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Willmar piano tuner plays ‘key’ role in an artist’s performance

Dennis Benson, who tuned the piano Monday at First Baptist Church in Willmar, has honed his skills during the past 46 years. In that time, he has tuned for well-known country artists, actors and singers. Tribune photos by Gary Miller

WILLMAR — If a pianist has a wonderful concert, longtime piano tuner Dennis Benson of Willmar can take some of the credit. His job is to make the piano sound perfect. But he doesn’t always know if it’ll stay perfect.

“Actually, I sit on the edge of my seat for about the first number and listen through all the notes, and did anything slip on me?’’ he says.

“But when I’m fairly satisfied everything is cool, then I sit back and enjoy the rest of the concert. It happens all the time.’’

Benson recalls tuning for Lorie Line, a popular composer and pianist from Minneapolis who performed at the Willmar Education and Arts Center. Line “has a very good ear,’’ says Benson.

“I got done with the piano. She came and tested it out like she always does. She got to playing in the center of the piano and I heard her say under her voice, ‘Very nice,’’’ Benson remembers.

“So I thought it was probably fine. But she went on and tested the rest of the piano and she came up to one note and she said, ‘Dennis, this one doesn’t sound quite right.’

I checked it and one of the three strings had slipped just a little. So I tweaked it back up again and she said it was fine.’’

Benson says it’s OK if the artist doesn’t mention the tuner but praises the piano.

“When I have a concert, if the piano sounds awesome, it makes the player sound really good. But very seldom does the person who made the tuning get credit for an awesome sounding concert.’’

The piano is one the few instruments that the artist doesn’t tune, says Benson.

“Guitars, violins, almost any other instrument you can name the artist does their own tuning. The piano takes too long for one thing. It’s just too complicated. There are 235 strings and they all have to be tuned so that they all match up with others and it’s quite a process,’’ he said.

During the past 46 years, Benson has tuned for well-known artists such as country music singers Crystal Gayle, Loretta Lynn, Ronnie Milsap, Reba McEntire and The Oak Ridge Boys. He also tuned for TV actor and singer Jim Nabors; entertainer and singer Wayne Newton; and jazz pianist and composer George Shearing.

Benson tuned for McEntire when she played at the Kandiyohi County Fair and he tuned for The Oak Ridge Boys when they played at the Civic Center.

He’s also tuned for performers at Jackpot Junction casino near Morton. Benson doesn’t know how Jackpot found out about him. He doesn’t tune there very often because most performers use electric and not acoustic pianos.

One time, Jackpot asked Benson to tune the piano in the room where guests use the slot machines and the Muzak was playing.

“It was horrible, but I made it through and it was intense concentration,’’ he remembers.

Close listening also helped Benson tune a piano at Cornstalk Festival in Regal. He had 45 minutes, “which is really truckin’ for me,’’ he said. “The sound crew next to us was setting up and doing sound checks. That’s where I really learned how to concentrate and listen to what I needed to listen for and isolate the sounds around me.’’

He tuned for Loretta Lynn three times. The first time was at the Chippewa County Fair in Montevideo. The day was hot and humid and the piano, brought from an air conditioned store in the Twin Cities, took on humidity like any string instrument and went terribly out of tune.

Benson got the pitch from the harmonica player. But after three attempts, Benson realized tuning was hopeless and he told the performers they’d have to live with whatever happens because he didn’t have time to keep working at it.

Benson grew up in Grove City where his pastor encouraged him to take a piano tuning course at MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis. After graduating from high school in 1966, Benson enrolled in a course taught by Cliff Johnson, Orchestra Hall’s piano tuner.

Benson tuned for friends and family in Grove City and Willmar. He tuned his way through Willmar Community College (now Ridgewater College) and Bemidji State University, earned a music education degree and ended up owing nothing.

He joined the Army, went to Germany and played trombone in the band. When the Army learned he tuned pianos, they had him ship his tools over and he tuned pianos at different base entertainment centers.

“No big-name entertainers,’’ he said. “Bob Hope did not come where I was.’’

After the service, Benson served as KMS Schools’ music director. He quit teaching and began tuning full time. His tools include a tuning hammer for adjusting the strings and a tuning fork.

He also tunes pianos in churches and homes. He said some people restore old pianos, but the piano may be too old for Benson to tune.

Benson is probably the only tuner to tune the WEAC’s 9-foot Baldwin grand piano. The 40-year-old instrument is incredibly built and still has the original strings and hammers, probably because it’s used mainly for a few concerts a year.

The finest piano he ever tuned was Bösendorfer, made in Austria and sells for $280,000. He said a husband and wife duo brought two 9-foot-6-inch Bösendorfer grands to a concert series in Montevideo.

“That was quite fun and I got to stay for that concert and hear them. That was amazing, wonderful. They are a really sweet piano.’’

Benson is self-employed and can choose his schedule and territory. As long as he can still hear, Benson will keep tuning. He says the “ding, ding, ding’’ of the notes can be monotonous. But he enjoys hearing the customer say their child likes practicing on an awesome-sounding piano.

“That makes it really worthwhile.’’

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150