September 20, 2017
Stumpf is Tuned in to the Perfect Piano Sound
By Kelly Saavedra
Peter Stumpf, a piano technician, takes care of more than 80 pianos in Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Music.
Stumpf first entered the workforce as a printing press operator, but when the advent of computers sent the printing industry into a decline, he decided to try something different.
“I’ve always had a mechanical aptitude. Maybe it was my German upbringing,” he said. “I decided to follow my heart.”
As a boy, he took piano lessons and fell in love with the sound of the instrument, intrigued by how that sound was produced. Those feelings never faded. Years later, he enrolled in Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, Virginia where he earned a degree in piano technology.
“I knew I couldn’t make a living from this kind of work if I stayed way out in the country. So, after I graduated, I moved back to Pittsburgh where I started a business and worked hard,” he said. “Overnight success takes about 15 years, they say. That’s about how long I was on my own before CMU hired me.”
With so many pianos to check and tune, it takes Stumpf nearly three days to make his full rounds. He relies on texts and emails from piano students and faculty to alert him to pianos that require his attention.
“About half a dozen of the pianos get tuned every few weeks. Performance instruments are tuned more often. Practice instruments get attention about twice per semester,” he said.
Stumpf listens to students honing their craft as he makes his way through the hallways.
“The students here at CMU are so smart. Some of them double major. They’re engineers, they’re computer scientists, and they still love music. It gives me hope for the world that there are people out there who still love the arts," he said. "Everybody at the end of the day gets in the car and turns on the radio. They go home, they watch movies. They go to Broadway. The arts are what make it worthwhile. They are what we run to.”
Stumpf enjoys mentoring those who want to follow in his footsteps. He teaches piano maintenance at CMU and occasionally fields questions from his former students who are now working as fulltime piano technicians.
He loves music and still tickles the ivories himself.
“It is such a valuable skill and such a wholesome activity,” he said. “My son is an engineering student. Sometimes I hear his math book slam shut when he gets frustrated, and he will take out his frustrations on the piano, and the piano doesn’t mind that. When my mother passed away, I would play pieces of her favorite music. It helped me to grieve.”
Stumpf said playing a piano is a lot like driving a car.
“At first you’re thinking all the time about all the things you have to remember. After a while you’re able to put all those things out of your mind and just drive, just play. And that’s where the joy of the instrument is,” he said.
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