Breaking News Bar
updated: 2/20/2017 1:17 PM

Constable: Suburban musician, piano-tuner wins Grammy

hello
Success - Article sent! close
  • Smiling at the thought of having something in common with Adele and Chance the Rapper, musician and piano-tuner Matt Ponio, who grew up in Island Lake, won a Grammy for his work as an assistant recording engineer on an album of chamber music.

      Smiling at the thought of having something in common with Adele and Chance the Rapper, musician and piano-tuner Matt Ponio, who grew up in Island Lake, won a Grammy for his work as an assistant recording engineer on an album of chamber music.
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Yes, you can hire a Grammy winner to tune your piano. Matt Ponio tunes pianos, but the Island Lake native with a master's degree in recording arts also won a Grammy Award for his work on an album of chamber music.

      Yes, you can hire a Grammy winner to tune your piano. Matt Ponio tunes pianos, but the Island Lake native with a master's degree in recording arts also won a Grammy Award for his work on an album of chamber music.
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • A former saxophone and woodwinds player, Elburn's Dan Nichols, head of recording services in the Northern Illinois University School of Music, won a Grammy Award for his work as recording engineer on a chamber music album by Third Coast Percussion. Nichols' former student and Island Lake native, Matt Ponio, won a Grammy as his assistant engineer.

    A former saxophone and woodwinds player, Elburn's Dan Nichols, head of recording services in the Northern Illinois University School of Music, won a Grammy Award for his work as recording engineer on a chamber music album by Third Coast Percussion. Nichols' former student and Island Lake native, Matt Ponio, won a Grammy as his assistant engineer.
    Courtesy of Dan Nichols

  • Spending two years learning how to tune pianos, Island Lake native Matt Ponio used those skills and his master's degree in recording arts from Northern Illinois University to win a Grammy Award for his work with Third Coast Percussion, which won the award for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance.

      Spending two years learning how to tune pianos, Island Lake native Matt Ponio used those skills and his master's degree in recording arts from Northern Illinois University to win a Grammy Award for his work with Third Coast Percussion, which won the award for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance.
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • As a kid growing up in Island Lake, Matt Ponio learned how to play the piano, the saxophone, the trumpet and other instruments. But after realizing that he didn't like the stress of performing, he turned his love of music into a career behind the scene.

      As a kid growing up in Island Lake, Matt Ponio learned how to play the piano, the saxophone, the trumpet and other instruments. But after realizing that he didn't like the stress of performing, he turned his love of music into a career behind the scene.
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Winning a Grammy Award wasn't even on Matt Ponio's list of long-term goals. But the 26-year-old piano tuner, audio engineer and videographer from Island Lake won a Grammy for his work during recording sessions with Third Coast Percussion.

      Winning a Grammy Award wasn't even on Matt Ponio's list of long-term goals. But the 26-year-old piano tuner, audio engineer and videographer from Island Lake won a Grammy for his work during recording sessions with Third Coast Percussion.
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Video: Piano tuner and Grammy winner

 
 

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.'"

Article Comments ()
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.
    Winner - 2015 Best Website
    Illinois Press Association
    Illinois Press Association