Playing by ear

2010-10-22 00:00

BRIAN Titshall makes a cold room warm. Arriving­ one chilly morning to tune our piano­, he burst into the lounge: “What a beautiful bunch of ladies,” he beams down at our numerous children. None of them believe­ that he is blind.

But this piano tuner was born with Retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a degenerative eye disease that he inherited from his mother.

“I was like every other boy,” he smiles from behind his dark glasses. “I ran around, played rugby and got into fights. But slowly my eyesight worsened until eventually, at [the age of] 12, I went completely blind.”

After matriculating from Worcester School for the Blind, Titshall, who had always loved music, chose to do a three-year course in piano tuning. Now, based in the small village of New Hanover, he has been servicing pianos for well over 40 years. Working throughout KwaZulu-Natal, he is regarded as a piano-tuning master and is called on by many private schools to ensure that their pianos are concert pitch.

At the same time, he runs a piano reconditioning workshop, called Amble Pianos, with his business partner Lettie Scheuer. The workshop is located on Scheuer’s farm, Mooiplaats, which has been in the Scheuer family since 1859, and which has a musical history itself.

The paternal forefather of the Scheuers in South Africa, Georg Ernst Scheuer, was an organ builder by trade, in the Netherlands. Five of his children moved to South Africa, three of whom were also organ builders, and they bought Mooiplaats, now in the Eshayamoya region of KwaZulu-Natal. One of the five, Ernst August, built himself a cottage on the farm from where he tuned pianos­.

Legend has it that he refused to leave his house and so the pianos had to be taken to him by ox wagon for tuning. These days both Scheuer and Titshall happily do home visits, although at the moment Titshall might be regretting this.

There are seven inquiring and suspicious minds between him and his job.

“How do you tune if you can’t see? How do you read your SMSes? How do you drive? How do you play cards?” Patiently and warmly, where lesser men would have snapped like overstrung piano strings, Titshall explains each of his tricks and gadgets — his playing cards with Braille, his cell- phone that talks, his MP3 player that has speaking buttons — Titshall has made the most of modern technology.

But his piano tuning is still old-fashioned.

“Right,” he finally says after his tummy has been patted numerous times and some children are starting to believe that he really can’t see. “Now if you want to watch then you need to keep quiet or else the C-note will come out as a B.” He opens his case, takes out his hand tools and then note by note, string by string, he tightens, listens and tightens again.

Until finally, satisfied at last, he is ready to play. Titshall can read music with Braille, but he needs his hands to do it, so he only uses it to learn new pieces — three or four notes at a time and then he memorises them. Often performing for pleasure and at charity events, he has rarely had such an appreciative and intent audience — they crowd around him. “Can you really not see?” all their minds are asking.

“I can remember what colours look like,” Titshall explains to their rapt faces, “and I can remember what children look like,” he smiles at them all, “and I always say, if you’re going to lose your eyesight, then 12 is a wonderful age to do it.” • Sarah Groves is a freelance writer living in Pietermaritzburg.

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