Someone once said that you can tune a piano, but you can’t tuna fish. While we do not dispute the wisdom of that remark, we also have a further interest in and resources for piano tuning. The topic, the practice, the history, etc., of piano tuning has a solid place in circles like ours.
When we think of early 19th century blind French men, Louis Braille (1809-1852) immediately comes to mind. Among many other accomplishments, he is credited with the creation of music notation for the blind. This is the tactile system now known as braille. He also played and taught the piano and organ. Both needed tuning.
But there is another Frenchman that we need to know: Claude Montal (1800-1865). 2015 is the 150th anniversary of his death, which is being celebrated both here and abroad. Why? In short, because Montal wrote the first comprehensive text on tuning and repairing the piano, l’Art d’accorder soi-même son piano.., published in 1836. This work has just been translated (2015), by Fred Sturm, as The Art of Tuning: A Self-Guided Manual for Piano Tuning, Design, Action Regulation, and Repair from mid-19th Century France, and is readily available in print.
Montal became blind from typhoid fever around the age of five. His parents were ultimately able to secure his admission to the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles (National Institute for the Young Blind) in Paris. The Institute took seriously the education of the blind, providing them with skills and knowledge to become contributing members of society.
Montal was an exceptional student, and by the age of 20 had become a teacher at the Institute, covering grammar, geography, and mathematics. While there, having heard of an earlier student who had learned how to tune pianos and actually made a living at it, Montal decided to learn those same skills, and at the same time taught himself to dismantle and repair pianos.
When he was 30 years old, Montal left the institute to become an independent piano technician. Inventive and energetic as he was, he branched out to teach classes in piano tuning, and buy, repair and resell used instruments. It was his experience in teaching the tuning classes that spawned the beginning of his book on tuning. Over time the book evolved from a short treatise to an extended set of topics that included repairs and the history of the piano, in addition to the essentials of tuning.
At the same time, his piano repair business had developed into a manufacturing of new pianos business. By 1839 he had completed 175 instruments, patented several inventions in piano and action design for both upright and grand pianos.
These brief details touch only the surface of an extraordinary life. We will have occasion to return to his biography. But for now, what Montal did, in essence, was to establish the career of piano technician as a profession, one especially suitable for blind people. This is not simply an historical observation, but is also a present day reality. The NLS music collection offers a number of titles that are available to support the work of current blind piano tuners across the U.S.
Among our titles in braille, we have: White – Piano Tuning and Allied arts (BRM18485); Howe – Scientific Piano Tuning and Servicing (BRM10906); Rowed – Mathematics of Tuning (BRM18957); Menke – Grand and Spinet Pianos (BRM09604); Repairing the Pianoforte (BRM11232); Brady – Piano Technician’s Guide to Field Repairs; and Nalder – Questions and Answers on the Art and Science of Pianoforte Construction (BRM09625).
Most recently, NLS began providing an audio version of the print monthly, Piano Technicians Journal (published by the Piano Technicians Guild). This is a most welcome addition to materials on the subject of piano tuning. And it is the first audio title on the topic in the NLS collection. Definitely non-fiction. Laura Gianarelli, who subscribers to this blog will have met last week, is the narrator. All of these titles are available to patrons of libraries for the blind.