Mitch Ox­ford knows pi­anos with a level of in­ti­macy shared by few pi­ano tuners – or pi­anists, for that mat­ter

Mitch Ox­ford knows pi­anos with a level of in­ti­macy shared by few pi­ano tuners – or pi­anists, for that mat­ter

Grand Magazine - - ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT - STORY BY VA­LERIE HILL PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY MATHEW Mc­CARTHY

When he left Mount For­est to study fine arts at Fan­shawe Col­lege in Lon­don, Mitch Ox­ford laid a foun­da­tion for a ca­reer he never could have planned – largely be­cause he didn’t know it ex­isted.

“I stud­ied art at Fan­shawe, but my heart wasn’t into it as much as it was with mu­sic,” says Ox­ford, owner of Ox­ford Pi­ano Ser­vice, a com­pany with a name that se­ri­ously un­der-rep­re­sents the work he does re­build­ing pi­anos from the legs up.

Look in­side and out­side the pi­anos in his ru­ral shop east of Guelph and know that Ox­ford’s del­i­cate touch and ex­per­tise is di­rectly re­spon­si­ble for the beau­ti­ful work­man­ship.

For full restora­tions, ev­ery tiny piece – and there are lots of them – is re­paired or re­placed. The wooden cab­i­net and legs are re­fin­ished; new steel wires are in­stalled and ad­justed; cracked sound boards are dis­carded and new ones crafted; the heavy cast-iron plate in­side the pi­ano, where all the ac­tion takes place, is sanded and its sur­face re­sprayed with a polyurethane coat­ing.

The 36-year-old knows pi­anos with a level of in­ti­macy shared by few pi­ano tuners – or pi­anists, for that mat­ter. He is a master in every­thing he does, plus he plays beau­ti­fully, which is how this all got started.

“My fam­ily wasn’t into mu­sic; I was,” Ox­ford says. “At 12, I asked my par­ents to buy me a gui­tar for Christ­mas.

“When they gave it to me, I never put it down.”

Ox­ford stud­ied clas­si­cal mu­sic, but he was also keen on rock bands such as Nir­vana. At 22, liv­ing in Lon­don and study­ing at Fan­shawe, he de­cided to pur­chase a pi­ano. A bud­get-wise stu­dent, he had to set­tle for an old junker found on­line. The in­stru­ment fell apart but not be­fore Ox­ford poked around its in­nards try­ing to un­der­stand how every­thing worked or, in this case, didn’t work.

“I was peer­ing into it, I was in­ter­ested in the me­chan­ics of it,” he says.

Up to that point, Ox­ford was a trained gui­tarist and self-taught pian­ist with a de­sire to study se­ri­ously and pos­si­bly be­come a teacher.

He traded up to an elec­tric pi­ano, but that wasn’t good enough. He says his teacher wanted him to get a real pi­ano be­cause of Ox­ford’s de­sire to pur­sue Royal Con­ser­va­tory of Mu­sic the­ory.

“No mat­ter how good they (elec­tric pi­anos) are at mim­ick­ing the real thing, it’s not the same. The tone of a real pi­ano can­not be em­u­lated through speak­ers. No one is go­ing to pay money to see a pian­ist on an elec­tric pi­ano.”

By then he had al­ready left school, hav­ing fin­ished the se­cond of a three-year pro­gram. He had run out of money and in­spi­ra­tion for visual art. He needed to get a job and, though he didn’t re­al­ize it at the time, his

two years of art train­ing – par­tic­u­larly work­ing in three-di­men­sional sculp­ture – gave him the skills he needed for his next job: boat restora­tion.

At 25, he moved to Guelph and started work­ing in Rock­wood at Peter Breen An­tique & Clas­sic Boat Co. His job was restor­ing vin­tage boats, some as old as the early 1900s and des­per­ately in need of a skilled hand, a care­ful hand, an artist’s hand.

“I didn’t know about restora­tion, but I like an­tiques and I like his­tory,” he says. “I like a pro­ject with an end goal, fix­ing some­thing that is re­ally run down.”

He fi­nally had a full-time job and some dis­pos­able in­come. It was time to pur­chase a real pi­ano.

Ox­ford went to a huge Mis­sis­sauga pi­ano out­let, the prover­bial kid in a candy store, sur­rounded by the gleam­ing in­stru­ments he so loved. But then some­thing else caught his at­ten­tion – a pi­ano tuner work­ing at the far end of the store.

“It was fas­ci­nat­ing,” he re­calls. “I wanted to see the ac­tion of the pi­ano, how he pulled at the in­ner work­ings.”

Mu­sic, par­tic­u­larly pi­anos, seemed to be his fu­ture so af­ter six years at Breen’s, Ox­ford quit and en­tered West­ern Univer­sity’s one-year pi­ano tech­ni­cian course where he learned tun­ing and main­te­nance, skills that gave him an un­der­stand­ing of the in­ner work­ings of this com­plex in­stru­ment.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing, Ox­ford pro­moted him­self as a pi­ano tuner. At first, he had few clients but as word of his skills spread, he took on more, in­clud­ing Robert Lowrey Pi­ano Ex­perts. Ox­ford now serves as the com­pany’s of­fi­cial tuner for its war­ranty pro­gram in Hal­ton Re­gion.

From tun­ing, it seemed a nat­u­ral pro­gres­sion to of­fer full restora­tions. Ox­ford could look at a pi­ano and see the pos­si­bil­i­ties as well as what was re­quired to bring the in­stru­ment back to its for­mer glory.

That end goal can take months and cost the owner thou­sands of dol­lars, but it’s never about money, he says. The own­ers of these pi­anos al­most al­ways have a heart­felt story at­tached to the in­stru­ment. The fam­i­lies want the in­stru­ment re­stored, not dis­carded or for­got­ten in a base­ment.

One client, a Jewish fam­ily, brought their pi­ano from Europe at the start of the Se­cond World War. Its place in the fam­ily’s his­tory and fu­ture is price­less.

“It’s not the mu­si­cal value, it’s the sen­ti­men­tal value,” Ox­ford says, not­ing he al­ways asks about the fam­ily’s bud­get be­cause full restora­tions, which can be ex­pen­sive, are not al­ways nec­es­sary.

“I work to every­one’s bud­get and I’m be­ing re­al­is­tic,” he says. “An up­right can cost $1,200 to $10,000; a grand pi­ano, $10,000 or more.”

Not all pi­anos are so beloved, such as those tinny old par­lour-room up­rights.

“A lot go to the dump, there’s no mar­ket for old in­stru­ments – they’re worth next to noth­ing,” he says.

“The Stein­ways, the Ma­son & Risch – pi­anos like that will hold their value,” he says. “The old pi­anos peo­ple want re­stored still trump the mar­ket value.”

When Ox­ford is of­fered dump-wor­thy pi­anos, there are usu­ally bits he can sal­vage, such as the ivory keys. The trade in new ivory is il­le­gal and the plas­tic al­ter­na­tive, though good, doesn’t have the same weight. Oc­ca­sion­ally, if the key has a small chip he can add a bit of filler.

On a hot day last sum­mer, Ox­ford was in his shop hap­pily un­veil­ing a re­cently com­pleted 1940s Ma­son & Ham­lin grand pi­ano. The in­stru­ment had been in such bad con­di­tion he de­scribed the lac­quer fin­ish as “re­sem­bling al­li­ga­tor skin.”

The orig­i­nal owner was Ruth Sanders, a well-known pian­ist for churches, wed­dings and fu­ner­als in the Cam­bridge area af­ter the Se­cond World War. Her grand­son, Ge­off Sanders, has warm mem­o­ries of his grand­mother play­ing that pi­ano and of her try­ing to teach him, a re­luc­tant pi­ano stu­dent.

His grand­mother’s pur­chase of the pi­ano re­quired a bit of luck, Sanders says.

Ruth and her hus­band, Sandy, an en­gi­neer, had been sav­ing their money for a car so any thoughts of hav­ing ex­tra cash for a pi­ano must have seemed like a lost cause. Then some­thing won­der­ful hap­pened. While Sandy was away on a busi­ness trip to Eng­land, a raf­fle ticket he had pur­chased turned out to be the win­ner. The prize? A new car.

When Sandy called Ruth from Mon­treal on his way home, she in­formed him of the win – and that she was co-opt­ing their now freed-up cash for a pi­ano.

That grand sat in the fam­ily home­stead for three gen­er­a­tions, Sanders says.

When his grand­par­ents’ house was fi­nally sold, he wasn’t sure what to do with the pi­ano. Of­fers came in then fell through, mostly be­cause of its size. He was al­most ready to sell it on­line when a Guelph friend, Lori Flem­ing, took an in­ter­est.

Own­ing such a pi­ano had al­ways been on Flem­ing’s bucket list, but she also rec­og­nized it was in need of work, so she called Ox­ford.

“It hadn’t been tuned in years,” she says. “Mitch came and quoted what must hap­pen for playa­bil­ity.”

Flem­ing de­cided to go to the ex­treme and have the pi­ano com­pletely re­stored, but she wanted it to be a sur­prise to Sanders. The trick was try­ing to keep him out of her house for months while the pi­ano was at Ox­ford’s shop.

Fi­nally, she could keep Sanders away no longer and when he saw that empty space in her mu­sic room, he was dis­heart­ened. “I thought they sold it on Ki­jiji,” he says. Hav­ing the re­stored pi­ano at Flem­ing’s house is like keep­ing it in the fam­ily, he says, where the old in­stru­ment will con­tinue a life of joy­ous mu­sic started with his grand­mother.

Not ev­ery pi­ano in Ox­ford’s shop has such an emo­tional story at­tached. In the ad­ja­cent spray booth sat the scat­tered bones of a 1920s ebony baby grand, taken apart piece by piece for a full restora­tion. The pi­ano was made by Stein­way’s ri­val, Chick­er­ing & Sons of Bos­ton, the first pi­ano man­u­fac­turer in the United States. This pi­ano has an im­pres­sive pedi­gree and was pur­chased by Our Lady of Lour­des Catholic High School in Guelph long be­fore the restora­tion was com­pleted.

“A pi­ano like this re­stored doesn’t fetch much, maybe $8,000,” Ox­ford says, not­ing there can be an im­bal­ance be­tween the value of the pi­ano and the cost of a restora­tion. “When you’re do­ing full restora­tion work, it can take four to five months.”

The Chick­er­ing re­quired dis­as­sem­bly down to the small­est part, then each piece needed to be ei­ther re­stored or re­placed. It’s a te­dious, metic­u­lous job that re­quires sourc­ing man­u­fac­tur­ers for re­place­ment parts, such as the felt ham­mer keys, which af­ter hit­ting the metal strings a few thou­sand times tend to groove and be­come leath­ery.

Ox­ford re­moves the en­tire board with the ham­mers at­tached and ships the whole unit off to a Con­necti­cut com­pany that makes cus­tom ham­mers us­ing the orig­i­nals as a tem­plate. It’s up to Ox­ford to en­sure the newly in­stalled ham­mers have the cor­rect tone, a prac­tice known as voic­ing the pi­ano or tone reg­u­lat­ing. This can be achieved in sev­eral ways, in­clud­ing prick­ing the felt with a nee­dle to ex­pand the felt and soften the tone.

New metal strings are im­ported from Ger­many, and a Mon­treal com­pany man­u­fac­tures pin blocks, which are thick lay­ers of maple that Ox­ford cuts to his needs. Tun­ing pins in the pi­ano are an­chored in the block, then the wire strings wrapped around the pins.

When dis­as­sem­bling a pi­ano, Ox­ford some­times finds sur­prises such as old pho­to­graph neg­a­tives or news­pa­per pages used as shims to align ag­ing, wonky parts. Some­times he finds the sig­na­ture of the last per­son who worked on the pi­ano who wanted to leave his mark.

“Lots of things get lost in there,” he says.

Mitch Ox­ford poses with a Ma­son & Risch baby grand pi­ano that he re­stored at his work­shop near Guelph.

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