It took Michael Kilgore more than 40 years to return to his first love -- music.
After decades as a high-profile consultant, years as the editor of Celebrate newspaper and then a tile salesman in Key West, the bassoon major and piano minor has always found time to make music. But with his new late-in-life career as a piano technician-to-be, Kilgore not only makes music; he makes music possible.
By restoring and repairing antique grands, uprights, spinets and baby grands and by bringing the newer models back into tune after the humidity and salt air of the Florida Keys have their way with the delicate moving parts, Kilgore has found another career that he truly loves.
Keys Tuning is currently a part-time operation for Kilgore, who tunes and repairs in the evenings and on weekends while he studies for his final test to become the Florida Keys' only registered piano technician, a title he expects to earn in the coming year.
"It's wonderful to take these old guys and gals apart and give them another voice for another 100 years," he said, perusing his workshop that currently occupies the front room of his Bahama Village cottage. "I was essentially going back to when I was 18, wondering what to do with the next 20 years of my life, and I finally decided to go back to my first love, which was music."
The seed was planted in 2009 when Kilgore wanted to rent a cottage owned by Key West activist Connie Gilbert, who refused to move -- or part with -- an antique, baby grand piano named Zelda, after F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous character.
"First I told her I'd help her move her stuff out of the cottage, then I told her I'd buy the piano from her right then and there," he said.
Zelda, a 1910 Knabe piano, the only type used by the Metropolitan Opera, has become a labor of love for Kilgore, and a good opportunity to practice his craft.
Zelda occupies a place of honor in Kilgore's living room, while the workshop is filled with parts from other pianos in various stages of repair and restoration.
There's an 1883 Schubert that belonged to a woman's great-grandmother and is need of some serious resurrection, along with some replacement ivory keys.
"And obviously, ivory is not easy to come by these day," Kilgore said, adding that he has been able to track down recycled piano keys from repair shops all over the country.
He has to reproduce and replace all the hammers and dampers that are attached to each of a piano's 88 keys.
"There are 58 moving parts between the front of the key and where it strikes the string on a grand piano," he said, peering at the frame that holds his work in progress.
Kilgore provides estimates for piano repairs, "and I won't go over my estimate, even if I thought it would take me 50 hours and it ends up taking me twice that."
A master technician told him he has a tremendous ear for tuning, and he often spends evenings and weekends in other people's living rooms, tinkering with their pianos until they sound perfect.
"One client said my tunings were the best he's ever had for his two grand pianos," Kilgore said, clearly proud of his new profession.
Tunings cost $80 for churches and schools and $100 for private owners, he said. If the instrument is need of a pitch raise, it will cost an extra $60.
"But there are only 16 registered piano technicians throughout South Florida, and I'll be the only one in the Keys," he said. "The tuning is the easy part; it's the technician part that gets complicated."
He tuned and repaired the piano at St. Peter's Church on Center Street with just an hour to spare before a world-class concert with Linda Sparks.
Some pianos are family heirlooms that may not be worth the cost of the restoration, but are priceless in another sense, while others are concert pianos used by world-class musicians, not kids practicing scales and then pounding the keys in frustration. But they can all sound magical -- when they're in tune.
"Are there enough pianos in the Keys to make this a full-time career?" Kilgore asked. "I hope so. And for someone who truly loves their piano, I'm probably going to be the best thing for it."