Cindy Davis Meixel
A joyful noise: James Jenkins tunes a 1/8 bass, a beginner-sized instrument played by elementary school-age students.
It all started with a piano tuner and an amazing commitment to service. When Bob Sides married Ellin Fletcher in 1931, he was marrying into a family of piano tuners. As his granddaughter Alysha Sides Greevy tells it, he was an accountant at the beginning of the Great Depression, when no one had money to count. But people who had pianos often had enough money to get them tuned. So Bob learned the skill of piano tuning from his father-in-law and started tuning pianos in the Williamsport area, where his reputation for service brought a steady stream of customers in those dark times. When a traveling salesman stopped in at the Sides’ home and sold them on selling pianos out of their home, the tuning business gained a sideline. By then Bob repaired pianos as well, and thus began the Sides’ philosophy of servicing everything they sell.
It wasn’t long before they were selling some band instruments, too. They moved out of the house to a Washington Boulevard storefront right after WWII. As the business grew, Bob’s son, Hugh “Pete” Sides, envisioned a store where not only pianos and band instruments were purchased, but where customers could buy orchestra instruments and audio equipment for performances and for the home. Beyond that, he instituted a rental program for pianos and band instruments, so more kids in school and people of more modest means could have an instrument to try, to learn the magic of making music.
For a company that prides itself on “servicing what they sell,” this explosion of instruments needed a skilled repair staff to repair a fleet of pianos and space to store instruments over the summer. They needed much more room, and by the mid 1980s they found and renovated their current location, an old warehouse with over 52,000 square feet on Mulberry Street.
It’s a huge complex, with several large showrooms, a recital hall, lesson rooms, and all the instruments and equipment people have come to expect. But as you walk up to the second floor, you enter the heart and soul of Robert M. Sides Family Music Centers.
The entire area looks like an antique workshop, with hardwood working benches filled with the hand tools of the trade—for the second floor is filled with all sorts of instruments in the process of being repaired, restored to use in a family home, in a working band, or in the various rental programs.
In the brass and woodwind area Ron Billman, Tom Morrison, Joel Wells, and John Waxmunsky are hard at work on horns and saxophones. These artisans are some of the best in the industry and make many a “beat-up brass” or “wounded wind” whole again. The repairs at Sides last and keep these instruments in good working order for rented instruments, for professional musicians, and for people that play for their own enjoyment.
Ron Billman, a band repair technician for over twenty-five years, tells the story of a Penn State University Blue Band sousaphone that somehow took a header over the bleachers. At PSU these large tuba-like horns are plated in silver. Ron got the dent out and saved a valuable band instrument to greet the Blue and White on another game day. The whole team agrees that the hardest instrument to repair is a saxophone, with its large number of valves. They have been asked to repair instruments that have been neglected for a generation. They’ve even repaired bagpipes!
Around the corner, another workstation is surrounded with frets and strings, and it is there that Eric Bashore and James Jenkins are at work on stringed instruments. James is also a man with an incredible eye for color in finishing, and is sometimes called in to work with the finish on piano cases.
Just down the hall, the strings and hand tools give way to oscillators and electronic equipment. Dewey Corage and Bill Rinker work there, and much of their work revolves around designing sound systems for public spaces. The Little League complex, Bowman Field, as well as many schools and churches use these experts to “get the sound right” from the instrument or voice to the audience. This is in addition to the repair of all electronic instruments. And, of course, Bill Rinker repairs home organs.
But the first love for Pete Sides, and the crown jewel of the service at Robert M. Sides, is the piano. There, Bob Dincher, brother Christopher Dicher, and Chris’s son Luke are the men responsible for both cleaning and repairing pianos, but also the delicate job of tuning everything from the family piano to a Steinway for an international performer. Bob and Chris have been with Sides over twenty-five years. They started as piano movers, and then trained in tuning and piano repair, both at Sides and beyond the doors of the business at seminars and formal schooling. But Bob says the best training was the “trial by fire,” as the Community Arts Center began to bring in national and international performers. They needed to prepare Steinway pianos for Vladimir Feltsman, Emmanuel Ax, Ronnie Milsap, and George Winston. And musicians on this level can hear when a note or a tone is not what they are looking for in a piano for performance. Alysha (who with brother Peter, Pete’s son, are the new generation at the helm) notes that pianists are at the mercy of the piano in front of them, since they cannot bring their pianos with them.
Working with professional musicians is not easy. As Franz Mohr, piano technician for Vladimir Horowitz, said, “Your primary job is to instill confidence in the artist.” That confidence starts with the confidence and skill of the technician preparing that piano with the artist. And for that, Chris Dincher has a gift—the gift of being able to hear what the artist hears in a piano, and then to find a mechanical/technical solution to a problem described in terms of the color of the notes. Bob says that it is this painstaking work with top artists that allow them to go into a person’s home and make a fine piano sound how the owner would like it to sound.
It’s not just tuning for this trio. They also do restorations, reconditions, and repairs on all kinds of pianos. The day of this visit, Bob was cleaning pianos. A piano can be a dark, quiet place, and all kinds of critters can make a home there. When they move a piano from a home, it is given a cleaning to remove all the debris. Alysha also explained that there are many things that they can do to make a piano perform better, but regular tuning is essential to maintain the convex shape of the soundboard in a piano. The soundboard looks like a harp, and the convex shape is called the crown of the piano. If the instrument is not tuned, it can relax to the point where the shape is gone. At that point, a repair means a soundboard replacement. At the end of the day, for a restoration to be successful, the piano has to play correctly.
And then there are the Steinways. It’s probably one of the first things that you see at Robert M. Sides. One room is filled with Steinways that have been restored, dating from 1877 to the mid-twentieth century. And as talented as the instrument miracle workers at Sides are, they do not do a restoration on a Steinway. For that, the piano must go either to Hamburg, Germany or New York City for the installation of a factory soundboard and pinblock. Steinway keeps records of every piano manufactured, and who bought it—going back to 1864. Using the genuine parts helps these magnificent pianos keep their investment value. As Pete Sides says, “You wouldn’t put a Corvette engine in a Ferrari,” and the same holds true about putting non-Steinway parts in a Steinway.
Six of these beautiful pianos were sent by Robert M. Sides to the Endless Mountain Music Festival, with a value of almost half a million dollars. Those pianos will be prepared for performances by the piano technicians at Sides, and instruments used in other performances may well be maintained by one of the fourteen people in charge of keeping everything from acoustic guitars to zithers ready to play. It is a team that has performed over 10,000 repairs of band and orchestra instruments alone, with over 250 years of experience. It’s a legacy of service that spans generations, and makes a glorious sound, indeed.