If you live in Queens, the Five Towns, or better areas of Brooklyn, and you own a piano and play it frequently or even occasionally, then you are probably well acquainted with Mr. Jesse Gitnik, our community’s very own piano tuner/technician. Mr. Gitnik is most likely the only frum piano technician you know.
This writer thought it would be interesting to learn the story behind how Mr. Gitnik pursued this career, and to hear stories about famous pianos he has tuned and more.
First, I asked how Mr. Gitnik how he started working as a piano technician. He shared the following:
“It all started when I was about three years old and my mother bought me a toy piano. I began picking out little songs by ear at that young age, and eventually reached the point where I started playing professionally in my mid-20s. I never had to read music or take piano lessons, because I’ve always figured out my favorite songs by ear, including chords and harmonies. Because of this gifted ear for music, I decided one day to try to tune my own piano. So, after buying some basic tools, I tried my hand at it. After several hours of work (which now takes me about an hour), I sat down to play my favorite songs, and the piano sounded absolutely horrible! So, I concluded, right then and there, that in order to succeed at this craft I would have to eventually study it in a formal setting.”
He pursued a degree at Queens College in math, but instead of finding a job in that field, he found himself drawn to tuning and repairing pianos, and he began searching for a school that would train him in this field.
In 1980, he discovered a place to learn this craft. Mr. Kalman Detrich owned a piano store and, afterhours, he taught tuning and repairs. “He was a very special individual. He was an exemplary teacher.” The late Mr. Detrich came to America from Hungary during the 1950s, escaping the revolution there, and he became a technician and eventually he opened his piano store and rebuilding shop.
“I loved tuning from day one. And I decided I would work on pianos for the rest of my life. That was 40 years ago,” Mr. Gitnik said. He shared how it took a few years to build up a clientele through advertising and to build up a full-time profession, but it was worth it. “I’ve met many, many wonderful people over the past 40 years. I advertise very little, as most of my new clients come from referrals, word of mouth, Facebook referrals, and local Yahoo shul groups. I always encourage my clients to have their pianos tuned once or twice a year, depending on circumstances. And I’ve always tried to be flexible with pricing, because I believe that everyone deserves to have a beautifully sounding piano, no matter what the financial circumstances.”
As a piano owner, this writer can state, “One of the enjoyable parts of having your piano tuned by Mr. Gitnik is hearing him play it when the job is done.”
Mr. Gitnik shared the types of tools he uses. It is quite a list! “I carry with me and in my car about 100 pounds of tools, equipment, and spare parts. The main tools that I use are a tuning hammer, mutes, a temperament strip, different kinds of capstan screw regulators, upright and grand damper regulators and letoff regulators, a hammer voicer, offset key spacer, string lifter, grand keyframe puller (which I invented), assorted flashlights, upright lid prop, sandpaper file, the Sanderson Accu-Tuner, every kind of screwdriver imaginable, and last but not least, a good vacuum cleaner to rid the piano of years of accumulated dust.”
Mr. Gitnik has a steady list of clientele and he tunes each client’s instrument once or twice a year. Baruch Hashem, he is constantly recommended by his customers to others.
New customers often have pianos that were neglected, and he has to restore the action, which is the mechanism that produces the sound. So, most of the time, it isn’t just a simple tuning that is needed. He may have to return to an old or neglected piano two or three times and repair, adjust, and lubricate the mechanism. “I like to educate people when it comes to putting a few hundred dollars into the piano to restore it. People should realize that just because they have an old piano lying around with 10 or 15 keys that don’t work, it doesn’t mean that the piano can’t be repaired and turned into a viable instrument.” He explained that a piano is a machine, and just like any other machine, the parts eventually wear out.
“Most of the time, it pays to put a few hundred dollars into an old piano in order to restore the pitch, the touch, and the tone, if the piano is a quality instrument and structurally solid. People should realize that putting in a few hundred dollars for a minor overhaul not only increases the value of the piano, but it makes playing much easier and more pleasurable for years to come.”
I asked him how the pandemic has affected his work, and he shared that he took off a month from work but, baruch Hashem, now business is back to normal and he is even busier. He thinks that people staying home may have decided to start playing the piano.
His favorite part of the job is when he works on a fine piano like a Steinway grand piano and puts in hours of hard work and then he finishes it and he plays it and then the customer plays it. “It’s an incredible feeling taking an instrument that was hardly playable and transforming it into a beautiful instrument.” He shared that it’s also very gratifying when he has a customer who has an old piano and he helps the customer to move up to a fine piano. He will go and check out a piano that is for sale and tell the potential customer if he thinks it is worth the asking price and if it is a good piano.
He has tuned some famous pianos. Before the pandemic, he tuned the piano in the Flushing Town Hall Concert Hall. He has tuned their concert grand piano for years. “It is gratifying to know that world class musicians will play on the piano I tuned, and hundreds of people in the concert hall audience will all benefit from the sound of the piano because of my work.” He has also tuned the piano at the Queensborough Community College Theater. He works on the piano there a few times a year. It was a thrill for him to tune the piano when Marvin Hamlisch, famous pianist, was going to play a concert.
I asked him what people should look for if they want to purchase a piano. “So, generally, you get what you pay for.” If you are able to buy a fine piano, then definitely go for it, he suggests. It’s not like a car. “It’s a lifetime investment!” The brands he recommends are Yamaha, Kawai, and some of the older Steinways.
His favorite type of music is pop, soft rock from the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, which he plays on a beautiful 65-year-old Baldwin Acrosonic that he restored.
Mr. Gitnik shared one of his most gratifying moments. “It was when I was restoring a Steinway grand piano. When I first came, the piano’s keys were all sticking. It was unplayable. After I restored the action, a world class pianist played it and he actually called me up laughing hysterically. He couldn’t believe it was the same piano.”
Jesse shared, “The best advice I can give piano owners is to stay tuned!”
Hashem should continue to bless Jesse Gitnik with good health and strength so our community can continue to make beautiful music. As it says in T’hilim (Psalm 33): “Sing joyfully, O righteous, before Hashem, for the upright, praise is fitting. Give thanks to Hashem with the harp, with the ten-stringed lyre make music to Him. Sing Him a new song; play well with sounds of deepest feeling.”
By Susie Garber