Cape Girardeau man keeps hundreds of pianos in tune

Monday, May 5, 2003

Maybe you'll find yourself listening to "Ave Maria" by Bach or "Rustle of Spring" by Sindig. You might even hear some ragtime, like "The Entertainer" or "Maple Leaf Rag" by Scott Joplin.

But if you have Van Robinson tune your piano, he will show you how good it can sound.

"After a tuning, I give them a concert," said Robinson. "They always say, 'When you come back next year, I'll make it sound like that.'"

Robinson has given plenty of private concerts. He's been tuning pianos for 38 years and locally since 1988. He also runs a key and lock shop out of his home -- all in addition to his full-time job in computer applications at Procter & Gamble.

He's known as "The Key Man."

"I like dealing with keys, whether they're on a piano or go in a door," he joked.

Begged for piano lessons

Robinson started taking piano lessons as a 6-year-old growing up in Elkville, Ill. -- son of his postmaster mom and a father who worked mining coal. It wasn't the usual case of parents forcing their child to take lessons. For reasons he can't recall now, he "just knew" he wanted to play.

"I begged them to let me practice," he said. "But we didn't even have a piano."

So his parents bought him one. It only cost $10, though it was an upright that took four grown men to move.

He immediately began taking lessons from a teacher in DuQuoin -- Mrs. Wynn -- practicing for 30 minutes a day before and after school. Later, he advanced to another teacher, who told him after seven years that she had taught him everything she could.

Johnson was good. In high school, he played a recital every year and participated in the Illinois music contest. He either got first place or was rated excellent each time.

"I enjoyed performing," he said. "I guess you could say I was a ham. Some might call it a show-off, but I prefer to think of it as a ham."

He grew to love the classics -- Chopin, Mendelssohn, Bach. But he also grew to appreciate other kinds of music and played many styles.

He taught others how to play from the time he was in seventh grade, all the way until he went to junior college.

Robinson started tuning pianos when he was a senior in high school, but it was at Southern Illinois University where he began to follow a piano technician to help him tune pianos.

He meant to do that only until he became a concert pianist, but that never materialized. Instead, he married his wife, taught music for a few years and then in 1988 moved to Cape Girardeau, where he took his job at P&G.

But he continued tuning pianos on the side. He also still had some customers in Southern Illinois. Now, he tunes pianos all over Southeast Missouri and estimates that he tunes more than 600 pianos -- from churches to schools to private residences.

He has since added locksmith to his resume.

"He's very good with his hands," said his wife, Nan. "He could have been a mechanical engineer."

Watching Robinson tune his own piano that he's had for 35 years confirms that. He uses tools -- rubber wedges, a tuning hammer and a tuning fork. He starts with the middle octave. Since each piano key strikes one to three strings, only one string can be tuned at a time.

Sticking a rubber wedge between strings dampens the other two or three in the set and isolates the one he wants to tune. He finds the pin that tightens the strings and turns it until the note in tune.

It sounds like tedious work and can sometimes take as long as an hour and a half, but Robinson says it's relaxing.

"It calms me," he said.

He also rebuilds pianos and does other work on them. He recalls once when someone from Mount Vernon, Ill., called him and asked him if he could put a side on a piano.

"It turns out that the piano had fallen out of their pickup and into a ditch," he said, laughing. "I managed to put it back together."

'He does it perfectly'

Diann Daume, worship coordinator at St. Andrew Lutheran Church, said that Robinson tunes the church's four pianos at least once a year, but sometimes more often.

"He's so good, he does it perfectly," she said. "I also teach piano and if there's a recital, I call him."

Daume has also been an audience member to one of his post-tuning concerts.

"I wish I could get some of my students to play that well," she said. "He fell in love with the piano when he was a little boy and it shows."

So he's really that good?

"He makes the song come alive," she said. "It's no longer black notes on a page."

335-6611, extension 137

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