He Lives Like he Keeps His Pianos: A Finely Tuned Instrument
by Cynthia Woolbright, Staff Reporter
The South Whidbey Record Island Living Wednesday, December 15, 2004
Dean Petrich lives life one half hour at a time. Or, at least, that is how it is written in his daily planner. In that little book is the daily goings on of not just his own life, which in itself is a rich talek, but countless others. As a piano technician for over 30 years, Petrich’s own log of life has been in tune with over 3,000 customers, their families, their history and their future. A a piano technician, he feels he has a different king of job requirement. “My job is half about repairing and tuning pianos and half about paying attention to tthe people who play those pianos,” he said. When Petrich looks at a set of piano keys he sees more than 88 slender bars. He sees more than ivory grain or faux plastic lacquer. He sees children growing up in years of piano lessons. Family gatherings and sing-a-longs. Generation blood ties and the sad days when piano owners become arthritic later in life and can no longer play their favorite song. Langley resident Dean Petrich owns and operates Petrich’s Pianos. To him, pianos are life. They are lives, loves, joy and tradition. He collects them by the roomful and currently owns around 160 of his own. “I get very attched to pianos,” he said. “I’ll pull one out of storage or receive one back from a long-time renter and remember the lives that pianos has already lived.” Petrich’s career as a paino technician is but one page in a life filled with countless chapters. Since he was a child growing up in North Seattle, he has always had a million balls in air at once and prides himself on not having dropped one. “I always set a goal and go out and achieve it,” he said. There are few pursuits that Petrich hasn’t tried. He began playing the piano in kindergarten. He is a life-long musician, athlete, writer and entrepreneur. He’s knowledgeable in a summer camp dream list of activities and has a number of businesses that include his wacky side as “Deano the Clown.” Petrich even has an online log of but a condensed version of what may appear to be a big fish tale of a life resume. “Some kids are self-motivated and others have to be gtold what to do,” he said. “I was intrinsically motivated.” But one of Petrich’s greatest passions is pianos — their history, how to tune and maintain them, how to rebuild them and thanks to a lesson from a 70-something piano technician, Petrich has become an old pro at moving pianos — by himself. “There were times there I wanted to help him because at times he was balancing this piano with one hand but he told me not to,” Petrich said. “I was so impressed I’ve been moving pianos by myself ever since.” Using rollers and a dolly, Petrich day-in and day-out moves pianos weighing hundred of pounds. He maneuvers the beasts through a series of shifts, and at one point holds it by one hand as he balances it on a corner. Petrich is even writing a book about his one-man piano moving experiences.
Tuning into a love of pianos It was actually someone out of tune in his college choir and a series of run-ins with pianos that brought Petrich to his future calling. While attending Willamette University in Salem, Ore., he sand in the school choir. One day a constantly off-key singer next to him mentioned that he tuned pianos. “I figured, if this guy can do it, I definitely can,” he said. Peaked in fascination of piano tuning, Petrich found out a professor tuned his own piano,. Petrich went to play fiddle at an off-campus barn party and was intrigued by a piano in a friend’s living room. It was all opened up with a tuning hammer sticking out of the series of wires, worked half-way up the row. He was amazed to hear his friend had been working for over two weeks on the tuning, and still wasn’t happy with the sound. Then one day he witnessed a blind man tuning twopianos before a big university assembly. “At first I thought, what a lonely job — an empty gym with no one to talk to,” he said. “But now I know how important quiet can be.” After the series of tuning events, Petrich and a roommate shook hands and promisted that they’d both learn to tune pianos. He’s still tuning 0– his friend is a speech therapist. After college he paged through the phone book and called piano technicians to ask to be trained. At first his prospects didn’t look good. They all questioned why they should take the time to train him when he’d turn into competiition by the time he became skilled. He finally found one. A gentlemand in Issaquah told him he’d teach Petrich to tune for the cost of a tuning, which at that time was around $25. “I really had to make a decision because at the time I only had $75 in the bank and I still had to pay rent which was $80,” he said. When he arrive, the piano technician gave him a 20-minute introduction, a book and told him not to come back until he’d studied certain sections. “I felt cheated, but I did it anyway,” he said. At the second lesson, the verteran gave Petrich a tuning hammer he’d bought his new apprentice with the fee for the first lesson and proceeded into a thorough session. The third time Petrich arrived he learned to repair and completely rebuild a piano. Out of money, he was left to find a piano to tune to earn money toward rent. A friend of a friend referred him to a woman who had a piano in her basement that desperately needed retuning. “It sounded awful,” Petrich said. After a full day of work, he was only half-way through the piano’s notes. Twenty hours total he called it quits. H knew his first tuning didn’t sound right, but luckily the piano’s owner thought it sounded wonderful. “I think she felt sorry for me that I’d worked so long on it,” he said. “It was only later I learned that pianos badly out of tune often require two or three tunings before they come close to sounding right.”
Dedicated to the keys Petrich began his own business in 1973 and soon after began attending meetings of the Seattle Piano Technicians Guild. The guild meets each month for technical training and other shop talk to keep their skills finely tuned. After learning his own lesson he now accepts apprentices. He remains active with the organization, and has been to almost every meeting since his first. He’s even a past president and is active in helping to continue the guild’s mission of piano education. “Piano tuners are great philosophers, poets and thinkers,” he said. “We have to be extremely patient.” According to Petrich, if a piano technician is off by even a 16th of an inch worth of a turn on tuning the first string, all the others are off and they have to start over. But you might not figure that out until you’re half-way through the piano. Petrich visits music class-rooms to talk about frequency ratios and show students the inner workings of a piano by taking it apart and putting it back together again. He’s been know to bump into, walk over and lay on pianos while performing as Deano the Clown — if there happens to be one nearby. Sadly, Petrich knows his is a dying profession. As technology progresses, pianos fade away. “The piano industry is dropping rapidly,” he said. “People are buying electric synthesizers that play songs with one push of the button.”
The fading past of the piano In recent years he’s seen an increasing number of people disposing of upright pianos. They are becoming a trashed generation — something that Petrich, an eco-conscious and piano loving person, hates to see. The piano industry, according to Petrich, is a direct reflection of the economy. “People are either buying $20,000 pianos or on the opposite end of spectrum renting from me,” he said. Petrich claims the lowest rental rates on the island at $15 and up. The price includes free repair, tuning and moving. “I’ve had people from New York calling me to get pianos,” he said. Petrich admits his pianos might not always be the prettiest, but overall function is the prime goal while he slowly but surely works on the refinishing of the pianos’ exteriors. “I have some really nice pianos, but on most of them I have focused on taking care of the inside,” he said. With an inventory of around 160 pianos, Dean Petrich is not sure where he can put many more. There are pianos at local storage units, in storage at his home and he has already almost filled a storage unit he recently constructed near his home. He’s at the point where he might have to dispose of some of the less fortunate and he hates the thought. “I hate throwing perfectly good pianos into the dump when they could still be played,” he said. Everything comes in time. The heyday of pianos appears to be fading, and every day the wear of life is apparent. Petrich figures if he focused on the task of rebuilding pianos he’d be at it for nine years without pay. That’s two weeks per piano. But, he said, he’s not a workaholic, just smart about divvying his time. Immediately after obtaining his planner for the year, he writes in blank time, vacation time and play time. “Most people do it the other way around and have to fit in time for themselves,” he said. “I always have time.”
Pianos are a passion for Langley resident Dean Petrich. For over 30 years Petrich has been a piano technician and has been slowly accumulating a collection of around 160 pianos that are currently either at renters’ homes, in storage or at his home. From tuning to playing, rebuilding to moving, Petrich knows pianos.
Dean Petrich has so many pianos he almost doesn’t know what to do. His inventory of around 160 pianos is stored at various locations and is packed in like a can of sardines.