Our history is rich. Our Alumni impressive.
Not only can they tune, but they can play! In case you didn’t know – we’ve got talent…
Enjoy our nostalgic photos. Scroll down for student audio files and alumni stories.
Listen to our students share their experiences…
John’s Story Part 1
John’s Story Part 2
About the Curriculum
Alumni Stories and Features:
Ken Serviss, Class of 1950
After graduating from the School of Piano Technology for the Blind in 1950, Ken Serviss served as an assistant to the school’s founder, Emil Fries, for two years before being hired as lead technician for Kortens Music. In 1964, Ken was selected to organize a piano technology school at the New York Lighthouse for the Blind from which all of his graduates achieved successful employment including one who was responsible for the care of pianos at the Julliard Conservatory. In 1966, Ken rejoined the school’s staff working as director of instruction and in 1978, he was named president of the school. Ken retired from the School of Piano Technology for the Blind in 2002 but continues to this day as both adjunct faculty and volunteer technician extraordinaire while also running his own piano technician business.
Ken recently talked on the phone with a graduate from Israel who thanked the school for providing him with such outstanding training and skillset. The former student now travels all over the country making a living tuning pianos. “It’s a genuine pleasure to get calls from graduates with similar stories of thanks for the wonderful education they received at the school,” Ken said. “Even now, 15 years after retiring, I take great pride and pleasure in receiving calls from former students asking me for technical advice related to pianos they are servicing.”
Ken shared, “Piano Technology is a profession that has stood by me for more than 65 years. I’ve never missed a day’s pay or been on unemployment. Today, technology has made blind piano technicians more capable of success and independence than ever before. It’s a good-paying profession if it’s managed right and operated as a business. As long as parents want to see their children learn to play the piano, there will be a market for piano technicians.”
Martin Nemecek, Class of 1967
I started to work in 1963 in the vending machine business in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. The pay for this work was $160 per month. The average wage for electricians, plumbers and piano tuners was $600 per month. It didn’t require rocket science to figure where I would be at this rate in 10 or 20 years.
I started training at the School of Piano Technology for the Blind (then known as EmilFries Piano Hospital) in 1965 and graduated in 1967. Tuning has given my family and [me] a comfortable living and, as importantly, put me on an equal footing with other trades such as I mentioned above. When I lived in Calgary, I felt the government supported me. Since I became a qualified piano tuner, I have supported the government with my taxes as a truly productive member of my community. I went from a second-class citizen to a first-class citizen.
Martin retired in 2005 from the Portland School District as a Piano Technician.
Leal Sylvester, Class of 1997
Growing up in the US Virgin Islands, Leal Sylvester had never considered piano technology as a career until a piano tuner came into his high school choir room to tune a piano. Because Leal liked to work with tools, had a strong musical aptitude and a great ear, his choir director suggested Leal talk with the tuner about piano tuning as a career option. Leal and the tuner hit it off and were soon looking into piano tuning schools for Leal to attend. Knowing the School of Piano Technology for the Blind specialized in working with blind students sealed the deal for Leal. He applied, attended a Career Exploration Workshop, and upon acceptance to the program, immediately enrolled.
Leal struggled with the training during the first month because everything was new to him and he was so far from home. But after the first month, he made a decision to tackle, head-on, the challenge of learning all there is to know about piano technology. Once he made a determined commitment, the work started to come naturally and he never looked back. Leal graduated in 1997 and went right to work as a field technician for the school. In 2002, he began working as an instructor and had the opportunity to execute the school’s curriculum through hands-on teaching and one-on-one mentoring of students.
In talking about his experience at the school, Leal shared, “The school provided me with a very intense and complete education in piano technology. Paying close attention and spending extra time studying and practicing repair and tuning techniques gave me not only a well-rounded education in piano technology but also an understanding of how to set up and run my own business. I love and care about all that the school stands for and I am excited at the ability the school has to change lives by providing independence and opportunities for blind people. For me, the School of Piano Technology for the Blind opened doors and opportunities which I never imagined could happen.”
Leal recently worked as Lead Technician and Shop Supervisor for Metroplex Pianos in Dallas, Texas, but has now accepted a position with the School of Piano Technology for the Blind and has relocated to Vancouver. We are excited to have Leal working with us again!
Casey Harris, Class of 2007
Casey Harris keyboardist for the X Ambassadors, is also an ambassador for musicians conquering disability in the image-conscious world of alternative rock. Casey refused to let visual impairment deny him a career in rock, despite having to confront ignorance and prejudice in the early days.
Harris graduated from the School of Piano Technology for the Blind in 2007 and worked as a professional piano tuner before the band took off. The X Ambassadors earned a record deal with Interscope, the home of Lady Gaga, and have supported Muse and Imagine Dragons at arena shows.
Frustrated at being yelled at by New York cabbies and given short shrift by subway commuters, Harris wanted to send a message to the world with their breakthrough song “Renegades”, a hymn to outsiders. The video focuses on two young blind people who engage in activities like weightlifting and hiking
“The message of our music is ‘the extraordinary exists within the ordinary’. It celebrates the ordinary person and says no to discrimination and ignorance,” says Harris, whose blindness is not immediately obvious to many. “People don’t know till I bust out my cane. I don’t look blind.”
Stevie Wonder sent a message about disability awareness at the Grammy Awards, when he teased the audience about not being able to read Braille. Harris, whose band play sold out shows in London and Manchester, is willing to take on Wonder’s campaigning mantle.
“It’s a heavy crown and I hope I’m worthy of it. I count myself among the disability community and I have a public voice now. I want to use that voice to help other people. I’m doing my little part,” he says.
Lori Amstutz, Class of 2007
The School of Piano Technology for the Blind serves such a valuable purpose in providing careers for the blind and visually impaired, It was truly my privilege to benefit from the program for my own career. I have enjoyed fulfillment and success over these past seven years as I have actively been a part of the world of piano technology. My career as a piano technician has afforded me amazing opportunities and a financial stability that I could have never known otherwise. I have had the pleasure of tuning pianos for many famous names including The Irish Tenors, The Vienna Boys Choir, and even Elton John
My visual condition is Retinitis Pigmentosa and, as my disease progresses, it has restricted my options related to making a comfortable living. However, thanks to the training I received at the School of Piano Technology for the Blind, I have enjoyed a successful career that is both emotionally and financially rewarding.
Shawn Brock, Class of 2008
Shawn Brock graduated from The School of Piano Technology for the Blind in January 2008. Since that time, Shawn has moved around the United States establishing himself as a first class piano technician. He currently lives in Louisville, Kentucky, with his wife Sarah and their children, Ethan and Sophie.
Testimonial from Shawn:
Upon graduating from the school in 2008, I returned to Cincinnati, Ohio, where I partnered with fellow piano technician Nevin Essex. Nevin was tired of tuning and servicing pianos and wanted me to come back to Cincinnati and take over his fieldwork while he concentrated on rebuilding instruments. It was my job to handle all of the service and tunings, sell repair and rebuilding work to customers, and service rebuilt instruments. When I was not out in the field handling calls, I did a lot of shop work, mostly focusing on piano action rebuilding. I spent what little downtime I had working for the three largest piano dealers in greater Cincinnati and was also fortunate enough to serve as principal piano technician for The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, The Cincinnati Opera, The World Piano Competition, as well as the majority of larger churches in the City. Within three months of graduating from the school, I gained Registered Piano Technician status in the Piano Technician Guild.
In 2009, with growth and opportunity on my mind, I moved to Las Vegas, Nevada, a very underserved market in need of piano technicians. Before moving, I made contact with some of the more reputable Vegas tuners and learned many of them were so backed-up they were scheduling appointments six weeks in advance. I decided to take a short trip out there and see if the business was as good as proclaimed. I placed an ad on Craigslist seeking potential customers who might be looking to have their piano serviced and made contact with the two largest dealers in the area. During my initial five day visit I tuned more than 40 pianos and also performed some repair work. After moving to Vegas permanently, I gained several casino contracts including Caesar’s Palace, where I was the technician for the Elton John and Billy Joel residency shows. The pleasure of working for such great artists and on such great instruments is indescribable. Here I was, only two years out of school, working for some of the biggest household names in the music business. Once I picked up contracts for the Celine Dion and Rod Stewart shows, I began to drastically reduce the amount of appointments I would take for in-home service. My primary focus became concert and artist work.
After the birth of my son Ethan in 2012, I began to reevaluate my location. In Las Vegas if you go to a movie, the theater is inside a casino. If you go to a concert, the concert hall is inside a casino. Many of the nice restaurants are also inside casinos. While I’m certainly not a prude, I wasn’t sure I wanted to raise my children where such activities were the norm. In September 2012, a position opened at The University of Louisville School of Music. I applied, interviewed, was offered the job, and accepted.
I have served as piano technician at The University of Louisville for more than four years now. There are approximately 110 pianos at the University – seven of them concert instruments located in the three concert venues. There are more than 500 performances per year by guest artists, university faculty, and students. Somehow I had a false hope I would be able to slow down somewhat with a university job, but that certainly has not been the case. The university environment is a busy environment and one that will, hopefully, keep me active and youthful.
After all this time I still enjoy working with great players. It is hard to describe the self-satisfaction you feel when you are able to make adjustments in the touch and tone of a piano, which gives an artist exactly what they want.
In my opinion, being blind is a very positive trait as a piano technician. Many of my sighted counterparts are constantly looking at the piano when they make adjustments to the touch or even the tuning. I find this mind-boggling as the piano is completely based on feeling and hearing. Your eyes don’t enter into the equation, and can actually fool you at times.
I gave a technical class at the Cincinnati Chapter of the Piano Technicians Guild on regulating the touch of the piano without using your eyes. Even though I had been invited to teach on the subject, I was worried the class would be a flop. Luckily I was wrong and the membership seemed to really enjoy learning about performing piano work without factoring in eyesight. The class was so popular that I have been requested to offer it on six other occasions at other chapters of the PTG and their regional seminars.
I owe a huge debt of gratitude to The School of Piano Technology for the Blind for providing me a foundation for my career through proper training and skill-building.
When I am not working on pianos, I perform as a musician, builds guitars, and am very active in my church and the Knights of Columbus. And let’s not forget my most time-consuming hobby, making homemade jerky from beef, venison. and turkey.
Mark Burbey, Class of 2010
“My piano business has been hammering out good vibes around the Minneapolis / St. Paul areas since June of 2011. Pedaling this work hasn’t gone too flat and has levered in modest but sustained volume in both customer base and experience. During this time, I have had the privilege to work as a technician for Minneapolis Public Schools, two recording studios, hundreds of households, and have sold two reconditioned pianos with the third currently up for purchase at a local dealer. I have played a leadership role in the local chapter of the Piano Technician Guild as secretary for two years and have been staying keyed in to its ability to inform and to be a soundboard without getting too strung out on bridging the gap between my own ignorance and their amazing ‘circles of perfection.’ I have found it interesting that one can make money by stretching their strings while still being benched the whole season! Anyway, I am grateful for the opportunity to have studied piano technology at the School of Piano Technology for the Blind. The environment that Emil Fries established continues to provide a genuine prospect for learning, achievement, and personal income in what is still a marketable niche today. I hope they don’t mind a bit of my ribbing, but I hope to continue to perform this vocation without too much more lost motion prior to my impending decay. Okay, I’ll put a lid on it! Thank you School of Piano Technology for the Blind!”
Michelle Lamm, Class of 2011
Though she was born without eyes, Michelle Lamm, 26, of Michelle’s Melody Fine Piano Tuning and Repair, has never let that hold her back. Her mother and sighted assistant, Ako Lamm said that Lamm has always been very independent and determined, even as a child. “We are just like other people, we just don’t see,” said Lamm, a Registered Piano Technician who was born with bilateral anophlalmia (without eyes). “I read brail and use a cane to get around.” Michelle opened her own piano tuning and repair company five years ago. She has tuned or repaired over 1,000 pianos. She has clients all over Northeast Florida and will travel from St. Augustine all the way to the Beaches area and into Palatka for customers.
Mac Potts, Class of 2012
Born blind, Mac Potts was blessed with both an outstanding talent for music and perfect pitch (which Mac refers to as being both a blessing and a curse). As a young piano student he always knew if pianos were out of tune and as he grew up, he began to examine the machinery of the instrument, and also, the number of strings per note.
One day, while Mac was rocking out on the Potts family piano, a note knocked out of tune to the point of being unusable. Mac constructed a makeshift mute out of Braille paper which was a step up from his original paper napkin idea. However, blocking out that string made the note dead, so Mac’s dad put together a ratchet tool and tightened the string until Mac said, “Alright stop. Beautiful.” Naturally, Mac took hold of the tool and began tweaking other notes.
Following this experience, Mac ordered his first small set of professional tools and began practicing on pianos in his neighborhood and local schools and churche. He used the money he made tuning to raise funds for a new piano for the neighborhood community center.
After graduating from high school, Mac enrolled in the School of Piano Technology for the Blind and graduated in 2012. He has tuned Grands, Uprights, Spinets, Consoles, and even ex-Player Pianos. An amazingly gifted musician and tuner, Mac has an incredibly loyal and satisfied customer and fan base here in the Portland-Metro area as well as in Seattle.
By Dewald van Deventer, Class of 2014
The training I received from the School of Piano Technology for the Blind coupled with the six months of experience I gained as a tuner for the Piano Hospital after graduation, left me feeling well-equipped to start my own business when I returned to South Africa the beginning of this year.
There were, however, a few daunting issues I had to face. Like making a decision as to where to base my business, tackling the bookkeeping part of the business, hiring a driver, developing a strong marketing strategy to reach new customers, etc. When I traveled to the town where I had previously studied and tuned a couple of pianos it felt somehow strange actually billing customers! Over the next few months I picked up a tuning job here and there, maybe once or twice a month. Then an opportunity arose to work for a large company on the East Coast of South Africa which is where I am currently employed. I now tune four to six pianos each day and I have had the privilege of tuning quite a few bird cage pianos, some with oblong pins. My goal is to establish my own business fairly soon.
I simply can’t say enough about The School of Piano Technology for the Blind, “Piano Hospital”. I had such an enriching experience at the School and realize what a privilege it was to attend and graduate from the program, gain real-world experience as a tuner and technician, and benefit from the tremendous support I received which enabled me to pass my Registered Piano Technician exams the very first time I tried.
The School’s long history is so very impressive. Beginning with Mr. Fries’ commitment to providing piano tuning training to blind and visually impaired people, to Don Mitchell, who took me on as a student despite the fact that I lived in another country and didn’t have the money to travel for a two-day evaluation. Don did his best to mold me into the technician I am today and provided me a strong foundation to further build my career upon.
To all the students, staff, and volunteers who played such a supportive role in my education, I thank you very much. You all are like family to me.
John Pastorius, Class of 2015
John Pastorius, a 2015 graduate returned home to Virginia after graduation and was able to take over a piano tuning business with approximately 200 current customers from a tuner who relocated to Alabama. John’s business, Pitch Perfect Piano, is booming and he is already tuning up to six pianos a week.
As he becomes more familiar with the area and becomes proficient at navigating from place to place, John looks forward to expanding his business to include cities in the outlying area. John is a shining example of the success of our students.