By Colter Hettich, Features Editor
Linda Claunch came home one day to find her beloved piano on its way out the front door. As she tells the story, her husband, Ken, grins like a boy guilty of a practical joke gone awry.
Evidently, a woman told Ken she was in the market for a certain piano that the Claunches just happened to own – Linda’s favorite piano. That detail unfortunately slipped Ken’s mind.
“I asked [the woman] how much she was willing to pay for [the piano], and she told me,” Ken said. “So I told her, ‘You just bought yourself a piano.'”
Without missing a beat, Linda interjects, “And when I found out, I told him, ‘You almost bought yourself a grave.'”
Ken’s down-to-earth lifestyle might cause him to appear average. Anyone else outfitted in a jumpsuit and trucker cap might enjoy an Elvis song or two. Ken tuned pianos for two of Elvis’ concerts.
Any other piano tuner would recognize the name Van Cliburn, Jr., the first American to win the international Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow in 1958. Three years after Van Cliburn’s victory, Ken tuned his piano before a performance in South Carolina.
Ken could name-drop his way through the alphabet, but humbleness holds his tongue – a humbleness he has not always possessed.
In 1961, he entered a music store in Greenville, S.C., for the first time and spotted a man, working on the floor. Mr. Ertessy, a German native who spent years at the Steinway factory in Hamburg, worked for Steinway in New York before moving to South Carolina. Ken slowly approached the unknown piano tuner from behind. He watched him in silence for more than 10 minutes before revealing his presence.
“I was 22 and I knew everything. So, I asked him, ‘How long does it take you to do that?'” Ken said. “He looked up at me and said, ‘Until I get done, stupid. How long does it take you?’ That was the beginning of our relationship.”
The now meek Ken feels compelled to help others. The afternoon sun heated the handle on his wife’s car door making it too hot to touch, so he nailed together a six-foot by 12-foot wall to shade it. He permanently fixed his air compressor and hose on the outside of his shop so the neighborhood kids could fill their bike tires for free. Internationally recognized piano tuner Ken Claunch has it all in perspective.
“Doing it is what I look forward to, not getting it done,” he said. “What’s the rush?”
Ken did not always live by his “what’s the rush?” creed. While in Hobbs, N.M., he began to feel his skills had reached a ceiling. He was not improving and he had no one to challenge or teach him. Suddenly, like an intolerable dripping faucet, a quiet fear began to gnaw him.
“It was the fact that I knew the level some were at in my industry; I knew I wasn’t there and I didn’t know how to get there,” Ken said. “It kept me disturbed.”
Ken began working longer and more strenuous hours, driven by perfection. The mental and emotional stress began to take its toll. In 1961, after almost two years of marriage, Linda drove Ken to the hospital. He was ill – deathly ill.
“He was in the hospital for 17 days, and they told me I wouldn’t bring him home,” Linda said.
Ken and Linda left the hospital with no idea what illness had struck him. The doctors released him with a vague diagnosis and an imperative remedy: Ken’s workaholic lifestyle was putting his body under an avalanche of stress. He needed a complete change – scenery, location, habits and philosophy – or next time that avalanche might bury him for good.
“The doctors told him, ‘You need to get away from everything familiar and learn who you are,'” Linda said. “So we loaded up our ’57 Chevrolet and our 20-month-old baby and we hit the road.”
The road led them to Greenville, S.C., where some friends lived and agreed to help Ken find work. No one could guarantee Ken a job, but the foliage-covered area perfectly contrasted Hobbs’ flat and dry scenery. Greenville turned out to be just the oasis Ken needed.
Less than a year later, after Ken found work at a local music store, the Claunches’ friends moved away. Not knowing a soul in the East Coast city of about 100,000, Ken and Linda relearned how to live.
“He loved his job, and I loved living there because it was so beautiful,” Linda said. “And we learned a lot. It was the greatest experience Ken could have had.”
Foot in the Door
Ken spent his six years in Greenville working with and unofficially apprenticing under Mr. Ertessy. He found the environment he so desperately needed to continue improving. Those six years proved invaluable to Ken’s career but also proved time’s deceptive speed. The Claunches’ welcomed their son, Stephen, into the world and their once 20-month-old daughter, Cindy, celebrated her seventh birthday. Ken and Linda wanted nothing but the best for their child, including schooling. In 1966, they researched public schools and found Abilene Independent School District ranked No. 1 in the southwest. It was settled. The Claunch family would make their new home in Abilene.
Upon arrival, Ken had no trouble convincing the Steinway shop in Abilene to hire him. The Steinway outlet closed in 1978, but his career merely relocated – to his front yard. In 1983, Ken and his son Stephen constructed a large workshop next to his home. Both Cindy and Stephen apprenticed under their father while working their way through the Abilene public school system. Only Stephen pursued piano tuning professionally and clearly Ken taught him well: he now works as lead tuner technician at the Steinway shop in Dallas.
Throughout his time in South Carolina, Ken earned his renown by catering to concert pianists. He tuned for competitions across the country and any pianist who came through Abilene but he eventually focused his career on institutions and teachers of the craft. He continues to tune and restore pianos for every university in Abilene. At the moment, he is restoring a 1974 Steinway model D concert grand piano, owned by ACU. The originally priced $125,000 piano will leave Ken’s shop re-dyed, refinished and renewed.
Although his place of residence and career focus changed many times throughout his life, a quick tour of his photo-ridden home proves one thing has not: his love for family.
In the Beginning
Growing up in Hobbs, Ken’s home and family was a musical one. Every member of his family played an instrument or sang. One day, Ken heard a man tuning the family’s piano. Ken immediately recognized his ability to distinguish minute variations in pitch.
“I got a very late in life start,” Ken said. “When I was 9 years old, I heard what [the tuner] was doing and I understood it.”
The music store in Hobbs quickly became Ken’s second home. He spent every spare moment watching and learning from the staff musicians. Before school, he would spend the 7-8 a.m. hour at the store, dusting, picking up trash and getting it ready to open. He would return from 4-6 p.m. after school to learn the handiwork of repairing and restoring pianos, only mildly annoying the staff technician. The store paid him nothing, but he did not even notice.
“As far as I was concerned, I was employed,” Ken said. “Frankly, the tuner didn’t like me very much. When I was 12 or 13, I told him, ‘I’m going to get your job.’ And I did.”
The storeowner would not allow Ken to tune pianos for money until he could reach an octave. The day his thumb and fifth finger spanned the width of eight white keys, his life’s work began. He tuned his first piano concert – a quartet – at 19 years old.
Ken claims only two factors prevented him from working at an early age.
“You have to be old enough to drive yourself to your job,” Ken said. “And you have to be able to shave, so people think someday you might be a man.”
That day came long ago for Ken Claunch, a man who has earned the respect of his peers, clients and the neighborhood children. If you ask him how long he will continue in his trade, do not be surprised if he grins and answers, “Until I’m done.”