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Childhood blindness led him to the piano, and now he’s Toronto’s most remarkable piano tuner

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WATCH ABOVE: Mark Zillmann started taking piano lessons in Grade 3, but he never really had a passion for it. While childhood blindness led him to the piano, it was his knowledge of the keyboard. Now Zillmann is one of Toronto's most remarkable piano tuners. Susan Hay reports – Jan 9, 2019

Mark Zillmann started taking piano lessons in Grade 3, but he never really had a passion for it.

“I attended a blind school in Brantford and their students were given an opportunity to take music lessons,” Zillmann said. “I found it monotonous.”

By the time Zillmann was in his teens, he was curious about the inner-workings of his piano. In fact, all pianos. This is where his story began.

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At one years old, Zillmann was diagnosed with Retinoblastoma, a type of cancer that occurs on the retina of the eye. By the time he was three, Zillmann had zero vision.

“Growing up as a blind person, I naturally adapted to my world as it is,” Zillmann said. “Like anyone else growing up in their environment, I grew up in mine. I know where everything is and I use sound and touch to figure out where I am.”

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Ironically, the piano lessons Zillmann once found boring provided him with the knowledge of the keyboard – which is fundamental to piano tuning. Zillmann fell in love with it, took a course, and today he is known as one of the best professional piano tuners around.

“I don’t need to see to tune a piano because a lot of it’s done by ear anyway,” Zillmann said.

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“I think most people today are starting to learn to tune with what they call cyber tuning, so they use a computer aid,” said Don Sevier, production manager at Robert Lowrey Piano Experts. “Mark doesn’t need that, he does it by ear.

“That’s the traditional way of course and it’s just better than computers.”

Zillmann now tunes pianos all over town, including the University of Toronto – Faculty of Music.

He has private clients, tunes at different bars and recording studios. But for more than 20 years, Zillmann’s been working at Robert Lowrey’s, the largest piano specialty house in Canada.

“You know I started working at Robert Lowrey’s when I didn’t have much work,” Zillmann said. “So it kind of feels like home.”

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“This is a huge store and Mark finds his way around just like anyone else,” Sevier said.

“If I’m at Lowrey’s for the entire day, it is possible that I would do five or six pianos,” Zillmann said. “Generally, an hour to two hours for one piano.”

“I feel fortunate to have the work that I have and that I have a skill that I can offer the world.”

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