[nfbwatlk] FW: Don Mitchell

Jim Portillo portillo.jim at gmail.com
Tue Apr 14 20:17:49 UTC 2015

I'm thrilled to read this great story about my good friend Don.
Congratulations, Don!

-----Original Message-----
From: nfbwatlk [mailto:nfbwatlk-bounces at nfbnet.org] On Behalf Of Mike
Freeman via nfbwatlk
Sent: Tuesday, April 14, 2015 9:00 AM
To: nfbwatlk at nfbnet.org; Clark County Chapter, NFB of Washington List
Subject: [nfbwatlk] FW: Don Mitchell

From: Utterback, Connie [mailto:Connie.Utterback at clark.wa.gov]
Sent: Tuesday, April 14, 2015 8:04 AM
To: k7uij at panix.com
Subject: Don Mitchell


Don Mitchell keeps pinballing around, student to student, project to
project, with a near-permanent grin on his face and only the occasional,
gentle collision with an equipment cabinet or piano bench.

"I just bounce around and never stop," he said. "It's how I keep my girlish

Mitchell wants never to stop, he added, but he's facing the inevitable these
days - and so is the small specialty school that's been his way of life for
decades. His retirement isn't imminent, but at 66 he thought it wise to let
the School of Piano Technology for the Blind know that he doesn't have many
more years in him.

"My wife keeps saying I've been working hard for 40 years," he said.
"Actually, it's been 43, but who's counting?"

Preparing for the future only makes sense, agreed Cheri Martin, the school's
new executive director. Martin has worked for several local nonprofits and
recently went hunting for a new challenge after eight years as executive
director of the Parks Foundation. Now she's looking to conduct a national
search for Mitchell's replacement and then guide the two of them through
what she figures will be a two-year training and transition phase. (The
Parks Foundation is searching for a new executive.)

Having two teachers on staff simultaneously will cost the ever-underfunded
facility some extra bucks, she acknowledged. So she's happy to announce that
the school just won a grant of $78,963 toward that succession plan - about
two-thirds of the total cost, she figures - from the Gibney Family
Foundation of Vermont.

Ultimately, though, Martin envisions growing the school so there are two or
three permanent teachers working with a dozen students at once. For many
years now it's been just Mitchell and a half-dozen students.

"Six for Don is just too many," she said. Furthermore, she added, any school
with a single instructor is just one disaster away from a school with none.

The position won't be easy to fill, Martin and Mitchell both said.
Technicians and tuners are one thing; teachers are another, Mitchell said,
and it's pretty rare to find all those skills in the same person. "If this
was easy, I wouldn't have a job," said Mitchell, who started out as a
student here (and just never found his way back out, he quipped).

Martin also whispered that - despite a board of directors stacked with
old-school piano lovers - the School of Piano Technology simply has to stay
true to its name by catching up with the piano technology of today. That
means electronics, she said.

"I think we need to be teaching that too," she said. "I've been trying to
figure out how. We need to stay relevant. We need to make sure our students
are going to be successful - otherwise, why are we even here?"

According to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey, the
employment rate for visually impaired adults is far lower than for
nondisabled adults (38 percent versus 76 percent, approximately) and the
poverty rate is far higher (31 percent of the visually impaired live in
poverty versus 12 percent, approximately).

According to the school's website, 69 percent of graduates have gone on to
employment in piano service in places like universities and instrument
shops, where fleets of instruments take regular poundings. Many others start
their own private piano-tuning businesses. According to the school, there
are 17 million pianos in America today - and just a few thousand certified
technicians for them.


Visibility is Martin's other main challenge. The School for Piano Technology
for the Blind is the only one like it on the planet, she said, but even
people in Vancouver don't know what it is. When it was founded in 1949 by
Emil Fries, the place's name really was The Piano Hospital - and there's
still a placard saying so on the side of the building - but Martin pointed
out that piano repairs are a small part of what happens here today.

Emil Fries was a blind piano tuner and teacher at the nearby Washington
State School for the Blind; when his employer phased out its piano-tuning
program, Fries reportedly sold his possessions and mortgaged his property in
order to start his own piano-tuning school. Nowadays, the school he founded
offers a two-year course of study, the first half covering residential and
commercial piano tuning and maintenance, and the second covering grand
pianos, real-world experience and business operations. Meanwhile,
reconditioned pianos are for sale in the front showroom.

Each school day begins with class time, then each student goes to work on
individual projects. When The Columbian visited, one student was restringing
an entire upright piano as a final exam while another was tuning up a baby
grand that Mitchell had carefully de-tuned. Others were refurbishing
piano-key hammers and other equipment, and one was painstakingly working to
level an entire keyboard. Mitchell spent his time zigzagging back and forth
among them all, checking the work by hand.

Martin said she's keen to spread the word about the place - especially to
powerful potential allies like Salvador Brotons, the globetrotting maestro
of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. Martin used to play piccolo in the
symphony, and she believes Brotons would be a superb informal ambassador for
the school - if they can only get him to spend a few hours visiting and
learning what goes on there.

Front page of the Columbian.  Would you please forward to our list?


Stuck on a feeling'

Most of the students who attend the School of Piano Technology come from
pretty far afield - all over the United States and all around the globe.
Iceland, Belize, India, Korea and Trinidad are just a few of the nations
people have left behind to spend two years in Vancouver.

Chelsea Carter, 25, is from Nashville - "where every other person is writing
songs," she said. She's enjoying developing the saleable skills she needs to
make money that she can reinvest in her own music studio, she said.

But first she's had to defeat "a lot of self-doubt. Every one of us seems to
suffer from that." At the piano hospital, she said, she's found hope. "You
develop some quite impressive skills. It fees like I'm making progress. I'm
going to be someone who can stand up and be counted."

Jim Jackson, 39, lives in Portland with his wife and 19-month-old toddler.
Like Carter, he said struggling with a lack of self-confidence is all too
typical for visually impaired people in a seeing world.

But, also like Carter, he's finding that the skills he's building in
Vancouver are building his belief in himself, too. He spent too long
rebelling against the very idea of "going into one of those 'blindness
fields,' " he said - but denying his reality wasn't working out so well, he
said with a laugh. Now, he's envisioning starting his own piano-tuning
company in Portland, he said.

"I am tired of telling my story that keeps me the underdog," he said. "I
want to be the hero of my own story. I want my son to have a dad that he
will be proud of."

Then Mitchell arrived to feel his way along Jackson's keyboard-levelling
project. "Stuck on a feeeeling," he crooned as he checked, "your levelling
is gooood ..."

"This is the most social and connected group of people," said Martin. "The
camaraderie is really what I fell in love with." It wasn't the job she
thought she wanted, she said, but she emerged from her first visit certain
it was a great fit. "I'm so inspired by the way they learn and the fun they
have," she said.



Connie Utterback

Legal Secretary

General Felonies-Drug Units

Clark County Prosecutor's Office


Phone:  360-397-2261 x 5961

Email:  Connie.Utterback at clark.wa.gov


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