A piano’s mechanic: Benton Harbor resident makes a living fixing pianos

Piano tuner Andrew Thiessen enjoys a quiet afternoon with his cat Zorro at his Benton Harbor home. (Don Campbell |HP Staff)

Piano tuner Andrew Thiessen enjoys a quiet afternoon with his cat Zorro at his Benton Harbor home. (Don Campbell |HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON HARBOR — Andrew Thiessen has kept Southwest Michigan in tune since 2003.

As one of the only piano tuners in the region, the Benton Harbor resident runs his business ‒ Andrew Thiessen Piano Services Inc. ‒ out of his house.

The 39-year-old loves that he is able to contribute to music every day. Born in Winnipeg, Canada, he had the ambition to move across the country to Toronto, where he learned what makes a piano work. Thiessen has been self-employed in Michigan since moving to Benton Harbor in 2003.

Thiessen is the first to admit he didn’t intend to get into this as a profession. For him, it’s slowly evolved into a passion and understanding of what makes a piano work.

Herald-Palladium Staff Writer Tony Wittkowski sat down with Thiessen to talk about how he got started and what it’s like to “operate” inside a piano.

So, how did you become a piano tuner?

I went to school for it. I went to Georgetown College in Toronto for two years. It was a two-year program on piano technology. We literally took pianos apart and put them back together.

We rebuilt them under supervision and learned tuning and repair work. Just a really good introduction to the industry. It really is an obscure job. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. It kept getting more and more interesting.

You look young for a piano tuner. When I hear piano tuner, I think of Father Time with a long beard working on a keyboard.

I’ve been hearing that my whole life. I’ve been a piano tuner since my early ’20s. It’s a very, very common misconception. Yeah, the average age of a piano tuner has got to be in the ’50s.

When did you start playing the piano?

I started lessons when I was 10 years old. So, that was my initial entry into music and piano tuning. I took it all throughout high school. I was a piano performance major in college for a few years.

For me, the performance aspect wasn’t what I was drawn to so much. I love listening to piano music and practicing pieces as a hobby, but not to perform. I’m normally behind the scenes, but I’m still connected to the music and get to work with musicians. I’m a technical guy with an understanding of the industry beyond my job.

So what does a piano tuner do?

In a nutshell, I do piano tuning ‒ which is the first thing people know about that a piano needs fixed. That’s adjusting the wires. There are about 220 wires on any given piano, so they need to be adjusted every six months or so. You get a lot of repeat customers just keeping that piano tuned.

That’s the first line of defense. It’s an acoustic instrument that is made of wood, felt, leather and metal, and they are all susceptible to humidity and temperature changes. A piano is inherently an unstable machine, so there are constant adjustments that need to be made. Parts twist and start sticking. A constant complaint I always hear is there is a sticking key.

After 17 years, what keeps you going?

I enjoy learning and going deeper into the profession. It’s very fulfilling. I’m basically a piano mechanic. On any given grand piano they have roughly twice as many parts as a vehicle. It’s fascinating only seeing the outside of a piano and having no idea what’s going on. Opening it up is like opening the hood of a car. It’s this amazing piece of machinery.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Oct. 26, 2015)


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