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Venezuela RPCV Nancy Hazzard tames the tuneless
Venezuela RPCV Nancy Hazzard tames the tuneless
Dongan Hills resident tames the tuneless
Nancy Hazzard's mechanical bent comes in handy when repairing time-worn pianos
Wednesday, March 24, 2004
When the machines in your life go haywire, you have to ask for help -- unless you're that rare human being who can fix everything.
You yell for a mechanic when the car cuts off in traffic, and if the washer and dryer go berserk, you call appliance repair. You head to the bike shop for new brakes after a hillside incident, and there's a whole army of local and online "techies" ready to explore your computer's innards when gremlins strike.
But what if a mouse has camped out in your spinet, and all of a sudden, there's silence when you hit middle C -- or B flat and E, and a lot of those other important piano keys?
Or what if the sound is sour, no matter how much you practice? Maybe it isn't your fault. Maybe the instrument is out of tune.
Wait a minute. A piano isn't a machine. It's an instrument, isn't it?
Actually, it's both. We usually see only the keys and foot pedals, but inside a piano are hundreds of moving parts -- its machine, called the action -- designed to work in harmony so you can produce some when you play.
Say you've rousted the mouse, but the keys remain out of commission. A friend says she'll call the perfect person, and a piano fixer arrives at the door, repair case in hand.
You're a little surprised, because Nancy Hazzard is -- well -- a woman.
To be specific, she's one of just five women in New York City who are members of the New York state chapter of Registered Piano Technicians (RPT), a nonprofit national guild of piano pros who have passed stringent exams. (There are about 14 women statewide in the group.)
Small in stature and delicate in bearing, with short brown hair, bright blue eyes and a slight set of dimples, Ms. Hazzard doesn't look like someone who can tame a tuneless piano. But it's exactly that challenge that first entranced her.
"I always knew music belonged in my life," the Dongan Hills resident said, "but not as a performer. I knew I had mechanical aptitude, however."
Born in Charlottesville, Va., Ms. Hazzard grew up in Pennsylvania, upstate New York and Missouri. After graduating from Lehigh College, she was off to Venezuela with the Peace Corps, running recreation programs in YMCAs. She returned to upstate New York where she taught physical education and recreation in Amsterdam, N.Y. That's where she met and married Gerald Hazzard.
The couple moved to New York City shortly after. They spent their first wedding anniversary on Staten Island, not realizing that the borough would soon become their home -- and after 34 years, the place where Ms. Hazzard has lived the longest.
For five years, she taught health and physical education classes in Brooklyn for the city Board of Ed, but that music thing wouldn't go away for the longtime flutist. She was taking piano lessons at Wagner College, Grymes Hill, when she decided it was time for a leap of faith and found a place to study piano tuning and repair. After graduation, she passed the RPT test at the highest level.
Now she needed some work.
"I brazenly walked into Harold Norman's office -- he was the Wagner music department chairman -- and asked for a job," Ms. Hazzard said. She didn't know the regular piano tuner had stopped coming.
"See what you can do with that one," Norman told her.
The stint begun so unofficially that day in the music department lasted for 25 years. "Six department chairpeople 'inherited' me," she said, laughing.
Gerald Hazzard had always wanted his own store, so they opened The Piano Hut at 1208 Bay St. in Rosebank, buying and selling used pianos she tuned and repaired.
It worked so well that they moved to larger quarters in Castleton Corners, on Manor Road near the post office, and opened Star Music Center, selling new pianos and sheet music, and renting space to piano teachers.
"It was the only store on Staten Island with classical sheet music -- and sheet music for Broadway shows," she said. He ran the store, she tuned pianos, and the business thrived.
When the building housing their shop was sold, they moved to Main Street in Tottenville.
"You'd think we moved to the moon," she said. "Customers didn't follow us and we had to close."
Gerald became involved in theater on the Island, becoming a charter member of the former Staten Island Civic Theater and acting with other theater groups. She immersed herself in piano work.
"Trouble-shooting gives me the most satisfaction. I enjoy using unconventional means to solve problems." For that she thanks her first teacher, a master of innovative methods.
Among other reasons, a piano needs tuning after it's moved from one place to another, or when it's played frequently by different people.
Every time she plays a note when tuning a piano, "I have to make a decision about the way it sounds," she said. "It's never cut and dried, it's always challenging." The result reflects her musical sense as well as her skills.
The way the keys feel when you depress them -- stiff, or mushy on the rebound -- that's the piano's touch. It's regulated by the action -- all those little levers and felt hammers and other hidden parts. It's a heavy chunk of stuff if you have to remove it for repair, especially in a grand piano.
"I take it apart in two pieces so I can manage it, and carry it out to the car," she said. Then it goes to her workshop, which doubles as a laundry room.
Most of Ms. Hazzard's clients are on Staten Island, with a few in Brooklyn and New Jersey, she said, but that is changing, along with the direction of her life.
She was forced to examine that direction in May 2003, when her husband of 35 years died suddenly and unexpectedly. But the groundwork for change had been percolating for a long time in what would become another big leap of faith. After studying off and on for 20 years, she was installed as a staff minister in the First Church of Religious Science in Manhattan, becoming the Rev. Nancy Hazzard a year ago.
"From the physical to the metaphysical," she said.
Meanwhile, her Manhattan piano clientele is growing, giving her the chance to earn some money tuning pianos in the afternoons, before she goes to church meetings or classes. She's started a church study group here on the Island. And she's given in to a longtime yearning by buying the first new car of her life, a yellow Volkswagen bug.
Does she ever play the piano at home?
"Can you believe it? I don't even have a piano at home," she said, shaking her head. "Our apartment was going to be a 'temporary' place and it was too small for my baby grand, so I sold it. That 'temporary' has been 22 years. I do miss it." tail Joelle Morrison's column, About Town, appears on Wednesday in the Lifestyle section of the Advance. Ms. Morrison can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2004 The Staten Island Advance. Used with permission.