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In tune with his heart

Music and theatre run in Brian Wainwright's blood

Jennifer McPhee
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Dec 14/01) - Piano tuner Brian Wainwright is a wealth of technical and historical information about pianos.

He tells me the parts of his 1909 upright piano are glued together with animal glue. "That's all they had back then."

NNSL Photo

Brian Wainwright re-tuned for the play Waiting for the Parade, making it out of tune. The play, set in Alberta, is about the different ways women coped during the second world war. "Nobody (men) would have been around to tune the piano," says Wainwright. - Jennifer McPhee/NNSL photo

He says the piano was the first mass-produced consumer product.

And he deconstructs the myth that an old piano is a good piano. "I hate to say this, but they made cheap junk back then, too," he says.

Wainwright claims there's no such thing as an upright grand piano. Grands are horizontal pianos so they can't be upright, he explains. He blames the name "upright grand" on clever marketing.

Wainwright spends just as much time, if not more, researching pianos as he does tuning them.

Yes, he's a man obsessed with pianos.

About 20 years ago, he started tuning. "That's when I allowed my interest in pianos to go somewhere," he says.

What fascinates him about the piano?

"I don't know," he says. "I don't even play the piano."

I don't believe him.

"Chopsticks is my limit," he insists and he plays it.

I press for more information. Why does he spend so much time fixing and researching an instrument he doesn't play?

"This sounds hokey," he warns and then says he gets a warm glow of satisfaction from bringing an instrument back to life.

Also, children can't learn to play an instrument that is out of tune.

Wainwright estimates a couple hundred pianos live in Yellowknife. He tunes about 100 of these regularly. "Regularly doesn't mean once a year, but it should," he says.

He's the only piano tuner in town. "There was a time when there were three of us, but the other guys moved on," he says.

Piano tuner is just one of Wainwright's hats. He's a director of plays and musicals, constructs and designs sets and owns Theatre YK.

It turns out music and theatre run in his blood. A couple years a go, relatives from the San Francisco area contacted his family while researching their family tree.

It turns out, about four generations back, the Wainwrights family owned an organ and piano building business.

Also, generations ago, a young Wainwright -- attempting to escape the piano business -- strung up a piano wire and taught himself to walk tightropes.

He ran away and joined the circus. During his vaudeville act, this young man walked the tightrope directly above the audience.

"Wainratta" performed all over Europe and was internationally renowned.

"I can't do anything about it," says Wainwright. "It's hereditary."