By Ryan Pangilinan
Northwest Asian Weekly
While there are only 88 keys on a piano, its rich sounds can conjure up an infinite number of emotions within a listener. Although many Asian/Pacific Islander (API) parents dream that their child would become a classical prodigy, that notion seldom comes into fruition aside from a recital or three.
For Lithuanian-born Yuri Melekh, working with pianos became a bit of an inadvertent career path.
“I started taking piano lessons at the age of 6 and after about four years of classes, I rebelled against it,” he said.
Melekh’s frustrations with the piano were not derived from the works of classical composers, but rather from working with an instrument that was difficult to keep in tune.
After his early missteps around the piano, Melekh found himself immersed in other musical instruments, such as the guitar, flute, bass, and the trumpet. He also had a burgeoning interest in electronic engineering.
“I was young — too young — to [have a] serious career pursuit, but I got into electronics. Pretty heavy stuff, I would say,” explains Melekh.
After a few years of dabbling in other interests, Melekh found himself face-to-face with a piano and, out of sheer curiosity, began playing it.
“I sat down and played a simple tune, whatever I could remember at the time,” he said. “I was stunned at how beautiful it sounded, and I was in control of every nuance and dynamic and everything.”
“It just dawned on me. It’s not about me, it’s about the piano.”
This moment reawakened a dormant passion that was burning inside Melekh. He soon found himself in a music college studying choral directing and vocal training. Because knowing the piano was a mandatory part of his education, Melekh studied the ins and outs of the instrument. He learned how to tune it and figured out how to make sure a piano is working properly.
“Piano tuning was a very exciting type of craft in those days,” he said. “You could get by as a piano technician, especially for a private situation. … So I got interested in piano tuning.”
Although he was simultaneously pursuing careers in electronics engineering and music education, Melekh’s political views resulted in his expulsion from Lithuania in 1989. Lituania at the time was still part of the Soviet Union.
When Melekh arrived in the United States, he was able to continue work as an engineer and also quickly found his way back to the aforementioned 88 keys, tuning pianos for his friends.
“It was a hobby for a number of years, and then I got a job with a Steinway dealer in Tulsa, Okla.” he said. “And that’s where I got really intrigued with these instruments, Steinways.”
Steinway and Sons is one of the world’s foremost manufacturers of handmade pianos and is often the choice of professional pianists, including longtime Asian musicians such as Lang Lang and Yundi Li.
Melekh sought additional training in the company’s New York office and became a registered piano technician specializing in the brand. He eventually made his way to the Pacific Northwest in the summer of 2001.
Now a professional fixture, Melekh works with venues and musicians who need a skilled ear and set of hands to tune their pianos to the highest performing quality possible.
“I know how to bring the potential of a concert piano out,” Melekh explained. “My niche is …working on fine instruments, but I can work on any acoustic piano.”
Despite his successes, Melekh has found time to reach out to the community at large, contributing time and effort to relief work and various Christian organizations.
“[It’s] another asset,” he said, “working with people. There’s a listening side [and I can] connect with people.”
Definitely a statement indicative of a man who’s spent a number of years learning instruments, it’s encouraging to know that his accomplishments boil down to hearing the greatest instrument — the human spirit.
Melekh currently works at Sherman Clay. ♦
Editor’s note: Mr. Melekh contributed to the Asian American Pioneers in Music Awards Gala by fixing a piano that had been neglected for a number of years.
Ryan Pangilinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.