Vancouver piano tuner still turning the tuning pegs at 81

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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It starts with an A. An A-440, to be exact.

Ken Serviss slaps a metal tuning fork against his leg, letting it reverberate softly. He places the tool against the body of a grand piano, amplifying the sound into a clear note — an A, with a frequency of precisely 440 Hz. Finally, Serviss tests the pitch against a key of the same tone. He listens carefully.

It’s a little bit flat. Serviss looks up through the thick glasses resting on his nose.

“That’s what keeps me in business,” he said, smiling.

Serviss, who turns 81 Saturday, is one of Vancouver’s most accomplished piano tuners, having practiced his craft for some 60 years. He doesn’t fix nearly as many pianos as he used to, taking on three or four jobs per week. The former leader of the School of Piano Technology for the Blind used to do that many in a day. Serviss is legally blind himself, and often travels from job to job with his wife June behind the wheel.

In more than half a century of tuning pianos, Serviss has hardly changed his methods. He keeps one of his tool kits rolled up in a worn leather pouch, some items decades old. He uses the time-tested techniques he learned as a teenager in the 1940s. And Serviss won’t touch an electronic tuner.

His customers wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I want a perfect piano,” said Vancouver resident Lois Elaine Smith-Zoll, one of Serviss’ loyal clients. “And with Ken, I get a perfect piano.”

Key by key

Serviss spent a recent morning on a job he’s done before: tuning the grand piano in the sanctuary of Vancouver’s Columbia Presbyterian Church, where you can find him on Sundays. He donates his time to fix it when needed, said minister of worship and music Jeff Haagenson.

After establishing an initial tone, Serviss methodically went about his work. He opened the piano, using a fabric strip to mute some strings and isolate others. His main tool: a simple tuning lever used to turn the pins inside the body, pulling the strings to just the right tension.

Serviss first worked his way through the piano’s middle range, adjusting the three strings behind each key one by one, checking octaves and harmonics along the way. He kept his head down, sometimes mumbling to himself, sometimes to the piano.

“I talk to it once in a while,” Serviss said. “It doesn’t do any good.”

To the untrained ear, it might sound like Serviss is listening for pitch alone. But he’s not. Serviss listens for the “beat” of the note — that is, the reverberation created by the tension of two tones that aren’t quite in sync. When the note falls into tune, that beat smooths out.

Serviss moved into the upper range, following the same methodical process, key by key. He slid down to the lowest notes next. Then he returned to the middle range to finish.

A perfectly tuned piano isn’t possible, Serviss said. Tones can change constantly. But a trained ear can capture a lot of moving parts through the process, he said.

“When we tune by ear, we’re listening to hundreds of harmonics and we’re blending the whole thing,” he said. “It’s that blending with the ear that really counts, because that’s what the customer hears.”

In about 90 minutes, the job was done. All 88 keys were checked and rechecked. But Serviss stops there. He doesn’t play around, or offer a tune to break it in.

Here’s Serviss’ little secret: He’s not much of a piano player. He laughs about it, but admitted that’s caused more than a little disappointment for some of his customers.

“You have to stick in a chord or two every now and then,” Serviss said, “so that people think you can play the piano.”

That doesn’t take anything away from the end result. The Columbia Presbyterian congregation can attest to that, Haagenson said.

“I really personally appreciate what Ken has done — not only for the musicians, but for everyone who comes,” he said. “They all hear the work that he does.”

Looking back, looking forward

Serviss did take piano lessons growing up in Clark County in the 1940s. But he wanted to play country and western music. His instructor at the time wasn’t having it, and later suggested Serviss try tuning pianos instead of playing them.

Serviss attended the Washington School for the Blind, then bounced around a number of other Clark County schools before landing at The Piano Hospital — the original name for the piano technology school Emil Fries had just founded in Vancouver. Serviss honed his craft and his ear there, graduating from Fries’ school in 1950.

Serviss went on to spend a brief stint in New York City, tuning pianos in clubs and recording studios. He returned to Vancouver in the 1960s, then soon went to work for Fries at the school Serviss would eventually take over and lead for more than 20 years.

He stepped away and left the school in good health more than a decade ago. Now, on his 81st birthday, Serviss doesn’t plan to stop tuning pianos any time soon. He doesn’t want to stop doing what he loves.

And why should he? Serviss said he repassed a tuning test at age 76, and he has a large cadre of satisfied customers still calling back. Building those relationships is among the best parts of working as a piano tuner, Serviss said.

Serviss still gets new clients now and then. But his existing customers aren’t likely to go away soon.

“People always used to ask me, ‘Aren’t you kind of young to be tuning pianos?’ They don’t ask me that anymore,” Serviss said, flashing a grin.

“Now they say, ‘Haven’t you retired yet?’”

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; www.twitter.com/col_enviro; eric.florip@columbian.com.