Dorset lives — Tuning in
Philip Blake’s musical skills take him all over Dorset in many different guises. Tony Burton-Page managed to catch up with him.
Published in December ’09
Guests at several Dorset weddings in recent years have been startled and amused by the appearance of unexpected tunes in the organ voluntaries. When a noted Dorset doctor married a Marine, the outgoing medley included the Doctor Who theme and the Match of the Day tune; during the signing of the register at a wedding which took place just after Great Britain’s quartet had won a rowing gold medal in the 2004 Olympics, the Eton Boating Song and Row, Row, Row Your Boat were distinctly heard emerging from the closing bars of an otherwise innocent classical piece; and on at least one occasion the congregation has been fooled into standing up for the arrival of the bride by an organ fanfare which then broke out into Bare Necessities from the musical version of The Jungle Book.
The perpetrator of these gentle japes is an astonishingly versatile resident of the village of Child Okeford. Philip Blake has lived there with his family for ten years now and has become an integral part of village life, providing the music for all sorts of events and contributing in numerous other ways. But he is known to hundreds of Dorset households as ‘the man who comes to tune the piano’ – for this is Phil Blake’s profession.
Phil was born in Bournemouth and says that his musical education started at St Andrew’s Church in Kinson, for it was there that, at the age of seven, he joined the choir, going on to become head choirboy. Thelma Russell, who was the choir leader, spotted his musical talent and started him on piano lessons. But, like many children, he never really enjoyed piano lessons and their diet of pedagogical pieces: between the ages of seven and fifteen, he estimates that he had only three years’ worth of piano lessons because he kept on giving up.
‘What’s more, there was a girl at school who was a really talented clarinettist, and I just didn’t see myself in the same league as her. I reckoned that I would never be able to make the grade as a performing musician. To a certain extent, I regret that now, as I limited my own options, but it gave me an opening into a very different world. At least with the career I chose I’m not out playing every night when everyone else is enjoying themselves! And every time I meet an orchestral musician for whom music is just “a job”, I realise that maybe they’ve lost the passion for it that I’ve still got.’
Phil’s moment of epiphany came when the family piano was tuned by veteran Bournemouth piano tuner, Les Sherlock. ‘The piano was an old honky-tonk, but when Les played it after he had done his tuning it sounded fantastic! It inspired me to want to make the sort of difference he had made. I remember thinking – and I was only seven – that if he could make my piano sound like that, then I could, too.’
For it was not only music which had caught the imagination of the young Philip Blake: he also loved woodwork and metalwork and had shown much talent with both skills. This was why, when the time came to leave school, he chose to study at the London College of Furniture, which ran a four-year course called ‘Stringed Keyboard Instrument Technology – Piano’. But before then his involvement with music and with the church had deepened. He had carried on singing in the church choir and at Kinson School and then at Kingsleigh School. His music teacher there was Glyn Bosanko, whose family ran the well-known music shop Bosanko Brass and whose father ran the brass band at Oakmead School. Phil played the bugle in the Boys’ Brigade band and went on to the euphonium, the cornet and finally, at college in London, the trumpet.
‘It may sound strange, but the London College of Furniture gave me a wonderful all-round musical education! There was such a wide variety of students there – not only piano tuners but violin makers, early woodwind instrument turners, lute makers and many others – that the general studies teacher was able to start a baroque orchestra and choir. I had to learn how to play the high D trumpet, which was drastically different from the cornet and much more difficult.
‘The college was in Aldgate East, so I lived in East London, staying with Christian families and getting involved with the local churches. Student life was great. I remember once a gang of us pushed a piano all the way from the college to Covent Garden in aid of rag week. We cleared it with the Metropolitan Police but forgot that we’d have to go through the City – and we didn’t clear it with the City Police, who weren’t at all pleased and told us to get off their patch sharpish. When we got to St Paul’s Cathedral, we stopped and played the Widor Toccata – I think we’re the only people ever to have played it outside St Paul’s!
‘I came back to Dorset in 1987 and started a piano tuning business in Kinson. The lifestyle suited me because it meant I could get involved with church activities, and it was at this time that I started to learn the organ, with Dave Roberts at St Andrew’s. A highlight was the visitation of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, to the Poole Deanery – we had a choir of more than a hundred plus a huge band, and I led the worship from a grand piano on the stage of what was then called the Poole Arts Centre.
‘I’ve had to cut down my church commitments as there’s a family to consider now – I’ve got two small children and my wife, Sarah, is an airline pilot so she’s away quite a bit. But the piano tuning is my livelihood – and it keeps me supplied with cups of tea and chocolate cake!’
Phil has many stories to tell about the life of a rural piano tuner. He has found many unexpected things inside pianos he has worked on – mice (dead and alive), coins (but not, alas, in any significant quantity) and, intriguingly, spaghetti. He also tells of the occasion when he was locked for three hours in a porch.
‘The customer went off shopping and told me to let myself out, which I duly did – but from force of habit she’d locked the outer door of the porch. There were no mobile phones in those days, so there I sat until she came back!’
But the boot was on the other foot a few months later. After tuning a piano in a church, he again had to let himself out – but this time he had been given the key and so locked all the doors. The ladies who had been quietly arranging the flowers at the other end of the church were not released from their prison until they had tolled the bell for quite some time.
Phil’s practical skills mean he enjoys restoring things – not only pianos and harpsichords but also cars. He has given a new lease of life to two Morris Minors, one of which he described as a ‘barn find’.
‘I like the thought of restoring instruments, but it’s very time-consuming. I’m happy to go on tuning pianos – and you get more cups of tea that way!’