Finely tuned: Peninsula pianist Paul Creech still putting in the hours, commited to his crafts

“Your mind has to be very inquisitive, and it’s impossible to have talent working for you if you’re not passionately driven,” says Paul Creech. “You have to be driven.”

Creech has been a multi-dimensional music man on the Olympic Peninsula since the late 1980s. Music conversations with him can move fluidly through topics adjacent to the one at hand, then back into it.

If Creech were to write a book on tuning the piano, he said its first chapter would be a heartfelt discourse on the world’s love and need for music. He would establish the importance of good instruments, especially the piano, in bringing music to life.

For these instruments to produce beautiful music, they must be built and maintained by people who have poured great care into their work over time. Inspired orchestral scores don’t grow on trees, nor do the instruments they’re played through.

Sequim Gazette photos by Elijah Sussman
Paul Creech shows one of his compositions for piano at his Carlsborg studio.

Sequim Gazette photos by Elijah Sussman Paul Creech shows one of his compositions for piano at his Carlsborg studio.

The music making process starts long before the musician touches their hands or lips to their instrument. Music is a collaboration between instrument designers, builders, technicians and musicians, he finds.

Music might seem to almost “magically” appear into speakers to some, Creech says, but each component-part of the music making process reflects a broad community of driven and quality-obsessed music lovers from history up to the present time.

Creech has a lifetime of experience playing, tuning, and teaching the piano. He is also a prolific composer, from solo piano music to full orchestral scores. For Creech, the virtues of curiosity and unyielding dedication are at the atomic core of mastery.

These traits eventually drove Creech beyond simply playing the piano, to investigating and refining how to tune the instrument. By 13 he had already played piano for four years when a tuner came to tune his school’s piano. The tuner did a bad job, according to Creech, and it bothered him.

Sequim Gazette photos by Elijah Sussman / Alliree Meyer, left, has had a long musical relationship with Paul Creech and his wife Carmen.

Sequim Gazette photos by Elijah Sussman / Alliree Meyer, left, has had a long musical relationship with Paul Creech and his wife Carmen.

Two years later, another tuner came to tune his high school’s piano. By this time, Creech was becoming serious about playing the piano. When this second tuner disappointed, Creech’s mother bought him some tuning tools, and he started with his home piano. He recalls he was able to bring about modest improvements to his instrument.

“As a kid, you’re not analytical, but I loved music and I could really hear pitch,” he says. “If people sang off pitch, I knew it immediately.”

At 19, Creech started working for a Steinway outlet in St. Louis, Missouri, where he learned to tune.

To tune a piano

An instrument of extraordinary complexity, a piano has 88 notes and generally 230 strings (two to three strings per note), and it operates under an astonishing amount of tension — about 40,000 pounds worth.

Sequim Gazette photo by Elijah Sussman / Paul Creech with a stand of scores he composed on June 26.

Sequim Gazette photo by Elijah Sussman / Paul Creech with a stand of scores he composed on June 26.

The keys, crafted from ivory, wood, acrylics and/or other materials, connect to mechanisms that strike felt hammers against the copper-wound steel strings. When a key is pressed, the player’s finger trigger a lever mechanism that propels felt hammers toward the strings. The hammers each strike two or three strings tuned to the same pitch, creating vibrations. These vibrations travel through the strings, over a soundboard and resonate within the piano, amplifying the sound and projecting it into the room.

Achieving a sound that sings requires precise tuning, a fine and many-stepped process that involves adjusting each string to perfection. The tuner must first set a reference note, usually A440. 440 refers to the number of wave cycles or hertz per second. Using a tuning hammer, a tuner rotates pins clockwise to tighten a strings tension, raising the pitch or counterclockwise to flatten the pitch. The tuner will then set temperament, tuning a middle octave, before moving outwards through the rest of the octaves.

With all of the shifts in tension that occur throughout the tuning process, a tuner goes back over the already tuned notes several times.

Tuners will often voice the hammers too, shaving their compressed wool profiles, ensuring a consistent tone by matching their semi-circular hammer heads. The density and hardness of the compressed wool felt used to make the hammers can be softened with special needles, or firmed with a common household iron.

A skilled technician will voice the piano to the room it lives in.

A career on the keys

Creech went on to study piano in university for a brief time, and while his studies taught him the language for playing and composing, he felt restricted by the formal setting.

Sequim Gazette photo by Elijah Sussman / Paul Creech turns a tuning hammer on newly acquired grand piano.

Sequim Gazette photo by Elijah Sussman / Paul Creech turns a tuning hammer on newly acquired grand piano.

He ultimately found more meaning and success in teaching himself by composing, often playing the piano for four or five hours a day. Creech’s compositions fill several shelves in his studio, in addition to the ones in notebooks. They span works for solo piano, dual pianos and full orchestras.

In his 20s, Creech had a piano shop in college town Manhattan, Kansas. Some new pizza parlor owners approached him about tuning their parlor piano and asked him to play for their restaurant after hearing him play in shop. He played a lot of music in pizza parlors and hotels in the Manhattan area and moving out into adjacent areas when the opportunities presented themselves.

In 1987, Creech moved to Sequim. It took some time to break into the area, but eventually, he became a prominent figure in the music community. He later opened a piano shop in Sequim, which quickly expanded to two more locations, one in Port Angeles and one in Port Townsend.

Creech’s services extended beyond tuning; his shops has showrooms for sales, he taught piano lessons, and moved pianos. He even dismantled and rebuilt pianos to enhance their quality.

Sequim Gazette photo by Elijah Sussman / Paul Creech places a rubber mute between strings to prevent them from vibrating. June 22.

He still does all of these things, but has reduced down to a single studio and warehouse in Carlsborg, where he teaches piano from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. five days per week before heading out to tune a piano or two. Many of his dozens of pianos are still for sale; however, sales are no longer his focus.

Not a calling for all

The intricate and demanding nature of fine-tuning is not suited for everyone; it requires extensive ear training and precision. Through his journey from a curious young pianist to a master tuner and composer, Creech has embodied the dedication and passion necessary to do the hair-splitting work.

“I pursued what I love,” Creech says.

“If your passionate about what you’re doing, it’s gonna work for you. Just stay with it and develop the discipline that you think is necessary for it to come alive.”

If interested in having your piano tuned, playing the piano or composing, reach out to Paul Creech at 360-681-8187.