'A piano is like a person': Edmonton piano tuner ready to retire at 95

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'A piano is like a person': Edmonton piano tuner ready to retire at 95

'A piano is like a person': Edmonton piano tuner ready to retire at 95

As a child, Dolf Hantelmann was listening to his grandfather play the piano when he heard a discordant note.

Irked, he complained to his family that something with the instrument was off.

That was when Hantelmann's family discovered he had perfect pitch — an ear for finely tuned musical instruments.

"They discovered it when I was maybe seven or eight years old," said Hantelmann, who has been tuning pianos in Edmonton for the past 50 years. "They were surprised that I could hear that.

"It sounds like bragging but I like to do tunings," Hantelmann added. "I love it. I don't like when a piano is out of tune. It bothers me."

But Hantelmann, now 95 years old, is ready to retire from his decades-long piano tuning career, which began after he moved to Edmonton in 1963.

He grew up in the Netherlands, where the sounds of piano, cello and violin, and the melodies of classic composers, were common in his Rotterdam home.

His uncles, who were professional pianists, taught him the tricks of the trade early on. He began actually tuning as a teenager.

When he came to Canada with little more than a suitcase of clothes, he hoped to put his knack for perfect pitch to good use.

"At home, I tuned some pianos for fun," he recalled. "So when I went to Canada, I took some tools with me, and got my chance."

'A piano is like a person'

He got his first job at the Heintzman Piano store. He wasn't "too crazy" about the prospect of being a salesman, but made a deal with his boss that he could tune the floor models whenever customers were sparse.

Requests for his tuning skills kept coming in and, within the year, the income from his tuning surpassed his sales commissions at the store.

Hantelmann got professionally certified and began tuning full-time. His work took him across the province, tuning pianos in church basements, classrooms and lakefront cottages.

Pianos are temperamental, and require well-tuned ears and careful fingers, said Hantelmann.

"A piano is like a person," Hantelmann said. "You have to compromise, so to speak, and I like that. And people are happy so I must be doing something good, otherwise I wouldn't be so busy."

'A machine cannot think'

Hantelmann had a knack for bringing out the best notes out of everything, from baby grands to weathered uprights. He became known for his ability to tune even the most fickle pianos by ear.

Electric tuners pale in comparison to the human ear because electronics can't catch the nuances of the notes, he said.

"Alberta is a difficult climate for pianos. In the winter it's too dry, and in the summer it's too wet. It makes the piano go wild.

"I do it by ear. Completely by ear," said Hantelmann. "I can make the piano sound pleasant to your ear. A machine cannot think."

At the peak of his career, Hantelmann could tune up to five pianos a day. But those long days were getting a bit overwhelming for an "oldie," he admitted.

Now, he wants to spend more time with his wife, Toni.

But even if he won't be tuning professionally anymore, the ivory keys will remain his muse.  Despite his perfect pitch, he admits he has a certain kind of selective hearing.

"My wife always says, 'You're deaf,' he said. "She calls me, 'Dolf' and then all I hear is 'Blup, blup, blup.' "

He added with a chuckle: "I don't hear her, but I hear the piano. I have a beautiful wife."