Bits 'n' Pieces: School for blind hosts salsa show

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photoJeff Lann

Vancouver's Piano Hospital is expecting that a sizzling benefit concert will help cover the steep costs of running its renowned piano-tuning and technology school for the blind.

Jeff Lann, executive director of the School of Piano Technology for the Blind, said because it's the only institution in the world to offer its specific curriculum to blind students, the school on East Evergreen Boulevard draws students from all over the globe. "Anywhere from New York to South Africa," he said.

But the school, which emphasizes individualized instruction on expensive, complicated, 88-keyed machines, would drive students away if it charged enough tuition to cover its own costs, Lann said.

Tuition only pays for about 20 percent of the real costs of the program. Meanwhile, approximately 70 percent of the legally blind in America are unemployed or underemployed and relying on government disability benefits.

Therefore, "we do all these crazy fundraisers to bridge that gap," Lann said.

The second annual benefit concert for the Piano Hospital, as the school is also known, is set for March 9 at the Aladdin Theater in Portland. Nine-piece salsa band Ramsey y Los Montunos, led by pianist Ramsey Embick, is the headliner. Also on the bill is a dance exhibition from Portland's Gemini School of Salsa Dancing.

"We were looking for something a bit different," Lann said. "We were looking for a musician who's a great piano player and puts on a great show. He has a love for salsa music. It's a fun thing for us to do."

Across a career that began decades ago in Los Angeles, Embick has worked as pianist, composer and arranger with artists from Gladys Knight and The Pointer Sisters to Michael Jackson and Kiss.

Not only does Embick rate red-hot in both musicianship and showmanship, but Lann said he made an extra effort by visiting the school.

"Unlike many other musicians, Ramsay came out to the school. He toured the school and played our pianos and connected with us. He totally connected with what we are trying to do," Lann said.

In addition to underwriting tuition for students, Lann said the fundraiser could help pave the way to growth at the Piano Hospital. The school maintains a ratio of one faculty member to six students. Right now there is only a single full-time teacher, Don Mitchell, plus an adjunct, Ken Serviss. Neither man is a spring chicken -- they've been working at the Piano Hospital for decades, and Serviss used to run the place. Now, Lann is bracing himself for a pair of shocks when each one decides to hang up his tuning pegs.

A hugely successful fundraiser could lead to more faculty and more students, Lann said.

The Out of Sight Salsa benefit concert is set for 8 p.m. (doors open at 7 p.m.) at the Aladdin Theater, 3017 S.E. Milwaukie Ave., Portland. Tickets are $25, $35 and $50. Visit Aladdin Theater for tickets.

— Scott Hewitt

Bits 'n' Pieces appears Fridays and Saturdays. If you have a story you'd like to share, email bits@columbian.com.