By Kate Redding, RPT
I suspect that for many new piano technicians, the barrier for entry to university work can seem pretty high. If you’re interested in pursuing full-time employment with an educational institution, begin looking at jobs posted online to get a sense of the minimum and preferred qualifications. Many job sites allow you to set up a notification for new listings. It won’t take long to see that the language looks similar across the board.
Introducing yourself to people with experience working as a staff piano tech in an institutional setting is another great way to gather information about the demands of the job and campus culture. The following are my suggestions for parsing the language of university technician positions as well as some tips for understanding the information you find in job listings.
SALARY INFORMATION AND BENEFITS
For most people, wages are a top priority when considering any new job. Be aware that job sites may include a salary estimate for a job to drive traffic to their online listing, but keep in mind that it is only an estimate. Salary isn’t always advertised by the employer, but when it is advertised, it often falls in a wide minimum - maximum range. In this case, be on the lookout for language about pay grades.
In most instances, information about pay grades for a specific school is easy to find through a search engine: name of school + employee pay grade. If the college is part of a larger state higher education system, helpful information may be available through other campuses. Many public institutions use pay grades to evaluate the market value of skills and positions within their system. Pay grades are often in place for years at a time and re-evaluated once a decade. Be on the lookout for the latest information and effective dates.
The salary pay scale for a piano technician might be aligned with skilled trades and crafts, or it could be more closely aligned with curators, analysts, and faculty. In any case, it’s common for job postings to list the salary as “commensurate with experience,” and it’s always in your interest to understand how employers compensate their employees based on experience and skill.
Health care and retirement benefits are a great perk to institutional work. Although specific information about these benefits is not always available to applicants prior to an interview, I recommend digging a little deeper for any details that might provide a bigger picture. Fringe benefits such as tuition waivers, development grants, and access to university events, amenities, and resources add considerably to your take-home pay.
COMMON MINIMUM QUALIFICATIONS
Most universities are seeking applicants who meet these minimum qualifications: a high school diploma or equivalency; at least 3-5 years of working experience; RPT status or a completed certificate program; and possession of specialized knowledge. Because specialized knowledge can be the hardest qualification to meet, let’s start there.
Sometimes this is laid out as having attended training programs like the Steinway Academy, Renner Academy, or Yamaha’s Piano Performance Seminar. These programs have their own special barriers to entry which include waitlists and priority attendance for techs working with piano dealerships, schools, or affiliates. Educational opportunities like these might only be offered a few times a year, and require participants to take time away from work for travel and training. They can be expensive, but I think they are worth it because it’s a great way to learn the specifics of the piano company’s product. However, I’m not sure that a lack of participation in these programs is a good reason not to apply for a university job, especially since a potential employer may be willing to offer financial help or sponsor your attendance in the future.
Experience working on Steinways or other commonly-used institutional piano brands can be gained through in-home service, rebuilding, or dealership work. Many piano manufacturers make their service and technical manuals available to purchase. This is a good place to start, and I recommend familiarizing yourself with these manuals, practicing the methods, and incorporating the techniques into your daily work. It’s easy to become discouraged from applying from a job if you don’t meet the preferred qualifications, but not participating in technical training programs and academies does not bar you from gaining specialized knowledge. As you look at job openings, remember it’s up to you to demonstrate how your unique knowledge and experience makes you qualified for the position.
When it comes to carrying the RPT credential, I think there is more wiggle room here than many prospective applicants understand. If you’re in the process of completing the exams, it’s a good idea to show this on your resume or Curriculum Vitae (CV), taking the time to explain your progress as well as your plans to take exams in the future.
If you’ve completed a certificate course, be sure to highlight this on your application. Many colleges and universities employ piano techs who are neither RPTs nor Guild members. When evaluated collectively, other qualifications may hold more weight, but to a potential employer, credentials reflect how piano technology is your profession and not a hobby.
Most institutions in North America require 3-5 years of experience. After 3-5 years working as a full-time piano technician, your ability to provide professional service moves beyond the beginner stage. When colleges and universities ask for applicants with 3-5 years experience, the expectation is that you have enough hands-on experience to meet the needs of the school. The truth is, your skills improve with learning and regular practice, not just elapsed time.
In part, your success as an institutional tech will hinge on your ability to produce musical and stable tunings, respond to problems, and manage the workload. Every tuning you do is an opportunity to practice your craft, regardless if you’re working on an upright piano or a concert grand piano. If you stay committed to doing your best work, then your comfort with concert tuning and piano prep will improve. As you gain experience with concert work, keep a list of the artists and musical acts that you’ve worked for on your resume/CV.
Many professional technicians who have been working in the field will not have a problem meeting the required 3-5 years of experience. Some technicians come to piano technology later in life, having spent years working in other fields. Your experience in another career path should not be omitted when applying for university work since many of those skills will help you succeed in institutional work.
Educational requirements are typically the easiest to meet when applying for a staff position because historically the bar is set low for piano technicians. That’s not a slight, nor is it unrealistic, as not holding a college degree does not bar you from being an excellent technician. On the other hand, I think attending college works to your advantage because you will be familiar with academic settings.
In the last few years, I’ve seen a handful of job postings that ask for a bachelor’s degree. Sometimes a degree in music or a related discipline will be listed under preferred qualifications. If you have completed classes for college credit, be sure to mention this in your resume/CV.
Always remember the quality of the reference is what matters most. Three references is standard, but including additional contacts works in your favor when they present a more complete picture of your professional activities and are equally high-quality and relevant. In my opinion, university hiring committees will value references from your supervisors and teachers more than references from your clients and co-workers. College faculty are often comfortable speaking with people who share similar status, so if you have a client who teaches at the collegiate level, consider approaching this person for a reference.
It’s of the utmost importance to ask permission from anyone before including them on your resume/CV. For all references, make sure to verify current contact information, their preferred method of communication, occupation, title, and honorifics. Applying for a new position is often a private matter that you may not want to advertise. Ask for references from people who will keep things confidential, and who are willing to share all application-related updates with you.
References who know you and who are familiar with your work.
People who are enthusiastic about your success and ability.
People who can speak about how your work has helped them in a specific way.
My advice is to exclude people - even friendly people - who don’t understand how your work contributes to the organization, can’t speak clearly about what an asset you would be to a potential employer, or who have conflicts of interest. Only include the people who have given you their permission, and in whom you have a high degree of trust.
It’s common to see language about organization and planning listed on a job listing. Be sure to include all experience you have managing budgets, communications, record keeping, and time management on your resume/CV. If the job listing outlines other duties regarding managing rebuilding projects, teaching students, or overseeing contract technicians, address this as part of your cover letter and resume/CV as well.
RESUMES AND CURRICULUM VITAE
If you’re contemplating university work, I recommend creating a Curriculum Vitae. In the past, I preferred a less-is-more, concise resume when applying for jobs because I understand hiring is a time-consuming process, and it’s true that many people will scan rather than read your application documents. But my thinking about this has changed with time, and a few years ago, I developed a comprehensive CV.
This is why my thinking changed: university hiring managers and department heads are accustomed to viewing CVs from prospective faculty which are filled to the brim with experience, professional development, credentials, published material, etc. In academic settings, being able to communicate like faculty, and understanding the language and customs of higher education is important. I encourage you to keep a specific and detailed list of all events, awards, seminars, and experiences that help paint a picture of your fitness for the job you’re applying for.
If you hold a college degree(s), consider including anything that demonstrates advanced work, including recitals, presentations, thesis projects, and writing. You might take time to write a paragraph about your interests outside of piano work, such as extracurriculars, or your community involvement. I don’t know for certain if this will improve your chances of landing a job interview, however, the first impression you make on a potential employer will likely be your resume/ CV and cover letter. Why not allow your experiences and personality to shine through? Even when you do not meet all of the desired qualifications outlined in a job listing, don't assume you aren’t the best candidate for the job.