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Central Standard

Kansas City Musician Bram Wijnands Brings Pianos 'Back To Life'

Andrea Tudhope / KCUR
Bram Wijnands uses a tuning lever and wedge mute to tune a piano at Central Methodist Church.

Bram Wijnands has made a name for himself as a jazz musician in Kansas City.

After a performance at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1998, he received recognition as Kansas City's Ambassador of Swing from then mayor Emanuel Cleaver, who also designated April 6 "Bram Wijnands Day."

Today, he performs regularly for The Majestic, and has performed at various restaurants and venues around the city, including Kansas City Bier Company and the American Restaurant.

But Wijnands is not just a musician. He also runs a lucrative business, Kansas City Piano Service, repairing and restoring pianos. After getting his start with the piano at age three in Eindhoven, a southern city in the Netherlands, he went on to pursue a general music education. It was seeing old films and listening to old records — Django Reinhardt and Fats Waller — that eventually lead him to jazz.

He became interested in how the piano actually worked around age seven, which he attributes partially to his father.

"The technical interest did not just come from being a pianist, [it] probably came more from my father being a physicist," Wijnands said. "He was in aerodynamics and jet streams, so he had a lot to do with sound and sound generation."

Throughout his education, he tuned and maintained pianos, both in high school and then while studying at the Hilversum Conservatory to cover his tuition. He got into the habit of constantly carrying around a tuning hammer and other tools, just in case. 

Though he was self-taught in piano repair and restoration, music theory played a role in helping him understand how the piano works, which is pivotal to fixing it.

"Really if you look at music theory, it's numbers," he said. "Especially in an instrument like the piano, a lot of mathematical equations have been made in order to design and construct that type of instrument, not just from an acoustical perspective, but also mechanical."

He could wax poetic on the components of repair, the compartments of the piano, the beams and the balance of the action, the wippen and the hammer jack, the types of bolts and how they affect the character of sound. Sometimes when he listens, he said, he hears, in tandem with the music, the inner functioning and current quality of the instrument — he can even hear a pianist's frustration as he or she grapples with an instrument in need of repair.

But there's more to it all than just machinery.

"I believe to some extent that the piano might have a soul," he said. "It's a mechanical thing built out of lifeless, dead materials, but it holds the souls of the people who built it and have played it."

A customer once commissioned him to tweak a Baldwin grand piano before hosting a 20-year anniversary party. There were a couple of low bass notes that had been sticking for years. Wijnands removed the key cover to take a look. He slid the action out and, underneath the keys, he found an engagement ring with a large diamond on it.

"It had fallen straight into the back of the action," he said. "They started crying. He had bought her another engagement ring [20 years earlier]. It was the perfect surprise for a 20th anniversary."

He has found plenty of strange objects, including an old check that no one in the family knew about hidden deep within the piano. What he taps into each time he repairs a piano is more than a technical job; he gains insight into the personal lives of the owners, and the piano.

Recently, a damaged piano came to his house in pieces, and it took him two weeks of dedicated work every single day to restore it. He felt at the end that he had brought it back to life, which he believes explains the emotional reactions people have, both before and after his work.

"[The customer] had played on [that piano] as a child. The piano is an extension of the human soul," he said. "For a big job like that, I think about the possible history of the instrument, what has happened to it over time. You realize you are bringing something back to life, and that the original builder is dead and gone. That is amazing to me."

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Andrea Tudhope is an award-winning multimedia journalist based in Kansas City, Missouri. She is currently coordinating producer for America Amplified, a national public media community engagement initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.