When Charles Birnbaum was 13, he tuned his first piano, a beat-down baby grand that Birnbaum said looked like “it came from the inside of a fraternity house.”
Fiddling and fixing things came naturally to him.
“A lot of natural instincts and curiosity of how stuff works … was kind of built into me that I think they can’t really necessarily teach,” Birnbaum said. “You have to have that curiosity.”
What was once a skill that emerged from necessity for Birnbaum later became his livelihood.
Birnbaum, 75, has tuned thousands of pianos during his 40 years as a piano tuner, including the likes of those played by Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Stevie Wonder, and he doesn’t plan on retiring anytime soon.
Birnbaum knew he was going to pursue a career in music from a young age. His parents were both Holocaust survivors; they both lost their respective spouses in the Shoah and met while surviving in the Polish forests.
Birnbaum was born in Neu-Ulm, Germany in 1947 and moved to San Francisco in 1952 before arriving in Philadelphia five years later, where he would grow up and go to school.
Both he and his brother had a knack for music. His brother received a scholarship to attend the Curtis Institute of Music, while Birnbaum got more serious about his studies at the Settlement Music School.
“From the time I was 10-years-old, [music] was not something we did for fun. We took it very seriously,” Birnbaum said.
Per their parents’ upbringing, once they had found something they were good at and interested in pursuing, “the die were cast,” Birnbaum said.
But Birnbaum’s arrival at the Settlement Music School was kismet. It was there that he met mentor Marian Filar, a Polish pianist, virtuoso and Holocaust survivor who accounted his time in seven concentration camps in his 2002 book “From Buchenwald to Carnegie Hall.”
Filar took Birnbaum under his wing and pushed him musically. At 11, Birnbaum won a children’s competition to play piano with the Philadelphia Orchestra and three more competitions after that.
Filar mentored Birnbaum through his arrival at Temple University in 1964, where he received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees studying music. He met his wife at Temple while he was studying for his master’s; she was getting her master’s in music education. The couple married in 1971 and moved to Hammonton, New Jersey, where they could be close to Birnbaum’s parents.
Splitting his time as an adjunct professor at Temple University and a New Jersey community college, Birnbaum was beginning to think about a family. His first daughter was born in 1975, and the young family needed a supplement to their income.
Birnbaum began to sit in on classes from a piano rebuilder and technician, who every semester, tried to stump his class with an obscure question about music theory. Birnbaum was the only one to answer the question correctly.
“His jaw dropped,” Birnbaum said.
From there, Birnbaum’s career snowballed. He has always found joy in tuning pianos for his musician friends, especially because many of the professional tuners would do a poor job.
“Ninety-nine percent of the people they’re doing it for don’t know the difference; it’s kind of sad,” Birnbaum said.
After stunning friends with his tuning work, Birnbaum made a career for himself tuning pianos at the up-and-coming resorts and casinos in Atlantic City, close to where he lived and where he was raising his family.
As his prominence in the local music industry grew, however, so did troubles in his personal life.
In 2012, his family’s property in Atlantic City, where his parents had lived since 1965 until they died, was under threat to be seized by the state through eminent domain. The property was on the fringes of the now-Ocean Resort casino. Birnbaum ultimately won the case, which was taken to a New Jersey appellate court in 2019, but the “emotional impact” of the case took its toll.
The Birnbaum family moved into the Atlantic City home after their Center City apartment was deemed “unfit for human habitation” by the city. The move severely impacted Birnbaum’s mother, as the relocation to the suburbs limited her freedoms.
“It was like putting Mom in Siberia,” Birnbaum said.
The story was different for Birnbaum. Shortly before graduating, Birnbaum suffered a psychotic break and, after receiving psychiatric care, the move to Atlantic City was a fresh start. The home there was where he introduced his wife to his parents and where they became engaged.
Despite the hiccups in Birnbaum’s life, Birnbaum hasn’t slowed down. He just finished tuning the piano at the Tropicana Showroom for a Fifth Dimension performance on March 4. Next month, he’ll be doing the tuning for a show with Steve Martin and Martin Short.
After tuning pianos for over half his life, Birnbaum still has a deep passion for it: “It’s like giving a piano its