June 3, 2004
Tift County-- Some call him the unseen artist who helps piano players perform at their best. But he lacks a talent that you would automatically think he would have.
Billy Marchant sits his well used black plastic brief case on the beige carpeted floor, opens the latches and starts his operation. "Let me get my tool," says Billy, as he pulls out an obviously homemade wrench with a special attachment, that helps him do the nearly impossible.
"It's a joy to see a piano come back to life after no one wanted to mess with it," says Billy, as he removes the piano's wood casing.
It takes a while to learn how to rehabilitate pianos. "Started 33 years ago, in '71," remembers Billy.
Don't call him a piano tuner. He prefers the title of piano technician, one of a 3,773 in the US, according to the Piano Technicians Guild, an industry support group. He learned his craft the old fashioned way, through a correspondence course. "I opened it up but couldn't put it down," remembers Billy, a course hammered out by his wife's uncle. "Never saw the inside of a piano before," says Billy.
A few seconds with a piano and he can tell its personality, much like people. "If I pull the strings to much, they will revert back," says Billy. A special tool makes his adjustments look invisible. "I'm moving it more than you think I am," says Billy as he grabs the end of the wrench to adjust a string's sound.
Each piano string takes about 140 pounds of force to move it just a little. A whole piano has about 4,000 pounds of force stretching the strings to their desired sound.
Another invisible force causes a piano to lose its tune. "It's the humidity that makes it go out of tune," says Billy. Since a piano has so much wood, it absorbs water from the air, causing it to expand, altering its sound of the strings. The sound changes again when the excessive moisture leaves.
"It's not from banging around and moving it," says Billy, a common misconception. He uses an electronic tuning machine given to him to help get each note technically right, but relies on his hearing to get it just right. "I do 75 to 80 % by ear."
In 33 years, Billy developed selective hearing, hearing just want he wants to hear, especially a note that doesn't sound right. As a piano technician he re-builds pianos, repairs worn parts and re-finishes them, but he can't do one thing in particular. "I can't play the piano. I try to put every note to a pure sound, in chronological order," says Billy.
In 33 years of making sick sound pianos well, Billy Marchant never looks at his life's work like most people do. "I never felt like I had a job," says Billy as he snaps the locks shut on the old brief case.
For more information about piano technicians, take a look at: www.PTG.org . The Guild has its annual convention June 29 through July 3 in Nashville, Tennessee.
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