TUPELO – In theory, you could break down a grand piano, rebuild and tune it, all without knowing how to play it.
Dan Soper, 60, of Tupelo could almost be the case in point, except for one song, “It’s No Secret What God Can Do.”
“I’ve got that one little song that I do, a ditty to test it out,” Soper said. “People say, ‘Go on. Play some more.’ I say, ‘That’s all I’ve got. That’s my whole repertoire.’”
But give Soper a Hammond organ, and he’ll go to town. He’ll work foot pedals and flip switches, so you’ll feel like you’re in church one minute, on a dance floor the next.
“Sometimes, I come out to my shop and play late at night,” Soper said. ”But when you work as long hours as I do, there isn’t much time for anything else.”
He’s the owner and sole employee of Soper Piano and Organ Co., and he’s been in the music business since his teen years.
“I can take you up and down the street and say, ‘That home has a Hammond C3,’” he said, “’or that home has a grand piano that they keep in that room.’”
In 1963, Soper’s father, the Rev. C.D. Soper, opened a music store with a partner. That partnership dissolved about five years later.
“I was a delivery man from the beginning,” Soper said. “In 1969, we went into the Tupelo Mall. I became his partner at that point at 20 years of age.”
He learned the art of piano tuning after a two-year apprenticeship. There’s plenty to learn, Soper said, but knowledge won’t help without inborn talent.
“I’ve tried to apprentice several people,” he said, “but after riding around with me for a couple of days, they don’t hear what I hear.”
He taught his brother the craft, and now Tim Soper is a piano tuner in North Carolina. Soper believes he could’ve taught his three children if they’d showed any interest.
“You have to stay focused on what you’re doing,” he said. “Piano tuning, if you do it right, is very stressful, physically on the body and on the mind. You’ve got to put your concentration on it.
“And you’ve got to be born with the ability,” he continued. “You’ve got to have that.”
In addition to his piano work, Soper is the Hammond organ dealer for north Mississippi, and he repairs all brands. In a workshop full of pianos and organs in various states of repair, he has filing cabinets stuffed with schematics and manuals.
“The oldest one I’ve worked on would have been between 1935 and ’38,” he said. “Somewhere along there.”
Imagine the technological changes since then. Soper’s studies have included tubes, transistors, integrated circuits and computers.
“You can call and tell me, ‘My organ is doing so and so,’ and I could tell you what type of organ it is, what model year it is,” he said. “They tend to have the same problems.”
He has a small showroom at his shop off Chesterville Road, and he takes people to churches who’ve bought from him in the past. He handles the installation of the organ, as well as the sound system.
“A lot of churches have moved away from organs and away from grand pianos to keyboards,” he said. “A keyboard will provide a somewhat organ sound and a somewhat piano sound.”
On the road
There’s still a market for organs. Soper reported a good year in sales last year.
The demand for piano tuning remains steady. He’s got a van full of parts, and a metal suitcase filled with specialized tools. He travels to homes across north Mississippi, and makes routine trips to tune pianos at the University of Mississippi, Mississippi State University, Blue Mountain College, Itawamba Community College and beyond.
“It is very lonesome. Sometimes people are in the house, but a lot of times no one is around,” he said. “If they are in the house, you can’t talk to them because you’re working. It is a solitary business, but I like what I do.”
Contact M. Scott Morris at (662) 678-1589 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal