Music Issue: Technical solutions to an off-key world

Editor’s note: As the Juno Awards 2013 prepare to celebrate the best of Canadian music this weekend, Western Journalism students help us celebrate the best in Western Music. Read the full Music Issue.

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Don Stephenson sums himself up in seven words: “I like pianos and I like people.”

That’s obvious when you enter his office, the walls cluttered with pictures of pianos and friends from all over the world. Stephenson is Western’s assistant to the dean for keyboards and technology, and teaches the tuning component of the piano technician program.

In fact, he was the one who brought the program to Western in the first place.

In 1977, Stephenson was part of a committee on the Ontario Arts Council, and realized there were few ways for people to learn how to become a piano technician in Canada. Soon after, he helped develop a program at George Brown College in Toronto, where he became an assistant teacher.

In 2000, Western invited him to London to tune and repair the instruments at the Don Wright Faculty of Music. But to say he simply tunes pianos would be like saying that Chopin was a pretty good pianist.

On the side, Stephenson runs a company and has been maintaining the instruments at the Stratford Festival since 1975. He also restores pianos for arts groups and takes care of instruments at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto.

Though his passion for music can be traced back to his father, a self-taught “Renaissance musician,” perhaps the most influential figure for Stephenson was a piano technician from his school, the State University of New York.

“He was that kind of American guy who believed the impossible just took a little longer,” Stephenson said. “He would just say, ‘Well, let’s try that, we can do that.’ When you lived in that kind of environment, the opportunity for learning was just enormous.”

Stephenson quickly became passionate about pursuing a career in piano technology.

This passion is what took him to Europe at the age of 23. Trekking through England, France, Germany and Holland, he met with keyboard builders, technicians and toured through keyboard manufacturing facilities.

“To work on a piano, I wanted to know where the instrument came from, so I had to explore earlier pianos,” he said.

Watching him tune a piano 45 years later makes it clear that his experiences have given him a vast amount of knowledge. Tuning hammer in hand, he inserts a long piece of red felt between the piano’s strings and presses down on one of the keys. He places the hammer on the pin of one of the strings and ever-so-slightly twists his wrist to rotate it.

To the average listener, the note sounds the same. But to a trained ear like Stephenson’s, the difference is enormous. It is this level of expertise that allowed him to tune pianos for the greats, including Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson.

Meeting artists – and people in general, really – is one of the biggest perks for the piano technician, Stephenson said.

His gregarious personality is precisely what led him to the many people that fill the picture frames of his office, like James Anagnoson. Though Anagnoson originally met Stephenson at Western, he is now the dean of the Glen Gould School of Music at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. The students at the conservatory come from all over the world, but the dean said not a week goes by without someone commenting on the amazing condition of the pianos.

And it’s all thanks to Don, he said.

“He is simply one of the very finest tuner technicians that I know. It’s as simple as that. His expertise is absolutely unsurpassable,” Anagnoson said. “You’re lucky to have him at Western.”