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Piano Tuning Tales

...and sundry observations

The Skeletal Snake

A Sore Test of the Baldwin

Tuning by Feel

The Skeletal Snake

Pianos can harbour some strange things. There’s even a case where a robber hid inside a piano. He was caught when a cop searching the house for the thief tried plunking a tune on the piano, and nothing happened. When the bottom panel was removed, voila! The miscreant was revealed. Other things are revealed from time to time.

I was servicing an old player piano in the country a few years back. I kept hearing a very odd sound when I played certain keys. Piano technicians are like old-time car mechanics, they learn to discriminate and categorise sounds: is it a buzz, a rattle, a groan, creak, squeak, squeal…you get the picture. The sound I was hearing wasn’t exactly a rattle, it had elements of a rustle to it, too. This was a piano where it was necessary to take off the music desk as well as the fallboard (keyboard cover) to see anything, so off it came. I shame-facedly admit I screamed and almost dropped the fallboard when I saw what was making the sound.

Have you seen the first “Alien” movie, when the chest-burster erupts from John Hurt’s chest and flashes its two sets of jaws? Bloodcurdling. It was enough to make my hair stand on end. What I saw, believe it or not, looked like the skeleton version of that beastie. It was about three feet long and had a nasty skull with not one, but two sets of fanged jaws. After a moment, I was embarrassed to realize what I was looking at was a snake who had swallowed a mouse, or rather, tried to swallow but choked to death on it.

If you’ve never seen a mouse skeleton, you’d be surprised at how big the front teeth are. They are very large and sharp, rather like a chisel. When you see them in profile, they make quite an impressive set of fangs. The mouse’s head stuck out beyond the snake’s jaws, which had large fangs of their own. The net effect, at first glance, was of a frightening horror-show prop; not only two sets of jaws, like “Alien”, but skeletal to boot! And there it was, resting on top of the keys all those years.

Pianos are usually a safe haven for mice where they can scurry unseen and unsuspected through the galleries under the keys and elsewhere, and they like to chew up the felt. They can make rather a mess of dampers and hammers, left to their own little mousey devices. The mice in this piano had a little surprise laying in wait, though. The snake had a pretty cool gig with his meals being auto-delivered, and useful to the piano owner too. Sadly, there was one time he’d bitten off more than he could chew.