Max Smith is the owner of Maxwell Piano Services in Beacon.
How did you get into piano tuning?
I’ve played piano since college — I majored in music education — then did sales and basic repairs at The Music Inn, an instrument shop in Greenwich Village. I learned tuning on the job, practicing on a piano used for open mic nights that was a piece of junk and couldn’t stay in tune. Being a piano tuner requires patience and the desire to keep getting better. There’s a reason there are so few piano tuners out there. It’s not something you can just pick up.
Is this a good or bad time to be a piano tuner?
It’s gotten me through the pandemic, and I’m grateful for that. People are staying home more, playing more. They rediscover that with a little practice and stick-to-itiveness they can make nice music. I’m sure every piano tuner wishes they were tuning at Carnegie Hall but I get to know people in my community.
Can you bring a piano in bad condition back to life?
You can get old pianos to play; it depends on how invested the owner is in doing it. I’m working on a baby grand. It’s not particularly valuable but it means something to the owner. It was stored in a cabin and left to the elements for a number of years. There was a mouse nest in it that wreaked havoc. You need to clean it, make it sterilized, do a general repair and tune it. They can get very dirty.
Do digital pianos need to be tuned?
No, they work by microchips and are set to a certain pitch. If you were playing one and another instrument couldn’t match its pitch, you could tune the digital piano by ear to get the instruments in sync. Digital pianos wear out because they’re made cheaply, but they open a lot of people up to making music.
You work on violins, as well?
I moved to Beacon three years ago to apprentice with R.J. Storm, who comes from a long line of master and apprentice violin makers and restorers. He worked for a shop in New York City that restored the Stradivarius and Guarneri violins of the world. I’m passionate about it, but I send most violin work to him. He is a selfless teacher and has opened my eyes to a level of workmanship that has led me to do better piano work, make tools, do finishes and retouching, and get into clock work. I make violins and have sold one over the three years, but I don’t actively sell them, out of respect for Stormy. And there is still so much to learn.