Piano tuner, 95

Charles Sipes, a member of a 14-piece touring band in the 1930s and 1940s who also played while in the Army, plays the piano at his home in Catonsville. Sipes, now 95, still tunes pianos and gives piano lessons. (Staff photo by Jen Rynda / March 1, 2012)

Without warming up, Charles Sipes sat down at the piano in his living room and started playing, his 95-year-old fingers skipping across the keys without missing a note of the up-tempo jazz standard "Night and Day."

For several minutes, he played , his eyes never leaving the keys.

In a way, the Catonsville resident has never looked away from music as he made it his career, often working three jobs to support his wife, four children and four step-children.

"If I did one job of that nature, I couldn't make a living. Even two jobs, I couldn't make a living and raise a family," Sipes said. "If you're worth your salt, you're never home. Now I'm home a lot."

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Sipes was born in East Baltimore, but grew up in what is now the Children's Home on Bloomsbury Avenue in Catonsville. He lived at the facility, which had only moved to Catonsville from Baltimore City a few years before, from age 9 to 17.

There he started playing the drums, he recalled, out of necessity.

He served as his team's catcher in a baseball game with other boys in the orphanage, when a play at the plate knocked out his two front teeth. With them went a possible career playing one of the wind instruments the orphanage had.

With no other options, Sipes focused on the drums, he said.

He eventually learned to play piano as well, he said.

By the time he left the orphanage, the Great Depression was in full swing. The only work Sipes could get, he said, was as a musician.

Sipes toured the surrounding states in a 14-piece band, mostly playing one-night gigs.

"I did better than most of the men in the neighborhood, money-wise," said Sipes, noting that his ability to read sheet music made him more valuable. "I was very much sought after. That's why I was always working."

Sipes said he played his last gig four years ago.

He still tunes pianos and occasionally repairs them with his son, Michael, 55, who lives with him.

In his detached garage, which doubles as his piano repair shop, Sipes bent over and rummaged through several drawers, occasionally pulling out some of the antique tools he still uses to ensure a piano is in tip top shape.

"Some of them are before my time even," Sipes said as he put a tool away in a weathered box and closed the drawer.

Sipes passes his time between the lessons he gives to two students and the four piano tuning appointments he has in the average week, each of which taking about 35 to 40 minutes, primarily by reading books.

Beside a chair in his living room are several who-done-it paperback mystery novels, but Sipes noted he'll read just about anything and polishes off about four books a week.

Michael Sipes said his father taught him to tune pianos at age 12. By age 18, he had turned it into the career he maintains to this day.

A willingness to learn, produce and go out and find the work led Charles Sipes to begin his piano tuning career more than a decade after he started his music career.