2006: Tuning North of 60 Degrees Latitude

by Jurgen Goering (previously published in the Piano Technicians Journal and EuroPiano magazine)

imagesThe snow is crunching under my feet as I lean into the rope around my waist. I am trudging my way across the frozen bay of Great Slave Lake pulling a heavy toboggan behind me loaded with a long box. Ahead of me, the yellow sodium lights of the city of Yellowknife reach up into the northern sky, almost merging with the pale green aurora borealis above. It is only October, but darkness comes early at 62º northern latitude this time of the year; as does winter.

I have just made a house call to one of my more remote clients. Mary lives in a cabin on a small island in Yellowknife Bay without electric power, city water and many other modern conveniences. However, she does have a piano. It is much older than Yellowknife itself and now time has come to rebuild the piano mechanism, or action, as piano technicians call it.

The first step in getting the action to my workshop, several thousand kilometers away in Nanaimo, British Columbia, is to get it to Yellowknife where I am staying. The ice on the lake does not yet support vehicle traffic, otherwise I could drive a car right to Mary’s door. Later in the winter, the ice will reach a thickness of more than 80 cm. Then it is strong enough to support the weight of the fully loaded semi trucks that leave the paved roads in Yellowknife and head up north on ice roads to supply mines in remote areas.

But tonight I am walking, pulling the loaded toboggan. The piano action is safely wrapped and packed in a cardboard box which, ironically, was originally the shipping carton for an electronic keyboard.

As I shuffle past colourfully painted houseboats frozen in the ice, I contemplate the surrealism of where I am and what I am doing. Writings of Robert Service and Jack London come to mind; legends of unlikely loads on dog sleds; but this is for real.

I will fly home to my warm, dry and bright workshop in snowless Nanaimo to replace the hammers, dampers, action felts, springs and flanges so that this Arctic Old Timer can return to the North for another 50 years of musical service. Six months from now I will be back in the Northwest Territories to reinstall the action, regulate the piano, and finally tune the instrument.

lrg738.jpgTravelling to and working in Canada’s arctic and subarctic regions requires flexibility, ingenuity and perseverance, no matter what field of occupation. Getting there is usually the beginning of the adventure. Most northern communities can only be reached by airplane, and inclement weather often leads to flights being late, canceled or rerouted. With winter lasting up to eight months of the year, severe temperatures and winds, along with snow and ice are constant factors to be reckoned with. Northern airports are small, colourful, cultural meeting places. Here, bureaucrats in three piece suits scan the baggage carrousels for their luggage alongside bearded prospectors, burly miners, geologists and biologists in fashionable cold weather gear, and locals in traditional parkas. The women are often wearing beautiful beaded sealskin boots and are carrying a child (or sometimes two!) in their amoutis – oversized hoods on their parkas.

Yellowknife is Canada’s northernmost city, boasting a population of 17,000. The city was founded on hard rock gold mining about 60 years ago. There are two gold mines in the city, but their life is coming to an end. Recently, the economic significance of gold has been eclipsed by the discovery of diamonds. Although the diamond mines are several hundred kilometers from town, many employees and suppliers are here, and with more diamond deposits being developed, the city is booming. Canadian Arctic diamonds make high quality gems and represent a significant percentage of the world production.

Due to the isolation, citizens are required to provide for their own culture and entertainment. I was surprised to hear that there are seven or more local theatre groups. It seems almost everyone is involved in some kind of a production, or is rehearsing for a recital or concert. There are also a fair number of pianos in this city.

While community spirit may be enhanced by the harsh climate, pianos definitely suffer from it. Long, cold winters effect extreme dryness in heated homes. This is a very serious challenge for any wooden instrument, especially pianos. As it dries out, the wood in a piano shrinks. Pianos go severely out of tune because the wooden soundboard looses its crown as it dries out. Screws holding mechanism components can loosen, causing parts to get out of alignment. Excess mechanical wear as well as mechanical noise are the result.

In cases of severe, prolonged, dryness, such as in northern winters, structural damage is common – the tuning pins become loose in the pin block (hardwood board) that holds them. Then the piano will not hold a tuning any more. As well, the soundboard is often stressed to the point where it starts to crack, and ribs begin to de-laminate from the soundboard. These damages require very costly repairs to put the piano back into playable condition.

Part of my work here is to educate piano owners about these dangers. I inform them about preventative measures, such as installing air humidifiers in homes and in the pianos themselves.

Seven months later, I am back in Yellowknife. Mary’s rebuilt piano action is with me in its box. It is almost June, and there is still ice on Great Slave lake. Although almost 40 cm thick, it is too dangerous to walk on; it has been melting from below – rotting, so to speak, and is very weak and unpredictable.

Mary and I rendezvous at the government dock. We carefully lay our precious cargo into the bottom of her canoe. I get in the front, she takes up the steering position in the stern. We paddle slowly among the large floes, pushing against them with our paddles to open up a narrow channel fro our slender craft. The floes are mostly candle ice; long vertical ice rods like under water icicles, joined together and held in place by the thinning surface ice. When disturbed by our sweeping paddles, the candles break apart and float up to the surface, tinkling and ringing like tiny porcelain Christmas bells. But that holiday is six months away now. This is the beginning of summer. In a few days, in June, when all the ice has cleared, the annual polar bear swim will attract hundreds to the lake shore. And by then, Mary’s piano will be playing and sounding like it did when it was new.