.

Jesse MichelsenNo Gravatar Reply:

I’d be happy making just enough to cover my bills if what I did was the passion and love of my life ya know? And that’s exactly what I felt about Howard. He is quite the man, I think you and he would get along nicely.

» Donna FreedmanNo Gravatar said: { Jul 19, 2011 - 12:07:15 }

I’ve been supporting myself as a writer for nearly 28 years. Although it has its drawbacks (what job doesn’t?) I still love it because it lets me help or entertain people, or both.

Jesse MichelsenNo Gravatar Reply:

Thanks for your comment Donna, congrats on working for yourself for so long! It does have drawbacks but for the most part, you are in control and that’s a pretty freeing thought.

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