Sept. 29, 2021
Contact: Sara Diedrich, 573-882-3243, firstname.lastname@example.org
Lucy Urlacher learned how to tune pianos because she simply could not tolerate the sound of one that wasn’t. It’s an insult to the ear — and the musical instrument.
It was the late 1970s, and Urlacher was teaching music at several small elementary schools in the Kansas City area. Pianos in the schools were tuned in August but out of tune by November — and there was no money in the budget to fix them. Urlacher was beside herself.
So, the first-year teacher did what any self-respecting daughter of a farmer would do: She tuned the pianos herself. But first she checked out a how-to-tune-a-piano book from the public library and then went to work.
“In those days, we didn’t have the Internet or YouTube videos. If you wanted to know how to do something, you checked out a book from the library,” she said. “I definitely improved that first piano, but I could never get it to where I wanted it to be.”
Today, Urlacher is responsible for keeping 120 pianos at the University of Missouri School of Music in tune and in sound working condition. She’s been with MU for 13 years. That’s a far cry from the early days when she was literally tuning often downtrodden pianos by the book. Not long after her first foray into tuning, Urlacher came under the tutelage of Ernie Preuitt, a well-known piano tuner in the Kansas City area, who was more than happy to take her under his wing. From Preuitt, Urlacher learned the value of never cutting corners while tuning. She also learned how to regulate, repair and restring pianos, skills that make Urlacher a piano technician as well as a tuner.
Eventually, she left education and became a full-time piano tuner/technician in the Kansas City area. Next year, Urlacher, who now lives in Columbia, will mark her 40th anniversary as a Registered Piano Technician with the Piano Technicians Guild. She is currently the president of the Columbia chapter of the guild.
“Where did the time go?” wondered Urlacher, who is also an avid gardener and has decked the music buildings with plenty of plants.
Born on a farm and raised in Billings, Montana, Urlacher and her three siblings didn’t get a piano until Urlacher – the baby of the family – was in the sixth grade. Though she wanted to take lessons, her family couldn’t afford it. So, she taught herself using a book from a local music store. Her first official piano lesson came in college at the University of St. Mary in Leavenworth, Kansas, where she majored in music education.
“I’ve always had a real fascination with the marvelousness of a piano,” she said.
By the time she came to Mizzou in 2008, Urlacher had been tuning for decades in the Kansas City area. Among her list of loyal clientele were Crown Center and a Kansas City concert series, which had her tuning for famous musicians such as Stevie Wonder and the band Motley Crue. She also tuned for Itzhak Perlman, Steve Lawrence, Eydie Gormé and Mannheim Steamroller.
“Stevie Wonder always wanted a piano is his motel room, so they asked me to tune it,” Urlacher said. “They always stressed, ‘Don’t move a thing.’ So, when I had to move the bench, I marked the floor with masking tape where the bench had been in relationship to the piano.’”
Tuning for Motley Crue was much easier. The band only used five keys on the piano, which were marked with masking tape.
“I tuned those five notes, which were barely out of tune because they were tuned in every city they went to,” Urlacher said. “I got $10 a note, and everything was good.”
Over years, Urlacher has become convinced that people who own and play pianos are “the cream of the crop of humanity.”
“You could probably say that about any musician, but I just happen to work with piano players,” she said, adding that playing piano requires self-discipline and a certain type of courage. “Ultimately, it comes down to you sitting on the bench by yourself.”
Janice Wenger, associate director of the School of Music, said Urlacher has a sincere interest in the music students as well as the pianos. While she often attends the students’ recitals, Urlacher also monitors the students’ care of the pianos, often popping into rehearsals room to remind players to keep soda cans and water bottles off the musical instruments. She even initiated a project to build shelves in the rehearsal rooms to keep items off the pianos.
“She’s cheerful about” the care of the pianos, Wenger said. “But she is tenacious about it, too. She is fabulous.”
Urlacher also has been cognizant of keeping the music world populated with well-trained piano tuner/technicians, training MU students interested in the craft. That includes Christian Martin, 20, a junior at MU majoring in music education. Like his mentor, Martin is behooved to tune because a piano out of tune is unbearable. Plus, Urlacher is a joy to learn from.
“Everybody at the School of Music loves her,” he said. “She adds a great energy to the place. She makes the School of Music homey. It’s incredible how one person can do that.”
For Urlacher, tuning pianos is a relationship with the players and the musical instruments.
“Most people don’t understand how difficult it really is to tune a piano,” she said. “In fact, most people can tell when a piano is horribly out of tune. But do they know what to do to fix it? Not so much.”
Did you know?
- MU has 120 pianos. Most of them are located in the Fine Arts Building and the new Jeanne and Rex Sinquefield Music Center. There are also 14 in residence halls and a couple outliers at the Missouri Theatre and Memorial Union.
- Each piano has more than 12,000 individual parts, which support six functional features: keyboard, hammers, dampers, bridge, soundboard and strings. A piano has about 230 strings, 88 keys and usually three pedals.
- According to Career Explorer by Sokanu Interactive Inc., there are about 8,300 employed piano tuners in the United States – 360 in Missouri.
- Humidity is the main culprit for why pianos go out of tune. Humidity expands the wood of a piano, causing the wood of the soundboard to swell. This increases the tension of the strings, and the pitches become higher. Dry air does the opposite and causes pitches to become lower.