If the piano is a monster that screams when you touch its teeth, as has been said, then Mark Zillmann is a sort of dentist. Blind since he was 2, the 37-year-old native of Zephyr, Ont., tunes and maintains pianos across the city. We spoke to him at the King Street West jazz bar and restaurant N’Awlins, one of his clients.
Can you talk about your musical and educational background, growing up?
My first exposure to music would have been German folk music, at home. As far as schooling, I attended the W. Ross Macdonald School, which is a boarding school for the blind, in Brantford. Piano lessons were part of the curriculum for children.
When I was older, I took a piano-tuning course there. After, I took the piano-technology course at George Brown College. I still play a little, just chord patterns that I made up and like to hear. I play them after I tune a piano.
Why do so many blind people work as piano tuners?
Traditionally, it was something blind people could do. And still is. And, generally speaking, hearing is more highly developed in a blind person. But there is still a huge amount of training, practising and experience required. It takes 1,000 tunings before you become a competent piano tuner.
You tune pianos on a regular basis all over town, at the Robert Lowrey Piano Experts store, at the University of Toronto and at different bars and music rooms. Do you have a relationship with the instruments, where you know the idiosyncrasies of the individual pianos?
Yes. For example, because the piano at the Cameron House is old and because of the environment it’s in, it’s prone to broken strings.
Oh, I bet I know who’s responsible for that. Treasa Levasseur. She’s a sweet girl and a talented musician, but she plays the hell out of that piano at the Cameron.
I’m not familiar with her.
Do you often talk to the pianists? Anyone famous?
Tori Amos. I met her perhaps 10 years ago. She was on her way in to perform on the morning show for CTV. I had just finished tuning the piano in the studio and was on my way out. After being introduced to Tori, she asked me: “How is she feeling this morning?” After unscrambling my thoughts, I realized she was referring to the piano as a person, and I responded: “She’ll feel better now that you’re here.” From our brief exchange I was impressed by her gracious and kind personality. She made the moment important.
Are there any pianos in town that you don’t tune, but would like to?
A piano I would love to work on would be the one at Jazz Bistro. I believe it’s a seven-foot Steinway. I imagine it’s a lovely piano.
Toronto is such a great city for music, with its venues and players. Do you get satisfaction with the role that you play in the scene?
I do. I’m sure that Toronto is one of most diverse cities for music in the world. On occasion I take the opportunity to relax and hear a couple of sets of music, after I tune a piano. It’s just a nice way to appreciate my own work.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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