Walla Walla Valley's piano man

Piano tuner Clinton Dickerson strikes a chord with local music lovers.

Fourth-generation piano tuner Clinton Dickerson strikes a key and adjusts string tension on a Baldwin piano at a Walla Walla Home. He and wife Lynette operate Dickerson's Piano Service in Milton-Freewater.

Fourth-generation piano tuner Clinton Dickerson strikes a key and adjusts string tension on a Baldwin piano at a Walla Walla Home. He and wife Lynette operate Dickerson's Piano Service in Milton-Freewater. Photo by Donna Lasater.

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Clinton Dickerson turns a pin with his piano tuning hammer.

When you listen to a piano in a church, school auditorium or performance hall in the Valley, odds are you can thank Clinton Dickerson for the quality sounds you hear.

Dickerson started out as a piano tuner much like previous generations of his family.

"My dad let me watch him and listen," said Clinton, now 66 with no plans to retire. "One day he put me to work. He said it sounded good so he sent me over to the neighbor's to tune theirs. That's how I started."

Based in Milton-Freewater, DickersonsSSRq Piano Service is a family business handed down for generations -- at least four, counting Clinton and his wife, Lynette, who runs the office.

They figure it started with his great-grandfather, David Hart Dickerson, in 1875 in Oklahoma. He passed it on to his son, Charlie, who passed it on to Leonard Dickerson, Clinton's father.

"Leonard was tuning pianos here in the 1960s," Lynette said. "He did that until he was about 85 in about 1995, when he retired."

Clinton Dickerson attended Walla Walla College -- taking theology classes and then majoring in education -- but kept his hand and ear in the tuning business to help him through.

He taught school for awhile in Elgin, then had an auto body repair shop. In the 1980s he went back into piano tuning full time and has done it ever since. The couple moved to Milton-Freewater from Hermiston and took up DickersonsSSRq Piano Service from his father.

They do all types of repairs and maintenance as well as tuning in a service area that stretches from Starbuck through the Walla Walla Valley to Pendleton and La Grande. And a nephew tunes pianos full time in the Tri-Cities.

What they don't do is service the newer electronic keyboards, which require a different kind of maintenance. The relatively recent increased popularity of the keyboards hasn't caused a downturn in their business. Quite the opposite.

"People were buying the keyboards, then after five years they were crying for their old acoustical piano back," Lynette Dickerson said. "There's just more expression and dynamics ... I don't expect pianos to become obsolete," she said. "Churches and schools usually have a big grand in the auditorium."

They enjoy the social aspect of the business, meeting new people and seeing clients they've known for years.

"Piano people are good people," Clinton Dickerson said.

He said the work suits his temperament: "I can concentrate on (a tuning job) for 2-3 hours. Also there's great variety. I also travel a little bit."

The actual mechanics of keeping a piano in top playing shape involves adjusting tuning pins to loosen or tighten each string -- three each for the upper notes, two each in mid range and single strings for the lower notes -- to just the right tension so they vibrate at a precise speed when struck.

His main tool is a tuning hammer and a refined pair of ears. "I don't actually hammer anything -- it's really more like a wrench," he said. "Originally it was all done by ear. Now they do have electronic tuners. Of course, you just can't throw out your ear."

How often a piano should be tuned depends on individual needs.

"Once a year is considered maintenance tuning," Lynette Dickerson said. "Whitman College has their piano tuned before every concert; some of those are tuned three times a week."

Musicians often have their pianos tuned three times a year, she said. "Churches with a piano in the sanctuary have theirs tuned usually twice a year, once right before their Christmas programs."

It typically costs $90 for yearly maintenance tuning, she said, and up to $150 or so if a piano has not been tuned in many years.

Not surprisingly, Clinton himself is a musician who plays a variety of instruments, including mandolin and ukulele, but mostly guitar in the gospel/bluegrass band "Hand Picked."

He and his wife adeptly balance other interests, too. Among those are driving their replica 1931 Ford Model A, and he keeps his hand in doing automotive body, fender and paint work .

But when it comes to keeping the motor purring, that's the kind of tuning he'd rather turn over to a mechanic.

"I'd be real happy if someone else did the engine work," he said.

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