Friday, August 31, 2018

Tippet Rise 'piano man' keeps wealth of instruments in tune

  Michael Toia is the full time piano tuner at Montana's acclaimed Tippet Rise Art Center.
He keeps the priceless piano collection in top form. Here he tunes the writer's upright
on a rare day off. Veteran fisherman Toia combined tuning with a fishing trip!


Eyes and ears alert, Toia prepares a piano for a concert.

EACH MORNING, when Michael Toia wakes up, he pinches himself.
"I feel so fortunate to be in this beautiful place, doing something I love," says the gentle spoken piano tuner, avid fisherman and nature lover.
Toia is in Montana this summer, as he has been for all three season at Tippet Rise Art Center near Fishtail.  He is charged with keeping the Center's priceless collection of Steinways in tune to be played to a privileged small audience each weekend by world class musicians.
Master tuner, Michael Toia, is at work in the Tiara Acoustic Shell,
an outdoor concert venue at Tippet Rise. Each concert signals a tuning.
For Toia, it's a dream come true. His two passions -- pianos and fishing -- are fulfilled each summer. Based at the acoustically praised art center --  acclaimed for its setting, repertoire and large sculpture -- Toia fell into "the perfect gig," as he calls it, by the proverbial "right place at the right time."  And location.
Toia at work in the Olivier Music Barn at Tippet Rise.
"I was asked by the Halsteads (center founders Peter and Cathy) to tune one of their pianos in Hawaii, where I live" says Toia.  "They asked if I'd be interested in coming to Montana. It worked out."
THE BIG ISLAND of Hawaii is Toia's home for nine months of the year, as he tunes pianos for a living, flying from one island to the other for jobs.  His largest client is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- the Mormon Church -- whose history in the islands dates back to 1850.  Their Polynesian Cultural Center is one of many Mormon owned and operated venues. Toia tunes all their pianos and takes on the occasional additional client.
Michael Toia casts off on the West Fork 
of the Stillwater.  He is an avid fisherman.
His wife Anne Toia, is a successful massage therapist and their son, Mika'ele, is a proud second-generation piano tuner based in Minneapolis.  Occasionally, father and son collaborate on a tuning project, as recently when the elder Toia and Anne flew to Minneapolis where the Minnesota Orchestra is one of Mika'ele's clients.
The couple raised their son and daughter on the big island, where Mount Kilauea's damage is testing their fortitude.  Smoke and fall-out from the volcano, and nearby destruction of homes and hotels, has the couple re-evaluating their future -in their beloved Hawaii.
For now, they're waiting Kilauea out.

With the deftness of a surgeon, Toia repairs
and replaces the felt on a pad.

ONE THING is sure, though.  As long as Toia is asked back to Montana, he will continue tuning the Tippet Rise pianos. Whenever he has a free day -- which is rare -- he is off fishing south-central Montana's prime rivers and streams. Fish, tour or tune, pianos are part of his world all 12 months of the year.
When he returns each season to Tippet Rise, he has the world's finest pianos literally at his practiced fingertips.
"Because Steinway grand pianos are crafted by hand, it can take a year -- hours and hours of fine-tuned labor -- to make one," he says. "Tuning an instrument of that precision and quality is equally demanding."  That painstaking, several-hour process pays homage to the craftspeople who came before.
Toia says Tippet Rise is a treasure trove of Steinways: a dozen of them, each extraordinary, "each with its own nuances and attributes." (For more information on the stable of Tippet Rise pianos, check out the essays written by TR co-founder, Peter Halstead.)
WE HAD THE good fortune to spend a half-day at our home with Toia, who offered to tune our vintage Boston-made McPhail.  Watching him is to watch a master at work.  With the skill of a surgeon, he tunes, listens, repairs.  He apprenticed this column's photographer, contracting engineer Bruce Keller, to assist -- providing additional tools from his elaborate workshop.
Piano tuner Michael Toia in inspiring to watch at work.
Our McPhail may not have as many parts as the 12,000 Steinway has.  But Toia pronounced it "a jewel" and urged us to hang on to it. (It is one of seven pianos in my collection, modest compared to the grand assemblage at Tippet Rise, which includes an instrument once owned by acclaimed classical pianist Vladimir Horowitz.
Toia, who plays piano himself, but rarely for an audience, says he is inspired by the unique blending of nature, music and art at Tippet Rise. Waking up in a cabin designed for him by the Halsteads, surrounded by the world's finest pianos -- and abundant trout streams --  is, Toia says, "about the best gig a guy could have."
Pianos, he added, are something like people in their complexity -- "each one is different.  Peter says each piano has its own DNA. He's right."
Toia doesn't usually tune pianos outside Tippet Rise in Montana, but should you need a tune-up in Hawaii, look for Michael Toia Piano Service. More on the Tippet Rise pianos at:

Harvey's in Lake Tahoe offers elegant furnishings, proximity to gambling
and fine dining, and spectacular scenery out the window. More next week.
UP NEXT: Take a scenic weekend ride with us to Harvey's, a lovely property on beautiful Lake Tahoe, where the scenery is exquisite all year -- summer to autumn, winter to spring.  Now's the transition time from warm-weather sports to skiing and snowboarding, with the first snows possible in September -- any time after Labor Day, the old timers say.  Remember to explore, learn and live, and wake up with a view out the window and a song in your heart.


  1. Cody culture loversAugust 31, 2018 at 9:33 PM

    The sound in the Olivier "Barn" is stunning. Great to see the man with the tuning fork!!

  2. Philadelphia Concert LoversSeptember 1, 2018 at 8:09 AM

    A cool job for a cool guy. Thank him for us. The "Barn" instruments are thrilling to hear.

  3. Great to see Mike being featured.

  4. Missoula Music LoversSeptember 3, 2018 at 9:05 AM

    What an interesting and gifted part of the Tippet Rise story. OS much talent and creativity. We are thrilled to have access and appreciate Mr. Toia's sensitivity.

  5. Fun piece on a gifted guy. We've watched him supervise the moving of the instruments.....fascinating gig.

  6. Bay Area Music LoversMay 30, 2019 at 1:27 PM

    What a fun story! Found it while reveling in having been chosen in the lottery for 4 tickets. So excited!