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Scott Cole trades one set of strings for another

Scott Cole

Scott Cole has traded in one set of strings for another.

A professional violinist and former concertmaster for the Rogue Valley Symphony, Cole taught at the college level and performed with many orchestras around the country. Now he is enjoying a new career as a piano tuner.

“I have pretty much put the violin down for good,” the Talent resident said. “It takes so much energy and discipline just to tread water. After 30 years, I was ready for a change.”

Cole started learning piano technology about seven years ago, mentored by Rogue Valley piano tuner and fellow RVS musician Barb Barasa. In 2017, he passed the tests of the Piano Technicians Guild to become a registered piano technician. Today, an associate of Barasa’s, he is gradually taking over the business as she transitions into retirement mode.

He’s not sure when and how the decision was made to switch careers.

“It just kind of happened,” he said. “It seemed like a natural transition, and it presented the opportunity to combine my musical background with running a business and being my own boss.”

The corporate or traditional workplace setting, except for academia, never appealed to him. “And I’ve always liked working with my hands and solving problems,” he said.

Cole started out as a violinist at the relatively late age of 12 and picked up piano along the way. It’s required training at music schools.

He earned an undergraduate degree in East Asian studies at Colby College in Maine and went on to complete a master’s degree in violin performance and a doctorate from Florida State University.

“You don’t have to be a pianist to be a piano technician,” Cole said. “I know many fine techs and rebuilders who don’t play at all. In fact, I’ve known many fine violin makers who couldn’t play a note on the violin. But I absolutely think it helps to understand what the pianist needs from the instrument in order to make music.”

He says he spends a lot of time practicing the piano these days.

“It’s such a different experience,” he said. “Sure, the piano is hard, but not like the violin, which is HARD hard.”

Tuning is just one part of the job. A technician has to be able to judge the tonal qualities of the piano.

“We can change the tone of a piano by a process called ‘voicing,’” he said. “Pianos change over time, generally becoming brighter and often harsher. A refined sense of touch is also necessary to determine whether the piano is adjusted, or ‘regulated’ as we technicians say.”

Today’s pianos are generally tuned in “equal temperament,” which is to say all the notes are very slightly out of tune, but as a whole, the piano is in tune well enough.

“It’s mathematically impossible to tune every note on a system of fixed notes such that every interval will be perfect or ‘beatless,’” Cole said. “Equal temperament is a compromise. The bigger principal at work is consistency. It’s OK if everything is a little out of tune if it’s done in a consistent manner. The ear simply accepts it.”

Cole said he has done an interesting demonstration for people by tuning a stack of pure major thirds: F-A, A-C#, C#-F. “The end result is a horrible sounding F-F octave.” So, some intervals are a little wider than “pure” and others a little narrower.

Some pianists who specialize in, say, Baroque music, have their pianos tuned in one of the historical temperaments, just to be able to hear the music as it would have been performed when it was written.

He always asks the owners of pianos what kind of music they play.

“A piano being used to learn Beethoven, Mozart or Scarlatti needs to be in a much finer state of regulation than one used for improvisation or Christmas carols,” he said. “Some pianos will never be suitable for demanding repertoire. Sometimes you just need to get a better piano.”

Cole said it takes him 75 to 90 minutes to tune a piano, depending on its age and condition. He also offers regulation, repair, cleaning, hammer repair and other services.

He’s come across pianos in terrible condition. One that is particularly memorable is a spinet that had been covered for a few months while a house was being remodeled.

“When I came to tune it, I found it had been stuffed full of dog food and there was a mouse infestation,” he said. “We found nests and even mouse skeletons. I guess you can’t survive on dog food alone,” he said, laughing.

He donned rubber gloves and a face mask and cleaned it up for the customer.

“Most pianos are technically salvageable,” he said. “The question is, at what price?”

He says most consumer-level pianos are not worth major work. “I often advise people to look for something better,” he said.

“Many have the misconception that pianos improve with age. It’s the opposite. Pianos only get worse with age. They are machines, just like cars, and parts wear out.”

He understands how people can be attracted to old instruments, especially those with beautiful old varnish or attractive woodwork. There’s a romantic aspect.

“We technicians will often have to pose a question to our clients,” he said: “Do you want furniture, or a musical instrument?”

Manufacturers recommend pianos be tuned one to four times a year, depending on climate, condition of the piano, and on the ears and tolerances of the pianist. The longer a piano goes without tuning, the less stable it will be when it’s eventually tuned.

“Every location is a microclimate,” Cole said. “Some customers keep their homes very stable, and some don’t. In general, though, our climate has less extremes than, say, the Midwest.”

He advises people to try to keep the climate stable for their pianos. Temperature and humidity swings aren’t good for the instrument.

“In the summer, our home goes from 60 degrees in the morning to 85 in the late afternoon,” he said. “Then we put the air on. My own piano is always going out of tune. I just wish I had time to tune it.”

Cole’s service area extends from Weed and Fort Jones, California, to Grants Pass and up to Prospect. He also has some customers in the Greensprings area.

“I spend a lot of time on the road,” he said. “If I can get two or more customers in those far away locations, I offer a discount on my travel fees.”

Cole also offers an inspection service for people considering the purchase of a used piano. Many old pianos have exceeded their useful lifespan. “Just ask yourself if you would buy a 100-year-old car without having a mechanic take a look at it,” he said.

For people considering purchasing a piano, he recommends Larry Fine’s website, pianobuyer.com, a sort of Consumer Reports for pianos.

For more information about Cole’s services, go to rvpianotuner.com.

While he spends most of his time tuning and tending to pianos, Cole also is an editor of the Piano Technicians Guild’s Journal, a monthly technical publication. He writes, edits, and solicits members for articles.

And when he started training as a piano technician, he also started pilot training. He’s now a commercial pilot and flies as a search and rescue pilot for the Civil Air Patrol.

No wonder he has no time for the violin these days.

Reach Ashland writer Jim Flint at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.