Piano Hospital selling inventory to raise cash, clear building

Vancouver's School of Piano Technology for the Blind will close its doors later this year

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter



Did You Know?

• Know what an action model is? It’s not Angelina Jolie looking unbelievably sexy while mowing down bad guys.

An action model is a piece of teaching equipment that demonstrates what happens, under the cover, when you press a piano key. You might be amazed to learn that more than 100 moving parts get busy each time you play one note on a grand piano. On smaller pianos, the mechanism is a little more compact, but just as ingenious.

View an action model demonstration of how a piano key works: http://bit.ly/2qKU8Rd.

Take an animated tour of the complex insides of a grand piano: http://bit.ly/2qKSr6k.

The Piano Hospital has a handful of action models left, executive director Cheri Martin said.

Learn More:


Right here in Vancouver, a key chapter in the history of blind people in America is coming to a quiet end. The only school in the nation — some say the world — that has taught blind and sight-impaired students the vocation of piano tuning and repair is selling off its instruments and equipment before closing its doors later this year.

Technicians, tuners, teachers and piano-showroom scouts have all visited the School of Piano Technology for the Blind in recent weeks, departing with boxes full of specialized tools and esoteric piano parts. Local schools and nonprofit agencies, like the new Daybreak Youth Services drug-rehab facility opening in Brush Prairie, have picked up used pianos for free.

One visitor studied the so-called Piano Hospital’s dwindling collection of artistically decorated instruments — leftovers from Vancouver’s annual summer Keys to the City event, which scattered eye-catching pianos everywhere so everyone could play — and bought three of them. He must have been a restaurateur or hotelier, Piano Hospital executive director Cheri Martin figures. She didn’t ask, she said; she was just happy to score the sale.

Now that the piano industry and needy nonprofits have had a chance to peruse the inventory, Martin said, it’s time to welcome the public. A three-day liquidation sale is set for 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. May 24 and 25 and 9 a.m. to noon May 26 at 2510 E. Evergreen Blvd.

Twenty-nine gently used pianos were still on hand Tuesday when The Columbian visited. All remaining parts, tools, training equipment, office supplies and furniture will be for sale too, and prices will tumble. Martin said an 1888 Steinway baby grand, valued at just under $30,000 last year (the one The Columbian wrote about, the beloved instrument of the late Bob McDowell) is now being offered for one-third less.

If you’ve ever needed to bolster your supply of specialized piano parts like upright whippens, Steinway grand hammers and flanges, butt dampers and full board locks — or related tools like string hooks, string spacers, string lifters and string stretchers — or very basic hardware items like nuts and bolts — the Piano Hospital is the place to check for sweet deals.

Martin said all sales will endow a general scholarship fund for blind people. Donors to a fund for building roof repairs should rest assured that those repairs will go forward next week as promised, she said. After that, the building will be ready to sell. The Piano Hospital means to be gone from Evergreen Boulevard in August, she said.

Meanwhile, the Piano Hospital’s most precious items aren’t being turned into quick cash, but preserved for history. Vintage teaching equipment, photographs of students and staffers across the decades, and a glass display case of memorabilia and tributes proudly titled “Emil’s Wall” — for founder Emil B. Fries — will all go on exhibit at the Baltimore, Md., headquarters of the National Federation for the Blind. Other items will go down the street to the Washington School for the Blind for similar display, she said.

All of which is about as bittersweet as it gets, Martin said. “We’re powering through, but this is like a death,” she said. “We are pretty overwhelmed.”

History by hand

In 1949, Fries mortgaged his house to start a school after his vocational program for blind piano tuners got cut from the Washington School for the Blind. His 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. That was after Martin, a recent hire, reached out as never before to vocational counselors and public agencies that work with the blind, she said; what she kept hearing was that blind people need no longer limit themselves to “blind trades” such as piano repair and tuning anymore.

Piano Hospital board members, including several Fries descendants, decided earlier this year to close the school, sell off its assets and launch a scholarship fund instead. Martin said she’s been learning about IRS rules that govern how a nonprofit puts itself out of business: it still must show due diligence in getting cash out of its property. It can’t just give everything away.

Martin, who can see, is not a piano tech. Longtime director of instruction Don Mitchell and head technician Leal Sylvester, who are both blind, have been personally feeling, identifying and pricing all equipment that’s headed out the door. (Mitchell will occasionally declare: “Oh, this is so cute! I didn’t know we had this,” Martin said.)

Mitchell has been an instructor at the school for 47 years. His retirement will be celebrated during an open house from 4 to 6 p.m. June 16 at the Lynch Family home, 4712 N.W. Franklin Street. Please RSVP to Martin at cherim@pianotuningschool.org if you wish to attend.