Piano tuning a labour of love for Matthias Rom

By Merna Emara
Staff Writer
memara@fortfrances.com

The piano is a beautiful instrument, with its glistening ivory keys and full, complex sound that can capture listeners instantly. A flat note, however, can easily mar a captivating performance, through no fault of the player.

That’s why piano tuners are integral to restoring the melody, which Matthias Rom, 69, knows all about.

Since 1982, Rom estimates he has tuned more than 20,000 pianos, or about 20 pianos per week. He has made twice-annual visits to Fort Frances for 39 years, where his talent and ability to identify very subtle details has supported generations of both amateurs and professional musicians.

In the summer of 1983, Rom became a certified registered piano technician, a designation he wore as a badge of honour – especially after clients told him they wouldn’t let anyone else touch their pianos. 

“It was then that I felt I was knowledgeable,” Rom said. “It’s also a good business badge to have as well around northwestern Ontario and Thunder Bay. When I go to International Falls, more people know that it shows you’re not just a hobbyist tuner, who may not be tuning that well.”

Although he had a deep affinity for playing the piano, tuning only came later when his friend lent him a piano tuning book.

“It was a terrible book, which I recognized, even not knowing anything about piano tuning – but it’s bibliography sent me to two more books,” Rom said. “I ended up being self-taught and learned piano tuning in 1981, and started tuning in early 1982.”

Born and raised in Chicago, Rom has a Bachelor of Arts in mathematics. After his time in school, he lived in France for a year and a half, before returning to Thunder Bay to find work as a high school math teacher – but was unsuccessful.

But he had tuning to fall back on.

Even without a lot of experience, Rom knew which pianos in Thunder Bay were out of tune, yet he didn’t feel confident yet in his abilities, despite feedback to the contrary.

“I didn’t want to believe the people who were saying that I was good,” Rom said.

Rom then found out about the Piano Technicians Guild, an organization that’s international in scope, but based in Canada, with a focus on the North American tuning industry.

“Their mission is to provide the piano owning public with qualified tuners,” Rom said. “There are people who think they can just watch a tuner and do it themselves.”

But the Piano Technicians Guild has a rigorous examination process, where students have to demonstrate their knowledge and ability to not only regulate and tune both a vertical piano and a grand piano, but also be able to replace a hammer and fix a broken key, Rom added. 

And yet, while his piano tuning career has been fulfilling, Rom says the industry is not very forgiving.

“In piano tuning, it seems like the piano owning public expects us to be close to perfect,” Rom said. “And if you make a mistake with a known piano owner or piano teacher, you can be condemned for life. I’ve seen it happen to many people. And it happened to me a little bit in Thunder Bay, when I made a mistake on a high-level piece of work.”

Matthias Rom is tuning the grand piano at the Townshend Theatre in preparation for the Chantal Kreviazuk’s concert in Fort Frances. Rom has been tuning pianos in Canada and the United States for 39 years. – Merna Emara photo

Although a labour of love, and one that has been his main source of income, Rom experienced job instability in the early 90s. 

“I had a severe shortage of work, and I took on an extra job which mixed in very well with the tuning,” Rom said, a job that required a high level of attention to detail, as well. “It was an on-call grain sampler for a private inspecting company in Thunder Bay.”

Throughout history, there were many people who were able to have a career in tuning. I think mostly it’s a modest income, and in some cases, it can be a fairly high income.”

Fewer and fewer homes have traditional pianos these days, unlike in the past. In the early 1900s, the heyday of pianos, Rom said, 90 per cent of American homes had a piano – so many that there weren’t enough tuners to tune all the pianos sold. 

People were paying the equivalent today of over $50,000 for their piano, because it was a priority.

“But it was also a simpler life,” Rom added. “There weren’t as many other things to buy. Consumerism is one of the big factors in the demise of the piano.”

With no plans to retire, however, Rom will continue to ensure performances in the region are pitch-perfect.