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A job out of tune with changing tastes in music

Bill McKaig fixes piano keys by reapplying felt to them in his workshop in Tampa. McKaig has been tuning pianos in Tampa Bay for 34 years.
Bill McKaig fixes piano keys by reapplying felt to them in his workshop in Tampa. McKaig has been tuning pianos in Tampa Bay for 34 years.
Published Oct. 12, 2015

Bill McKaig likes to work with his hands. And his ears.

What started out as a way to make extra money while studying music in college became the career he was always looking for.

McKaig tunes pianos and restores them in a workshop at his South Tampa home.

"I taught myself to do it in college," said McKaig, who has tuned pianos in the Tampa Bay area for more than 30 years. He fine tuned his own skills by working for another piano tuner in Safety Harbor. "That's where I figured out I had so much more to learn," he said. Then he worked as a piano tuner at a Tampa music store for 12 years.

The business has changed a lot in that time. For one, fewer families own pianos, as fewer parents are investing in lessons for their children, he said.

Piano sales peaked in the U.S. in 1909, when more than 364,500 were sold. But sales declined over the years, and took a dive in the last decade. Now only 30,000 to 40,000 are sold annually.

McKaig has seen a number of music stores close in Tampa Bay.

"There used to be five of six prominent music stores in Tampa. Now there's two," he said.

To stay in business, McKaig shifted his services from tuning pianos in customers' homes to tuning at businesses and churches. He tunes grand pianos in fine dining restaurants on the water. He repairs pianos in church halls and classrooms. But even there, he has noticed a decline.

"Churches used to have several pianos, but with the switch to contemporary services with full bands, they just use keyboards instead," McKaig said.

A lot of his new business comes from word of mouth referrals.

He also tunes pianos on cruise liners.

Pianos used to be an instrument families passed down from generation to generation. Though some of his clients still have the family heirlooms in their homes, they aren't played like they once were.

"I think technology and interest in other hobbies has really changed that," McKaig said. But he firmly believes pianos won't disappear.

"It's a classical instrument and often the gateway to other instruments for musicians. It requires complex thinking. The ones who still play are serious about it, " he said. "It may be a smaller world, but it will never die out completely."

Have a job to add to our series? Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

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