Tickling the Ivories of Life

Franke’s fingers dance on the keys of a special kind of piano

Piano craftsmanship has helped shape one local man’s life
Many people dream about taking something they love and turning it into a career. For Gilroy resident Martin Franke, that dream came true.

“I made my career after my apprenticeship with Steinway and Sons, and I even met my wife when working on a piano at a church,” Franke said.

Thirty years in the business and five children later, Franke now spends his days tuning and refinishing pianos throughout the Bay Area and the world. There are about 30,000 pianos in the Bay Area and only three dozen tuners and builders, Franke said, so he keeps busy. The Gilroy resident prizes his background with Steinway and Sons, one of the most highly praised piano-makers in the world.

“I’m the only person in the United States with a Steinway and Sons background,” he said. “I can work with as many as 600 clients a year.”

Although he uses his years of experience to fine-tune, build and finish pianos today, Franke’s career started in Germany with grunt work under some of the most famous piano craftsmen in the world.

Born and raised in Berlin, Franke, 53, started playing the piano and the viola when he was 6.

“I learned notes before I went to school,” he said. “I’m surprised I didn’t write them instead of my ABCs.”

His mother played the piano, and his father strummed the bass. When Franke was in the ninth-grade his school held a career fair. It was then that he decided working on pianos was for him.

“I could have worked on pianos or organs, but I developed a feeling for wood,” he said. “My dad took me to a cabinet shop when I was young, and I remembered loving the smell of the wood. And working on organs there meant working in cold, drafty churches, and I didn’t want to do that.”

Working with the Berlin Chamber of Commerce, Franke landed an apprenticeship for 3 1/2 years with Steinway and Sons when he was 16. At the time, he said, he didn’t realize what a huge opportunity he had received.

“We were so close to the environment that I think we took it for granted,” he said. “It was just understood that we worked with the greatest.”

While working with Steinway and Sons and on his own, Franke worked with famous musicians and composers including Robert Stoltz, Alexis Weissenberg and Freidrich Gulda.

“I think it really set in that I was in the company of greats when we were in their homes and they would play for us,” he said. “It was mind-boggling, and your jaw just dropped. I can still remember the sound like it was yesterday.”

Since moving to the United States when he was 24, Franke has worked steadily on pianos and harpsichords everywhere. From $175,000 pianos to $300 clunkers, he has worked with a multitude of clients and said his job never gets old.

“Every piano is different, and it’s contemplative work,” he said. “It’s enjoyable to work with material and be able to turn something into a work of art.”

Los Altos resident Marti Narbutovskih owns a Steinway piano and has hired Franke in the past to work on her instrument. She said she feels lucky to have found him.

“I chose him because of his experience,” she said. “My piano was a mess, and the trouble is that a lot of technicians don’t know how to get the sound from the piano. Martin does.”

Franke’s wife, Lori, is also a musician and the director of the South Valley Suzuki String Academy in Gilroy. She said the credibility of being a master piano-builder trained by Steinway and Sons is huge in the United States.

“Steinway and Sons is the No. 1 piano-maker in the world, so being trained by them is a big credential for (Martin),” she said. “Being a piano-builder is such an old-world craft that many people don’t do, so it makes him one-of-a-kind.”