Some of my favorite moments are the ones when either of my daughters sits at our piano and plays her heart out, oblivious to the rest of the world. Those moments make me realize how fleeting childhood is — maybe because I remember being the kid sitting at the piano playing my own heart out, having no idea of the road to come. Music tugs at its own set of heartstrings.
But occasionally, those strings need a tuning.
Enter Preston Hebert of New Iberia.
I knew I was in for a treat when the dapper gentleman arrived wearing a grey tweed flat cap and balancing three bags of equipment. Hebert has been tuning pianos professionally for 50 years. In 1969, after serving three years in the Army, where he played bass, he came home to build a career in his father’s footsteps.
Hebert had a head start on learning the piano-tuning trade. His dad started teaching him how to tune pianos when he was 8.
Hebert happened to know our piano well. About five years ago, we bought it secondhand, from a local professional piano player. Between graduations, the 2016 flood and life in general, I had forgotten all about the need to get the piano tuned until a friend told me about Hebert, whose dance card is full. When I told him about our piano, he knew it and agreed to tune it again. He had tuned it throughout its life until we bought it.
I explained on the phone that it still sounded great. He said, “Pianos that are well tuned have great memory — and I tuned that piano regularly for years.”
The first thing he asked when he got to my house was if I played. I explained that I used to, but adulthood had gotten in the way. I asked if he played. He said that he dabbled and always played a bit once the piano was tuned.
He went right to work, taking the piano apart and showing me the dates and codes he had carefully hidden inside to show when it had been tuned and who had tuned it previously.
“I used to come across pianos my dad had tuned,” he said as I read the dates inside our piano. “Not so much anymore.”
In all, there have been seven Hebert piano tuners. His dad, Wilton Hebert, born in 1906, was the original and started tuning in 1927.
I asked how his dad got his start.
“Now that’s a funny story,” he said as he continued working.
Six or seven nights a week in the 1920s, Wilton Hebert played clarinet and saxophone in a Dixieland band in clubs throughout the region. The club’s pianos were all terribly out of tune — Wilton thought how much better the band would sound with an in-tune piano.
“He also knew playing music wouldn’t last forever,” Hebert said.
So, in 1927, Wilton Hebert ordered and completed a mail-order piano tuning course. According to his son, after Wilton completed the course, he went to Werlein’s Music in New Orleans and said, “I want to see the boss.”
Clerks explained that he couldn’t see the boss, but the 21-year-old young man said he would wait. Eventually, the boss saw him and Wilton convinced him of his plan. He spent the next month with Werlein’s piano tuners teaching him everything they could. At first, he did whatever they asked of him — went for coffee, handed them tools, whatever. Eventually, they liked him and not only taught him the skill but agreed to refer all pianos they sold in Acadiana to him for the first free tuning.
About 10 years passed before Wilton moved from being a full-time musician to a full-time piano tuner. Then, one day, Werlein’s sold a piano in Lake Charles. Wilton had just trained his brother, Noah, the skill and sent him to tune a single piano. Noah didn’t come home for two weeks there were so many pianos in Lake Charles that needed tuning. Lake Charles was Noah’s territory for decades to come.
These days, Preston Hebert travels from Morgan City to Eunice, to Crowley, but mostly Lafayette. Four Heberts still tune pianos — in Acadiana, Biloxi and Los Angeles.
True to his word, when he finished tuning our piano, he played a tiny concert — mostly songs he learned from his seven sisters who all sang. He played the songs by heart.
I got the feeling that there’s a fine line between music and heart in the Hebert family.