Tuning the Yukon, one key at a time

If you own a piano, here’s some bad news for you: It’s probably out of tune. Most pianos are. Don’t feel bad.

If you own a piano, here’s some bad news for you: It’s probably out of tune.

Most pianos are.

Don’t feel bad.

Sounds may be off ever so slightly, or the keys may need a bit of a tweak.

Enter Barry Kitchen, who is not only familiar with these musical problems, he’s one of the only guys in the North who knows how to fix them.

Flanked by his dog Taffy while he relaxed in the armchair of his Porter Creek home earlier this week, Kitchen told the tale of how he became the Yukon’s only official piano tuner.

“I replaced Zubin Gillespie,” Kitchen said.

Gillespie, who used to be based in BC before relocating to Calgary, was the Yukon’ sole piano tuner.

He used to pass through the territory once or twice a year until about 2000.

“He would come up and tune around the Yukon for a while, and then go back.

“For a lot of the year we were without a tuner — he would come up and tune my piano,” Barry said, gently urging a rambunctious Taffy off the couch and on to the floor.

Then Gillespie decided to pull up stakes and relocate to Calgary.

That prompted Barry to consider expanding his piano playing skills into tuning and maintenance.

After discussing the prospect with his family — wife Wendy and two children — Barry decided to audition for the University of Western Ontario’s piano technology program, the only place in Canada that trains  would-be tuning gurus.

To get in, he had to prove his chops by showing he could tell which notes were which, and how to fix things when proper tuning went astray.

The one-year program cost $12,000 and had 12 students in it when Barry enrolled in 2001.

Since then, the number of students, hailing from all over the world, is growing.

“It was full time. We started at about 8 a.m. in the morning and went to 4:30 p.m. in the afternoon.”

Barry’s subjects: tuning, repair, voicing, and regulating the piano, which has something to do with seeing how keys feel.

Now, the Yukon’s sole tuning pro brings into key about 200 pianos a year. That’s on top of the private music classes he teaches.

“I take out a tuning fork, and I tune one note to the tuning fork so that it’s perfectly in tune. “

Then, he tunes the rest of it by ear, matching each note up against the one he fixed with the fork.

“You go all the way up the piano, and all the way down the piano until it’s in tune.

“It’s not totally mechanical, you actually have to feel it. Being a piano player, you can actually tell, ‘this doesn’t feel quite right.’”

Generally, pianos need to be tuned up every year because they tend to lose their tuning through use or, if they’ve been moved, through a change in humidity.

Most of the territory’s pianos are scattered around Whitehorse, but Barry does take his show on the road around the Yukon.

“Dawson City is one of my biggest areas to go to, I go there twice a year … I even go to cottages on Kluane Lake.”

The territory has a mishmash of pianos, different styles and different ages, from 100-year-old units that may or may not have come over the Chilkoot Pass, to brand new pianos that came up from BC.

“I don’t consider the Yukon that much different when it comes to types of pianos, because there’s a lot of old pianos, but in London, Ontario, there are a lot of old pianos too.”

London also happens to be home of the nicest piano Barry has ever played — a Boesendorder, which was until recently located at the city’s university.

As for Whitehorse, Barry’s favourite is located at the Arts Centre, a Steinway Grand Piano.

His second favourite is a Kawai at the Riverdale Baptist Church.

Barry should know — he’s played most of the Yukon’s pianos, many which “are out of tune unless they’ve been tuned in the last year.”

If a piano’s freshly tuned, the person working the keys is bound to appreciate it — they might even want to buy one.

For those looking to buy, Barry has one piece of advice: “Get a real piano. In this age of today, everything seems to be electronic and there are so many electronic pianos out there — they just don’t sound the same.”

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