Piano Hospital alum back to teach

Intern role prepares him for job he chose over field technician at school for blind

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter

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'Renegades' by X Ambassadors

Check out a moving Youtube video of the X Ambassadors hit “Renegades,” focusing on people with disabilities — like amputees and the blind — who master challenging endeavors like skateboarding, boxing, wrestling and even mountain climbing.

The video is about “not only doing things that people don’t expect you to do, but doing it your own way,” Casey Harris said.

“All hail the underdogs. All hail the outlaws,” the song goes. “It’s our time to break the rules.”

More Information

Learn more about the Piano Hospital at pianotuningschool.org

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Leal Sylvester said no to the job offer of field technician for the Emil Fries School of Piano Technology for the Blind. That’s a demanding job, he said, and he’d already done it for years.

Sylvester’s counteroffer was that he wanted to teach those technicians — to follow in the footsteps of the fine teachers he’d had here in Vancouver.

“I had good teachers when I went to school here,” said the class of 1997 graduate in his gentle Caribbean accent. “This school has a good reputation for putting the best out in the field. I hope I can be somewhere near as good as the teachers I had.”

Sylvester, 39, is now interning as director of instruction at the so-called Piano Hospital. He arrived in August and will work with outgoing lead teacher Don Mitchell to master the school’s unique two-year curriculum and methodology, executive director Cheri Martin said.

Good ear

Leal Sylvester grew up in the U.S. Virgin Islands in a not-too-musical family, he said. As a blind boy, he got mixed messages about music: He was encouraged to try out instruments like the drums, the flute, the saxophone — but only at the level of blind-beginners’ novelty.

“If you’re a blind person, one of the first things they encourage you to do is play an instrument,” he said. But encouragement is different than instruction: “Most people don’t have the patience to teach a blind person to do something,” he said.

Fortunately, Sylvester found that he has talent with tools and machines as well as a good ear, he said. Also fortunately, a high school teacher observed the same things in him and connected him with a local piano tuner. Within a couple of hours, Sylvester said, he had a new dream for his future.

Even though Sylvester had travelled the mainland extensively with the U.S. Blind Powerlifting Team, he found coming to Vancouver and enrolling at the Piano Hospital in September 1995 “a little bit of culture shock,” he said. (It was even more of a shock when, four days later, Hurricane Marilyn slammed into the Virgin Islands. He couldn’t contact his family for six weeks, he said. But he didn’t worry much; when you grow up in that part of the world, he said, such disasters are familiar.)

“I got very excited” about the Piano Hospital, he said. “The more you could handle, the more they’d give you. Going to school every day was like going to a buffet. You never know what’s on the menu.”

That’s perfect training for running your own piano-tech business, Sylvester said. After graduating in 1997, Sylvester stayed on for four years as an instructor and field technician; eventually he started his own small business and worked part time for Classic Pianos in Portland; then, newly married, he moved near to his wife’s family in Texas and worked for Metroplex Pianos in Dallas — on projects like rebuilding used Steinways, he said.

Now, Sylvester is back in the area with his wife, Tyreca, and 4-year-old Leal Jr. “I am excited at the ability the school has to change lives by providing independence and opportunities for blind people,” he said. “For me, the school … opened doors and opportunities which I never imagined.”

Problem solved

Sylvester is the answer to a big problem for the Martin and the school. Last fall, the Piano Hospital board of directors offered the lead teacher job to another graduate, Canadian citizen Lori Amstutz. But Amstutz could not secure a work permit here — even despite the fact that her husband is a U.S. citizen. The infuriating situation never got resolved, and Amstutz was stuck working for months as an unpaid volunteer. In June, she and her husband regretfully threw up their hands and returned to Calgary.

Martin was in a panic. The small, nonprofit school struggles enough without setbacks like that, she said. And filling such a specialized job — supplying blind people the technical skills to be piano technicians as well as the business skills to make a living at it — is never easy.

Fortunately, Sylvester had said yes to the teaching job. Then he said yes to the director of instruction job that Amstutz had to abandon.

“Things were looking awesome, and they are looking awesome again,” Martin said.