It would be easy to mistake a piano technician’s work for a discipline whose time has come and gone.
They toil alone for hour after hour in the solitude of vacant studios and concert halls, employing old-fashioned-looking tools that evoke a cobbler’s kit. They detect sonic imperfections where few others would, then patiently tinker and tweak till a satisfying approximation of perfection is achieved. Their methods are mostly the same as they were a century ago, because the pianos are essentially the same too.
They are musical craftsmen—an unmistakably rare breed—and each one of them is sorely needed.
In January, students in Oberlin Conservatory’s piano technology program spent a week in the company of one of the world’s best: master technician Eric Schandall.
Born in America but now living in Norway, Schandall has worked as a piano technician since 1967, including a stint as an educator at the C.F. Theodore Steinway Technical Academy in New York City. Now nearing retirement, he services pianos and presents lectures and demonstrations on a wide range of related topics to groups worldwide.
“We work to make it so that pianists can play music and not worry about playing the piano. That’s the ideal,” Schandall says of his craft during a break from working on intonation techniques with Oberlin students in a Bibbins Hall studio.
If piano technology exudes an air of bygone-era craftsmanship, Schandall notes that it is anything but a dying profession. The number of capable technicians, in fact, falls far short of meeting worldwide demand.
“It’s a serious problem,” he says. “There are not enough good technicians. It takes a lot of training and a lot of practice, and you need practice on good instruments—and there are not a lot of opportunities to train on good pianos.”
That’s where Oberlin enters the picture. Developed by the conservatory’s Executive Director of Keyboard Technology John Cavanaugh, the artist diploma in piano technology is a two-year program presented in partnership with Steinway & Sons. It capitalizes on the conservatory’s long relationship with the manufacturer—Oberlin was the first All-Steinway School, dating to 1877—as well as its ready access to incredible performers and more than 230 Steinway grand pianos of all vintages. Oberlin is also the only offsite factory training facility for the Steinway Technical Academy, which for years has brought Schandall to campus every summer.
In spring 2016, Oberlin graduated its first class of piano technicians, Yu Jiaao and Chun Yen Chen. Both transitioned directly into coveted positions: Chen as a senior piano technician with Steinway & Sons in his native China, and Jiaao as a piano tech fellow at the Juilliard School.
“Our artist diploma program is a mentorship,” says Cavanaugh. “Though there are lectures in tuning theory, nomenclature, piano construction, and design, the bulk of the training is done one on one with the student, with emphasis on solid concert tuning, action regulation, and restoration skills during the first year.
“The second year is dedicated to tone regulation, with emphasis on working closely with performing artists—bridging the gap between what the musician seeks and ‘making it happen’ from a technical point of view.” Because the program is so dependent on the student-mentor relationship, no more than three students are accepted each year.
Schandall will tell you that a technician’s training lasts a lifetime, though he considers 10,000 hours of experience—five years of full-time work—a typical benchmark to achieve proficiency. He notes that there are more highly skilled young pianists than ever before, which only adds to the challenge.
“The technician community has to keep up with these kids,” he says. “The manufacturers and technicians who keep up with these machines have to be really good, and that takes a lot of training.
“If you’re good,” he adds, “you’re always going to be in demand.”
Schandall himself was a pianist through his teen years, though he never aspired to a professional career onstage. Newly married in his early twenties, he turned to piano technology at the suggestion of a friend and former teacher. He found his first position by thumbing through the phone book, blindly choosing to call the first name he spotted from the list. That call happened to be answered by the head of the North Bennet Street School in Boston, one of the most prestigious institutions of its kind. And they happened to have an opportunity available.
Piano technology remains the only line of work Schandall has known in 50 years, a fact he cheerfully chalks up to his “singular lack of imagination.” His wife is also a veteran technician.
“When you’re deciding what you’re going to do in life, you need to pay attention to what life wants you to do and what doors open up for you,” he says. “I’ve just been fortunate that doors opened for me.”