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March 4, 2024

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Piano Hospital grad a rocking ambassador for school

By , Columbian staff writer
3 Photos
Casey Harris, a 2007 graduate of Vancouver&#039;s Emil Fries School of Piano Technology for the Blind, now rocks the nation with the hit band X Ambassadors.
Casey Harris, a 2007 graduate of Vancouver's Emil Fries School of Piano Technology for the Blind, now rocks the nation with the hit band X Ambassadors. Photo Gallery

Casey Harris, 2007 Piano Hospital graduate, has gone on to genuine rock stardom as a member of the hit band X Ambassadors. X Ambassadors and Harris will be in Vancouver and Portland on Oct. 8 — to play at a private benefit concert for the Piano Hospital in the afternoon before performing at the Widmer Oktoberfest that evening.

The private benefit is sold out. But through Oct. 3, with each donation of $25 to the Piano Hospital’s roof replacement fund, you’ll be entered into a drawing for a pair of VIP tickets for that evening’s Widmer Octoberfest performance. Learn more at pianotuningschool.org.

One of Harris’ teachers was Leal Sylvester, who’s now the incoming lead instructor at the Piano Hospital. During a telephone interview, Harris said he remembers Sylvester as a master technician with a low-key attitude. “He is kind, and extremely good at what he does,” Harris said.

Harris, 29, has been blind since birth. He grew up in a musical family in Ithaca, N.Y., and was plunking away at the piano by age 5, he said. He graduated from high school and felt uncertain about heading for college versus pursuing a musical career; an uncle mentioned employing a blind piano tuner and Harris realized that career would combine his love of music and his love of machinery. He and his mom started Googling options, he said, and the Emil Fries School of Piano Technology “pretty much dropped into my lap.”

He spent two years studying hard in Vancouver, he said. “It was intense. I remember in particular the learning curve was steep. It was daunting. I really went through a phase of wondering, would I be able to do this?

“But it leveled out after the first couple of months,” he said. “My hands learned how to operate the tools. My ear was always pretty good … but the dexterity and precision you need to move tools in the proper way to tune various strings — it’s a skill you can only learn by doing.

“It’s all about muscle memory and muscle control. That’s why it’s so do-able for blind and visually impaired people — you are dealing with that on a daily basis. That’s how you make your way around the world.”

After he graduated, Harris made his way around New York City for five years while working as a technician at Beethoven Pianos, a legendary store that caters to the stars. But X Ambassadors — which features Harris’ brother Sam as frontman — was taking off at the same time. It was only three years ago, Harris said, that he nervously quit Beethoven Pianos in order to clear his schedule for the band — and spent some time living on ramen noodles and hard boiled eggs, he said.

“It’s an insane amount of traveling,” Harris said. “There was a period where it was rough, but if you do it enough you break through. You learn exactly how it all works and it gets routine. It’s even relaxing, in a weird way.”

Harris credits the career he built at the Piano Hospital with keeping him fed and facilitating his eventual rise with X Ambassadors.

“I really don’t believe I’d be where I am today if I hadn’t been able to tune pianos for 5 years,” he said.

'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.”

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