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The man with the Magic Touch

To Joyful lawrence, every piano is an individual. No wonder the former priest is called in to repair their keys and souls.

india Updated: Feb 27, 2009 22:51 IST
Rahul Karmakar

I wouldn’t trust any man as far as you can throw a piano, said American actress and singer Ethel Merman. But an elite group of piano owners in India know who to trust when their Steinway, C Bechstein, Blüthner, Bösendorfer, Rachals or John Broadwood are close to being thrown away — Joyful Lawrence Shingnaisui.

Lawrence, as he is popularly known, is arguably India’s busiest piano tuner-technician, re-builder and restorer. Former bureaucrat Harvey Syiem, owner of a German Bechstein of 1905 vintage and a Japanese Diapason, would rather call him a doctor. “He has a treatment for every disease a piano can contract,” he said.

But tinkering with faulty pianos wasn’t what Lawrence, 44, set out to do. A Tangkhul Naga from Manipur’s Ukhrul town, he had wanted to be a priest. “My father was a catechist (Catholic equivalent of the Baptist pastor), and becoming a priest seemed logical,” he told HT.

Sixteen years into the process of being a salesman, Lawrence quit. While pursuing his academics (he is a Masters in English and philosophy) alongside, he had started playing a medley of instruments from drums, trombone, saxophone, guitar, violin and of course, the piano. He had a brass band and also composed English songs, winning an Akashvani Kendra award in 1991.

“As brother in charge of Don Bosco Institute here, I was in charge of musical instruments. In the absence of technicians, I would tune and do minor repairs on various instruments. I discovered I had an aptitude for dissecting musical instruments and putting the parts back again”, he said.

Watching a piano tuner in Pune, where he was doing his post-graduation in philosophy at the Pontifical Athenium, gave a “hint of an idea” to Lawrence. After he left his priestly pursuits in 1995, he took to teaching philosophy and theology at a college in Shillong.

Almost all educational institutes set up by missionaries across the Northeast have pianos. They would invariably rely on a limited number of “itinerant tuners” from the metros, shelling out a fortune for sub-standard jobs. Lawrence set one such “repaired” piano right, discovering his calling in the process.

“There are some 500 pianos in the Northeast, most over 100 years old and sold off by the British at throwaway prices. A majority of piano owners did not know their worth, and fly-by-night tuners would take advantage of their ignorance,” said Lawrence. Unlike these tuners, he did more than just tweak the reeds and felt-covered hammers that strike steel strings to produce the sound. “Other than the technical part, I began cleaning the piano interior of layers of dust, rats and moisture-induced defects.”

Lawrence’s reputation as a piano-restoring wizard has taken him to Mumbai, Bangalore, Pune and Kolkata. A few years ago, he took two months to overhaul a grand piano in Mysore that others had given up on. He has also restored the obsolete Spinet model with drop action. All this happened after he had made a grand piano performance-ready for Panjim-based violinist and pianist Nauzer Daruwalla. Three Calcutta-based tuners wanted Rs 40,000 to do the job in a week. Lawrence did it in two days for Rs 7,000.

Unlike others of his ilk, Lawrence has researched acoustic instruments, specialising on wood from an acoustic point of view. “The wooden soundboard is key to a good piano,” he said while explaining why the cross-strung pianos are superior to the straight-strung ones. “The latter is hardly produced these days,” he added.

Cross or straight-strung, horizontal or upright, pianos need a high degree of maintenance and regular tuning to keep them up to the internationally recognised standard concert pitch of A4=440 Hz. Pianos also need at least five years post-manufacture for the special steel strings to stabilise. “It’s a myth that new pianos are better than old ones, unless of course the latter are not maintained, especially in humid conditions,” Lawrence pointed out.

That’s a tip for those who can tell their German Schiedmayer and Czech Petrof from the Japanese Yamaha and South Korean Young Chang. “The Asian pianos, minus the Chinese of course, are on a par with the German ones.” he says, adding that they, “are considered the best in the world.”