The Piano Man: Greenwood School of Music holds rare distinction with on-site technician
Thursday, April 27, 2023
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After a half-century of tuning and repairing pianos of all kinds and conditions day-in and day-out, Vince Mrykalo admits it’s tougher than it used to be. His hands are more worn, and standing over piano after piano has begun to take a toll on his back.
But his love of the instrument and pitch-perfect attention to detail remain sustained. Mrykalo still looks forward to every day.
Growing up in New Jersey, his passion for the piano began at the age of 5. His grandfather paid for his lessons and unbeknownst to either of them, it would evolve into a lifelong love of the instrument and a career to match.
“I always just wanted to take piano lessons, and I don’t know why, it’s just something that I wanted to do,” Mrykalo said.
As he got older, he stuck with piano, while also taking up sports like baseball. As time went on, music would eclipse his other interests.
After high school, Mrykalo was drafted into the U.S. Army. He served for two years during the Vietnam War before returning home with intentions to turn his hobby into a career.
In 1973, he took correspondence courses, which later led to apprenticeships under the wing of experienced technicians who taught him the ways of the trade. Mrykalo struggled in the beginning. It took him six months to learn the process and 13 hours to tune his first piano. Demanding as it was, he saw it through.
“I actually considered quitting because it was fairly high stress,” Mrykalo said. “Even though you don’t think of that being high stress. But I worked through it because at the time, I was getting married.”
Two years after marrying his wife, Madelyn, in 1976, he went on to obtain his first full-time gig, which paved the way for the rest of his career.
In 1978, Mrykalo opened his first business repairing and tuning pianos after inheriting clientele from a local technician. Mrykalo sold his business in the late 1980s, going on to work at higher education institutions such as the University of Memphis, Brigham Young University, the University of Utah, the University of Kansas and currently, Oklahoma State University.
OSU’s Greenwood School of Music is one of nearly 200 universities recognized as an All-Steinway school, providing students with 86 high-quality Steinway & Sons pianos to practice and perform on. Forty-six of these pianos were purchased in the 2021-2022 academic year.
While maintaining 86 pianos can sound like a daunting task, Mrykalo said it is a nice change of pace from working on older, more disrepaired instruments.
“Right now, [the pianos] are wonderfully maintained. As long as Vince is around, they’re going to continue to be wonderfully maintained. I have no worries about that.”
“I’m at retirement age, but I don’t feel like I need to retire right now,” Mrykalo said. “I like to work enough that I’d like to stay on for this kind of stuff.”
With his assortment of toolboxes filled with specialized gadgets and a large workshop, Mrykalo is well-equipped to ensure all 86 pianos owned by the Greenwood School of Music are in pristine condition.
While most days have a routine and rhythm, Mrykalo also is on call to handle emergencies. Dr. Mark Perry, associate professor of ethnomusicology and director of music industry, remembers a time when Mrykalo came to the rescue at the last minute.
“Recently, I had a recording session, and the studio Steinway was making uncharacteristically unpleasant sounds, which the microphones were picking up,” Perry said. “Vince fixed the issue immediately and the Steinway ended up sounding great in the recording.”
After years of contracted technicians and with brand-new facilities and pianos, Perry said the Greenwood School of Music is relieved to have Mrykalo on staff. Dr. Thomas Lanners, OSU professor of piano and keyboard area coordinator, said the difference is noticeable.
“Right now, [the pianos] are wonderfully maintained,” Lanners said. “As long as Vince is around, they’re going to continue to be wonderfully maintained. I have no worries about that.”
Smaller cities and college towns more frequently face shortages in piano technicians. With so few being full-time, finding the right person for the job can be a challenge.
Mrykalo believes in order to become a great technician, you have to do it full time. The hardest part, he said, is maintaining that level of dedication and consistency.
“I think there’s not really a shortage of people trying to get into the business, but we’ve got a big problem of people staying in the business,” Mrykalo said.
The patience, time and physical effort required to properly maintain a piano and all of its intricate pieces is enough to turn many away from the profession. The Piano Technicians Guild, of which Mrykalo is a member, serves as a way for technicians to learn, find employment and become registered piano technicians, certifying they are well-versed in the trade.
“It’s a matter of, I guess, a certain type of person who can do it,” Mrykalo said. “There’s not much to say about a good technician, except that they’re rare.”
When it comes time to put the tuning hammer down for the last time, Mrykalo is not concerned about how he’ll be remembered. His legacy lives in every note on every piano that can be heard throughout the Greenwood School of Music.
And that’s all he ever wanted.
Photos By: Gary Lawson
Story By: Sam Milek | STATE Magazine