Years of piano lessons as a kid growing up in Island Lake taught Matt Ponio that he didn't yearn to make a living playing Beethoven concertos. So he turned his ability with a piano into a different kind of music career.
"A lot of my income," says the 26-year-old DeKalb resident, "comes from piano tuning."
And so does Ponio's Grammy.
As the assistant recording engineer for mentor and Northern Illinois University professor Dan Nichols of Elburn, Ponio repeatedly tuned two pianos and performed other tasks during the recording sessions for Third Coast Percussion's album, "Steve Reich," which won the Grammy Award a week ago for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance. Ponio and Nichols spent nearly a week recording the album.
"I was there the night before to tune the pianos. I tuned them the next morning. Every day I'd skip lunch to tune them," Ponio says, adding that he even had to tune pianos in the middle of recording sessions. "It's the most intense. They could hit a note, knock it out of tune, and I'd have to run in and fix it. That was a big reason I was there."
Hiring Ponio was "an easy call," says Nichols, 34, who runs a high-end production company called Aphorism Studios.
"Matt is super musically competent, super technically competent, could tune pianos and was up for coming along on the ride."
Ponio will receive a certificate noting he was part of a team that won a Grammy, while Nichols will get a Grammy statuette, same as Adele or Chance the Rapper. "It's a good club to be in," Nichols says.
"Congrats @ThirdCoastPerc on your #Grammy win -- shoutout to album engineers & #NIU alum/faculty Dan Nichols & alum @MattPonio," read a tweet from @NIUlive.
"Winning a Grammy is something I didn't even think about. It's unreal to me. It's amazing. It's fantastic," says Ponio, who tunes pianos at NIU, Loyola University and in homes for $100 a piano in addition to his work recording audio and video. "I walk through the school here and people congratulate me. It's weird. It was just another day in the office for me, and it happened to be really great and win an award."
Ponio still was working on his master's degree in recording arts from NIU when Nichols asked him to be part of the team for a week in the summer of 2015 at the University of Notre Dame, where the members of Third Coast Percussion were visiting artists.
In addition to tuning the pianos, Ponio helped place cables and the 40 microphones used to record the music, and listened along with Nichols to find the best takes. A flooded basement added to the workload, as Ponio, Nichols, producer Jesse Lewis and even the musicians hustled to turn off more than 100 industrial fans and dozens of dehumidifiers during every two-hour session when the noise would have interfered with the recording. The work was grueling, but rewarding.
"Those guys are all super friendly and great to work with," Ponio says of Third Coast Percussion members Sean Connor, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and David Skidmore.
The same is said of Ponio, who learned his tuning skills during independent study classes at NIU with David Graham, who tunes pianos at North Central College in Naperville and Chicago's Lyric Opera.
"A Grammy? Yeah, this is a first. I never thought I'd have a student win one," Graham says. "Matt Ponio is just that good. Anything you teach him, you don't have to teach him twice."
In Island Lake, where his father, John, was a trustee, Ponio, his older brother, Luke, and his younger brother, John, were home-schooled under a program managed by their mother, Teresa. Ponio played piano, saxophone, trumpet and other instruments, but just for fun.
"I realized I didn't want to go into performance. It's not a stress I enjoy," he says.
An aptitude test showed that Ponio had the ability for a career in accounting or engineering, which he found boring.
"Music was like 10th on the list, but it just hit me. Music is what I wanted to do," Ponio says. "My life is music."
After two years at McHenry County College, he received his bachelor's degree in music education from NIU and a master's degree in recording arts. Originally thinking he might be a middle-school band leader, Ponio says he now can see teaching recording arts and working as a recording engineer. In the meantime, he's in demand as a piano tuner.
"Recently I had a day when I tuned 10 pianos. Each piano has its own little quirks and problems," Ponio says, noting that he tunes by ear and supplements that with a $600 app on his tablet.
Adding a Grammy to his resume should help his career, and has him thinking about getting a chance to be the lead recording engineer on a future recording session that wins a Grammy.
"I sure hope to," Ponio says. "One of the first things I thought after they won is, 'I want one with my name on it.'"