- Associated Press - Sunday, December 6, 2015

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - In 1872, T. Peterson strung a piano for Chickering and Sons in Boston, Massachusetts.

When he finished his work he elegantly looped his name onto a sticker and slapped it inside of the piano where, 143 years later, Jonathan Cleghorn found it in Urubamba, Peru.

Cleghorn was there to fix the piano, which resides in the Baptist seminary in town.

He can’t tell you how it got there. All he knows is that it was purchased by a family in Boston around 1872, then it somehow made the trip to South America.

There are no piano shops in Urubamba, a small town situated in a valley that’s 9,500 feet in elevation. Nor are there any in the nearest city, Cuzco. The closest piano shop is in Lima, 24 hours away by car through winding mountain roads.

Somehow, someday, the piano made the trip through the mountains and into the city.

Cleghorn’s trip to Peru is just as unlikely. Normally, the 27-year-old piano technician checks in to work at the Kanawha Piano Gallery, an unassuming music store in Clendenin.

Cleghorn has only lived in West Virginia for a few months - he moved here from South Carolina for the job as a piano technician.

He is short, wears glasses, has a thin goatee and an intellectual air. His wristwatch has a black face with black nylon band. On a recent day he fiddled with a piano from 1895, almost as if fulfilling a nervous tick.

He has always liked fiddling with pianos.

“Growing up we had a junky old piano in our garage that I learned to take apart and put back together,” Cleghorn said. “And it was a piece of junk that no one cared if I destroyed, so I could play with it all I wanted.”

Cleghorn didn’t start tuning pianos for real until he was in college at Northland Baptist Bible College in Wisconsin, when a technician was called in to fix the pianos in the music program and he was brought in as her assistant.

From there, it just kind of stuck.

“It’s like crack.” Cleghorn said. “Once you start you can’t stop.”

Both Cleghorn and his boss, Shane Lowther, are certified piano technicians. They travel around West Virginia tuning pianos - from the one at Mountain Stage to the those in living rooms.

Both of them have their own piano toolkits. Cleghorn just got his brand new. It’s a black backpack with multiple pouches for his tuning fork, tuning hammer, temperature and humidity sensor, an electronic assistant to help set the temperament accurately and, of course, rubber gloves because you never know when you’ll find a dead mouse. Lowther’s case is older, purchased from the president of the oldest tuning school in America and looks more like it belongs to an auto technician.

“You’re a mechanic,” Lowther said. “You get to use your hands and you get to solve problems. But it’s also music and we love music first and foremost.”

Tuning pianos requires an ear for that music.

“A lot of piano tuning is learning to listen,” Cleghorn said. “To hear those beats and count them in your head, how frequently they’re occurring.”

When someone’s tuning a piano, they’re manipulating frequencies. In fact, there’s such a thing as mathematical temperament, where every key is set to the point where it’s mathematically perfect.

But that doesn’t sound very nice.

If you were to set every string to its perfect mathematical tone, there would be intervals when the two notes fought against each other. Instead they keep it just barely out of tune so that the ear can’t tell but it sounds better across the instrument.

“The first piano I ever tuned took me eight hours to tune,” Cleghorn said. “By the time I had done like five, I was down to three hours. But it’s a learning process, getting to feel finer and finer things and hear finer and finer things.”

While Cleghorn enjoys tuning pianos, his passion is what he’s trying to do in Peru, restoring old instruments.

“That’s the thing that really does it for me,” Cleghorn said. “I’m a history nut, if I wasn’t going to be a music major in college I was going to be a history major, so being able to combine the two is just like my piece of cake.”

Originally, Cleghorn was contacted about the piano in Peru for supplies. His aunt and uncle work at the seminary and they were going to get a local piano tuner to take a look at the old thing and see if he could get it to make a sound again.

As Cleghorn learned more about the instrument, like how it has a piano action that is extremely rare, he wanted to go work on it himself.

In preparation, he took to the piano technician message boards, where he was met with resistance.

“There were technicians all over the country that discouraged Jonathan from even going, that it wasn’t worth it, that he wouldn’t have success.” Lowther said. “But Jonathan is pretty hard-headed so he went anyways.”

Cleghorn’s biggest challenge with the piano in Peru is the action. The action is kind of the mechanical heartbeat of a piano. It consists of all these parts that help it make noise when you press down a key.

With a modern action, a technician can work on a specific piece without having to take the whole thing apart. The piano in Peru has an Edwin Brown action. With a Brown action, the technician has to take the whole thing apart, fix what they think is broken, put it back together, see if it worked, then take it apart again and work on the next thing.

Then there’s the problem that Brown action pianos are pretty rare; Chickering made only around 40,000 pianos with a Brown action, most of which have been scrapped or retrofitted with a modern action if they’re even still around. So most modern piano technicians haven’t seen one before and if they have, they ran away as quickly as possible.

“The reason these are never serviced is just nobody knows how to do it and they’re just scared of it,” Cleghorn said.

Cleghorn has talked to technicians from Arizona, South Carolina and Wisconsin about Brown actions. He has access to the factory manual to see how things looked when they first came off the assembly line. But he doesn’t have any guidelines for how to fix the thing.

“As far as straight-up mechanically how it works,” Cleghorn said, “no one really knows anything beyond what they’ve been able to find out themselves.”

The piano in Peru did have several technicians who looked at it over the years. One of these technicians even put down a felt pad to change the height and the angle.

Cleghorn had to spend his four days in Peru just trying to get the piano back to its market modifications.

And now he has to go back.

Even though the piano plays now, there’s been a gradual deterioration of the instrument over time that makes it sound, well, bad.

So Cleghorn has been doing a lot of research, gathering supplies and fundraising in attempts to get back to Peru for two weeks to really be able to fix the instrument. One week he’ll fix the piano and the next he’ll teach music. In the end, he thinks it will cost around $4,000.

“Is it worth dropping $4,000 into this piano, will it actually be a good piano once it’s done?” Cleghorn said. “Now that I’ve made the one trip down I think I can answer absolutely yes, it will be a really cool piano once it’s done. The insides are going to be far and away the best in town.”

Of course, there are only two other acoustic pianos in Urubamba.


Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, https://wvgazettemail.com.



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