Lending an ear: Williamsburg man turns passion for music into a full-time gig

  • Sean Mallari, owner of Williamsburg Piano, works on restoring a grand piano in his home studio in Williamsburg. STAFF PHOTOS/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sean Mallari, owner of Williamsburg Piano, works on restoring a grand piano in his home studio in Williamsburg. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sean Mallari, owner of Williamsburg Piano, works on restoring a grand piano in his home studio in Williamsburg. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sean Mallari, owner of Williamsburg Piano, works on restoring a grand piano in his home studio in Williamsburg. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sean Mallari, owner of Williamsburg Piano, works on restoring a grand piano in his home studio in Williamsburg. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

For the Gazette
Published: 12/24/2019 10:10:37 AM

WILLIAMSBURG — Psychiatry and piano tuning don’t have much in common, but they both require a good ear to be successful, according to local piano technician Sean Mallari, who made the switch from the former to the latter years ago.

“I’ve always thought it was kind of interesting that with both psychiatry and piano tuning, the most important thing I did was listen,” Mallari said.

Mallari, who’s originally from Colorado and now runs a business out of his Williamsburg shop on Old Goshen Road, enjoys working with his hands; he’s always had a woodworking shop, even while studying as a medical student in Boston.

He’s also a musician and has been playing piano since before he was in elementary school. Today, he plays accordion in the band Les Boulevardiers, and upright bass in several orchestras.

“Music has always been a very important part of my life,” he said.

Mallari opened his piano tuning business in 2006, when he bought a property and moved to Williamsburg while continuing to work part-time in psychiatry — his former profession of about 15 years. In 2013, he built a timber-frame barn that would become his shop for piano restoration, complete with a loading dock, and by 2014, he’d built up enough of a reputation and client base to make piano tuning and restoration his full-time business.

He was trained in the North Bennet Street School’s two-year piano technology program in Boston and can tune a piano entirely by ear, starting with a single tuning fork for the first pitch and working his way through the rest of the instrument in just an hour to an hour and a half. (That’s also how he took his exams for school and to receive his certification from the Piano Technician’s Guild — tuning by ear — but since getting into the field, he also uses tools for professional technicians to make tuning faster and easier.)

Not to say that the job is easy; when he was first starting, tuning a piano could take half a day. These days, he averages tuning four to five pianos a day in and around the Pioneer Valley, he said.

His work schedule varies, too. His time is split between restoring pianos in his shop and tuning out on the road, including the Berkshires and all over western Massachusetts.

Tuning private pianos in people’s homes makes up about half his tuning work, and the other half consists of tuning pianos in schools, churches and concert venues, including at the University of Massachusetts Fine Arts Center and at Sweeney Hall at Smith College. Pianos need to be tuned before every concert, he said, and sometimes at intermission, too, when the artist requests it.

“If you think about every rock or folk concert you’ve gone to, how many times in the course of a concert does a guitarist retune his guitar? They constantly do it,” Mallari said. “The forces that make the guitar go out of tune are similar to the forces that make a piano go out of tune. We’re not used to seeing a pianist jump up and retune the piano, because of the difference of retuning 288 strings versus retuning 6 strings, but the phenomenon is the same.”

The nature of his work means he’s often working nights and weekends, tuning before shows and attending the concerts just in case he’s needed. But that’s hardly a chore for Mallari.

“At the Fine Arts Center and at Smith, I’ve gotten to work with different clients coming through doing concerts, like Herbie Hancock; there’s a long list of people who’ve come through I’ve got to tune for whose albums I have or whose careers I have followed, and as they come through touring I wind up getting to prepare the piano for them,” Mallari said. “Sometimes I sit in and listen to part of their rehearsal before the concert. That’s been a great aspect of the work I enjoy a great deal.”

Another aspect of the job he enjoys is restoring and later moving pianos back to their home. People are often surprised he can fit grand pianos through a doorway, he said, a feat which requires removing the legs and standing the piano up on its side, with the help of equipment like ramps, dollies, straps and levers.

“What I like about piano moving is that with getting it in and out of a house or school or church, every single building has its own unique challenges, and figuring out that puzzle is a satisfying bit of work for me, I really enjoy that,” Mallari said.

When asked how he moves pianos up and down stairs, he said it requires “using ramps, and getting a lot of help.”




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