TURNER — The first service call for 86-year-old piano tuner Richard Robitaille was a total nightmare.

“It was a Spinet piano which is the hardest of all pianos to tune, it took all day. I went back home for a snack,” Robitaille said.

That was more than 60 years ago when Robitaille was teaching himself how to tune and repair pianos as a side gig while working in shoe factories in his hometown of Lewiston. 

To this day, Robitaille avoids Spinets if he can as he explained that the design is so compact that it’s nearly impossible to fit tools and fingers between springs and actions, (the hammers that hit the strings when a key is played).

Richard Robitaille tunes a piano at his showroom in Turner. When tuning, Robitaille starts with the middle C key which he isolates by muting the other key strings. Andrea Swiedom/Franklin Journal

“When I’m servicing someone’s Spinet I say to myself, ‘oh please, don’t let anything break, just get through this thing.'”

Robitaille had to overcome bad word-of-mouth service call reviews in his 20s while he trained on old guinea pig practice pianos and studied publications by the Piano Technicians Guild like the Bible, he said.

“It was a rocky start and then of course, word of mouth is your enemy and you have to overcome that,” he said. “It becomes your friend finally, your enemy becomes your friend if you pursue it diligently enough.” 

Now, Robitaille might service up to five pianos in a day, sometimes traveling 100 miles in his Prius, which he is very proud of, with his wife, Barbara.

“I got the bright idea of her coming with me,” Robitaille said. “She’d be home alone and I’m off somewhere mostly everyday so she’d come with me and move my mutes.” 

A mute is a tool that’s placed in between strings to silence all but one note, allowing a tuner to isolate and make tweaks to a key’s hammer that needs adjusting. Robitaille said that having Barbara assist him easily cuts down his tuning time by 10 minutes.  

About 75% of the Robitailles’ business comes from summer camps, churches, nursing homes and schools, many of which have been closed or canceled during the pandemic.

“In March, we got fired by the virus,” Robitaille said, explaining that he had no work from March to July which is typically his busy season.

September showed some promise of business picking up as schools reopened and indoor gathering restrictions eased in the late summer. 

“Then it fizzled, the virus got worse and everything fizzled again,” Robitaille said.

Fortunately, servicing pianos is only a part of the Robitailles’ business. They also sell pianos from a grocery store that they converted into a showroom after they got married.  

Robitaille and Barbara, who is from Leeds, met at a country dance in Litchfield in 1963 and were married shortly thereafter. They both worked in the shoe industry, commuting from their home in Auburn to Livermore Falls and would often stop at the Pick n’ Pay grocery store along Route 4.

After making a few jokes with the store owner about the amount of Fireball Cinnamon Whisky she sold, Robitaille became a familiar customer. Through these interactions, he eventually learned that the owners were ready to retire and Robitaille made an offer on the store, fed up with the crumbling shoe industry.

The grocery market included a residence on the second floor, a gas station and a small restaurant. Robitaille and Barbara moved in and took over the business, but still managed to incorporate pianos.

“We started putting pianos in here and then we put groceries on top of them, it was mostly upright pianos back then,” he said.

Robitaille was nonchalant about mixing groceries with pianos and doesn’t remember any major reactions from customers.

“It was so gradual,” he said. “They got used to it, I mean, they had to.”

After about five years, the couple was over the grocery business. Route 4 was being redirected off Mason Road which affected several independent grocery stores, and dealing with the Sunday customers was growing tiresome.

Richard Robitaille is a self-taught piano tuner based out of Turner. He started working on what he referred to as guinea pig pianos in his early 20s, and he still uses many of the same tools that he first invested in such as the tuning hammer pictured above. Andrea Swiedom/Franklin Journal

“Back then you could not sell beer on Sundays, but there were always people that would come in trying to get beer on Sundays,” Robitaille said. “The previous owner had a list of people that he would sell to on Sundays and he gave me the list … and we got caught selling beer on Sunday and so I had to go to a hearing to maintain my beer license, and I never went. I was fed up and that was the end of the store.” 

Now the ex-grocery store is completely filled with Steinert, Hallet Davis, Yamaha and digital pianos which Tiger, Barbara’s cat, keeps company with wailing meows.

Robitaille said the showroom is quite low on stock after selling 20 pianos in the past four months. He said that on average, they sell three pianos a year.

“It has to be virus-related. I know for a fact we sold three pianos to people who don’t even play them,” he said.

One of the piano purchases went to a family home-schooling their children this year because of the pandemic, and Robitaille speculates that many of his customers wanted to learn a new hobby safely from their homes.  

He’s also had two customers come to his showroom claiming that God had sent them to him and bought pianos right on the spot.

These sales contribute to Robitaille’s tuning business because these customers later call him to tune their pianos annually. Those who play the piano professionally may call on Robitaille’s services four times a year.

While Robitaille does play the piano as well, he said he prefers tuning after visiting the homes of so many serious pianists.

“Getting into the tuning and repair part, I came across people who really knew how to play and I realized that I wasn’t ever going to be them,” he said. “I wasn’t gifted to ever be like they were.” 

Robitaille does have the gift of listening though and he said that he could always detect an out of tune piano.

“I always knew when a piano was out of tune … I just knew it needed tuning, but I didn’t know how to tune,” he said.

 After 60 years of servicing pianos across Maine, Robitaille can pinpoint a single note out of tune causing an asynchronous echo clashing with the other keys.

“Every moving part there’s a place somewhere where you can change it and adjust it,” Robitaille said. 

Robitaille’s Pianos Sales and Service is at 65 Mason Road in Turner. The showroom is open by appointment only by calling (207) 224-7840 or emailing [email protected]

 

 


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