School of Piano Technology for the Blind closing

Repairs, sales going strong, but longtime Vancouver institution has no students

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter

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A unique Vancouver institution that has lit up many lives with saleable skills and career possibilities is about to go dark. After 68 years, the School of Piano Technology for the Blind is preparing to shut down within the next few months.

The school’s specialized niche has always drawn students in small numbers, and commencement ceremonies that used to boast six graduates have dwindled in recent years to just two, or even one. There are no students at the school now, executive director Cheri Martin said. The last two graduated in December.

“We don’t have students,” she said. “We’ve done well in everything else. There’s no debt. We have strong assets. But we don’t have any students.”

All of the nonprofit organization’s assets will be moved into a permanent endowment fund, named for founder Emil Fries, that makes “annual grants to organizations serving the blind and visually impaired community,” according to a statement. That plan was created in cooperation with Fries’ descendants, two of whom remain members of the board of directors. And, the tuning and repair business likely will continue as a private, for-profit business under instructor and technician Leal Sylvester.

But the school itself is finished, Martin said. The property at 2510 E. Evergreen Blvd. will be sold, along with approximately 85 pianos and thousands of parts and tools that are still on hand.

Busy, but …

Emil Fries, 1901-1997, was a blind piano tuner and teacher at the nearby Washington State School for the Blind. When the school phased out all of its vocational courses, including piano tuning, the outraged Fries reportedly sold his possessions and mortgaged his property in order to keep the practice alive.

He launched his piano tuning school in 1949. It was called The Piano Hospital, a nickname that remains today; the school’s cash-generating sideline is repairing and reselling used pianos.

That sideline continues to be “incredibly busy,” Martin said. So is the piano tuning service that has sight-impaired technicians making a living by working on instruments in private homes, schools, instrument shops and wherever else they’re needed.

Those activities have generated approximately half the school’s income, forecast at $282,000 in this fiscal year, Martin said. Expenses this year were forecast at $343,000.

Both forecasts appear to be about right, she said.

“We knew we were going to have a bad year,” Martin said.

Also generating income is a small ownership stake in the Neptune Theater in Seattle. “A share” of that building was gifted to the Piano Hospital a few years ago, Martin said; selling it might generate an even nicer nest egg for the new Emil Fries fund. That will be up to the Fries family members, she said.

But student tuition has never been a big revenue source. The total cost to attend the two-year program is now $34,300, which doesn’t include room and board. Historically, most Piano Hospital students are not from the local area, so they face steep moving and living expenses. That’s tough for a blind person who’s pre-education and pre-career, Martin said.

Push, pushback

The flow of new students to the Piano Hospital dried up just when Martin was making a major push for more.

“Recruitment is the No. 1 thing,” she said. “We spent the last year trying to figure out the best way to recruit. We went all-out.”

In addition to cranking out newsletters and other materials full of alumni success stories, Martin reached out to vocational counselors and attended conventions of the National Council of State Agencies for the Blind, she said.

“These are the people who need to know about us,” she said. “If a vocational counselor has a client with good mechanical dexterity and a love of music, we want them to be able to say, ‘Have you thought about this school?’ I’ve really been trying to get across to these counselors that this is a great vocation for blind people. I really hit it hard.”

Her effort ran up against professional resistance. Many of those vocational counselors told her that virtually any field of employment is now open to sight-impaired people, she said; some even added that they dislike the idea of funneling blind people into stereotypical “blind jobs,” like piano tuning.

“If you think about 1949 versus now, there are so many more opportunities for blind people,” Martin said. “They have so many more options, and that’s awesome.”

But what about federal labor statistics showing that sight-impaired people remain woefully underemployed in today’s workforce?

“I know,” she said. “I don’t have the answer. I know I got that pushback. But I also met counselors who thought our school was the best thing in the world.”

Visionary

Martin and the school’s board of directors started discussing a shutdown about nine months ago, she said. Fries’ grandson Doug Hunt, a Lincoln County (Ore.) commissioner, and great-nephew Richard Rathvon, a corporate vice president in New Jersey, are members of the board and were “very involved in what was not an easy decision,” Martin said.

The final decision was made Tuesday.

Martin and the board spent Thursday notifying friends and beneficiaries of the school. There are grantors who may want their money back, she said — such as the Gibney Family Foundation of Vermont, which has supported Sylvester’s training and transition into the lead teacher position.

“I tried so hard, it just breaks my heart,” said Martin. “But I’m pleased to know that there’s going to be a big fund … benefiting blind individuals in Emil Fries’ name.”

“When my grandfather, Emil, founded the school there were very few options available for blind and visually impaired individuals to find work that provided true financial independence,” Doug Hunt said in a statement. “Emil was a visionary who helped open the door … to pursue a wide array of career options, and we know that he would be proud to have left such a legacy.”