In this book, Virgil Smith shares his life story, from his roots as a visually challenged boy from a poor farm family, through his pursuit of a musical career, and culminating in three decades as a music professor. During those years he also became one of the most prominent piano tuner technicians in the United States, in his "spare" time.
Born in rural Iowa, Virgil Smith attended the state boarding school for the blind through high school. While a student there, he was drawn to music, and decided he wanted to pursue a career in music evangelism. He enrolled in Chicago's Moody Bible Institute as a voice major in hopes of becoming a church choir director. Over time his focus shifted to violin, and later piano, with degrees in each from the American Conservatory of Music, and he eventually became a professor of piano and music theory at the Moody Bible Institute, a post he held for 32 years until his retirement in 1984.
It was early in his teaching career at Moody that he began moonlighting as a piano tuner. Dissatisfied with the sound of the tuning produced on his studio grand piano by Moody's tuner, he decided to tune it himself, reaching back to earlier training he had received at the Iowa School for the Blind. Over time, he began tuning for others, beginning with a radio station where he performed live on a regular basis, and then progressing to various concert halls in Chicago. He soon became well known as one of the finest tuners in the area.
Virgil Smith was, however, strictly a tuner as he started out, without any skills in regulation, voicing and other aspects of piano service, and he writes in detail about his efforts to gain those skills so as to be able to provide for all of his clients' needs. He is very frank about his failures, times when he was trying out procedures for the first time and failed miserably. Over the years, he found a number of teachers and mentors who aided him in gaining proficiency, including such well known figures as Franz Mohr of Steinway. He also interacted with many famous pianists, notably working on voicing in great detail with Alfred Brendel.
In many ways, his is a story typical of how most American piano technicians from the 20th century to the present acquired their skills. Full-time training opportunities became increasingly rare, with the number of schools and factories decreasing to the vanishing point. Thus, the development of specialized skills has depended largely on personal initiative, making various contacts over the course of many years, and gradually acquiring proficiency via experimentation.
In one particular respect, Virgil Smith's career was unique: throughout his life he worked almost exclusively on large grand pianos in concert and teaching situations, and he rarely worked on more than a few pianos during any given week. Hence, his range of experience was far different from that of the typical piano technician.
Once he felt secure in his skills, Virgil Smith began teaching, developing a program in which he taught tuning to classes of eight people over a period of several years. He later abandoned that organized form of training, but continued to mentor and teach individuals, and began teaching classes at Piano Technicians Guild conventions and elsewhere. He also began writing articles for the Piano Technicians Journal on a regular basis, especially following retirement from his teaching job.
Virgil Smith attracted a devoted following within the profession, and became one of PTG's most popular teachers. In 2002, he received the Piano Technicians Guild's highest award, the Golden Hammer.
In 2004, when Virgil Smith was eighty-six, the PTG Foundation published Virgil Smith's short book (49 pages), New Techniques for Superior Aural Tuning. During the subsequent six years, he worked on what he seems to have intended to be a replacement for that book, with the editorial assistance of Stanley Ryberg. Both are included in this publication of his autobiography.