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The Piano Man

It’s sad and it’s sweet: the story of a salesman’s career nearing its end.

Gordon Keller has been a part of Alexandria’s music scene for nearly 50 years. He speaks of his career – his life – as a multi-faceted “piano man” in past tense, though he has not quite made it to retirement yet. He has sold, tuned and rebuilt pianos from his main store at 717 N. St. Asaph St. for decades, and he’s having a hard time getting out of the business. But it’s not for lack of trying. In the height of his career, Keller owned and operated seven stores in the metropolitan Washington area, with the store on St. Asaph serving as headquarters.

“Almost all your bigger sellers had stores across the area,” Keller said. “My main ambition was to sell more pianos.”

The Alexandria store is the only one of Keller’s stores that is still open, and signs in the front windows shout about the going-out-of-business prices to be found within. In its heyday, the building could have held around 200 pianos, Keller said, although now there are only around 80. Many of these are in varying stages of repair — before leaving his shop again, a piano that is brought to Keller will be carefully gone over and rebuilt.

“It gives a piano a whole new lifetime when you rebuild it completely,” Keller said.

Depending on the care it has received, a piano should be rebuilt after being enjoyed for 40 or 50 years on average, or 35 to 45 years for an instrument facing harder use, like one in a nightclub, he said. After being rebuilt, a piano can last another 20-25 years, at least. Typically, some parts have to be replaced — the hammers, the keys — and always the pianos are sanded and refinished to remove any chips in the wood.

The critical part of the process, however, is working on the piano’s sound. Tuning the three strings for each key is just the beginning. Keller is experienced at voicing the piano, adjusting the soundboard and the hammers to change the tone of the instrument, as well. “Not too many piano tuners do it,” he said, explaining that this skill earned him positions at the Kennedy Center and Wolf Trap Center for the Performing Arts, and with the U.S. Army Band and Alexandria public schools.

He spent nearly a decade voicing pianos for performers at the two prestigious venues, doing what he could to tweak the tone of the instrument they would be using from bright to mellow and back again without creating too much wear on the piano itself.

“Artists are kind of funny,” he said. “You have to work with them a lot.”

He said many of the performers he worked with liked their pianos a little too bright for his taste. But he has fond memories of many of the people he worked with.

“Did you ever hear of the name Victor Borge?” he asked, smiling.

Borge, a pianist and comedian, is credited with the saying “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” Borge died in 2000, but left a lasting impression on Keller. “He was as much fun off stage as on,” he said.

Other performers he enjoyed working with included jazz musicians as a group: “I always got along with the jazz players,” he said.

After 9 years at the Kennedy Center and Wolf Trap, Keller moved on from those positions over a decade ago.

“Excepting for the odd hours, I always enjoyed it,” he said.

In the time he has been away from the venues, and really throughout his career, Keller has felt that love for the piano and its music as works of art has faded. He sees a drop in popularity from all angles,

beginning with a decrease in the number of children taking piano lessons. Several rooms in the St. Asaph store used to be studios where teachers could teach students who wanted to learn to play, but didn’t have pianos in their homes. Keller estimated that at one point 60 students a week would come through the store for lessons.

Now, he believes, children are more interested in activities where they can play with their friends; if given a choice, “they’re always going to take the sports,” Keller said. “Taking music lessons is a drag.”

Even his granddaughters, he said, are on the rowing team, but chose not to follow piano.

The lack of interest leads to a practical problem for Keller: “Pianos don’t sell like they used to,” he said.

And even the ones that are selling show a lack of up-and-coming pianists: “About one in five of the new pianos I sell are players,” he said, demonstrating how, with a few buttons on a remote control, a piano can become a live-action radio, providing hours of music in a variety of styles, without the need for anyone to sit down at the bench. Keller said that all of the player pianos he has sold recently have gone to people’s homes, not to restaurants or hotel lobbies, where they were more likely to be found in the past.

Just as people have lost interest in playing the piano, Keller fears that piano rebuilding is becoming a lost art.

“It’s always been an under-crowded profession,” he said.

He remembers only about 20 people in class with him when he learned the trade, at a Pennsylvania State University program he chose because he had always liked music and wanted something to do with his hands.

He attended the program with help from the G.I. Bill after he returned from military service in Japan during World War II.

Keller has taken on interns and tried to teach them to rebuild pianos throughout his years in business. “It was always gratifying to see them go out and make a living” with the skills he had taught them. Among these he counts his son Daron, who is also a piano tuner, visiting the homes his father has sold them to.

As much as he has enjoyed his career, Keller thinks the time is right for retirement.

“Maybe I got out at a good time,” Keller said. “I think I was alive during the good days.”