At North Bennet Street School, A Passion for Craft Launches Pitch-Perfect Careers
The three piano technicians whose stories are told here came to the profession from diverse backgrounds and by different paths, and are employed in the piano industry in varied capacities. But they have one thing in common: They are members of a growing tribe of people whose lives have been shaped by a small Boston trade school with a big heart—the North Bennet Street School. For most people, finding a career is difficult enough; finding one they can fall in love with is even harder. For more than 135 years, North Bennet Street has been bridging that gap between work and love in ways that most schools rarely do.
Erik Diehl didn’t spend his younger days dreaming about becoming a piano technician. Though now a successful employee at Steinway & Sons, in Astoria, New York, Diehl spent most of his teenage years in West Virginia hoping to break into commercial aviation. He earned his pilot’s license while still in high school, but before he graduated his parents intervened. Hoping to keep their son’s options open, they convinced him to get a liberal arts degree before attending flight school.
Diehl had been a good pre-college piano student, so he decided to attend Berea College, in Kentucky, to study piano performance. While there, he met the college’s piano technician, and discovered many facets of piano work that appealed to him more than that of the stressful life of a concert pianist. The technical aspects of action regulation fascinated him, and the musical and artistic elements of voicing dovetailed nicely with his performance experience. Diehl had even worked on a piano when in high school, replacing its hammers and keytops before having the instrument’s cabinet refinished. When Diehl asked how he could learn the craft, the technician suggested he check out North Bennet Street School.
North Bennet Street School
Located in Boston’s historic North End, North Bennet Street School (NBSS) teaches various manual trades and fine craftsmanship with the goal of producing highly valued and productive craftspeople. Established in 1881 as the country’s first trade school, North Bennet Street Industrial School (as it was then called) initially catered to the needs of late-19th-century immigrants for gainful employment and social services, teaching, among other things, pottery, sewing, and sheet-metal work.
The school’s founder, Pauline Agassiz Shaw, was a visionary educator who believed that the teaching of manual skills could develop a student’s character, intellectual capacity, and commitment to excellence, ultimately teaching that student not only how to make a living, but how to lead a fuller life. This philosophy still remains at the heart of the school’s mission, and is reflected in its current motto, “A Good Life, Built by Hand.”
Over the years, NBSS has constantly evolved to offer hands-on training tailored to an ever-changing work environment. Current students can choose from programs as diverse as Locksmithing & Security Technology, Carpentry, Preservation Carpentry, and Violin Making & Repair. Others learn Bookbinding, Jewelry Making & Repair, or Cabinet & Furniture Making. The school also has two one-year programs in Piano Technology: Basic and Advanced.
Erik Diehl visited NBSS in the spring of 2007, and enrolled in the Basic Piano Technology program that fall. In this first-year program, students learn basic piano repairs, maintenance, and aural tuning—the art of tuning a piano by listening to and comparing beat speeds. (Beats are the subtle interference patterns that result when two strings’ harmonic overtones vibrate at slightly different frequencies.) “It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever learned to do,” says Diehl of learning to tune by ear. But after his first year, he earned a summer internship at the Aspen Music Festival and School. For ten weeks, he tuned practice pianos for concert musicians and performed minor troubleshooting. He also got his first exposure to tuning pianos for concerts.
“I had an epiphany during my first summer at Aspen,” says Diehl, who spent his evenings attending every concert he could. A more experienced technician tuned a performance instrument that Diehl had listened to all summer, and the instrument was transformed. “All of a sudden, it sounded phenomenal,” he says, describing a clear, clean sound that projected all the way to the rear of the hall. Diehl wanted to refine his own skills to duplicate those results. He returned to Aspen for the next three summers, then spent a fourth at the Tanglewood Music Festival, in Massachusetts. Each year, as he learned more about concert tuning, he found that his desire to work on fine pianos grew.
Diehl eventually interviewed with Steinway & Sons, and since 2012 has worked at the company’s factory as a concert technician. At first he performed tunings around the city, wielding his heavy, brass-handled tuning hammer in Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, jazz clubs, and other venues. Eventually, he was tapped for the Model D Selection Room, where he now prepares full-size concert instruments to be selected and purchased by orchestras and music halls for spaces that require the expression and volume that can be created only by a 9′ instrument.
Pianos are finished, technically, when they’re rolled off the factory floor, yet their parts continue to settle for some time thereafter. Wood, metal, leather, and felt compress, expand, and move slightly with time, use, and environmental changes, and bringing out the best in each instrument involves repeated cycles of minuscule refinements. The adjustments of the keys and the corresponding parts that propel the hammers toward the strings are measured in thousandths of an inch. Diehl also works on voicing, manipulating the hammer felts to work out inconsistencies in sound. The goal is to provide a predictable, even increase in partials (harmonic overtones) as the instrument is played with increasing intensity. “I want to provide the artist with the biggest palette of tone that I can,” Diehl says.
The Selection Room allows customers to play and compare a number of pianos in the same space, to ease their choice of the instrument that best suits their needs. The pianos that remain continue to receive technical attention until they “speak” to a customer—the result is a showroom filled with instruments of different personalities. But for most artists, the requirements are simple: “They want a big, bright piano that projects to the back of the room,” says Diehl, “and they don’t want to have to think about any deficiencies in the instrument.”
Two years of intensive training at NBSS can give a young technician serious credentials—many leave the school having also earned the Registered Piano Technician (RPT) designation from the Piano Technicians Guild (PTG). But achieving the ideal results required for the Steinway Selection Room forces Diehl to constantly reassess and improve his skills in a trade in which the most respected professionals say they continue to learn every day. “I got a very solid foundation from North Bennet Street, but I’ve spent the last ten years trying to learn this business and have only just scratched the surface.”
If finding your path early in life can be difficult, changing course after spending years establishing a very different career can be even more trying. Sean Mallari was raised in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, a Protestant Christian denomination that prizes the medical profession because the work is rooted in helping others. Having spent most of his young life dreaming of becoming a doctor, Sean expected to be excited when he began practicing psychiatry.
Mallari loves learning, and says he navigated medical school easily. He is passionate about medicine, and colorfully describes dissecting a cadaver, setting broken limbs, delivering babies, and caring for aging patients. But when he graduated and chose psychiatry as his specialty, Mallari’s enthusiasm took a turn. Almost immediately, the narrowed focus felt restrictive compared to the experiences he cherished in medical school. Between sessions with patients, he found himself watching the clock.
“I knew I wasn’t going to be happy doing this one little branch of medicine for the rest of my life,” Mallari says, recounting the confusion he experienced after reaching the goal he’d been working toward for years, and seeing all his classmates happy with their new medical professions. “It was very puzzling to me that I had completed medical school and found that I didn’t want to do medicine anymore.”
Searching for alternatives, Mallari looked to his friends for examples, but the careers they’d chosen didn’t seem to fit him. Hobbies left him similarly empty-handed. Mallari loved working with his hands, renovating and flipping houses, and in his free time working in the woodshop he rented in South Boston, but those jobs didn’t seem sustainable as full-time careers.
One day, Mallari stayed home from work to let a piano technician into his home, and questioned the tuner about his training. When North Bennet Street School was mentioned, a light bulb went on above his head. Mallari had seen references to the school in copies of Fine Woodworking Magazine that he’d paged through for inspiration at his shop. He knew the school taught cabinetry and furniture making, but hadn’t noticed that it offered training in piano technology. A lifelong musician, Mallari had taken piano lessons as a child, and went on to learn double bass and accordion. Learning to work on pianos would give him a way to make a decent living in music, in which he’d always felt grounded. His woodworking skills, too, would come in handy. Piano work seemed a good fit.
A little more than a year later, Mallari was enrolled in the Basic Piano Technology program at NBSS, where he quickly found himself enjoying hard work and camaraderie that reminded him of medical school. The bonds he forged with classmates as they learned to set pitch with a tuning fork and pursue perfect unisons supported the eager student as he continued on to the Advanced Piano Technology program, in which students focus on the complete rebuilding of pianos, and on advanced tuning, action regulating, and voicing.
After finishing at North Bennet Street, Mallari headed west, to Williamsburg, Massachusetts, to begin the process of building his private piano business in a community where he had few connections. Becoming involved in social organizations, sports leagues, and a community orchestra, he met as many people as he could, telling anyone who was interested about his recent career change. He also introduced himself to local PTG members, scavenging less desirable jobs from established technicians. Progress was slow. “It took seven or eight years to get busy as a piano technician,” Mallari says.
On his 50th birthday, the paperwork for renewing Mallari’s medical license arrived in the mail. Mallari had been making regular trips to Boston to work part time as a psychiatrist to supplement his finances while growing his piano business. But his income as a piano technician was at last gaining serious ground on his medical pay, and he noticed that when working on a piano he never watched the clock—so, taking the final leap, he chose not to renew his license. He now splits his time between school tuning contracts and private piano-service clients, taking larger rebuilding projects back to the timber-frame shop he built on his property.
Besides providing a path toward a second career, Mallari credits North Bennet Street with providing him with the foundational training in piano tuning and rebuilding that has led to professional success. The college and university setting where he now works is rigorous and demanding, Mallari says. Good skills are required in order meet the needs of concert venues, and to keep up with the day-to-day maintenance in the music departments that contract with him for piano service. Besides earning a good living for himself, Mallari has been able to build a restoration shop, and has enough high-end work that he’s been able to hire a full-time junior technician, another recent NBSS graduate.
“I’m excited to be working on pianos,” Mallari says of his new career, comparing repair work and setting a temperament (a tuning pattern) to the fun of solving a puzzle. One might wonder why he couldn’t find a similar puzzle in the human body and mind—wouldn’t his life have been easier? “My path would have been different if I had been able to be happy with my first career, but I think there are lots of people who aren’t happy with their first partner, or their first house, or the first city that they choose,” he says. “For me, my first career wasn’t a perfect fit.” A grin creeps across his face. “But my second pick is pretty good.”
When Renée Kelsey first visited North Bennet Street School, at the age of 16, her interest in piano technology was casual. She’d taken piano lessons since age five, and by the time she was in high school, in New Jersey, she was practicing hours each day. After years of watching a technician work on her Boston grand, she became curious about the mechanics of piano work. When she asked her parents about learning the craft, they found North Bennet Street.
“It was the first time I’d seen an upright taken apart,” she says of that first visit, describing sitting down at a piano, playing, and watching the moving parts. Like many future technicians, Kelsey got a kick out of dismantling and reassembling gadgets she found around the house, and watching students work on pianos excited her and made her want to learn to do it herself. However, not wanting to go to Boston and live on her own at age 18, Kelsey decided to attend college after high school, then move to Boston after earning her bachelor’s degree.
Most technicians who’ve talked with strangers about their profession have fielded questions about how they really make money. Everyone understands that plumbers can plumb for a living, and carpenters can build to pay their mortgages, but piano tuning—that’s just a glorified hobby, right? Kelsey began the Piano Technology program with a similar mindset, planning to study project management in graduate school as soon as she finished a year at North Bennet Street. She hoped to leave with the skills and knowledge she would need to care for her own piano.
But soon after Kelsey began her studies at NBSS, a transformation occurred. She successfully tuned her first temperament and felt a boost of confidence. She listened to returning graduates speak passionately about their careers. Alumni talks, a tradition in the program, give students glimpses of what to expect after school. “They weren’t struggling,” Kelsey says of the technicians who came back to share their experiences. “They made good money. They weren’t bored.” As the dates of her graduate-school entrance exams approached, her desire to study for them began to fade. The hobby she’d once hoped to explore instead became her career.
Kelsey gives a lot of the credit for her decision to take on piano work as a career to the women who paved the way before her. The piano tuner who first inspired her was a woman, as were two of her four instructors at North Bennet Street. Emily Townsend and Debbie Cyr, both graduates of the school’s programs and now teaching first-year students, have helped change perceptions about a field historically dominated by older, white men. While the Piano Technicians Guild membership is currently 11% female, women enrolled in the first-year Piano Technology program at NBSS frequently exceed 25% of the class. In one year, half the students were women.
North Bennet Street School’s Director of Admissions, Rob O’Dwyer, says he encourages women to apply to all NBSS programs as part of a larger initiative to reach out to minorities and other underrepresented groups. “It’s energizing to see women and other marginalized groups succeed and get recognition for their accomplishments in the trades,” he says. His and the school’s efforts have attracted increasing numbers of women, minority, and international students.
Scholarships and outreach play a part, but O’Dwyer thinks an inclusive and welcoming culture encourages these students in less formal ways. “There’s a focus on the work,” he says, referring not only to material craftsmanship, but to the idea on which the school was founded: developing character by concentrating on hand skills and a student’s enthusiasm to grow and learn. O’Dwyer notes that this seems to attract to NBSS a more diverse pool of students, something that the school prides itself on. “We’re presenting ourselves as a place that’s inclusive,” he says. “This is what we’re going for, and if that’s what you like, then this is a great place for you.”
North Bennet Street School turned out to be a great place for Kelsey, who, after her first year, went on to the same Tanglewood internship that had propelled Erik Diehl’s career. Not long into her second year at NBSS, she learned that one of her teachers and a technician at a university had recommended her for a position as piano technician at the highly esteemed Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, Maryland, and that a job awaited her there on graduation. The job was a perfect fit, allowing her to study under more experienced technicians while being close to family in New Jersey.
With more than 250 pianos at Peabody, all in need of regular maintenance, and only two other technicians to keep them in playable condition, Kelsey has plenty of work. Peabody maintains five performance spaces, most of which have two Steinway model D 9′ concert grands each. Faculty studios boast a mixture of Steinway models A (6′ 2″) and B (6′ 10½”), and practice rooms have a mix of smaller grands, and a few uprights, that show age and wear from constant battering by practicing students. The practice pianos are located in two buildings each four stories tall, making work sessions, including carrying tools and supplies, the equivalent of a daily workout at the gym.
When not running from piano to piano, Kelsey is usually working in Peabody’s piano shop on larger maintenance projects: rebushing keys, rebuilding actions, restringing, etc. The walls of the windowless, semi-subterranean space are covered with shelves containing tools, spare parts, and supplies. Also part communications hub and classroom, it’s a place where she can ask questions of and learn from the school’s more experienced technicians with whom she shares the space.
Kelsey didn’t know she wanted to be a piano technician, at least not at first. But she enrolled in a trade school that fostered curiosity, taught her manual skills, and bolstered her confidence. “I think I’m extraordinarily lucky,” she says of finding her perfect career. “I can’t believe things have worked out the way they have.”
Scott Reitz is a freelance journalist currently enrolled in the Piano Technology program at North Bennet Street School. When not chasing perfect unisons or splicing bass strings, he can be found on his motorcycle, hunting down tacos in Los Angeles. Write him at [email protected].