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Presbyterians prepare pianos for Christmas season

Enter the Tyrone Presbyterian Church sanctuary on Wednesday, November 29 and you will hear what sounds like an elementary piano student endlessly striking the keys up and down the piano scale. However, the person seated at the Baldwin Grand Piano turns out not to be an elementary piano student, but instead an extraordinary piano tuner by the name of William A. Hocherl of 1227 First Avenue, Altoona.
With just 27 days left until Christmas, Bill Hocherl has arrived on the scene at Tyrone Presbyterian Church to tune the four church pianos for the Christmas season. Director, accompanists and singers in Tyrone’s Allegheny Chorale especially look forward to Mr. Hocherl’s arrival as he readies the 1930 sanctuary Baldwin Grand for its December 12 debut with the Chorale.
Certainly a seasoned piano tuner, Mr. Hocherl began his love affair with the instrument in the early 1970s when he worked for businessman Charlie Ford at an after school/summer job at Altoona’s Ford Music Store, along Chestnut Avenue. At Ford Music Store, Mr. Hocherl met the legendary piano tuner William Kinzer who eventually became his musical mentor. Both Mr. Ford and Mr. Kinzer encouraged the young Hocherl to study the art of piano tuning, a one-year professional training course offered in the 1970s at Mount Aloysius Junior College in nearby Cresson . Mr. Hocherl graduated from the piano tuning course in 1975 and has been on the roads throughout Central Pennsylvania, offering tender loving piano care for the past thirty years.
To become a Certified Piano Tuner requires that the aspiring tuner pass an exam composed of three parts: tuning, maintenance, and written test, and administered by the Piano Tuner’s Guild of America. Each section of the eight part test is worth 100 points. Mr. Hocherl scored 100 points in six sections out of eight and 96 points on two sections.
Reminiscing over three decades of labor in caring for pianos, Mr. Hocherl noted, “Learning to tune a piano resembles learning to play virtually any musical instrument, it takes a long time and much effort. It helps a piano tuner to improve professionally if, at the start of their career, they have someone from the Piano Tuner’s Guild looming over their shoulder, ready to offer constructive criticism. In addition, a tuner only will begin to feel comfortable in their tuning profession after they have tuned perhaps 5,000 pianos.”
Thirty years into his piano tuning career, Mr. Hocherl tunes and maintains about one thousand pianos each year in towns as geographically diverse as Lewistown, State College, Philipsburg, Huntingdon, Tyrone, Bellwood, Altoona, Bedford and Everett. On a normal day, Mr. Hocherl tunes about four pianos, with each piano taking at least ninety minutes to tune and maintain. During the Christmas Season, he tunes up to eight pianos in one workday. An average piano tuning costs around $75 with modest discounts offered to churches.
For close to 20 years, Mr. Hocherl has traveled from Altoona to Tyrone Presbyterian Church in early May and late November to tune four pianos. This long-time tuner notes that thankfully, Tyrone Presbyterian Church houses four quite upscale pianos that are fairly easy to maintain, three Baldwin Pianos and a Wurlitzer Piano. Years ago, Church Elder Larrie A. Derman commissioned Mr. Hocherl to begin tuning the four Presbyterian pianos after the retirement of volunteer piano tuner, postal worker and church member John Derr, who faithfully kept the pianos in tune across many decades.
Presbyterian organist Richard Merryman indicated that the Presbyterian Church considered itself richly blessed by the fact that each of the four pianos Mr. Hocherl tunes were purchased by four individual church members. The sanctuary Baldwin Grand Piano was purchased in 1930 by Mrs. Adda Gray to compliment the new building. The Console Baldwin Piano in the church parlor was purchased in 1978 by Mrs. Harry Updike in memory of her beloved husband, for use in Chapel Volunteer Monday Night Vespers. The Spinet Baldwin Piano in the Church Fellowship Hall was purchased by Mrs. Anne C. Getz in the 1980s to provide spirited accompaniment for church social events and parties. The Wurlitzer Spinet piano in the nursery school was purchased by the church organist in the 1990s to provide accompaniment for children’s songs.
Continued Merryman, “In this season of Thanksgiving, we offer gratitude for the folks who originally purchased these four pianos. Indeed, we considered ourselves richly blessed that one faithful long-time member of the church continues to provide regular checks to underwrite the tuning and the maintenance of our four church pianos. Besides, we express our thanks that in 1999, memorial contributions from the family and friends of Adelaide and Duane Langenbacher made it possible for us to purchase the state of the art electronic digital piano that we utilize in our Westminster Choir Rehearsal Room. Of course, one of the advantages of this electronic digital piano is that it never needs tuning.”
Unlike many of today’s older mainline churches, Tyrone Presbyterian Church has five newer pianos to under gird its hymn singing and choir music program. Luckily, the arrival of these newer pianos has made it possible to send six of the church’s war horse pianos to “Piano Heaven”. Noted church organist Merryman, “We had two pianos in the Scout Hall that had been through a flood in the 1950s, two pianos in the nursery school and the blue room with cracked sounding boards that would not hold their tuning, an old player piano in the choir room that weighed almost a ton, and a dried out Baby Grand Piano in the parlor that had to be chopped up before it could be removed from the building. Consequently, church members danced with delight when our piano donors came forward with offers to purchase new pianos as replacements at no cost to the church.”
So, as it begins to look a lot like Christmas, be prepared to hear the music of Altoona piano tuner William Hocherl on Wednesday, November 29, as he provides the four pianos of Tyrone Presbyterian Church with their Christmas fix. If this report motivates readers to remember that neglected piano sitting in their own church or living room, why not call Bill Hocherl at 943-0759 for a much needed holiday tune-up today?