Saturday, March 07, 2009

Some of the best piano technicians are visually impaired

To most of us, the piano is some kind of magical mystery box. You sit down and play, and what comes out represents perfect precision in sound.

Each key does exactly what it's supposed to do, sounds exactly the way it's supposed to sound in relation to its neighbors, and the whole is a thing of mathematical beauty (skill of the player notwithstanding, of course).

Piano technicians know differently.

"People think you just sit down and make music," said Mark Burbey, a student at the School of Piano Technology for the Blind in Vancouver's Hudson's Bay neighborhood.

"But there are literally thousands of parts that have to work together."

Said student Robert Giles, "I have learned more about pianos in the past six months than I ever thought possible."

Giles has always been mechanically inclined, but he's not a musician. Burbey is.

Mechanical skills

According to school executive director Len Leger, mechanical aptitude probably outweighs musical talent when it comes to learning to be a piano tech.

What Burbey and Giles do share is reliance on their hands and their ears.

All eight students, three instructors and Leger, the school's president, have some level of visual impairment, from progressive glaucoma to total blindness from birth.

The chief mission of the school is to equip its students for productive, lucrative careers tuning and repairing America's 18 million pianos, Leger said.

"It's hard for blind people to find work," said Leger. "Fifty to 60 percent of blind people are unemployed. But 80 to 90 percent of our graduates are employed."

Sometimes it's a university with a lot of practice instruments that take a daily beating, he said. Sometimes it's a musical-instrument shop that needs to keep its stock ready to sell.

And often, Leger said, it's a student who starts a business as a tuner.

Out of the school's more than 300 graduates, Leger said, more than 200 have gone into business for themselves.

"We've been incubating small businesses for 60 years," he said recently, recognizing the school's anniversary in February.

The first blind piano tuner is thought to be a man named Claude Montal, who attended the Royal Institution for Blind Youth in Paris, France, in the 1830s.

He proved to a skeptical world that blind people could do the job, Leger said.

In 1949, Emil Fries (pronounced "frees") set up his private nonprofit school in Vancouver after the Washington State School for the Blind eliminated vocational education in favor of academics alone, Leger said.

Fries, who thought vocational education was crucial, quit his teaching post and mortgaged everything he owned to start his school.

"He was legally blind himself," said Leger. And, it must be confessed, he's another legendary piano man who didn't play the piano.

Unique school

But he saw a need. He said his school remains the only private, nonprofit, vocational piano technology school for the blind in the world.

Students take a two-year, full-time course of study — putting in 2,800 clock hours of training time and mastering 343 individual tasks.

"Not everybody masters everything," Leger said. "Everybody learns at a different rate."

Graduates must be ready to perform normal home repairs and tune the instrument in "a commercially acceptable time."

Students start out taking hundreds of hours to tune one instrument, he said. They end up, if all goes well, ready to tune a couple per day.

Not everybody makes it, he said. Some "heavy testing" of hearing and other skills is a prerequisite for entering the school.

The myth that blind people have extra sharp hearing is a stereotype that turns out often to be true, he said.

"Brain research has demonstrated the plasticity of the brain. If you lose one sense, your brain can rewire itself to compensate."

Fries — who wrote a book called "But You Can Feel It," which is what his mother said to him when he complained about being sightless — died in 1997.

His school has had its ups and downs, Leger said, but today it's going strong.

It's commonly known as a "piano hospital" because it repairs and sells donated pianos to support its educational mission.

The school recruits heavily via the Internet, and students have come from 36 states and 14 countries.

"Big bucks" goal

Wilson Charles, 29, is a native of Haiti. He was majoring in political science at the University of Pennsylvania, he said, when he realized he needed a marketable skill. The classical pianist and singer decided to take a break from university and take the piano school's two-year course so he can make "big bucks," he said.

Those bucks will help him finish his college education and head for law school, he said.

Giles, who came from South Carolina, said a friend suggested he put his mechanical aptitude to use — he used to pull apart and rebuild computers for fun, he said — after he burned out on customer service.

"My wife and I sold the mobile home, and here we are," he said.


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