Daniel Honnold is a musical instrument technician II. His primary responsibility is keeping the hundreds of pianos on campus in tune.
Photo by Bill Wiegand
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When Daniel Honnold was a boy, he was captivated as he watched a craftsman tune the piano in his parents’ Decatur home. “But when I asked him, how do you learn that, the guy said: ‘You can’t. There’s no place that teaches it anymore,’ ” Honnold recalled. Over the years, Honnold considered various occupations and tried different majors in college – first music, then psychology – but still had not decided upon a vocation when he graduated from the UI with his bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1993. As Honnold searched for a means of earning a living, one day the memory of his childhood fascination with piano tuning popped into his head and reignited his imagination. A trip to the library to peruse trade-school listings proved the craftsman wrong: There were indeed institutions that taught piano tuning. After a disappointing experience with a correspondence course, Honnold matriculated in one of those institutions, the North Bennett Street School in Boston, where he studied piano technology and graduated as valedictorian.
Tell me about the program that taught you how to tune pianos. The piano technology program can be a one- or two-year program. I just went for the first year, which teaches tuning, repairing and what’s called regulation, which is adjusting all the moving parts in the piano so that they’re working optimally. The second year they teach rebuilding. Since we do that here, I’ve gotten plenty of experience and education in that as well. How long have you been working at the university and what does your job entail? I’ve been here six years. I spend most of my time tuning and doing repairs. The other [musical instrument] technician, John Minor, and I take care of all the pianos owned by the School of Music, which includes those at Krannert. We try to rebuild two pianos a year between other projects. Rebuilding involves replacing the entire action – the string, the tuning pins. What’s the most challenging part of your job? Prioritization. There are only two of us technicians and more than 200 pianos, so we carefully prioritize the tuning schedule because we can’t do all of them all the time. We try to tune most of the pianos every three or four months. Over the course of a few years, we’ve developed a database so that we can keep track of where a piano is, whether it’s a professor’s or a teaching assistant’s room, and the dates the piano has been tuned. We work very independently, so the job takes a lot of self-motivation. What drives pianos out of tune? Climactic changes, especially humidity, and the amount the pianos are played. Most of the pianos in the School of Music get played quite a bit. We bought a crop of Steinway Grand Pianos for the practice rooms in Smith Music Hall about five years ago and because they’re played an average of about 10 hours a day, it’s as if they’re actually about 30 years old. Both John and I also do private tunings after work and on the weekends sometimes. A lot of the time it’s the kids, not the parents, who notice their piano is out of tune. I have a theory that the older you get, the more accustomed you become to hearing your piano out of tune. I get a lot of calls where an adult will say, ‘Junior says his piano is out of tune,’ and I believe them. Who do you consult when you run across a repair or problem you’ve never encountered before? The first thing I do is ask John because he has about 10 years’ more experience than I do. If we’re both stumped, then we can usually find out through the Internet. We can post a question there and get about 30 answers from technicians all over the country. Extraneous noises like buzzes and rattles can be very difficult to find. One time there was a noise we couldn’t find: We had cleaned, tightened and adjusted almost everything in the piano. It was immaculate but we still couldn’t find what was causing the noise. John got on the Internet and finally discovered that it was caused by a tiny piece of loose wood. We’d never seen that problem before and haven’t seen it since. It’s actually fun when you get stumped because you know you’re going to learn something. What do you enjoy most about your job? It’s fascinating work to me. It’s infinite as to what you can learn. Both John and I are always learning new stuff. It’s intellectually stimulating and it’s physical work, which I enjoy. I also enjoy being in the climate of the School of Music because it has so many world-class music professors. What hobbies do you have? I play saxophone in a modern-jazz group here in town called Ear Doctor. We play all original compositions, so it can be hard to keep up sometimes. The guy who writes the music comes up with a new tune about every week, and at every gig we’re playing music we’ve never played before. I also read a lot, mostly biographies. I’m reading about Nikola Tesla right now.
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