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BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — There’s a hole worn through the handle of Blaine Lutz’s black leather case — it stands as a testament to its years of service. It looks like a doctor’s bag but inside are the tools needed to make a piano sing.

Over the span of a more than 35-year career, Lutz has tuned pianos for some of the biggest names in music: Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, The Eagles, Eddie Rabbitt, The Statler Brothers, George Jones, Merle Haggard, ZZ Top, Conway Twitty and Lawrence Welk.

He laid down his tuning hammer professionally in 2015 but has decided to pick it up again to bring his services back to Bismarck-Mandan and the surrounding area.

“I’m too young to retire,” he told The Bismarck Tribune .

Lutz got into the music business selling pianos for Joe Andresen of Wylie Music Company, later known as Jacobson Music. He covered a territory from Bismarck to Miles City, Montana. While on his sales calls, he picked up a lot of knowledge about how the pianos worked and were put together. With such a large territory, if there was a problem with a piano he sold, he found himself on the phone with the company’s piano technician, Lloyd Robertson, troubleshooting the issue.

That experience had Lutz looking for a change: He wanted to tune pianos. Now, with a hefty career under his belt, he’s glad Robertson was willing to take him on as an apprentice.

Robertson, who was blind, was an old-school tuner, doing everything by ear and touch.

Lutz would spend a year working under Robertson, as well as taking a correspondence course through the Aubrey Willis School in Orlando. Robertson had a piano set up in his garage on which Lutz practiced.

“He would break things and not tell me where it was,” Lutz said.

One day, Lutz would ask Robertson when he was going to be ready.

“I’ll tell you when you’re ready,” Robertson responded.

Lutz’s moment came when Ruth Laredo, a classical pianist known as “America’s First Lady of the Piano” came to town to play a show.

“You’re ready,” Robertson, with a big cigar hanging from his lips, told him.

Lutz was nervous. At a show in Atlanta, Laredo stepped away from a piano because it wasn’t tuned properly. But the show would go off without a hitch, and Lutz would find himself on a journey that would lead him to some incredible experiences.

He would become the primary piano tuner for the Bismarck Event Center and Belle Mehus. He contracted for Eckroth Music, Wylie Music, Jacobson Music, Mackochi Recording Studio, Higgins Recording Studio and tuned pianos for many of the area schools, music teachers and churches, as well as in-home pianos.

It was Sept. 14, 1985: Bon Jovi was scheduled to play a concert at the Event Center that night. Lutz showed up an hour early as always, sitting in the stands to get his ear trained in and familiarize himself with the band’s setup.

But the piano wasn’t there.

The band and the truck with the piano in it had been delayed by a snowstorm leaving Denver. He asked how long he would have to work, usually taking an hour or more to get things right. He was told he’d have 40 minutes.

When the piano arrived, parts of it were frosted over. Lutz brought in a heat lamp to warm it up and donned a pair of headphones to get the job done.

“Blaine Lutz has been our primary piano tuner here at the Bismarck Civic Center for many years,” wrote Darla Hruby, events coordinator at the Event Center in a 1998 letter. “His work has been excellent; we have never gotten a complaint after he has tuned one of our pianos.”

Tuning a piano in the Wachter Middle School choir room, he tunes out the noises of the students playing instruments during band class next door. He tunes the middle C with a tuning fork, and with just that one note, he’s able to feel and hear his way through the rest of the piano.

“There are 12,000 pieces in a piano, 230 strings and there are 150 to 180 pounds of pressure per string,” he rattles off as he works.

He makes slight adjustments with the ebony-handled tuning hammer given to him at the start of his career, which he estimates has been used on more than 15,000 pianos.

“I do like working with him,” said Desiree Bondley, Wachter Middle School choir teacher. “He’s taken very good care of us and he’s very thorough.”

Bondley said she is glad he is out of retirement and coming back to tune the school’s pianos: “He did a great job when he was here.”


Information from: Bismarck Tribune,