Coda: A quiet finale for the Piano Hospital

Vancouver's School of Piano Technology for the Blind closed its doors for the final time

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter

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In the end, closing down the Piano Hospital was a matter of finding new homes for a huge amount of really specialized, used stuff.

Not just dozens of working acoustic pianos, but all the unique tools and parts needed to repair, restore and tune them. And all the esoteric teaching equipment — like piano-key “action models” that demonstrate how 100-plus parts move, with intricate perfection, every time an ivory gets tickled — that helped blind people feel their way toward careers in piano technology across 68 years.

The School of Piano Technology for the Blind, a unique Vancouver institution, shut its doors for the last time Monday. That was after spending four months holding what felt like an ongoing garage sale, executive director Cheri Martin said.

“We’ve sold $16,000 of stuff, sometimes $1 at a time. It’s been insane,” Martin said. “I haven’t had a chance to slow down. People keep telling me I need to take some time to grieve. I’ll do that next month.”

A crew from Big Al’s Specialty Movers was on hand Monday morning to cart away the last few instruments to donation destinations like local schools and churches. The Vancouver business even agreed to store a few pianos that couldn’t be received yet — just to help the Piano Hospital vacate its longtime property at 2510 E. Evergreen Blvd. in time.

“It’s pretty sad. We’ve been coming here a long time,” said George Aiona of Big Al’s as he and San Fernando Vaovasa got ready to roll an instrument out the door and into their moving truck. (But Big Al’s has no shortage of continuing business, he added.)

Meanwhile, Mark Haley was hauling the last remaining items of office furniture — mostly chairs — into his Habitat for Humanity ReStore truck. Haley noted the sadness of the occasion, but he also highlighted the silver lining: thanks to the efforts of Martin and Ellen Ives, waste reduction educator at Waste Connections, virtually none of the Piano Hospital’s final leftovers wound up in a landfill.

“There are a lot of green fingers in this,” Haley said. “Green businesses are a real community around here.”

When Martin called Waste Connections to inquire about disposing of its dregs, Ives got busy. She’s a former classroom teacher whose usual gig these days is visiting local schools to teach children about sustainability and recycling, she said.

But in this case, Ives gladly accepted the hands-on challenge of diverting lots of piano-related things from the waste stream. She even took boxes of parts to the recent Recycled Arts Festival in Esther Short Park, where professional artisans and kids doing crafts were glad to have them, she said.

On Monday morning, Ives was all the way down to balling up clean plastic bags that some food pantry could use, she said. Meanwhile, longtime volunteer John Bannon was stripping Braille labels off drawers and shelves.

Rebellious launch

In all, Martin said, the Piano Hospital raised approximately $71,000 over the past few months by liquidating everything possible — including a whopping 47 used pianos. (Nine more pianos were given away to schools, churches and Daybreak Youth Services, a drug treatment facility.) The building itself is poised to be sold soon, she added.

Class photographs and special memorabilia have found new homes at the Baltimore home of the National Federation for the Blind, the Piano Technicians Guild Foundation headquarters in Kansas City, Kan. — and at the nearby Washington State School for the Blind, which inadvertently had everything to do with the creation of the Piano Hospital.

When the school cut piano tuning as a vocational program in 1949, faculty member Emil Fries revolted. He mortgaged his own property to start the school; the school went on to graduate approximately 320 students across its 68-year history.

But this year, the very specialized program couldn’t enroll a single student. Martin, a recent hire, said she reached out as never before to vocational counselors and public agencies that work with the blind; what she kept hearing was that blind people need no longer limit themselves to “blind trades” such as piano repair and tuning anymore.

And that’s great news — but Martin wishes the school hadn’t shut down on her watch, she said. She may not have had time to grieve yet, but when she watched volunteer Bannon stripping Braille labels off drawers, she said: “It just makes me so sad.”

The main thing to remember, Bannon said, is that all the school’s assets, including all the money realized from final sales of pianos and parts, will go straight into a fund aimed at supporting blind people. Those details are still being worked out, Martin said.

“The funds are going to an endowment fund to benefit blind and visually impaired in Emil’s name,” she said. “The board is still working through the process but we are getting close to finalizing the agreement.”