Glenn “Doc” Adkins hits the right notes in the Grand Valley
January 8, 2013
Staring intently into the screen of his Peterson 490-ST strobe tuner, with one hand Glenn "Doc" Adkins repeatedly strikes a single key on the piano, ever-so-slightly turning a specially-made, star-headed wrench with the other, he tightens the corresponding wire until the bright red dial on the tuner indicates that the correct pitch has been reached. "It's really not that complicated," he says over one shoulder. "Every string vibrates at a certain frequency and you can hear the fundamentals of each note." He paused to remove a tiny wedge that had been fastened to one wire in order to mute the tone before adding, "There IS a certain amount of guesswork to piano tuning."
With over 40 years of musical experience behind him, Doc tends to be a perfectionist when it comes to getting sound to come out just right. "Spinet, studio, upright, grand and concert grand pianos are all different due to string length," he explained, "and the time it takes for tuning depends on both the age of the instrument and the length of time that has passed from the last adjustment. For a normal piano that is used moderately, once or twice a year is enough whereas a concert piano in Carnegie Hall might need tuning before each show. The actual process varies according to each keyboard, also, and it's a process that takes a minimum of two hours. Tuning will stay more consistent if you get the same person for the job each time. It's sort of like using the same auto mechanic — someone who really knows that engine."
Originally from Stuttgart, Ark., Doc started playing in the fifth grade (by then his family had moved to Decatur, Miss.) after his mother told him that there was a nice, new piano teacher in town and asked if he'd be interested in taking lessons. Since there was nothing else to do for entertainment in that small area, he thought it would be fun. Later he entered his first talent contest and played the theme from the 1960s television show "Batman," complete with a cape which his mom had made. "I won second prize and received $10 — my first official pay for play" and from that point on he was hooked on performing. He played piano in a jazz band during college at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark. In 1973 he developed such a strong interest in electronic keyboards and synthesizers ("they're easier to pack around than a 500 pound chunk of wood") that he eventually returned to school in Little Rock, Ark., for an electronics degree and yet again for computer networking certifications. Along the way, a Yamaha CP-70B electric grand piano was purchased which "actually had strings like a regular piano, but no soundboard." Instead, to cut down on weight, it had pickups (magnets in coils of wire) and was played through an amplifier to compensate for the lack of a soundboard.
Because he moved it so much while playing with numerous bands and recording artists, it needed monthly maintenance, so Doc learned how to do it himself. "In those days I used digital tuners for accuracy plus there were a few piano tuner friends to ask when I needed advice" — including a cousin who still takes care of pianos on Music Row in Nashville, Tenn. "Old-timers used to do this job by ear, hitting a tuning fork on their heels and then touching it to the wood. And when I was growing up, the best piano technicians were often blind," he recalled. "They tuned completely by ear since their hearing was more acute." Doc, however, now prefers to utilize his highly accurate Peterson brand tuner, which stores multiple, correct tuning curves for different-sized pianos. "When I strike a key, the microphone picks up the sound and the computer decides what pitch it is. There are flashing lights behind the dial on the display, and as the string is being tightened or loosened the lights will appear to stop moving when the sound frequency is correct. "Tuning a piano compares with tuning a guitar or mandolin," he concludes. "With the piano I'm doing nothing more than turning a screw — there are just a lot more of them."
In addition to being a tuner, Doc is self-employed as a sound engineer, an audio consultant, a computer technician and music teacher (he also used to be a band director). And much to the delight of his fans on the Western Slope of Colorado, he's a singer and keyboardist with The David Starr Band, which is based in Cedaredge and features Blues, Country Rock and Rock music. As for down time, you can find him in his home studio where keyboards and audio equipment (as well as a drum set) take up a large section of the floor space. "The only time I have a problem is when the electricity goes off," Doc admits with a grin, adding, "that's when I have to resort to being happy with only my acoustic guitar." ❖