A version of this story ran in the June 2013 issue.
Above: Priscilla Rappaport
Priscilla Rappaport is a master piano builder—a klavierbaumeister. After performing as a symphony oboe player in her early 20s, she left the United States for Europe to learn piano-building at Vienna’s Bösendorfer piano factory. After returning to the U.S. in 1979, Rappaport and her husband, Joel, established a business in Round Rock, where she builds, repairs, and tunes pianos in her barn-style workshop. Though she recently began playing violin, she has never learned to play piano.
“I was always interested in piano work as a kid. My sister played piano, and it was horribly out of tune, so I thought I’d try to do something about it. I got involved as a 12- or 13-year-old trying to fix some out-of-tune piano, which meant using my father’s lineman’s pliers, which is not the right tool. Every Sunday my parents and two sisters would go visit friends, and I didn’t like going with them, so I’d say, ‘I have lots of homework to do.’ So I quickly opened up the thesaurus and the dictionary and my notebooks so it looked like I would be studying, but then I’d go get the lineman’s pliers in the basement and fool with it for two hours until my parents would come home. I was studying physics in school and I thought it was pretty neat to learn about frequency and strings and tension and woods and different things like that.
“I got a second [chair] oboe position with the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in Birmingham, Alabama, and was elected to play with the Baltimore Symphony, principal second. We went to Carnegie Hall and I played all kinds of tremendous symphonies, Beethoven and Brahms and violin concertos and piano concertos. The piano concertos were awesome in the sense that the sound of the concert grand caught my attention because the vibrations coming out of the back of the instrument were right in line with my seat. So I heard all these frequencies and harmonics and I thought, ‘Man, I can tune, but I need to build these things.’
“We were in Carnegie Hall and I met the tuner who came to tune the piano for us. I said, ‘How do you learn piano building?’ Ruby [the tuner] said to me, ‘If you want to build pianos, you have to go to the old country. Germany.’
“So we [Priscilla and her husband, Joel] sold all our possessions, got a Eurail pass, bought tickets to Germany, and looked up some piano factories in Europe. After a 12-hour flight, we got on the night train and slept a bit and got to Vienna at 6 o’clock in the morning. We walked into this archway which used to be an old monastery which Bösendorfer had for a long time. A gentleman came over to us and said, in German, ‘Can I help you?’ Panic struck us; we didn’t understand. And he immediately said, ‘May I help you?’ in English. And I blurted out, ‘We want to work here.’
“I was the first woman in the Bösendorfer factory. And they said, ‘That’s not going to work,’ and I said, ‘Well, I don’t see why not.’ They even asked Joel, ‘Is it all right if your wife earns the same amount of money that you do?’ [Five years later] I built my [first] piano with Pfeiffer [another manufacturer], and from that factory I finished my degree and then I came back to the States.
“What people need to realize in piano construction is there is no quick anything, you have to put in your time and do it right and know what you’re doing before you start. And one has to have a long attention span, because these things can take a year to do.
“It’s about doing a job well because it makes you happy and you’re making someone else happy. Plus, it’s about honoring a fine instrument that other people before you built, one that’s been played by a lot of people, because it has something to say.”
Aside from being a master piano builder, Rappaport is also a pilot. She’s been flying her single-engine Cessna since 1986, logging roughly 3,000 hours in the air, mainly on service calls throughout the Southwest. She invited me on a delivery trip to Houston one windy afternoon, and despite of my fear of heights, I had enough sense to bring my video camera. Watch this short video of Rappaport in the air.