Tuning pianos at Interlochen is a job that never ends

Aug 11, 2017

Interlochen Arts Camp just wrapped up for the season. During the summer, over 230 pianos are on campus for the students. That’s a lot of work for a piano tuner.

“The only thing I can compare it to is having an infant,” says Jessica Masse. “And always having to just be at their beck and call.”

Jessica Masse is the head piano technician at Interlochen Center for the Arts. During the summer camp season, she walks through a group of practice huts right off Green Lake.

And she listens. 

During Interlochen Arts Camp, students practice their instruments inside these practice huts, producing a cacophony of sounds.
Credit Dan Wanschura

“It’s probably a nice place to hear music — in the woods — but it’s not really the place for instruments,” Jessica says.

That’s because the summer heat, humidity and the cooler temps at night make it hard to keep all the pianos in tune.

Jessica is responsible for looking after 165 pianos on campus year-round. But in the summer, about 70 more pianos are shipped and stored in these huts for students to practice on.

“I’m listening for the worst ones,” she explains. "I hear one over here to my right ... it’s just a couple notes out of tune.”

Besides tuning, Jessica does repairs and maintenance. And she has a small team that helps her out during camp season. Each person can tune about three pianos a day.

Jessica walks into an open practice hut. There’s a grand piano inside. She sits down, and starts playing.

“This is a bad unison,” she says. “This is an out of tune unison … so, this piano could use a little work.”

When Jessica plays a key, inside the piano a hammer strikes three strings. When those strings are out of tune, she can correct it by adjusting a pin. 

Jessica Masse says a piano technician can usually tune about three pianos in an eight-hour day.
Credit Dan Wanschura

“Right,” she says. “That’s how we tune a piano.”

Jessica Masse grew up in Ontario, Canada. And she says she’s always had an ear for how things should sound.

“My parents would take us to theatre and orchestra events, concerts,” she says. “And I could sit in the audience and know when something wasn’t right.”

As she got older, she wanted to be a pianist. In college, she enrolled in a piano technology program so she could take care of her own piano. 

“I found that tuning pianos came more naturally to me than all the practice of trying to be better at piano,” she says.

Jessica has been working at Interlochen for the past eight years. She still plays the piano, but says she no longer has the desire to perform.

“In this profession, I get to help musicians and artists with their art,” she says. “So, I don’t feel like I’m actually away from the piano because I’m actually helping artists perform the best that they can.”

Maybe you’ve heard that saying about painters and the Golden Gate Bridge — that when they get done painting it, it’s time for them to start all over again.

You could say something similar about Jessica Masse. Only instead of painting a bridge, she’s tuning pianos.