The name ‘Joffer’ in piano tuning goes back to the 1920s when Ismail’s grandfather started work in Misquith and Co

What do French pianist Richard Clayderman, Indian super composer A.R. Rehman and chart-topping American Hard Rock band Guns N’ Roses have in common?

The surprising answer traces its roots to a 65-year music shop in Triplicane, Chennai. With just a handful of people in South India specialising in piano tuning, Ismail Joffer, who has been in the business for 18 years since inheriting ‘Joffer Musicals’, was called on before their concerts in Bangalore.

Having been requested to attend to a piano for a private concert in Mangalore recently, the 34-year-old narrates the story behind the skill that has been passed down through three generations in the family.

The name “Joffer” in piano tuning goes back to the 1920s when his grandfather – whose name was anglicised by the British to Joffer – started work in Misquith and Co. that sold and repaired pianos. It was serendipity that led this daily-wage worker to set the tune for generations to come. “My grandfather lived in Triplicane, while Misquith and Co. was on Mount Road nearby. He went searching for a job, worked there as an errand boy, and was then taken as a piano tuner,” said Mr. Ismail. After independence the company wound up and Joffer started his store that still stands at Triplicane. His children grew up with the sound of the piano being strung, adjusted, tuned; and they took over the business. With their passing, the business now lies in the hands of Mr. Ismail and his two cousins, who have been there for 18 years now.

Painstaking

Piano tuning, he says, is an art learnt through practise – taking around six years to train the ear to recognise even the minutest variations in the notes. A grand piano involves 220 strings, with 85 keys or tunes. The tune from each key comes from three strings strung – and it is up to the tuner to painstakingly ensure synchronisation between the set of strings.

“It takes two hours for tuning, and patience is important,” Mr. Ismail says. They remain in demand as the ear can detect variations which may be overlooked by the commercially-available tuning devices.

When asked if the “tuning gene” has also led to a “music gene” in the family, Mr. Ismail enigmatically comments: “A good piano tuner cannot be a good piano player…both arts require immense time and effort, and so both can’t be mastered.”

Contrary to popular perception, Mr. Ismail says with a rising, aspirational upper-middle class, the demand for traditional grand and upright pianos is growing. And with this, comes a boom in business for the Joffers who have expanded their store to outlet to Bangalore. “Mangalore is small, but has a lot of piano players. All it needs is an active music society to put it on the classical music map,” he says. Though his children are still young, Mr. Ismail hopes that the Joffer name will continue in the tuning business. “Just as I was brought up seeing a piano tuned, my children and nephews have seen us work, and they have started to show interest.”