Thanks to a modest inheritance, head piano technician Lewis Surdam spent
10 years climbing mountains before becoming a piano tuner. In fact, he made
the first ascent, in one 30-hour push, of the highest peak in Canada's Northwest
Territories. Having dubbed it Mount Nirvana, Surdam might seem to have standards
too lofty to remain happy in his now primarily administrative career. But
he also enjoys life's humbler pleasures. "There is a satisfaction
in taking an instrument and getting it back into shape," he says. "And
then to hear it played...." Surdam began as a harpsichord tuner: as
a baroque flute player, he often performed with harpsichords, which, he
says, "go out of tune hourly." After studying at Boston's North
Bennet Street School, he joined Harvard's piano technical shop in 1980.
Five years later, as head of the department, he inventoried the Faculty
of Arts and Science's collection-more than 200 pianos, half of them Steinways.
Surdam feels very lucky: he and his staff have a large shop and can perform
major repairs in-house at a fraction of the usual cost. And he still has
his fair share of adventures. Some years ago, after the music department
had purchased a German Steinway, the local game warden refused to allow
the piano off the dock until he received confirmation that the keyboard's
ivory came from a donor elephant who had died of natural causes. With documentation
provided, the piano arrived two weeks late, filled with the warehouse's
frosty air, but perfectly in tune. Says Surdam: "We were impressed."