300: UT piano tuner keeps instruments sharp

Elizabeth Hlavinka

When Charles Ball reflects on the hundreds of pianos he’s come across in the past 50 years, he sees a nine-foot Steinway UT acquired in 1938. He sees the fixer-upper his friend’s grandmother played until the day she died. He sees the dents from their teething son in its wooden frame.

As the Butler School of Music’s head piano technician, Ball tunes, voices and rebuilds pianos for practices and performances. With 220 pianos on campus, Ball said he feels “like a bee gathering pollen,” migrating around campus to fix each one. Ball began tuning pianos as a teenager, tinkering with their parts in his east
Tennessee home. 

“I wouldn’t say I’m the most mechanically minded person in the world,” Ball said. “I never fixed my own car or was one to do carpentry jobs. But I was fascinated with the way [pianos] worked.”

After putting himself through college by tuning pianos, Ball started pursuing a master’s degree in comparative religion at Vanderbilt in 1973. But because seminary students received exemption from the draft, he had difficulty finding a job in the oversaturated field. Instead, he returned to piano tuning, moved to Austin in 1980 and began his UT career.

For almost 30 years, Ball also taught a music elective course and recently, he performed with the Choral Arts Society. Ball said his performance anxiety and lack of talent prevented him from playing piano professionally. Instead, he enjoys sharing his performance with “an empty house” and listening to other musicians.

As a self-proclaimed audiophile, Ball has collected 6,000 CDs, which he listens to on a stereo system he said costs more than his car.

“I used to dream, when I was younger, about presiding over the care of a big chorale of fine pianos and working with major artists,” Ball said. “I’ve kind of achieved that.”