The Lewises needed some holiday help, not that you could tell by glancing around their Bel Air living room. The tree was up and tinseled. Four stockings dangled from the mantel. Little wooden snowmen and Santas adorned the TV cabinet, and the "Merry Christmas" pillow had re-emerged.
The problem was the piano in the corner. For a musical family like the Lewises, the holidays are about singing carols and staging ad hoc ensembles with violin and cello. Always, the focal point is the upright piano, and Betsy Lewis thought it hardly sounded well-tempered.
That explained the station wagon that pulled into her cul-de-sac Wednesday with its PIANOTN license plate. Out stepped silver-haired Robert Kelly carrying a timeworn toolbox. He is a guild-certified registered piano technician, a tuner for hire.
Kelly greeted Lewis and her dog, Sparky, then got down to business: How's the piano?
"Well," she said, "it's ... you can tell ... "
"It's ready?" he interjected gently.
For the next hour Kelly would use his tools and 28 years of experience to put that right.
This is the height of piano-tuning season, the busiest time of year for the 50-odd professional tuners around Baltimore who tweak the instruments back to sweetness. With Christmas around the corner, they're busy answering sometimes-frantic calls from churches, institutions and folks such as the Lewises.
"It's always just been crazy right up to Christmas," said Fred Bath, a tuner for 37 years who is president of the Piano Technicians Guild's Baltimore chapter.
"We've had a little bit of a slowdown because of the lax economy," he said, "but it's still been pretty brisk for me." How brisk? "As much as I can do."
While Bath hasn't had to turn away business, others have. As with teeth cleanings, piano tunings should happen twice a year, but, as with teeth cleanings, many people let it slide. Some tuners will do up to seven jobs a day; Kelly says his wife limits him to five because he's prone to crankiness.
To be first-rate, a tuner needs mechanical aptitude - a piano has more than 7,000 moving parts, after all - a sharp ear and a deep well of patience.
"People in general either love piano tuning or they hate it," Bath explained. "We have lots of people come to our organization and say, 'Wow, this looks interesting; I want to be a piano tuner.' They just fall by the wayside. They just hate it."
Most tuners start as musician-tinkerers who not only play piano but peer inside. Peter Cohn tuned as a hobby for five years before realizing he needed a traditional apprenticeship. His clients include the Baltimore School for the Arts and venues such as the Carl J. Murphy Fine Arts Center at Morgan State University.
"It can seem like a simple thing to do. In fact it's hugely complex," he said. And Cohn, 41, says he has a lot yet to learn. "To be honest, it takes a lifetime. I'm still unlocking the puzzle of how to tune a piano."
Stubbornness is what drives him. "I've tried to teach this to some other people. I say, 'I can't teach this; you don't have it in you.' I had something in me. I had to get it in tune."
Bob Kelly has been tuning pianos half his life, beginning in 1980 while in his mid-20s. Now 54, he says he has made a decent living as a full-time technician, with a repair business on the side. He charges $100 for a basic tune-up.
The Lewises hired him seven years ago after moving into a spacious two-story home with their Japanese-made Yamaha.
Getting to work, Kelly removed the piano's front panel to reveal a melange of steel, wood and felt as intricate as the bones and tendons in a concert pianist's hands. When you play any of a piano's 88 keys, the pressure triggers a device that swings a felt-tipped hammer up toward the steel strings.
Those strings are held taut by metal tuning pins. When a piano falls out of tune, it's often due to the effect of humidity and dry air on the wooden soundboard, which amplifies the sound.
Tuning does not alter the soundboard. By adjusting tuning pins and modifying the pitch, a technician can compensate for changes in the soundboard.
Kelly sat on the bench playing one key at a time with his left hand, while in his right he put a wrench-like tuning hammer on the corresponding tuning pin. Because a piano's middle and upper notes are made when a hammer strikes three strings simultaneously (unlike bass notes, which are made by striking two or even just one), Kelly used a ribbon of red felt as a muting tool to isolate a string or two at a time.
Over and over, he pressed the same key, like a tentative student stuck mid-piece. As he nudged the wrench, he glanced at an electronic gizmo called the Accu-Tuner. This allowed for exactness. But the final judge is his ear, and sometimes he squinted in displeasure at what he'd just heard.
When he finished with a given section of string, Kelly played a chord progression, which sounded like a triumphant flourish.
Sitting in her sun room, Betsy Lewis described the urgency she felt at having the piano tuned. This year's guests will include a sister who plays violin, another who plays violin and piano, a cello-playing brother and his music-teacher girlfriend.
In addition, her parents are pianists; her son, an eighth-grader, plays drums, trumpet and piano, and her daughter, a junior at West Point, does piano. Her husband, Joe? Well, he can sing.
"Any time our family gets together there's music," she said. "At Christmas there's a lot more of it."
After Kelly replaced the piano's front panel and put his tools back in his toolbox, Lewis announced she was going to give it a go.
"I'm going to sit down," she said, "and practice my carols."