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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Vermont's Female Piano Technicians Are Fine-Tuning A Male-Dominated Profession

Rose Kinnick stands before an open piano
Jessica Ticktin

If you hire someone to tune your piano in Vermont, chances are good that it will be a man who shows up to do it. In the Vermont chapter of the Piano Technicians Guild, only four of the 20 members are women.

One of those four women is Rose Kinnick. In her home studio in Franklin County, there’s a plaque on the workshop shelf of the famous painting by Norman Rockwell called The Piano Tuner, from the cover of the Saturday Evening Post on Jan. 11, 1947.

The painting depicts a middle-aged man in a suit-vest who stands leaning with his ear over an open piano, and a young boy at his side. They’re in a grand room, and the piano — according to Kinnick — looks like a Steinway.

“This is the image that people have of a piano tuner," Kinnick said. "This is a very well-known piece of art that has been seen by many, many people, and so I think it reinforces the stereotype.”

Kinnick had a natural ear for music — she studied music theory in college and got a degree in piano technology. After a prestigious apprenticeship at Tanglewood Music Festival, Kinnick moved to Vermont and became a member of the Vermont chapter of the Piano Technicians Guild.

While Kinnick says she didn’t face any real discrimination for being a woman, the struggle came from being young and seemingly inexperienced.

“When I first started out it was really difficult because I didn’t have the experience behind me, so the first thing people wanted to know was how long I’ve been doing this. And then they want to know, is this your full-time job?" Kinnick recalled. "And I don’t think it was so much a gender bias as I was ... a young woman and it was just harder to trust that I had skills."

That may be true, but still, after 15 years working full time in the profession, Kinnick gets asked all the time if this is a hobby.

“People just don’t think about it as being a profession," she said. "They think it’s a hobbyist thing, when it’s not.”

"People just don't think about it as being a profession. They think it's a hobbyist thing, when it's not." — Rose Kinnick, piano technician

Nationally in the Piano Technicians Guild about a quarter of professional piano tuners are women, according to the guild’s statistics. Kinnick says that mostly has to do with past cultural norms.

”If you think about it, pianos were very popular at the beginning of the 20th century and the end of the 19th century, so during that era, that was a source of entertainment for people," Kinnick said, "and if you think about the traditional role of a woman ... in that time, it was a homemaker.”

Women may have played the piano but were not encouraged to take off the piano board and look inside.  

Emily Hilbert and her husband, Ed, run Hilbert Pianos in Bristol. Emily Hilbert is 66 years old and has been in the business for a few decades.

Emily Hilbert stands in front of a piano and looks at the camera.
Credit Jessica Ticktin / For VPR
Emily Hilbert in her Bristol studio.

Once a private piano teacher in Los Angeles, her clients often asked for help and advice in buying or fixing their pianos, but she knew nothing about the inner workings of her instrument.

Hilbert took an extension course on piano technology to help her clients and was surprised by how much she enjoyed it.

“I found that it was a profession that I really, really enjoyed because I could work with my hands," Hilbert said. "I was constantly problem-solving which kind of gave me the challenge of figuring out things, and I liked the mechanical aspect."

The job also requires business skills, like bookkeeping and accounting, as well as the personal and artistic ones.

“Each piano is going to have a different personality, the customer is going to have a different personality," she said. "And your job is to try to match those up.”

But piano technicians don’t just tune personal pianos. University music departments at places like Middlebury College and UVM have many pianos in need of tuning and repair, and fall is a busy time for technicians like Kinnick and Hilbert. They also serve churches, summer camps and other institutions on a regular basis.  

Emily Rose stands next to an upright piano and looks at the camera.
Credit Jessica Ticktin / For VPR
Emily Rose in her North Ferrisburgh studio.

Then there are musicians and collectors who want to restore 100-year-old pianos.

Emily Rose, in partnership with her husband, Justin, recently opened up a showroom and workshop called “The Piano Gallery” adjacent to their home in North Ferrisburgh. They have new and used pianos in their shop, and they do a lot of repair work.  

Rose is optimistic there’s a future for piano specialists.

“I think that the same things that draw us as technicians to the old instruments are attractive to piano players as well," she said. "And there’s kind of a little bit of a resurgence maybe in people wanting the old vintage uprights and if they’ve been properly restored."

And these women are more than up to the task. While the Norman Rockwell stereotype of a piano tuner still exists, women like Rose Kinnick, Emily Hilbert and Emily Rose are fine-tuning it.

Correction 1/1/2019 6:17 p.m. The number of members in the Vermont chapter of the Piano Technicians Guild is 20 (not 14, as previously stated).

Jessica Lara Ticktin is a freelance writer and childbirth educator who lives in Burlington with her husband and their four children.
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