I step into Jim Hess’s piano shop and breath in.
It smells like spruce, pine and hard work. Hess stands over the “belly” of a piano—the world that exists beneath the keys. With the skilled hands of a surgeon, he points out to me the soundboard he just built.
“I actually bought a spruce plank—2 inches thick and 10 inches wide— so I basically started from the tree to build it,” says Hess.
I look at his hands and don’t doubt him.
“It’s very rewarding work,” he says.
The result is a flawless, perfectly constructed soundboard most piano players will never see. A piano technician’s work is essential but often invisible.
“A piano is made up of 11,000 parts,” says Hess. “And 9,000 are moving. So we don’t want to mess this up.”
All around me are pieces of pianos at various stages of construction. Many of the pianos here have been brought in by families hoping to preserve a part of their family’s identity. This shop could be the Mechanicsburg version of the North Pole. The shop holds an unmistakable sense of wonder and restoration.
At Hess’ side, witness to all of the magic that happens here, stands his 31-year-old apprentice, Daniel Haubert.
In a world where apprenticeships are largely a thing of the past, Haubert demonstrates wisdom and a proactive spirit in his desire to learn from Hess.
Piano tuning has a reputation for being an ancient art. How did someone as young as Haubert get into it, and how did he end up at this particular piano shop?
The answer has almost as many moving parts as the piano itself.
Haubert studied journalism at Temple University, with a focus on sports management. After graduation, he worked for the Travellers, a Minor League baseball team in Arkansas. That job led to another one with the Harrisburg Senators in 2010.
“ I was the organist for the team,” says Haubert. “That really helped to seal my interest in and love of music.”
Eventually, Haubert left the Senators to work for a construction company. When it went out of business, Haubert realized he had to find a different career path quickly.
He remembered his love of piano and enrolled in the Butler School of Piano Technology. He learned a lot during that time, but something was missing.
“On paper, I knew everything I needed to know, but I knew that paper could only get me so far,” he says. “The best way to learn how to be a good piano technician is to work with someone who’s dedicated themselves to learning pianos.”
At a traffic light in Camp Hill, a car pulled up next to Haubert’s with the name Jim Hess on it. Hess had a sticker on the back of his car that said “Registered Piano Technician.”
“I thought, ‘That guy really knows what he’s doing,’” Haubert said. “I called him, and he was willing to meet me. Now, we’ve started this apprenticeship on tuning, life issues, (piano) belly work and finding clients. I’ve worked with a lot of coaches. Jim is my life coach.”
Hess became interested in pianos years ago after buying an old piano for his wife.
“I began tinkering with it, trying to figure out how everything worked,” says Hess.
When he and his wife moved back to this area in the 1970s, he decided to explore the piano technician field.
“I really got a kick-start to my career,” Hess says. “One Friday evening shortly after we moved back, I received a call that the piano tuner scheduled for an event that night had died suddenly of a heart attack. I tuned the piano for that evening’s event. That night, the artist stopped in the middle of the concert and remarked on what a well-tuned piano it was. A reporter heard and put in the paper, which really got things moving.”
Through diligence, study and Hess’s help, Haubert is well on his way to a successful career as a piano technician himself.
Both Hess and Haubert are asked all the time if they play the piano.
“Playing is an art; tuning is mechanics,” says Haubert. “We’re mechanics. We have to understand everything about how this works so that the artist can do their job.”
People also ask what a piano technician does besides tune pianos. The answer: everything.
“People think piano technician means piano tuner,” says Haubert. “But tuning, as difficult as it is, is just the introduction to the industry. There’s tuning. There’s repairing. There’s restoration and refinishing. It’s endless.”
Pianos have a habit of staying in families and are usually of great sentimental value to the clients Haubert works with. He tunes his pianos by ear, and the result, according to client Andy Joos, “is pretty stunning.”
“The harmonies are all in excellent tune, regardless of the key that I’m playing the hymn in,” Joos said.
As Haubert continues to learn from Hess, it is clear that he is well on his way to creating his own magic in this profession.
“I love the mental focus that it requires,” Haubert says. “You have to block out everything else in your mind to focus. I also like working with my hands, using them for such a skilled project.”
For more information about Daniel Haubert, call 717-877-6430 or visit www.haubertpianocare.com.
For more information about Jim Hess, call 717-697-4111 or visit www.hesspiano.com.