We’ve already established that I’ve always wanted to play piano. During a recent performance I was attending at the Franco Center, I also got to thinking about how those things are tuned. I mean, it’s not like you can just set a piano on your lap and twist a few keys to make it sound right. Someone has to crawl inside the thing, or maybe slide under it like an auto mechanic. I just don’t know!

Fortunately, I ran into Melvin Fletcher of Auburn at the show and my wife introduced us. Turns out Mel is one of those people everybody knows. When I mentioned that I was going to feature him in Facetime, a dozen people applauded at once. Popular guy, is Mel Fletcher, and not just because he’s one of the very few people left who know how to tune a piano (but not a fish).

I picked his brains and here’s what he had to say.

How did you get into piano tuning? Our family has a history of piano tuners. I am the fourth generation in the piano business and our son Jamin in Lewiston is the fifth generation. My great-grandfather returned to New England in 1890 at 54 yrs of age, to Leominster, Mass., after a career of building railroad-covered bridges in the Midwest. His new job was at the Jewett Piano factory in Leominster. That parent company is still in business and is the M. Steinert Piano Co., the Steinway piano dealer in Boston. I still maintain a professional relationship with M. Steinert and also am one of only 80 Steinway Technical Partners in the country and the only one in Maine. It is also a professional pleasure to be the piano technician for Gould Academy in Bethel, which is newly accredited as an All Steinway School. I also have the privilege of maintaining the two beautiful Steinway grand pianos at the world-class Franco-American Heritage Center in Lewiston. They both sponsor world-class artists in their classical piano programs.

My great-grandfather Francis Fletcher had two sons who stayed in the piano business, my grandfather and his brother Robert. Robert’s large piano retail business just sold out about 10 years ago. During the Great Depression my father ran a piano retail business in New Hampshire, then moved to Maine to work at the large Viner Music Co in Bangor. I grew up there and apprenticed with my father. In the 1960s there were 12 Fletcher men in various areas of the piano business.

What are the tools of the trade? One could pull off a piano tuning with only a pitch fork, one rubber mute and a tuning hammer. I still have my grandad’s tuning fork from the era before 1917. Back then “concert pitch” was A435 (a frequency of 435 cycles per second for the A note above middle C). In 1917 Mr. Faust codified the piano tuning process in his book and the “concert pitch” was raised to the current A440. Many recordings are made at 442 now, since the human ear has a bias for sharpness. That extra edge allows the piano to “cut through” in a recording and be a bit more sparkling.

Do you have a favorite or dream piano? I do love Steinway pianos. They set the bar and are the “touchstone.” Many instruments are excellent: American: Mason-Hamlin. Asian: Kawai, Yamaha and a new-comer, the Boston. European: Bosendorfer. Russia does not produce any world contenders, nor does Africa, India or China.

What do you do when you are not tending to the ivories? My parents were great readers of the Bible and spent considerable time teaching it. I likewise grew up with great regard for the Scriptures and volunteer a lot of time in support of Bible education. I volunteer a lot of time each year working with a professional international orchestra, where I maintain five Steinways for the purpose of recording music and Bible-related educational videos. My wife and I enjoyed working for disaster relief in the Caribbean in Saint Kitts. Carolyn and I have enjoyed traveling extensively, and are looking forward to more of the same.

Does everybody you meet eventually make the “tuna fish” joke? Yes.

Is it still funny? I still chuckle.


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