Ken Eckert: Xylophone Tuner

The man, the xylophone, the legend...


Many people who see my business card or look at my resume ask me about my secondary calling as a xylophone tuner. This page is the result, as I would like to explain the fascinating world of xylophones and how I came to inherit the proud and ancient tradition, passed down from generation to generation, of being one of the few remaining expert xylophone tuners in the world. It is a dangerous life to carry the tuning mallet of the xylophone tuner, and sometimes lady fortune turns her back on even the best of the brotherhood. Few people are willing to spill the secrets of the seamy underside of xylophone tuning with its big money, fast living, and loose women. Fortunately, government files have largely been declassified in the last few years, I so am free at last to tell my story about how I came to this position, and hope that you will find this information and my story interesting.

The Instrument

{zy’-luh-fohn} A xylophone is formed of a series of acoustically undercut, graduated wooden bars suspended in keyboard arrangement on a frame, typically extending three-and-a-half octaves (see octave). A similar instrument an octave lower than a xylophone is a marimba. Predecessors of the xylophone date from prehistoric times in Southeast Asia and reached Africa before the period of European exploration and Central and South America possibly before the era of slave trade. By the late 15th century it appeared in Europe, typically developing with four rows of bars mounted on rolls of straw (Strohfiedel).

Players in coastal Sudan practice their art for an upcoming Xylo Magic & Debbie Gibson concert.  An unorthodox arrangement of the bars is required for the piece being performed in this photograph, Papa don’t preach.

My Family

I was raised during the hard years of the depression, when entire families were losing their life savings due to the hyperinflation caused by the cruel taxes of the imperial government and their minions. Being no different, as a toddler I remember working nineteen hour days in the coal mines, all for the pay of one crust of bread a week. Then I would go home to where my sixteen brothers and sisters lived in a cardboard box, and my father would beat me to sleep with his broken whiskey bottle. In the summer we had to work even harder, and sometimes I put in part-time shifts in the lumberyard as well, with nothing to eat but tree bark and rainwater.  

But soon the days of wine and roses were to end. First my father lost his job as a personal pesticide tester, and we were evicted from our cardboard box. We made the best of our new home in the side of a fence, but then my father deserted us for a chorus showgirl, right at the time when the harvest was due. We made the best of what we had, and fought off the wolves with our bare hands to collect the sour apples by hand. Only two of us were mauled to death, and we had enough gruel to survive the winter. But then the war started and things got tough.

Sometime after my mother, Riverboat Lil, lost me in an all-night card game, at the age of ten I was sold to Virginian slave traders who sent me by ship to fight in the war (I guess I couldn’t blame her if she had three aces and a jack). As I proved useful to the army in spotting landmines, I gradually moved my way up so that by twelve I was involved in reconnaissance missions across enemy lines where I would draw maps or search for weapons caches. 

I showed promise and was gradually given more challenging assignments. On one dangerous occasion I planted explosives in a gun house in the French theatre, and had to trigger it from a hidden underground cave while eluding search dogs. I still chuckle when I think of how I had to reprogram that jet airplane’s computer to let me fly it, all while it was sinking into a lake of acid! Those really were the days. There was no lingering about in the man’s army of those days.

By twenty, I had done it all. I had learned sixteen languages, escaped from Russian prisons, discovered secret genetic sequences, helped develop de-encryption codes for the allies, had driven tanks through the Arabian desert, had fought off trained Japanese cougars with my bare hands and my Jaeger knife, and spent six months in hiding with Tibetan monks. But cold war politics necessitated that I be kept hidden away for several years, as the information I had been given access to or had discovered myself on helicopter missions was too dangerous to let me live the ticker-tape parade life of the war hero.

The Congo is beautiful. But the time I was nearly mown down by anti-aircraft fire in Mandrigal was one of the most perilous times in my underground mission years. When I came to, I managed to gather enough strength to remember the Vietnamese herbal remedies I had been taught in the Thai jungle while impersonating a wandering Sherpa. After mixing a potion of Hibo roots and Zucaberry sap, I was strong enough to tie tourniquets for myself. By evening I was able to limp towards the river and build a small bamboo raft which I paddled to the inland village where I saved the stranded orphans with the serum I had been charged to deliver.

My Xylophone Education

A grateful United Nations could not yet divulge my accomplishments as a veteran, but they did have a surprise for me which would change my life. Their gift was to present me to my real parents, the Duke and Duchess of Thosselschnutz in the glowing mists of Austria. 

The Duke received me in his castle in the fiefdom of Seganacht, which my family had held for eight centuries.  This is how the castle looked in 1923.  The spire in the left top, housing the castle jacuzzi, was the gift of Kaiser Uberfluss in 1512, after the family had interceded with Pope Jethro IV in order to permit the Kaiser to succeed to the throne.

After a year’s convalescence, the Duke began to tutor me in xylophone tuning, revealing to me the family’s true secret: for centuries, they had been the royal court’s official xylophone tuners after my ancestor, Baron Hank d’Spears, had perfected the practice with the formation of his guild in the 1300s. After being the only survivor of an outbreak of plague, the Baron was appointed official tuner. The family passed on and jealously guarded the xylophone tuning skills for centuries, preserving their trade secrets and fraternal practices from the persecutions of kings and popes.

However, strong differences in instrument theory would bring sharp division to the xylophonic world. After the success of the xylophone operettas written by Bach and Puffus Daddy II in the 1610s, and the growth of the merchant classes of Europe following the hammered percussion instrument wars of the 1650s, the 95 Theses of Xylophone Tuning were published on a church door in Mainz by a reforming monk for all to see. Bloodshed briefly followed as the rival camps of ‘Woods’ versus ‘Metals’ began to war openly in Viennese streets, and xylophone-related assassinations mounted until King Charles of Walloon’s Act of Marimba Toleration was passed in 1708, leading to peace and universal xylophone suffrage.

I learned quickly at the feet of the Duke, who additionally introduced me to a wandering xylophone spirit guide. In the great forests near the castle, we would meditate and eat berries. I never learned his name, though I will never forget his parting words; see the xylophone; feel the xylophone; be the xylophone. Although, to the surprise of many, I never pursued a formal education in my field, I was a part of the University of Prague’s decision to offer degrees in the craft in 1991. The field now looks bright for some three dozen very elect scholars who yearly enroll in the graduate program in Xylophonology, usually with a minor in bartending or small engine repair.

My Work

My work as a xylophone tuner has, over the years, taken me to many countries. I presently do freelance work and am booked up for several months at some times of the year, particularly during festival season. But I take pride in my work, and give each xylophone my full attention until the job is done and I can rest in peace, whether it is a simple hand-crafted xylophone or an antique Stradivarian model with its sumptuously appointed Bavarian wood and rich, Corinthian leather. It can be both a glorious and a dangerous life to defend our collective xylophonic heritage, but I do my part to meet it proudly. Wherever xylophones lay untuned or menaced by international communism, and fear and uncertainty hold sway in our gentle land, I am always available to bring forth a new and shining day where men may walk free and proud in xylophonic harmony.

I am on full-time call to Alanis Horsman Vanelli, the Italian meister of the xylophone in the Symphonic Heavy Metal Orchestra of Rome. Alanis used to always tell me, "a well-tuned xylophone is lithe and flowing, like a beautiful woman in its supple feel."

Saskatoon may have a cold winter climate, but the Saskatchewan government reflects its people’s cultural devotion to music in their new Xylophonic Concert Hall, designed by architects Corus Hart and Jördon Lightfoot. Its annual summer festivals have already become popular with xylophone clubs worldwide.

Those smoky, halcyon days of xylophone jazz in Paris live on only in memory now. For a while I was personal tuner to Raoul Leon, the wünderxylist of Berlin, who seemed to live on "fine whiskey, fine cigars, fine women, and fine xylophones."

Some of my fellow co-workers in "the practice," taken last year when I was pleased to give an opening address to the Lisbon G20 Xylophone Congress on Nietsche’s lost scores.