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Meet Peter White of PianoTechLA in Los Feliz

Today we’d like to introduce you to Peter White.

Peter, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I got my start in piano work in 2011, but the story begins long before that. I started playing piano when I was 8. I’d played violin for 4 years before that but the piano called to me, or the piano bench rather––I was sick of having to stand up while practicing violin. My mom, a classical singer by profession, strongly encouraged (forced) my sisters and I to play instruments from a young age. She always told me it would pay off––it took me a few years, but eventually I came to love it. Thanks, Mom.

Piano wasn’t the only thing I loved. I’d always had a deep curiosity which manifested in tinkering and making things. Much of my youth I spent in the woods back in North Carolina, building shelters, making snares, bows and arrows––anything I could think of. In my late teens, I became voracious about craft, and when I was 18 I headed to Norway to spend a year building 18th century wooden fishing boats in the traditional Norwegian style. There, in the cold and the dark and with plenty of idle time to tinker, I got my hands dirty wherever I could: sewing, knitting, weaving, blacksmithing, making knives––nothing was off limits. “If you can make it, why buy it?” I thought.

I went on to college in Maryland where I studied philosophy, classics, and the history of math and science––another dimension of my interests. Busied with heavy intellectual preoccupations, I didn’t have much time to make things, but in summers I found myself leaning back into craft––the physical world responds to human effort and curiosity like no strictly intellectual domain can. A few years in a row I’d paid a visit to my mother’s piano tuner’s workshop, and eventually my interests in music and craft were married in one discipline: I landed an apprenticeship rebuilding and restoring pianos at Ruggero Piano in Raleigh NC.

After graduating from St John’s College, I went on to work for a few years in the piano shop. There I really got my hands dirty in most areas of piano restoration. I spent a lot of time rebuilding actions––a tedious process involving facility with felt, leather, wood, and metal. I did a lot of soundboard and bridge work, did plenty of finishing, regulating, and restringing. Piano work, like much of craft, takes time to learn. Not everything can be passed from master to apprentice through explanation. Certain things can be taught and boiled down into words and demonstration, other things have to be assimilated and intuited with the body and senses. This faculty takes time and a lot of exposure to cultivate. Looking back, I took for granted just how much I learned in that shop, picking the brains of the remarkably knowledgeable veteran technicians around me and working on piano after piano after piano.

Eventually, the sun and warmth of Los Angeles called to me. I moved here and began work as an independent field technician, doing tuning and repair work for private clients all over town, and nearly 7 years after knocking on the door at Ruggero Piano, the work still has me continuously challenged, engaged, and enamored.

Has it been a smooth road?
I’d say the most outstanding obstacle was my relatively young age getting started. Piano technicians are generally an older bunch––I once heard a technician at Yamaha speculate that half the piano technicians out there now would be retired within 8 years. New customers are used to seeing an older person at the door when their doorbell rings on tuning day. This is often for good reason––as I mentioned, handcraft often comes down to fine senses that can only be developed over long periods of time. Early on, some customers were pleasantly surprised to see a young face, others a bit wary. While this seldom happens anymore, due in part to the confidence I’ve developed and carry on each job, all I can do is explain my qualifications and encourage the customer to seek out another technician if they’re not comfortable. A pianist’s relationship to their piano is very unique, and at the end of the day what I want most is well-adjusted pianos and satisfied pianists.

What’s also difficult as a young technician new to the area, and for any new business for that matter, is gaining and cultivating a consistent client-base. It’s taken me a couple years, but I’m reaching the point where I’ve begun to see my repeat customers a handful of times from season to season, and curated a group of pianists who care about their pianos and want quality work. This is what I strive for: when people really care about maintaining their pianos and budget appropriately is when I can really make their pianos perform. Most people who aren’t near-professional pianists look at pianos like inert pieces of furniture. They sit lumbering in the corner and last for generations; it was Grandma’s piano after all. In reality, pianos are the incredible products of hundreds of years of research and experimentation, finely crafted to meticulous specifications, made of very sensitive wood, felt and leather. They need to be maintained just like cars, and the budget for serious piano maintenance is comparable. Since I’m still building my business my rates are quite competitive, though sometimes people can be surprised at just how much work bringing a piano back to life can take.

Finally, I’d be misguided here if I didn’t mention here the obvious challenge that is continuing to refine my craft––it doesn’t feel like a challenge because it is something I so enjoy doing, but it is nevertheless a persistent demand. There is no end to the level of expertise and innovation you can develop in crafts like piano technology. Keeping up with ongoing research, new (and very old) ideas, and trade tips in the piano world has kept me occupied on many restless nights

We’d love to hear more about your business.
Day-to-day, my job is mostly traveling around town to homes, venues, and studios and performing regular maintenance piano tunings. In reality, pianos begin to go out of tune the moment I finish tuning––the weather starts doing its work at destabilizing things and the customer starts playing. Maintenance tuning provides the bulk of the work, thought periodically pianos require what is known as regulation––the mechanical tweaking of the delicate clockwork hidden inside the piano that makes each key function effectively, consistently, and with a pleasurable touch. Additionally, customers will call with malfunctions or serious repairs to be addressed. My background in restoration and rebuilding gives me real confidence when it comes to functional issues with older and more defunct actions, though what is really enjoyable is working on finer, newer pianos that can afford a level of precision that older, worn parts just can’t support. That is when I get to do my finest work and the pianist gets to experience the finest product.

As far as PianoTechLA in particular, there is perhaps a flip-side to the fact that I’m relatively young––I haven’t become worn out, and I still bring enthusiasm to each job. Most technicians love what they do and do it for a reason, but I have frequently met with customers who have pleasantly commented on my personable manner. Something I’ve had to acknowledge about myself is that I wouldn’t last a day in the business-world––I just don’t have the cutthroat nature it can demand. What matters most to me, and what is most rewarding, is doing good work and leaving a customer happier than when I walked in. That, I’ve realized, is half the fun of my job.

Is our city a good place to do what you do?
I love working in Los Angeles for many reasons. It’s a town full of very interesting and talented people, and I get to travel far and wide meeting them. There are plenty of piano technicians in town, but also innumerable pianos located within a fairly small geographical region––traffic aside, this can be nice. As far as piano work goes, major cities tend to host more highly qualified veteran technicians who service the various concert halls and high-end venues, and Los Angeles is no exception. This can be a great resource for continuing education, particularly through the highly active Piano Technicians Guild chapter here in town. If you were interested in getting started in piano work, my first recommendation would be getting involved in the Guild. And for that matter, getting involved in piano work is certainly something I would recommend!

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