“A, A sharp, B, C, C sharp, D,” he whispers to himself as he gently glides his fingers along the strings of a Steinway grand piano until he comes to the note he is looking for. He moves the silver hammer to the correct dial and places his left hand on the ivory keys. Playing the note, he listens intently, moving his head from side to side to assess the tone. He hits the note again and twists the hammer, tightening the strings, pauses to listen, then strikes a chord to test the pitch and moves on to the next note. “D, D sharp, E.”
Kenneth Williams, who has been tuning pianos for nearly 60 years in the Syracuse, New York area says he fell into unexpected love for pianos when he was a child.
“I was up on a ledge with a couple other lads listening to someone tune a piano in the kindergarten room,” reminisced the 85-year-old. “The ledge was only big enough for three of us, so once another kid tried to climb up, I fell about 12 feet, right on top of my head.”
Although the Watertown, New York native had an unconventional way of finding his craft, his life leading up to that point was one he describes as “hell on earth.”
“At 2 years old, I was given the wrong drops in my eyes,” remembers Williams. “My mom took me to Presbyterian Medical Center and they tried to fix it, but it was too late.”
After losing his eyesight, the toddler then faced another traumatic loss.
“My mother said, ‘What can I do for a blind boy?’ and walked out on me. She just left me there.”
Now orphaned, Williams was sent into foster care where things got progressively worse.
“My foster mother blamed everything that happened on me,” Williams said, remembering when he and the other foster children picked apples from a tree and ate them without permission. “The other kids got stomachaches, and I got a stomachache and a sound whipping.”
After the elementary school nurse found lacerations covering his entire backside during a school-wide lice check, they called the authorities. His foster mother lost every child under her care, along with her license.
Attending New York State School for the Blind in Batavia at age 9, Williams began taking piano lessons when his teacher encouraged him to give up the instrument he loved so dearly because of a technical problem with his hands. Instead of playing, he turned instead to tuning.
“My favorite part about tuning pianos is the people you meet and come in contact with,” Williams said with a smile. “But my favorite part about the piano is, if you look in your case and see all these coils and wire, each of them don’t mean anything all separated; but you take it and cut it to the right size and attach it to the prescribed place, like the bridge pins, it has a voice.”