James Smith is a wonderfully talented piano player. He also tunes pianos for a living — a profession you don’t hear much about these days. Smith also has OCD and a complex and complicated family history. Through his love of music and piano tuning, he has managed to tame both complexities in his mind. In Lessons in Temperament, playing at the 2016 SummerWorks Festival, Smith is happy to tell you all about it in an intimate setting while he demonstrates how he wrangles the savage beast of an untuned piano.
When I was young, I played the piano and I still remember that air of awe and mystery I felt when the strange man would show up at our door on random evenings and set to work cracking open my piano to reveal the gut of strings and gears inside. He would then spend the next two hours cranking at the strings while hammering away at the keys and then, through what had to be magic, my instrument sounded beautiful again and I wouldn’t even know it sounded any less beautiful before until I heard the difference.
Twenty years later, I now fall into the realm of the “used to play” and that piano is now furniture that my mother dusts in her living room. But, when I saw Smith sit at that piano and lovingly caress the keys, the polished wood, and the exposed gut of gears and string, that sense of mystery and awe returned.
Lessons in Temperament is a delightfully intimate show set in a secret location revealed to ticket holders in an email sent out the night before. The locations are the homes of Smith’s musically inclined friends who own pianos in need of tuning. The set is their small living room. Needless to say, do book your tickets early and arrive early as well.
Throughout his performance, Smith explains the science of pianos — of notes and the partial bits of other notes that make up a single note, of tones and tunes, and how a piano string begins to loosen ever so slightly the moment it is tightened meaning a piano’s tune will slowly decline immediately after its first play post tuning. Most importantly, Smith explains that certain strings need to sound off and wrong for other notes to sound perfect.
Smith also goes into details about his family life — his three older brothers: one developmentally disabled, one also living with severe OCD, and the other with schizophrenia. While the world around him was mad and frenetic, he threw himself head and hands first into music and the piano where he lost himself and found control in beats and measured bars.
In Smith’s recounting of his family history, with the untamed sounds of a piano gone astray in the background being cranked and adjusted back to harmony, there is beauty. When Smith’s voice grows soft, muted and introspected, you feel his sadness. When he turns around and offers an animated impression of one of his brothers’ obsession with Hulk Hogan, you burst into laughter. His story is personable, relatable, and real.
Lessons in Temperament is a beautiful and rich personal story that is able to speak to everyone on various levels. Your familiarity with the finer workings of a piano is irrelevant to the overall enjoyment of this show. Do yourself a favor and find time during this year’s SummerWorks Festival to experience this show.
Lessons in Temperament plays at a secret location. See email instructions for more information.
Friday August 5th 8:00 PM – 9:15 PM
Saturday August 6th 8:00 PM – 9:15 PM
Sunday August 7th 8:00 PM – 9:15 PM
Monday August 8th 8:00 PM – 9:15 PM
Wednesday August 10th 8:00 PM – 9:15 PM
Friday August 12th 8:00 PM – 9:15 PM
Sunday August 14th 8:00 PM – 9:15 PM
Individual SummerWorks tickets are $15 at the door (cash only). Youth Series tickets are $10, Live Art Series ticket prices vary. Tickets are available online at http://summerworks.ca, by phone at 416-320-5779 and in person at the SummerWorks Central Box Office – located at Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst St). Open August 2-14 from 10am-7pm. Cash and credit accepted.
Several money-saving passes are available if you plan to see at least 3 shows.
Audience advisory: Coarse language
Photo provided by the company