Cape Gazette
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Ken Keith's perfect pitch earns him title of primo piano tuner

Donates talents to Coastal Concerts
By Betty Fleming | Oct 17, 2013
Photo by: Deny Howeth Ken Keith tunes a piano with his father's tools and an ear with perfect pitch.

Kenneth Keith of Long Neck is an experienced piano tuner, one of a rare breed at the beach. Locally, he tunes pianos for the Coastal Concerts series presented at Bethel United Methodist Church Fellowship Hall in the fall, winter and spring (for concerts where a piano is involved). It can take anywhere from two to five hours or more to do the job.

“Unlike most people in the audience, I listen to individual notes as opposed to listening to the piano’s music,” he said. “I can tell which notes are in tune and which ones are out of tune.”

To start each Coastal Concerts concert involving a piano, a retired conductor for the Newark Orchestra, Roman Pawlowski of Milford, goes to a Philadelphia firm that sells and rents pianos, and he selects the piano for the concert. He serves on the Coastal Concerts Board of Directors and is chairman of the programming committee.

Last year, Misha Dichter, an internationally known pianist, appeared at one of the concerts, and the piano to be tuned was a full-size Steinway Concert Grand valued at $150,000. “I tuned the piano for four hours one day and six hours the day of the concert,” Keith said.

“Each time we do this, it costs us $2,500 to rent a piano and pay for some related expenses,” said Gavin Braithwaite, Lewes businessman and a founding member, along with his wife and business partner, Lou, of the Coastal Concerts series. “And that doesn’t include the cost of the tuning,” he said. "The only people who handle the high-powered pianos are the skilled Philadelphia piano movers, Ken Keith and the pianist.”

Coastal Concerts, a nonprofit organization, compensates piano tuner Ken Keith with an advertisement in each season’s program and furnishes him with two complimentary season subscriptions. “Ken also receives the intangible benefit of claiming Coastal Concerts as one of his clients,” said Braithwaite.

“But, the bottom line here is that Ken donates his piano services for these concerts,” Braithwaite said. “He is a high-caliber piano tuner, and the fact that he doesn’t charge us is a real blessing.”

Ken Keith’s father, by the same name, was also a piano tuner and taught his son, who has perfect pitch, how to be a tuner. The two men worked together for many years before his father died in December 2012. Of the work, Keith said, “It’s a special calling for me.” He uses his late father’s piano tuning tools and says, “I do this work in honor of my father. If I don’t do my job, the music won’t be great.”

In addition to tuning pianos, Keith does a lot of piano repair work in a shop in his garage. He can refinish pianos and rebuild them. He can also assist with the sale of used pianos or the purchase of a new piano.

Keith works with Milford Music, a local Kawai brand piano dealer. “They can help people with the selection of a rental or sale piano,” he said, “and they can arrange for piano lessons.

“I have five to 10 pianos that I’m working on at any given time in my home,” Keith said, “including a baby grand and three others in my living room.” His mother, Florence, handles the phone at their home and workplace, and sometimes accompanies him to his concert piano tuning work and concerts. They live in the family home.

“I’m blunt,” he said. ”Sometimes, I have to tell people that their piano, maybe an old family treasure, is just not worth the work to try and make it playable.” He believes a piano is a living, breathing musical instrument and said, “You have to tune it every six months or so, especially at the beach, where there is so much humidity.”

Although he lives in Long Neck, Keith’s work takes him as far north as Philadelphia and as far south as the Maryland-Virginia border. On his travels, he drives a Chevy Suburban van which attracts people's eyes wherever he goes. On the side of it is all the information piano owners need to schedule a visit from him or get other information, like his phone number, 302-945-9501. Most striking is the beautiful, almost life-size depiction of a baby grand piano on both sides of the van. “My dad knew I was going to do it, but he didn’t live to see it,” Keith said. “I have 150,000 miles on the van and hopefully, I’ll go to 300,000,”

The 2013-14 season for Coastal Concerts includes two concerts involving pianists: Elena Urioste, violin, and Michael Brown, piano, March 1, 2014, at 2 p.m., and Ching-Yun Hu, piano, March 22, 2014, at 7 p.m.

There are also concerts this fall with the Orion String Quartet and the Brasil Guitar Duo as well as a 2014 concert featuring the Danish String Quartet. For a brochure listing the five concerts in the upcoming season, call 1-888-212-6458 or go to coastalconcerts.org.

Season tickets are $150, while individual concert tickets are $30.

Ken Keith at works at a baby grand in a home. (Photo by: Deny Howeth)
A Piano tuner's tools. (Photo by: Deny Howeth)
The mobile office of Ken Keith. (Photo by: Deny Howeth)
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