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Ear for perfection

NL’s Steve Junge keeps corridor pianos in-tune
Steve Junge tunes a piano in his North Liberty home. Junge has been offering professional piano tuning services since November and serves the seven-county area known as “Iowa’s Creative Corridor.” (photo by Chris Umscheid)

NORTH LIBERTY– Pianos are complex instruments, hand-assembled by craftsmen, that produce melodious sounds for decades. However, like any mechanical device, eventually they need attention and tuning. The seven-county area, known as Iowa’s Creative Corridor, including North Liberty in particular, now has an artisan dedicated to restoring a piano’s full musical potential.
Steve Junge, of North Liberty, began offering professional piano tuning services in November. A corporate reorganization led to Junge reevaluating what he wanted to do. Music was the answer, but what aspect of music?
“I’ve been a musician my whole life,” Junge said. He’s performed in pit orchestras for musicals and has been part of several local bands, including Cedar Rapids-based “Super Size Seven.” Junge plays the piano and drums and also sings.
Drumming, he joked, “gives me something to do with my hands while I’m singing.”
Before his son was born, he played in about 100 different shows each year. Since then, he’s cut back to spend more time with his family. However, once a musician, always a musician, and servicing pianos appealed to him greatly.
“I’d always looked for the opportunity to get into piano technology,” Junge said. “I’ve been interested in it for years.”
He decided it was a good time, probably the best time, actually, to take the plunge.
“I’m 48 years old. If I’m ever going to do this, it’s going to be now.” Owning your own business, he said, is a dream many people have but aren’t all able to do. Junge said he’s fortunate enough to be in a position where he can.
First was learning the trade and earning certification in his craft. Junge took and successfully completed the Certified Piano Technician program through the American School of Piano Tuning, located in Morgan Hill, Calif., a correspondence course.
“Almost all of the piano techs are, three out of four,” he said. “You have to find pianos.”
He started with two new pianos for a small Iowa City piano shop and two at West Music, where he will also work as a tuner.
Part of the coursework involved being sent parts and pieces of pianos to adjust, but the hands-on fieldwork component was also an absolute must. Fortunately for Junge, he has three in his house on top of the aforementioned jobs.
“You start tearing them apart, putting them back together again, tuning them…the more you work the hammer (piano part that strikes the strings), the better you get.”

As one might imagine, professional piano tuners are generally few and far between.
“There’s a shortage,” he said. “The ones that are doing it are busy.”
With mechanical aptitude honed by a lifetime of building things and playing music, Junge is confident in his abilities.
“And I’m excited as heck. The best thing about it is taking a piano in a house that just doesn’t sound good, it’s not vibrant, it just doesn’t resonate at all and taking it and getting it to pitch and looking at the owner after you play it … and its like, ‘Oh my gosh! I should’ve done this a long time ago!’”
A piano wants to be at a particular pitch, Junge said.
“So when it’s down a half-a-step or even a quarter-step it doesn’t have the brilliance that it normally would have.”
Even old pianos can be brought back to their former glory, he said.
“You might think they’re ready for the junk heap, but you can bring them back to the point where they’re listenable.”
Junge recently resuscitated one such old piano in Tipton. The stunned owner vowed to have Junge return on a regular basis for periodic tuning and upkeep.
Junge said being able to take something in need of some expertise, and making it into not only a useable instrument, but one which will bring joy to the player is a huge draw to the profession for him personally. As well-built as most pianos are, they are still comprised of wood, steel and iron; and living in Iowa, they are subjected often to wild swings in humidity from bone-dry winters to oppressively damp summers.
“Wood expands, it contracts, and each time that happens, it’s allowing the strings to lose tension in certain spots with the resulting change in pitch, tone and resonance,” Junge explained.
However, not all pianos react the same to the same external factors. There is no “perfect environment” for a piano, Junge added, meaning sooner or later, they all need adjustment just like a guitar or any other string instrument.
“They naturally go out of tune, and its recommended you tune them every six months.”
Most people don’t, he said, but regular tuning improves playability.
“It plays better, it sounds better, and it’s protecting the value of your investment. How can you sell a piano that’s out of tune?”
Sound quality can be especially important if a young, budding musician is taking lessons.
“We never know which ones will gravitate to music, which ones have what I call the funk bone.”
Often, Junge added, when there’s a piano in the house, and a child likes to play it, they expect it to sound like the songs they’re hearing. If it doesn’t, the child can become frustrated and lose interest.
“If you have a piano and your child is taking lessons, tune your piano so you can get the most out of those music lessons. Your child will gravitate toward something that sounds good.”

Junge has a passion for music in general but pianos in particular.
“I personally think the piano is one of the most wonderful instruments. You can play a piece of music and it doesn’t need anything else with it. A piano can stand alone, it’s a really unique thing.”
And every piano has its own personality,” he said.
“They all act differently, they all feel differently, even if they’re regulated perfectly they all have a different feel. There’s always something different about them. They’re always a challenge, every one is a challenge to make it sound good and right.”
So how do you know if your piano needs a visit from Junge?
“If you haven’t had it tuned in quite a while, I can almost guarantee it’s dropped in pitch to varying degrees,” he said. “If it’s been several years, almost every piano needs a touch-up. That’s an interesting thing about pianos. They’re always in a constant state of going out-of-tune.”
When Junge is called to work on a piano, he goes through every inch of the instrument– although he does not do cosmetic work such as stripping and refinishing the varnish. But he can make referrals to experts who do.
When he finds problems beyond tuning, Junge makes sure to explain what needs to be done and the cost up-front and long-term.
“There may be a lurking problem that gets worse overtime.”
Junge is willing and available to inspect a piano for those thinking about buying one, or taking one off of somebody else’s hands. A free or cheap piano may become expensive quite quickly if it needs a lot of work.
“Before you break your back moving it in, why not give me a call and I can go look at the piano and tell you what you can expect to spend to get it up and running. Take the time, spend a little money, fix them right and they’ll play for years.”
Junge said he likes to take his time when working on a piano.
“I don’t hurry, I like to take my time and stay with the piano for a while.”
Before he leaves, he plays the piano to ensure everything sounds good and right, and that the customer is happy with the sound and performance, as well.
The best way to get the most enjoyment out of a piano, he says, boils down to simply playing them and keeping them tuned.
“It won’t be angry at you anymore, it’ll stay where it needs to be.” And future tune-ups will be minor adjustments rather than wholesale changes.
“Pianos love to be played. The working parts want to be played.”
For more information or to schedule an appointment, call 319-321-1828 or email steve@jungepianoservice.com. Junge can also be found on the web at www.jungepianoservice.com/.