There are many roads to piano technology. This article features the experiences of three technicians who chose different avenues to education based on their learning styles, life stages, and goals as piano technicians.
I got into piano technology shortly after I left my career in journalism in hopes of transitioning to a more uplifting industry. I had been peddling music lessons and instrument repairs to local social media groups when I started getting inquiries about piano tunings. I figured it couldn't be any harder than tuning any stringed instrument, but after running some cursory Google searches on the subject, I found that it was actually far more difficult than I could have imagined -- and far more promising as a future career.
After emailing a few local tuners about prospective apprenticeships, I went out to lunch with the technician who would end up mentoring me for the next two years. She said: "If you're looking to make a quick buck, you should not expect to make much money from piano technology within the first year. In fact, it will require quite a bit of investment in the tools and resources you'll need to get started. You will have a very long learning curve, but you will never stop learning because it's such an enriching, endlessly fascinating career field. Since this industry is also in desperate need of technicians, you will probably find yourself with more work than you know what to do with."
And just like that, I was hooked! I can't say that autonomous education is the path for everyone, but since my parents pulled me out of school in second grade to be homeschooled, I've always been a self-motivated learner. Whether it's YouTube videos, books, or harassing local experts, I'm always hungry for more information to compensate for the absence of an educational authority. As a result of this route, I get to learn at my own pace; I'm driven by curiosity and interest rather than structured deadlines or standards of education; it's typically far less expensive than the alternative avenues; and, perhaps most importantly, I get to choose my own teachers rather than having them assigned to me.
A poor teacher can ruin even the most riveting subject, and piano technology is no exception. Similarly, this industry is in dire need of enthusiastic learners who should be encouraged to examine their sources of information and be allowed to digest complex concepts in whatever way works best for them.
In the absence of educational credentials, I have always been able to depend on my work ethic, natural curiosity, and desire to do a good job. Without the safety net of an institution, however, it is important to approach piano technology with an especially resolute 'Do No Harm' attitude. This can be exemplified in several ways, such as admitting to a client that you don't know how to do a repair; avoiding service work that you don't have a ton of experience with; connecting with local experts or resources that you can use in case one of your tech procedures goes awry; or simply doing your due diligence to thoroughly research and practice your procedures.
Diverting from the standard avenues of education also means that you will have to build your own reputation from scratch -- but if you make sure to build it on integrity, care, meticulousness, and deference for your teachers and clients, you will surely be met with opportunity."
- McKinley Corbley
Formal Education at North Bennet Street School
After trying various avenues of unfilling jobs, I made a list of my values, goals, and what my ideal day-to-day life would look like, and found myself looking into piano technology. The more I researched, the more boxes were checked off my lists, and shortly thereafter I enrolled in one of the available online correspondent courses.
Upon its completion, I realized I still needed hands-on experience so I reached out to local technicians to see if anyone had the time and capacity to take on a mentee. Thankfully, I was lucky enough to end up working with an amazing mentor who took me under his wing. I worked part-time with him for a couple of years before moving away from the area.
After a year of trying to build my own business, it was clear to me that I was still lacking skills that I had not worked on with my mentor. I decided to look into further educational opportunities, and that is when I decided to apply to the North Bennet Street School (NBSS).
The North Bennet Street School, America’s oldest trade school located in Boston’s historic North End, promotes creativity and excellence by employing field experts and providing equipped workspaces and educational opportunities for students. Their large pool of alumni exhibits not only the success of the school and its programs but also provides a network through which current and future students can connect to industry jobs.
Attending NBSS is easily one of the best decisions - and one of the best investments - that I have ever made. It is an incredible environment in which to learn, make mistakes, and grow as a technician.
There is absolutely no wasted time, we are constantly working on tuning, regulation, repairs, or discussing articles, recent news of the field, talking about how to have a business, and anything else that is relevant and helpful for us to learn.
Being a student at NBSS affords the opportunity to visit piano manufacturing factories. During my enrollment, we visited the Mason & Hamlin and Steinway & Sons factories, as well as a local harpsichord shop and organ maker.
Additionally, NBSS hosts many professional visitors throughout the year, including industry experts, alumni of the program, and people who work at places of potential employment. Talking to these people during their visits is an amazing way to network. That being said, it is up to you to take advantage of these connections, whether it is by instigating conversations while they are presenting, or getting their contact information to communicate with them afterwards.
The NBSS student portal alone lists open jobs, commissions, classifieds, and housing from people around the country who are actively seeking NBSS graduates for work, as well as offering tools and materials for sale. Furthermore, certain internship and employment opportunities exist only for NBSS students. This, in and of itself, is a huge advantage of attending this institution. The employer knows the high caliber of education you receive at NBSS and seeks to hire graduates of this program for that reason.
NBSS partners with local universities and piano dealerships as well, so that students can practice real-world tuning once they have passed certain skill requirements. This is a perfect way to gain hands-on experience while still remaining in a nurturing environment created for learning and growth.
Finally, one of the biggest advantages is the confidence that you will have by the end of this program. While there are some things you can only learn from being out in the field, I know that I have a solid foundation of knowledge and skills to draw from as well as a resource list of people who can give me guidance as I enter the field. This program is only nine months long, but the education and relationships I have formed will last my entire career.
- Jennifer Gold
Web-Based Instructional Course + Paid Apprenticeship
I have played the piano as a hobby since I was eight years old but only had access to a good quality instrument when I was in my late twenties. When I met the first piano technician I’d ever hired to tune my new piano, we got to talking about what the job entails and I thought it sounded like something I would like to explore further.
After I began apprenticing with the technician she got me learning a lot of the basic repair techniques that all technicians should know. She also started to teach me basic tuning skills, but I realized early on that I would need something a bit more structured to suit my learning style for the more complicated, theory-based knowledge that makes up a lot of the foundations of piano tuning.
So I started researching the correspondence course options available at the time and discovered one that looked like it would best suit my needs: The Butler School of Piano Technology.
What I liked best about the course was that the comprehensive, text-based materials were always paired with video instruction that was broken down into very specific and digestible segments so that before moving on to the next lesson I had perfect clarity and confidence in understanding the topics covered up to that point.
Blockquote: “Piano technology is very theoretically complex so I knew that achieving a thorough education in the foundational knowledge was going to be essential for me to succeed in this field.”
The course is simply but effectively structured to include:
written materials with incredibly concise textual instruction & elucidation of theory and practical procedures
clear instructional videos
straightforward guidelines for how to practice new techniques
written exams after all lessons to ensure that you understood the information you just learned
video exams which the student submits after the technical lessons to demonstrate their technique & understanding, and on which the instructor provides extensive feedback
the ease and efficiency of email correspondence
the option for one-on-one virtual instruction
The course is self-paced, leaving you free to engage according to your own schedule and availability. However, don’t expect to rush through it as your instructor takes the video and written exams very seriously and wants to make sure you absolutely understand the current lesson before sending you on to the next one.
I want to add here that this course in particular worked really well for me as an Autistic person who often struggles with retaining information gathered from in-person or live web instruction. Having all of my feedback in writing or in a recorded video that I could watch and review at my convenience really catered to my learning style and increased my retention.
Furthermore, The Butler School is constantly updating their course to improve accessibility. Improving their website, updating their information, and utilizing new technology over the past couple of years has actually transformed their “correspondence” course into a fully web-based course which now accommodates students worldwide. They are also bringing on new team members and instructors to accommodate an increase in student enrollment and engagement.
I highly recommend checking out their website—link—for more information about what the course contains and how it works.
Rick has always been very helpful, patient, and generous with his time whenever I am struggling with theory, technique comprehension, or just taking a long time between lessons. I started the course in 2018 and am still slowly making my way through it (the average time for completion is between 6 & 18 months) but by the time I am finished, I know that I will have not only have all the skills but also the confidence necessary to be a high-level, aurally-trained technician.
It may also be worth mentioning I did pair the course with a practical (paid) apprenticeship with the lead technician at a local piano dealership. I was able to get experience in their shop cleaning, regulating, and tuning new and used pianos for sale. The combination of the instructional web-based course with practical, hands-on application turned out to be the best combination for me to achieve a high-level education in piano technology while also keeping my costs as low as possible.
- Kelly Overvold
As you’ve probably deduced from the diversity of entries in this series, there is no single path to becoming a piano technician. In fact, the beauty of this career choice is that it is highly customizable to fit your individual work goals. That is why we believe that the best way to find success in the industry is by taking the opportunities that are available to you when they are available to you, staying flexible, curious, and honest about your career goals, and building a professional network that you can comfortably reach out to whenever you have a question. The rest is up to you!