When Josh Gaither arrived at his mentor’s workshop one grey afternoon in 2013, he knew it would be no ordinary meeting. The man awaiting him, Knoxville’s venerated, prolific piano tuner Frank Hambright, was 89 years old and his health was failing. His time was short.
As they sat down together, Frank told Josh how proud he was of his star student, Then, without fanfare, Frank opened his worn tuner’s bag and carefully handed a tool to Josh, lovingly explaining its purpose and use. His mentor did this for each tool in the bag. “Keep them,” he finally told the young man. “These are yours.”
Frank’s improvised ritual left Josh with a feeling of extraordinary honor and respect; he was speechless. But the master, knowing the instruments of his trade were in good hands, was pleased. A few weeks, later, Frank passed away at age 90.
Frank’s transfer of the tools of his trade to Josh was fitting in many ways. Frank had volunteered to tune and maintain the pianos at the Joy of Music School for over a decade, a role Josh has taken over in recent years. Volunteering his skills as a piano technician gave Josh a valuable and fulfilling way to serve the students at the Joy of Music School, one of his passions.
Josh and pianos go way back. He was a precocious child, already playing piano at age three. Later on he took up guitar, drums, saxophone and bass, and played plenty of rock band gigs. But his connection to piano was special.
After high school, Josh worked in restaurants to make ends met while playing music. At age 24, he enlisted in the Army and served two tours of duty in Iraq. When he returned home, he studied music at Pellissippi State Community College under Tom Johnson. While Johnson noted that Josh “was an excellent piano and saxophone player,” he recognized Josh’s special gift at the keyboard. Josh remembers that Johnson “steered me back to the piano, and toward jazz.”
Taking Tom’s advice, Josh went on to study jazz piano at University of Tennessee with Donald Brown. Late in his time at U.T., Josh learned that the Joy of Music School needed volunteers. So he applied, saying he wanted to “give back to the community, and I already loved working with kids.”
It was around this time that Josh met Frank Hambright, and began to work with him. The inspiration of his mentor and his own keen interest in the piano as an instrument pushed him to pursue piano tuning and technology as a second career. With encouragement and support from Frank, Josh finally realized his dream and started Volunteer Piano, where he tunes, repairs, and rebuilds pianos for a living.
After Frank’s passing, Josh got so busy with his business that he had to stop teaching piano as a volunteer, and instead devotes his volunteer time at Joy of Music School to tuning and maintaining the pianos. He uses many of the tools passed down to him by his mentor. Despite the fact that he’s no longer teaching, Josh knows this labor of love benefits the children of the Joy of Music School, “whether they know it or not,” he says with a smile. He’s also keeping his mentor’s legacy alive.