It is bright and early on a Monday morning, and backstage at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, the National Symphony is tuning up for rehearsal.
All at once.
Give us a break, guys. Ease off a little, girls. You call this music? Sounds more like show-and-tell on Noah's Ark.
Honk goes a tuba, hoarsely, like a goose with a cold. Thunder go the drums, as if a rhino had taken up jogging. Put it all together, and nothing could be more of a distracting mess to anyone trying to concentrate.
But off in a cold, concrete corner, Ned Dodson only occasionally moves a muscle-to strike an A or a D. Otherwise, his concentration is total.
His eyes stare, not at what he's doing, but blankly, at a far off wall. It's the look some people assume when they want to hear very keenly and are operating on "feel." It's the look of a safecracker trying to hear the tumblers fall.
For Ned Dodson, it is part of what he calls "my pling-pling jazz." You or I would call it tuning a piano.
Dodson has performed his one-hour act perhaps 20,000 times in 22 years as a "piano technician," the last 18 in the Washington area. The fact that he is performing his subtle specially in the grimy wings of the Concert Hall, and not in someone's luxurious den, is proof that he has arrived.
About 110 Washington-area men, and a few women, make a living at tuning your baby grand so that little Mary,s rendition of Chopsticks will sound just right. But only Ned dodson is trusted by the National Symphony.
Before every symphony rehearsal and performance, he is there. With him is his trusty attache case, which has been rebuilt inside so that it can carry the 150 or so tools Dodson uses.
Dodson does not encounter unique problems when he works on the symphony Steinway. After all, a flat B Flat will sound undernourished on any piano, and the remedy for it is the same.
But Dodson has kept his choice job at the Kennedy Center for six years now, and that cannot be an accident. "I don't really know why I've been a success for sure," he says. "I think it's just studying hard and working hard."
That is overmodest. Ned Dodson brings gobs of dash to his work, and it is noticed. Any resemblance between him and the piano tuners of yesteryear-the fellows who wore rumpled black suits and worked for all the sandwiches they could beg - is strictly imaginary.
Consider the Dosdo of summer. He normally drives to his piano assignment in a car. But warm weather means Dosdon can wheel out his 1200 cc. Harley-Davidson motorcycle. That's a "bike" about half the size of a tank. To see Dodson sail past - in full leaher costume, his attache case lashed to the seat-is a sight, for sure.
You say the man's not a worker? Listen to what started three years ago, when Dodson and his family were invited to the Virgin Islands in January for a vacation.
As a courtesy, Dodson agreed to fix his host's piano. The family has repeated the January trip each year since, and Dodson has repeated his work on the host's piano. But word has spread through St. Thomas, and this year, without a peep of complaint, Dodson is committed to spending half his vacation pling-plinging.
You say he's not eccentric enough? Try this on for size: a piano technician who can't sing, can't play the piano, doesn't have anything close to perfect pitch and prefers Woody Herman to Chopin.
"What can I say?" says Dodson. "Jazz was my first love."
There is nothing so paradoxical in the roots of Dodson's career. When he was born 43 years ago in Berwick, Ps., his mother was the church organist. He tried cab driving and radio annnouncing, but when he finally chose tuning, he signed on as an apprentice to the fellow who tuned the church organ for his mother.
"I'd say it takes a good six to eight years in the business before you really know it," said Dodson. "You never stop learning about the instrument, though. There are a couple of thousand working parts. It's still fascinating."
Occasionally, it is more dramatic a career than one would imagine.
One Sunday evening years ago (a rare day off for Dodson), he was working in the garden of his Colesville home when the phone rang.
A pianist performing at the University of Maryland had broken the amplifying pedal. It was "sustaining" every note she played.
Talk about Noah's Ark. This was disaster. Could Dodson come fix it? Now?
"I was knee deep in mud. I didn't have time to change," Dodson recalled. But off into the gahering dusk he and his attache case flew. Dodson and his garden mud were a little embarassing in fron of the well-dressed audience, but they cherred when he finished.
Home visits, at $40 apiece, are still the bulk of his work, however, and in living rooms, Dodson said, he often finds pianos that have been treated like footballs.
He has found "everything from coat hangers to mouse nests to money" fouling the innards of a piano. So the rewards of his trade are making beautiful music possible, and earning between $30,000 and $45,000 a year, nut also rescuing pianos from serious damage, Dodson says.
"Every time I tune a piano, it makes someone happy," says Dodson, who by now has worked his way down to the lowest octave of the Symphony Steinway. "Maybe it'll be three or four or five people I make happy. Feeling that responsibility gives me great pleasure."
Just then, a stagehand is by his side. "Finished, Ned?" the man asks. Dodson says yes, and the second he has cranked his hammer one last time, the piano is pushed on stage. Aaron Coplans is waiting, after all.
Ned Dodson lets a smile start to form. "Love it," he saya. "Love it when those notes, they just go toghether like gears." CAPTION: Picture, Dodson: "Every time I tune a piano, it makes someone happy." By Craig Herndon - The Washington Post