Piano Tuner to the Masters
By his own estimation, Joseph Brandwein has tuned pianos for virtually every major concert pianist who’s performed in Kansas City over the last 40 years. But he refuses to name-drop.
“I’m strictly low-key,” Brandwein says. “I don’t need the praise. I don’t need more business. I just do what I do.”
In 1977, Brandwein quit his formal music education at the University of Missouri-Kansas City when he discovered that he could pull in more money as a piano tuner than as a freelance viola player.
“And, honestly, tuning came easy,” he says. “I’m extremely mechanical. And I’ve got a great ear for pitch and intonation. So, it was kind of a natural thing.”
Brandwein never advertises his services, working strictly on referrals.
“I’m not a snob,” he says. “I’ll tune for a world-class concert pianist. I’ll tune for the average Joe.”
Whoever the client, including some of Kansas City’s most recognizable society and celebrity names — again, mum’s the word — Brandwein’s job is fundamentally the same: Bring out the best in any acoustic keyboard instrument, whether it’s a humble spinet or a nine-foot grand piano. Sometimes other things come out, too, like spiders, ticks and silverfish, along with the discovery of doomed critters that got into too tight a spot.
“Oh, yes, everything,” he says. “Chipmunks. A (pet) rhesus monkey under the strings on a grand piano. Apparently, they couldn’t find it. You know, they’re small. The lid was closed, so it just kind of dried out.”
Has Brandwein ever had to pronounce a piano dead?
“About every three months I have to declare one untenable,” he says. “I don’t charge for that type of thing. Some people are like, ‘Well, I suspected it.’ And some people get angry. It’s like, ‘This is impossible. It doesn’t sound that bad to me.’ Well, I’m hearing things different.”
Brandwein’s auditory focus has to be strong, so he won’t be distracted by clients’ pets. “You can’t get friendly with them,” he says, “because they’ll think its playtime and they won’t leave you alone.” Yet the plan doesn’t always work, like the time a curious St. Bernard wanted to help.
“I’m doing my job and all of a sudden I hear something and look over,” Brandwein says. “I let out some kind of noise — a shriek or a gasp — because I see that the St. Bernard’s head is buried in my tool bag. And he looks up at me and is completely drooling right in my bag.”
Another time, a client’s cat decided to make a statement on his tool bag. “It was closed,” he says, “but there was this big mess on top. It’s a territorial thing.”
Yet the biggest bother might be how often Brandwein gets hit on by his clients. In recent years, he’s switched from wearing a white gold wedding band to a black one to draw more attention to the fact that he’s married. But he wonders if that’s only made him a more attractive challenge.
“You can usually tell what is going to happen when you walk in the door,” he says. “It depends on what they’re wearing. You get the bathrobe. Or the string bikini.”
And men, he says, “are absolutely, unabashedly fearless” when it comes to making advances.
How does he handle such unwelcome overtures?
“Well, I try to just concentrate on the piano,” he says. “You talk about the weather. You try diversionary tactics. If I get touched, I just say, ‘I’m here to tune your piano, but I will walk out that door.’”
Not that Brandwein is complaining. His piano tuning career has been profoundly rewarding, including covering the cost of higher music educations for his two grown children, both of whom were musical prodigies.
Besides, someone has to take proper care of all those pianos — whoever might be famously playing them.
“As long as the client likes it,” he says, “that’s all that matters.”
Above: photo by Jim Barcus