Piano technician brings rare skill to Savannah
November 25, 2013
Jennifer Knox tunes a Steinway Piano on the stage at the Lucas Theater. Knox worked for Steinway for six years in New York.
By Kim Wade
If you’ve ever had the chance to look inside a Steinway grand piano, you know it has a lot of complicated-looking parts. To the amateur eye, it appears to be an intricate multilevel soundboard of sorts with rows and rows of tiny levers, strings, wooden hammers, rods and other gadgets that work seamlessly to create an almost endless array of notes and tunes. Learning to play the instrument is one thing, but imagine learning how to tune, replace and rebuild the monstrous contraption, even in total darkness.
Steinway technician Jennifer Knox says she can do anything from a simple tuning to a full-on rebuild, and her career as a Steinway technician took her all over New York City with famous clients like Sting, Billy Joel, Yoko Ono, Kathie Lee Gifford, Cyndi Lauper and Billy Taylor — just to name a few. While Knox has since retired from her position at Steinway, she continues to stay busy tuning and repairing pianos all over the Coastal Empire, as well as helping out her celebrity clients, like Lionel Ritchie, whenever they swing through town for a performance.
Knox began her career as a registered piano technician after enrolling in the prestigious technician program with Steinway. “I began working for Steinway in 1991 and worked for them for six years,” Knox said. “I lived in the Upper West Side of New York, and I was the first female technician. It is still a male-dominated profession.” Knox said she was always drawn to the piano. “I always enjoyed the piano and I always wanted to find out what was going on inside the piano,” she said. “I was opening my own piano and poking around, which I shouldn’t have been doing. At age 15, I was taking my piano apart. I’m lucky I didn’t break anything.”
Knox was born in Savannah, but grew up in England and Illinois, and later moved back to Savannah where her mother’s side of the family is from. Before becoming a piano technician, Knox said she was studying to be an acupuncturist, and “I was an acupuncturist for a number of years but I got out because this kept pulling me back. This is what I’m good at. And I have met some incredible people, too. “I love my work. I absolutely love what I do.”
Knox recalled some of her more memorable moments from her career, like going to Sting’s house to tune his pianos and helping a stressed Billy Joel before a big concert. “I worked with Holly Hunter for the movie ‘Piano,’” Knox said. “The technicians worked in the basement at Steinway Hall on 57th Street. We each had a booth because if you are tuning and someone else is tuning at the same time, we both can’t hear what we are doing. You need a soundproof both. “(Hunter) learned the music for the movie in my booth and I saw her a few times. The introductory music to the movie is her playing.”
Knox said she can work on other pianos besides Steinway and she keeps a small space on Isle of Hope for her piano repair business. She shares the space with her mother, who is a potter. “I can do a lot in the home,” Knox says. “I can string a piano in a lady’s house or I can take out the internal mechanism and take it back to shop.” She said the internal mechanism has certain rules and you have to know what you are doing to make adjustments correctly. “If you go outside of those specifications, it won’t work,” she explained. “Certain things have to be adjusted a certain way. If that hammer pops up too hard … the sound is wrong. “… But beyond that you get into the musicality of it and that’s voicing … that’s making the piano sound its best. You have some wiggle room there.” She said the Steinway pianos are tricky because each one is made by hand. “I learned that every single one is different,” she said. “Mass-produced pianos like Yamaha are made on machines so they pretty much sound all the same. So a technician that services (Steinway) is going to have more creativity because … they are strikingly different from each other … and have their own personalities.”
Knox said she is hesitant to bring on a student to pass down her knowledge. “I’m not ready for that yet,” she said. “It takes a lot of commitment to train someone. “When I was learning they put me in a room called the Lincoln room — it had a picture of Lincoln hanging on the wall. I was there for eight hours each day until I got it right. “I was there about seven months. I wouldn’t expect (a student) to do that, but I want someone as dedicated as I was.”
Knox said the electric keyboard is the biggest competition to her field. “The biggest battle we have is the electric keyboard. I see less of the upright pianos … because people find the electric keyboard is cheap, you don’t have to tune it, you can carry it around with you and you don’t have to pay a mover. “If the parents aren’t educated about music, they won’t understand the need for a quality instrument and say ‘what’s wrong with a keyboard?’ “The field is shrinking somewhat, but I think there is always going to be a place for performance and high-quality instruments. A quality grand piano will always be here.
Jennifer Tunes a Concert Grand Piano
Jennifer was featured on the Savannah Morning News Exchange external link website. Check out the article external link and video external link they made of Jennifer on the job. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aaAy3Mc5CCM