You might not know David Cutler, but you know his work. If you've played a piano in Providence over the last 15 years — from the dusty upright in Hudson Street Market to a posh baby-grand on the East Side — it's likely the city's go-to piano technician was there before you, tweaking the strings to make "Rocket Man" and "Für Elise" sound just right.
"I see 20 to 25 pianos a week . . . about a thousand pianos per year," Cutler explained while tuning the piano at Rhode Island College's Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts. ("This is a $100,000 piano," he says lovingly. "It's kept in a climate-controlled closet.")
Providence, Cutler explains, is a piano tuner's playground. First, it's located squarely in the Boston-New York-Washington, DC, corridor, one of densest piano populations in the world.
Second, due to the area's artistic disposition, Providence residents value an in-home practice and performance space, and there are about 10 to 20 active piano tuners in the state.
Additionally, the longevity of the instrument (pianos can last more than a hundred years, Cutler says) makes for an ever-growing customer base. "Unless [a piano] burns down or gets damaged, it's gonna be there," he says. "Even people who aren't really serious, they have the piano from Grandma sitting in the living room."
Even begrudging piano owners are custodians of home entertainment history. "Back before radio," Cutler says, "people used to gather around and sing. It was the big entertainment source — what TV is now.
"Of course, that's long gone," he adds. "But the piano's still there."
Cutler's career as a real-life "Piano Man" began on a whim after college when, after chatting with a piano tuner's apprentice, he signed up for tuning classes at a Boston school. Since then, he's been happily doing what he loves most: being around people and pianos. "It's really nice because I get to meet a lot of different people," Cutler says. "Providence is just such a diverse area. Over the years, if someone gets a tuning regularly, you develop a relationship with them."
As for the woes of an independent full-time businessman in a struggling economy, Cutler is staying afloat, he says. Yes, people may be playing more "I Got It Bad" than "Ode to Joy," but they're still having their pianos tuned. "With piano tuning," Cutler says, "it's still a small enough fee that people may hang on to it."
So stay tuned, piano players. After all, nothing kills romance like an off-key "Moonlight Sonata."
But before you call David Cutler, remember this: more than a gratuity or a home-baked pie, what he really wants during a house call is peace and quiet. "Sometimes you get into situations where people feel, 'Oh, he's improving my house, I've got to work on my house, too!' " he says, shaking his head. "Yeah, the vacuum is a killer."