By Sally Deering
In Hoboken, on the 4th floor of the Neumann building on Observer Highway, Aart Markenstein tunes some of the most beautiful and unique pianos ever made. During his career as a professional piano tuner, Markenstein has kept the pianos of some of the world’s greatest music legends in tune. Taught by a master tuner – like Luke Skywalker learning from Yoda how to become a Jedi – Markenstein’s tunings have been considered “perfection” by music professionals.
Markenstein has worked with music legends including Beyonce, U2, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Tony Bennett, Cher, The Eagles, K.D. Lang, Cyndi Lauper, the Black Crowes, Aerosmith, James Taylor, Ringo Starr, Chuck Berry – and so many more. He tuned the keyboards for Aretha Franklin’s performance at the 53rd Inaugural Ball and when Bob Dylan played in Hoboken last year, Markenstein tuned his piano, too.
Markenstein owns his own business Aart in America Piano Company in Hoboken and his office is a large space filled with an array of pianos from a Steinway Grand to a small upright brought to Markenstein for repairs by a member of John Mellencamp’s band. Aart in America is a full-service piano company where Markenstein repairs and rents out pianos and if you’re a lucky visitor, he might even play a tune because not only is Markenstein an accomplished tuner, he’s a stellar musician.
Helping Markenstein with Aart in America Piano Company is his wife of 32 years, Eileen, who were childhood sweethearts growing up in the Marion section of Jersey City (right behind Journal Square).
“Aart and my brother were best friends when we were kids,” Eileen says. “I would come home from school and Aart would be in my living room playing my piano. It was his passion.”
Eileen came from a musical family and Aart, the oldest of six, always wanted a piano and take piano lessons, but his parents told him he needed to save up the money on his own. He landed a part-time job, saved up $500 and bought his piano.
“He didn’t even tell his parents,” Eileen says.
Aart studied with Sal Lombardi, an organist at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel church and when Eileen attended Jersey City State College, Aart sat in on her music classes.
“I never stopped playing,” Aart says. “Eileen’s father got me a job driving a truck and I played in bands at night. I wanted to work in the music business any way I could. I saw an ad in the Village Voice for a driver/technician for Complete Music Service in 1991. I started to tune electric pianos, teaching myself. I learned how to set up gear and drum kits and the next thing I knew I was at Quad recording studios and Eric Clapton is in the recording studio. Every day it was another treat. David Bowie was a client, Lou Reed, I was in his house and he had racks of amps that had to be wired.”
In the 1990s, Aart and Eileen had a band ‘World Without End’. They played clubs like CBGBs, and put out a 16-song CD called CITY OF DEAD which got radio airplay here in the states and in Germany and led to a tour of Europe and the U.S.
In 1994, Aart went to work for S.I.R. Entertainment in New York City which rented instruments for national acts coming to town to play venues like Madison Square Garden and Giants Stadium (renamed MetLife stadium).
“They would come to one of S.I.R.s soundstages to rehearse,” Aart says. “Everybody was there, The Who, (Rolling) Stones, Cyndi Lauper. I would deliver gear to SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. I knew about the gear and didn’t crash the truck so I got promoted until I was just dealing with keyboards. I also did backline – set up all the instruments according to the stage plot.”
In 2003 he had an opportunity to study intensive piano technology with Kalman Dietrich, the founder of the Museum of the American Piano in New York City.
“There were six students in the class and one guy asked ‘where are the textbooks’,” Aart says. “Kalman said, ‘there are no textbooks. This is an ancient technology and you have to listen and pay attention.’ We started disassembling a Steinway antique piano to its core and learning to repair each piece in the piano.”
A year later Aart started his own business.
“Every piano is more than just a musical instrument, it becomes part of the family and memories are made from it,” Aart says. “It’s meant to last 75-100 years and has the memories from families playing and singing around the piano. The keys underneath the plastic are made of sugar pine, so grandma’s DNA is on that piano left from the oils of her fingers. The person is still with that piano because their DNA is on it.”
And throughout the years he’s had some great experiences, but probably the one that stands out the most is the time he worked on John Lennon’s piano.
“It was a 1901 Steinway Model “B” and when he recorded DOUBLE FANTASY, he used that piano,” Aart says.
Although he’s not planning to retire any time soon, Aart says he will likely ask one of his younger relatives if they would be interesting in becoming his apprentice and learning the trade. But that seems like a long time from now. In the meantime, he and Eileen are quite content running the business and still get a little starstruck when Aart is asked to tune a piano for a superstar.
And his favorite piano? The Yamaha Conservatory Grand. He says: “The longer the strings, the better the sound. I love every piano in the shop in the same way. Every piano has its own personality, like people.”
Aart in America Piano Company
300 Observer Highway (Neumann Building