Sometimes people ask me where I learned to work on pianos. A better question is where I learn to work on pianos--any technician will agree it's an ongoing education. I usually tell people that Ken Dalgleish has taught me. Ken has been servicing pianos the Sunshine Coast for nearly forty years and I met Ken just as he was seriously beginning to consider possibly maybe retiring (that is a process too!). They say timing is everything. I also attend workshops and seminars, conventions, as well as longer course such as the Renner Academy grand action regulation course in Arizona.
Many technicians learn from a mentor--often a parent, usually a father. Others graduate from piano technology programs, which are typically one or two years in length. These are becoming much less common, however. To my knowledge, there is currently only one one-year certificate program in Canada, through the University of Western Ontario. Schools in the USA are few and inaccessible in terms of cost (by Canadian standards, anyway). The piano technology school for the blind in Washington state closed recently, and there are a handful of correspondence courses.
This is where the RPT designation comes in. The Piano Technicians Guild offers three rigorous standardized tests to assess the skills of a piano technician. A technician who has successfully completed these exams earns the designation RPT: Registered Piano Technician.
I don't know what percentage of technicians are RPTs. Certainly not all by a long shot, which does not mean that a technician without the designation is not as skilled as one with such a designation. All it means is that those skills have not been assessed by the Guild.
I resolved some time in January of this year (you know, that new year's resolution thing) that I would take the RPT exams over the next two years. The three exams include a written test of knowledge, an aural tuning exam, and a technical exam which includes regulation and repair skills. The written component is the first part. I'd heard it wasn't too difficult, so to prepare, I studied and studied and studied--there is no better way to fail an exam than to assume it will be easy. I'm good at taking tests--I've never had problems with nervousness or self-doubt in an exam situation, so I was surprised about an hour before the written exam to feel my stomach turning a little. Maybe it's because tests of empirical technical knowledge are outside my comfort zone? While in university, most of my exams involved writing essays, examining a work of literature or historical events. Now I would be quizzed on proper key dip, the behaviour of wood, the cause of inharmonicity or regulation sequences. Anyway, enough suspense. I passed with flying colours. Exam 1: Check!
Next up is a mock aural tuning exam later this summer. (The exams require a lot of time and money, so to prepare, it is recommended to first have skills assessed by an RPT.) The first part of the aural exam is setting A-440 using a tuning fork instead of an electronic aid. That's the one aspect of aural tuning I haven't practised... Apparently, one is supposed to hold the fork upside down below the key bed--so it's against the wood, ringing--and play the A with the thumb of the same hand, while turning the pin with the hammer in the other hand (along with other checks). Only problem is my hand is too small to both hold the fork and reach the key with my thumb! I suppose whoever came up with that technique did not have short women in mind. No matter! I will figure something out for that one.
I have met enough technicians without the RPT designation to know it is a good thing to have. There is a kind of self-doubt that can plague someone who has not received the validation of their skills that the exams offer. It's why I decided at age 26 to begin a college education, and to obtain a bachelor's degree. At that time, I'd been teaching ESL for two years abroad, but was unable to secure a job doing the same thing in Canada because I lacked a degree. I didn't want that missing credential to be a barrier to me any more. So I went and got a degree. (The great irony is that by the time I finished my degree, it had become impossible to get an ESL-teaching job in Victoria, an incredibly educated city where a graduate student can look forward to any number of fabulous positions in customer service).
Being self-employed, the missing RPT credential isn't a barrier. But that designation will bolster my confidence. Plus,having letters behind a name looks cool.