University Community

School of Music student piano techs collaborate to bring Athens County Public Libraries baby grand piano back to life

This spring, OHIO Piano Technician Chris Purdy's students had a unique opportunity to rebuild a piano that challenged their skills, benefited the community and will support the sustainability of a much loved local concert series all at once.

The story begins prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, when the Athens County Public Libraries (ACPL) had fostered a concert series arranged by Art in the Library Coordinator Todd Bastin. He explains the series featured OHIO School of Music graduate students devoted to musical outreach to the general public and that it had been going strong until a planned 250th celebration of Beethoven’s birthday was cancelled in March of 2020.

Post pandemic, and following the donation of a baby grand piano, Bastin reached out to School of Music faculty member Emely Phelps to explore reviving the series. Enthusiastically she embraced a collaborative concert series with ACPL, but after inspecting the piano realized it needed repairs before the concert series could restart.

Luckily, OHIO was uniquely situated to help. A plan was formed together with Purdy that if the library could pay for the materials, his student piano techs would use this as a learning exercise and provide the labor free of charge. ACPL agreed, and an anonymous donor even paid for the transport of the baby grand to Purdy’s workshop in Glidden Hall. 

A mix of paid and volunteer work is available for students interested in learning the trade of piano tuning and repair, a unique opportunity within most university programs as these skills normally are obtained through both formal and informal apprenticeships in the industry. Purdy currently has 11 students working with him, and with 116 pianos on campus they get plenty of opportunities to test their skills.

Piano technician

Purdy’s piano repair studio is equal parts classroom and elvish workshop. Everywhere there are strange and unique tools for piano repair, some clearly custom built by Purdy himself for the particular needs of a job.

Music student Allison Rollins works diligently at all the small mechanical needs of a hundred-year-old instrument surrounded by bits and pieces of the innards of what makes a piano sing along with the noises of tinkering hands bringing them back to life.

“I want to go into library science, so I really like both sides of this, I’m really excited that this is for the library,” Rollins, who will graduate in 2024, said.

The ACPL’s baby grand piano suffered from a general need to recalibrate many of the small working hinges (known as flanges) which require adjustment to very particular specs and torque ratings to work properly, all new strings, and other small ailments in need of attention. In addition, there was also the more serious issue of the need to completely replace a cracked soundboard.

Purdy explains that, while a big portion of the interior of a piano is cast iron, capable of holding many tons of pressure cause by string tension, the wooden soundboard is susceptible to environmental damage.

“Glue joints can be compromised from the age, back then they used almost exclusively animal hide glues which are soluble in water or heat… so if the piano gets wet or extreme humidity fluctuations, those glue joints can fail,” Purdy said.

Chris Purdy

In this case, humidity had cracked the soundboard, so students had the opportunity to nearly fully rebuild the piano over the course of the semester and for the benefit of the library patrons for many decades into the future.

Parts for such a unique instrument are often the first barrier to overcome. Francis Zengle, a graduate student in Music Performance, explains that “we were waiting on parts for a whileso there was (initially) only so much we could do.”

Zengle explains that parts for vintage pianos can come from commercial sources, scavenged from retired pianos, or fabricated in house, and that they utilize “a little bit of all of those.”

While in the process of leveling the pianos back checks (these catch the piano hammer after a strike), Xuan He, a Ph.D. candidate in iArts, says she really appreciates this opportunity to learn from Purdy, explaining that her research includes a contemporary Chinese composer technique of generating sound inside the piano. She initially came to Purdy for help understanding this technique and “got very inspired and wanted to get my hands on how the inside (of a piano) works,” resulting in continued study in the tuning workshop.

Similarly, fellow piano tech student Will Keller, a marketing and piano major, expresses that this gives him a chance to explore the piano from a new angle.

“It’s so cool to learn about the instrument I play on all the time and get a better knowledge of what I’m doing,” said Keller.

Zengle, who already has an interview lined up with a Columbus area piano dealer and has applied to Steinway’s apprenticeship program as a result of her work with Purdy concurs.

“It is such a cool program,” she added. “I’m so lucky to do this, it’s so hard to get this type of training, especially something as comprehensive as what we do here. I’d like to continue to do this work… there is always more to learn!”

Purdy encourages other OHIO students to consider his independent study. His students have gone on to careers in piano tuning and repair for universities, manufacturers, dealers and as independent technicians.

“It’s extremely complicated, but I joke that it’s just the same thing, 88 times in a row,” Purdy said.


Bastin rounds out the discussion with a reminder of the community aspect of this partnership.

“Public libraries like to support uplifting experiences, and it’s great for our sense of mission if there can be an educational component, which the OHIO School of Music amply provides,” he said.

To hear how successful the students were in their restoration, be sure to stay in touch with the Athens County Public Libraries for more information on upcoming events on their calendar at

May 1, 2024
Josh Coy