He’s Got the Keys to the City
What kind of New Yorker owns a piano? Maybe you’ve heard notes spilling from a window high above as you walked down the street. Perhaps your neighbor likes to peck out a song for her guests after dinner; perhaps you like to do the same. Once a staple of middle-class American homes, a piano in the living room has become a less common sight, as fewer people learn to play the instrument. And in a city where square footage (and privacy) are at a premium, devoting space to a 500-pound instrument may seem like a strange choice. Yet Michael “Mickey” Finn, a resident of Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, has been working full-time as a piano tuner in New York City for nearly 20 years.
Finn’s first job in the city was as a piano technician for the New York City Opera, before he became an independent tuner, working in private homes, in rehearsal rooms, and for institutional clients. This spring, the photographer Gus Powell followed him for several days as he tuned his way across town. Below, Finn speaks to Topic about his own musical education, how he started getting clients, and the song he plays to test his own work.
Like in any business, you want repeat customers, so I’m going to focus on finding clients who are really interested in maintaining their instrument. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if some clients have ever even touched their piano. It’s usually somebody you don’t ever see; someone who’s not the owner lets you into the apartment, you tune the piano, and the check is on top of it. But I’ve weeded out a lot of those people. They weed themselves out. A big part of why people get a piano in the first place is so a kid can take lessons on it. I’ve been in business for 19 years. I’ve seen kids seen grow up, go from childhood to college. I meet somebody almost every day that says, “I took piano lessons as a kid.” Everybody’s got that story, but a lot of people don’t stick with it. The guy who started me in the business once told me that eight years was about average for a client length. But I’ve had clients for longer.
My parents bought their first house, in Rochester, New York, when I was about five, and there was an upright piano in the basement. I took classical piano lessons until I was about 12 and then I stopped; it was rebellious on my part. It didn’t seem to cool to me; I wanted to play the blues and rock and roll. In my 20s, I worked my way up playing in bands, touring with some national acts. A band I was working with moved down to Nashville to make a record, and I found a job down there as a piano mover with a company called Seale Keyworks. Today, it’s a huge business—they do the piano for the Super Bowl when it’s down South—but when I started, in 1998, it was just me, a couple of guys, and the owner, Damon Seale.
Eventually, Damon let me take pianos apart. I was about 29 years old, and I was at a point where I thought this playing-music thing might not work out. I had seen how rough the music business could be, and I wanted something that was a little more stable. Damon helped me to buy my first set of piano-tuning tools and get started.
At that same time, I was taking on private clients, which was what I had come to New York to do: to continue to play music and start a tuning business. I tuned at the Waldorf Astoria. The Plaza Hotel, too. I’ve gotten to go inside incredible buildings and sit and look over Central Park while I’m tuning. I grew up middle-class, and the New York City kind of wealth was not something I had seen before. It was intimidating, but it’s gotten easier as I’ve gotten more confident.
My go-to song to play when I finish tuning has changed over the years. The current one is “Here’s That Rainy Day,” a jazz standard recorded by Frank Sinatra. What’s really nice about it is that the chord changes take you through a lot of the notes on the piano; if you play through them in a certain way, you can pretty much hit every note.