How many piano tuners are there in New York City? I guessed 50, after thinking about it for a minute or so.
It’s a bizarrely random question that the author of a book I’m currently reading, Range, mentioned encountering on a university chemistry exam. Chemistry. And he figured it was a good thing. Most of his classmates did not!
Three days ago I’d never heard of Tennessee’s Remnant Church, nor of Gwen Shamblin. But that was before I watched the new three-part documentary The Way Down : God, Greed and The Cult of Gwen Shamblin. I mention the two things because it occurs to me that both of them really bring up an interesting point – by and large we’re smarter than ever, but not necessarily able to think well.
Shamblin was a lady whose weight had fluctuated wildly when young. Perhaps as a result, she studied nutrition and chemistry at university. In the 1980s, she began to write books and run seminars on weight loss, called “Weigh Down.” The gist of it seemed to be, at the time, to not eat unless you were really, really hungry. Exercise, portion control and food type didn’t seem to matter much to her so long as one only ate when they really heard their stomach growl. She was raised as a conservative Christian, and probably prayed upon it , or at least we’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she did. She found that her message was more accepted if she added in a suggestion to pray to God that He lift the pounds off you and keep you slim. Once she did this, she found that many churches, especially in the American South started offering her workshops to their congregation. Business boomed.
So much so that she and her husband soon started their own church near Nashville, the Remnant Church. It mixed a message of traditional, strict Christianity that emphasized children being very obedient and dressing in traditional garb (long white turn-of-the-century dresses for girls, jackets and ties for boys) and the wife being obedient to the husband. As well as an ongoing message of Hell looming large for any who strayed from the path. But what set it apart was its twin message of God loving slim people only. Her church was also the pulpit for her Weigh Down program, and those who were chubby were rather shunned, shamed and told they were unfaithful to God because they liked food too much.
Now granted, from the reports, some members did successfully lose weight and feel better about themselves. But so too did some that struggled with weight get verbally abused and fall into deep depression. The “spare not the rod” mentality towards the kids of the congregation helped some children grow up to be fine and productive but again, caused mental issues for some and was cited in at least one murder case. A couple who were members of the church beat their son to death, citing instructions given them by one of the church edlers; they are in prison but the authorities couldn’t tie together enough evidence to charge anyone from Remnant, even though they executed a search warrant on the facility and found tapes of calls with the couple being urged to hit the child with glue sticks and so on.
The irony seemingly missed by most in the fancy pews was that the seemingly all-powerful leader of their church, Gwen, preached submission to men but ruled with an iron fist. The church forbad divorce, but she took up with a buff failed-actor, shown as rather a grifter in the documentary, while married to her (slightly overweight) husband who stayed in the shadows, and eventually …yep, divorced him to marry the more photogenic actor. God works in mysterious ways, I suppose. When her baby granddaughter died tragically, she called in some of the chubbier members of the congregation and told them God was judging the church and since it couldn’t be her or her family, one of them must be responsible. And while she preached modesty from the altar, as she got skinnier and older, the hemline of her short skirts seemed to rise in conjunction with her hair which would have put the buoffants of the ladies in the B-52s to shame.
I say that while adding, the people in the church were by no means “stupid”. Most were well-spoken, many had good jobs and drove nice cars. They perhaps liked the fellowship the church offered, all the more important when one considers that socializing with outsiders was frowned upon. But the bottom line is that they seemed to lack the skills of critical thinking needed to evaluate if their leader was giving them good advice or practicing what she preached.
Which brings us back to the piano tuners. Some student apparently made wild guesses (“10 000”), more answered to the effect of “I’m a chemistry student. How am I supposed to know?” Most these days would try to pick up their phone and say “Hey Siri, how many piano tuners are there in New York?” (to which it would probably respond, in my experience “ok, turning off dining room lights!”) The point is, in the book’s words, “that detailed prior knowledge was less important than a way of thinking.”
They explained the method used to come up with a guess, which was approximately how I came up with my 50. I knew the population of the city was around 8.5 million. Even if you’re not a geography fan, there’s a good chance you’ve come across that fact in a movie or book (picture the rom com where the girl complains to her Big Apple friend “there are eight million people in this city! Why can’t I find one nice man in that?”) Then estimate how many households make up that population (with a lot of singles and couples in a city and not so many large families, I guess about 2.5 per household) and that means maybe 3.5 million homes. Then guess how many of those have a piano. The city has a large wealthy population, but also some poverty and a lot of tiny apartments, so I guess 1 in 10. That’s 350 000 pianos. Add in a few for restaurants and studios, so maybe 375 000 of the 88-keys in all. Assume many of them aren’t being used, so maybe 200 000. Then also assume some people fool around on them but don’t care how they sound, so maybe 100 000 get attended to. How often do pianos need tuning? I have no idea actually, but I would guess every few years. Maybe five years on average? If so, then about 20 000 a year would get tuned. And how many pianos would a piano tuner tune? Again, guessing here. I have a vague idea of how it’s done. The have to adjust strings and such, but don’t need to move the instrument or rebuild it. Maybe two hours? Add in bit of transit time, and one might think a full-time tuner could do 12 a week. But some no doubt would just work weekends or after a day job, so maybe the average might be more like eight per week, or about 400 a year. 20 000 pianos per year would take 50 people to tune them, if those guesses were right or close at least. The object of the question isn’t really to find out how many there are, but to see if one could work through a complex problem that they don’t have expertise in. A skill a few more in Remnant Church perhaps could have benefitted from.
Believe in God by all means. Try to lose weight if you like. Think men should be leaders of organizations and women if you want. But stop and think about the reasons and if they make sense before making them your mantra.
Shamblin and her new husband died last year in a small plane crash. Her daughter now leads the ongoing House of the Holy.
By the way, Google tells us there are 8300 piano tuners in all of the U.S. and “more than 100 but far less than 1000 in New York City.” So now you know.