Piano technician Brigham Larson takes a seat behind a shining black Estonia grand piano and goes to work tuning the beautiful instrument. With 88 keys attached to 220 strings, each needing to be tuned individually, it's a slow, deliberate process. Using tuning software and a well-trained ear, Larson listens closely to each note, making slight adjustments with a tuning lever. After seven appointments in a day, wrapping up this last one at a client's home in Cedar Hills, that equals 1,540 notes played, examined and adjusted.
When I first started it drove me crazy, the experienced piano technician said, who now has about 10,000 tunings under his belt. Larson, who owns Brigham Larson Pianos in Pleasant Grove, has 1,500 clients throughout the valley who own a variety of pianos. I've worked on everything from 100-year-old abused porch pianos to this piano here... which costs a lot more than my truck, Larson said, referring to the Estonia grand piano he tuned in Cedar Hills.
A fine instrument priced at close to $50,000, Larson compares it to working on a Mercedes-Benz.
You've got to know what you're doing, especially for a piano like that, he said, remembering how terrified he was the first time he worked on a client's high-end piano. Larson takes pleasure in every instrument he works on, even the old and well-used, as each has their own characteristics and sound. With pedals that squeak and creak, keys that clank and stick, broken strings and broken hammers, the piano may only need a few hours with Larson before it's back in playable condition. He has even had customers cry with joy after working all day on a family heirloom, a piano that once belonged to someone's grandmother, and get it playing like new.
I get satisfaction resurrecting those old pianos, said Larson, a talented musician who began playing piano at age 6 and working on the instruments at age 17. I was always very musical but also very mechanical. Pianos are the perfect marriage of the two, he said. After moving into a 700-square-foot apartment shortly after marrying his wife, Karmel, 11 years ago, Larson had soon collected several repairable pianos that were worked on in their small living space. It was crowded, but I was supportive because it was a fun adventure, said Karmel Larson, who remembered squeezing past pianos in the hallway, with other instruments filling the living room and kitchen.
Brigham would work on the pianos at our kitchen table, and our piano shop was what limited space was left on the floor, she said.
It wasn't until their most recent home was full of 23 pianos, 12 in the garage and the rest inside the house, that Karmel Larson managed to convince her husband to find some commercial space to move into. Since opening his shop, Brigham Larson Pianos, in 2010, the business has really taken off. He just took flight because he had the space and resources, Karmel said, adding she's happy to have cut back to just two pianos at home, those the family play on.
Larson's workshop is full of instruments, some brand-new for sale and others in different stages of repair. With much more room to work in, he can do everything from simple key replacements to complicated tasks like replacing pin blocks and complete restringing. He once repaired and restored a customer's $60,000 Baldwin piano that was almost completely destroyed by a leaking swamp cooler. Only a few of the pianos in the shop belong to customers, though. The majority have been bought by or given to Larson, who will fix them for resale. Going through a thorough checklist for each instrument can take between 25 and 30 hours, and once complete he can sell a piano for a much as $2,000. Some of the instruments, however, could never be sold.
This includes the Banana Piana, a bright yellow piano that Larson picked up for free and spent a short while repairing.
It was really a good instrument, but I can't sell a yellow piano, Larson said with a smile. So the Banana Piana, like many of his projects that are too far gone cosmetically to sell, Larson to a musician in need. I don't have the heart to throw a piano away, Larson said, looking around his crowded workshop, The charity fills the gap when I just can't sell it.
So once again Larson goes about making people cry -- with joy -- by giving pianos that, while they may not look as grand as a shining, black Estonia, are still perfectly in tune, to musical families and schools that can't afford one of their own. Larson takes pleasure in giving back to the community that has treated him and his business well, one that has afforded him the opportunity to support his family doing something he loves. It's also a community that Larson guesses is home to about 100,000 pianos that might be in need of a whole lot of tuning.
I don't think I could do this for a living in many places, he said.