By Forest Riggs
Galveston, the playland of the South, has long been known to offer a little something for everyone. In fact, Galvestonians will brag, “We have at least one of everything on the Island.”
When it comes to music and entertainment, the Island offers a myriad of venues and popular locations to hear and enjoy beautiful music. Piano music is very highly appreciated in Galveston and bars and clubs offering ivory-tickling have become real hot spots. From sitting in the lobby of a fine hotel or chugging brews in a neighborhood pub to a gathering in an adorned room of a private Victorian home, the sounds of the piano flow with the Gulf breezes and bring joy to many.
And when it comes to bragging rights and Galveston’s offering the very best of everything, there is one item that, although unique and somewhat rare, is not exclusive to only Galveston. The piano tuner is a pretty uncommon character and, although much in demand, can be really difficult to locate. Galveston Island is fortunate to have Kirk Hale, the best of the best when it comes to the fine skill of tuning pianos.
Originally from the Dallas area and Northeast Texas, Hale and his partner Carl Samuels have called Galveston Island home for the past 11 years. During these years Hale has become Mr. Piano Man. Not only does he tune and repair the instruments, but he also plays them (very well) and even sells them! His familiar van with its black piano silhouette logo and words “Lone Star Pianos” can be seen parked at many concert halls, churches, schools, and private homes. His talent, having long been recognized and respected, has led Hale to be a much sought-after pianist and tuner. He is the Island’s piano tuner and loves doing it.
Hale was born into a small family (one sister). His mother was a classically trained pianist, and her music filled the house and, of course, her young son’s mind and imagination. Though he had no formal training or lessons in reading music, Hale became an astute player by using his ear and inherent sense of perfect pitch. He could hear a song just a few times and master it, a skill he utilizes to this day.
Having developed quite a reputation around the state for his playing, Hale found himself a much-desired addition to parties, nightclubs, hotels, and other concert venues.
After having great success performing in fine hotels such as the Driskill in Austin, Hale began to see the future that was coming for live pianists in certain venues. Hip-hop was all the rage and the younger generation was totally sold on it. Sitting in a nice club, sipping a martini, and listening to classics on a well-tuned piano was not the idea of a good time for younger millennials.
“I just knew that before too long a bar manager, young enough to be my son, was going to come along and say ‘We are putting in big-screen TVs and will no longer need you with the piano,’” he said.
The smart Hale decided he’d better reinvent himself to secure his future and income-generating ability.
While playing at the opulent Driskill in Austin, Hale noticed that his first set would sound great, with all 88 keys were functioning properly and solidly. After a break and returning for the second set, he found the piano’s tremble was gone and out of tune a bit, and would get worse with playing and with time.
The Driskill hired a new tuner and Hale noticed the piano remained in tune and continued to sound great. After a few months, the ever-curious Hale approached the tuner and the rest, as they say, is history. Hale studied under the tuner and before long he was cutting his “tuning teeth” on every piano belonging to the Austin Independent School District — a task he credits with assisting him in learning and expanding his new craft.
Not long after working in Austin’s schools, Hale got in touch with Plum Pianos in LaGrange, Texas. Plum’s was well known and had a great reputation regarding the quality of their work restoring pianos and tuning them. Hale offered to come and work for free when he had spare time. It was during this time that he began to engage with fine Steinway pianos and other brands noted for their exceptional sound quality and their commanding price. With his great dedication to perfection and unequaled work ethic, it was not long before the tuner began to excel in the restoration, tuning, and repair of the instruments that he loved.
When asked about the particulars of piano tuning, Hale quickly shared the process and his personal views on what it takes to make a piano sound just right.
“It is not easy,” he said. “I think it is a layered process. I mean, the tuning should be performed in a layering process.”
Hale offered the analogy of buying and restoring a grand old home that may need some tender, loving care.
“You might start with the yard, working the landscaping and getting it right. In time, you move on to other aspects of the restoration, one piece at a time, and make sure each piece is perfect. It takes time to get the entire property up to par,” he said. “It is the same with a piano. At Carnegie Hall, they tune every single day. Those pianos have reached their pinnacle of perfection.”
When Hale first encounters a “new” tuning job, his primary goal is to get the instrument up to pitch.
“Pitch correction is the first thing I work on,” he explained. “It must be correct to move forward and can take some time. Over time, a tuner develops an understanding and relationship with each particular instrument. If a piano has not been played in many years it may take a while to reach the desired level of perfection.”
Piano tuners, by the way, are paid by the job, not by the hour.
We have all heard the story of a blind piano tuner who only uses his ear to tune. Hale said that although a blind man might have some increased hearing or sound discernment, it’s a two to three-hour process to tune a piano.
“When I tune a piano, it’s one-third electric and two-thirds by my ear. Neither are infallible,” said Hale. “Like children, some pianos can be temperamental and difficult, especially the tuning pins. The worst is replacing a string; it’s a nightmare but often a necessity.”
Kirk Hale is a perfectionist and his dedication has earned him quite a reputation on the Island and around Texas. He works on instruments at the Tremont House, the San Luis, Moody Mansion, the Convention Center, and numerous churches, and he is the exclusive tuner for the Galveston Independent School District.
“I like to reduce the instrument to my control,” said Kirk. “Then I can get the sound perfection I am seeking. I like to think I am keeping Texas in tune!”
Hale plays piano every Saturday, 5-7 p.m. at the Tremont House, 2300 Ships Mechanic Row, Galveston. It’s a delightful way to hear great music, enjoy a martini, and meet a master piano technician.
For information call 512-292-6920 or log on to LoneStarPianos.com.