Piano technician’s knack makes instruments grand again

Piano technician’s knack makes instruments grand again

By MICHAEL LOLLAR The Commercial Appeal MEMPHIS (AP) — His arrival in Memphis began as a grim proposition but turned into what a friend calls “harmonic convergence.” Don Nicholson, piano rebuilder, has a workman’s hands and Beach Boys hair. He works on grand pianos in a 15,000-foot warehouse once used to grow and sell marijuana. After a police raid, the Scott Street warehouse became his for the taxes owed on it, and Nicholson began composing a new chapter in a life of contrasts. He has a degree in biochemistrybut gave it up for love of music. His studies would have made him a doctor, but lack of health insurance left him living in a car. Nicholson, 52, dabbles in the blues, but “is addicted to Bach” on a pipe organ at home. In his warehouse, Excell Piano, century-old pianos arrive with grand histories but in need of makeovers. Tuners had given up on a 94-year-old 7-foot Steinway from the Johnny Carson Theater in Norfolk, Neb., but Nicholson plans to make the old lady look truly grand once again. A new Steinway would have cost the theater from $75,000 to more than $100,000, said Steve Morton, principal of Norfolk High School. The theater is on the school campus. “Our quote (for the rebuild) is $29,300,” Morton said. Nicholson just rebuilt a Steinway grand for a Wichita client, sending it home with a new spruce soundboard, new “action” and a not-in-Kansas-anymore finish: “It was an electric blue poly-resin paint that costs $1,000 a can,” says Nicholson. Nicholson, who grew up in Los Angeles, was walking home from a violin lesson one day when a Steinway piano technician in his neighborhood saw him as “cheap labor.” Working after school, he learned pianos from the ground up and found he had a natural talent for tuning pianos. He was soon learning what he says are the 25,000 parts of a keyboard. Four decades later, he no longer thinks of a piano as a mere physical presence. “A piano is like an energy field coming at you, and you have to figure out where that energy is.” It was that kind of intensity Nicholson took with him to California State University Long Beach, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa. His father had taught industrial plastics there. His mother was a pianist. Nicholson was working on a master’s in biochemistry when his love of the piano began to take over. “I eventually had so much piano work that there was no going back to school.” Nicholson spent 20 years working on pianos for celebrities from rock bands to Kenny Rogers and Liberace. He then spent five years as service manager for a Steinway dealership in Phoenix. When it changed hands, he let his health insurance lapse. It was then, he says, “I developed vertigo. It was rapid onset. I’d be standing one minute, on the ground throwing up the next. “I lost everything I owned. Vertigo means you can’t drive, can’t go out on service calls.” At a friend’s urging, he made it to the North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo, where doctors discovered a chronic sinus infection that had defied antibiotics and made its way to his inner ear. “The minute I woke up from surgery, it was over,” says Nicholson. He arrived in Memphis eight years ago, working at first through Amro Music, where piano technician Richard Boyington says Nicholson can do anything from perfectly tuning a piano to restoring mother-of-pearl keys, intricate gilding and brass inlays. Finding his way to a city known for its music “was like harmonic convergence,” Nicholson said. Another piano technician, Lorlin Barber of Polk City, Iowa, says he often refers clients, especially Steinway owners, to Nicholson. “There are arguably only five good rebuilders in this country right now, and Don is one of them.” Among the technicians in Nicholson’s shop is his cousin, Fred Nicholson, a former keyboard player for the soul and R&B group The Impressions. He says work in the shop is sometimes like taking the rough, gritty music of the fields and turning it into a musical idiom, the blues, that people will pay to hear. “The key is to make a sow’s ear into a silk purse.” Information from: The Commercial Appeal, http://www.commercialappeal.com Published in The Messenger 5.29.08

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