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Working to a different tune

By Martha E. Mangelsdorf, Globe Correspondent, 6/30/02

Each month in "Transitions," we profile individuals who have made significant changes in their work lives - and highlight the techniques they used to make the changes.

Robin Flint, 43

Career transition: Going back to school to train as a piano technician, and then starting her own business.

What she used to do: Before studying piano technology, Flint was working as a medical secretary.

What she does now: Flint tunes, repairs, and renovates pianos.

Making the switch: A routine piano tuning literally changed Robin Flint's life.

Years before, in high school, Flint had loved music. She was involved in band, orchestra, chorus, and drama club. ''Music was everything,'' she recalls. In college, she started out as a music therapy major. But she found, as she puts it, that ''I just didn't have the discipline, the desire or the talent, frankly'' for the music requirements, and she moved on to another course of study. ''I literally didn't play the piano for 20 years.''

That changed with her 40th birthday in 1998. To celebrate, Flint bought a piano. ''That just woke everything up,'' she says. ''I remembered everything I loved about playing piano and having music in my life.'' With the new purchase came a free tuning. And when the piano tuner arrived, Flint was fascinated. She asked if she could watch the tuning. The technician agreed, and Flint says, ''I had a million, billion questions.''

At the time, Flint knew she was ready to change careers. Her work as a medical secretary was reliable and she says she'd learned a lot working for a well-known Boston-based ear, nose, and throat specialist. Flint says she was good at secretarial work but wanted to try something different.

She'd been thinking about computer hardware, because she knew she wanted to work with tools and with her hands, solving technical puzzles. But, as she watched the woman tune her piano, Flint had another idea. ''Suddenly it occurred to me that this is really something I could do,'' she says.

As Flint remembers it, the piano tuner invited her to an open house at the North Bennet Street School in Boston's North End. The school, which was founded in 1885 to offer job training to immigrants, today offers training for a variety of craftsmanship trades: piano technology; violin making and restoration; jewelry making and repair; carpentry; preservation carpentry; cabinet and furniture making; lock-smithing; and bookbinding. Almost immediately, Flint knew the place was for her.

''The minute I walked in there, it smelled right,'' she says. As she learned about the work of piano technology, ''it seemed too much fun to be real.''

Attending the North Bennet Street School isn't cheap. Current tuition for the piano technology program is $11,550 per year, said Andy Levinsky, the school's director of external relations. But with student loans, Flint and husband Stephen Gore were able to manage. ''We just found a way to make it happen,'' says Gore, who is a computer technical-support specialist. Giving up her job and her salary to go to school full time took faith: ''We're regular people, needing both salaries,'' says Flint.

The piano technology program at the North Bennet Street School is full time and can be taken as either a one- or two-year course. The first year covers topics such as tuning and basic repairs, and the second, optional year focuses on piano restoration and rebuilding. Flint says she had originally planned just to take the first year, starting in the fall of 1999, but, after she got started, decided to take both. The program is decidedly hands-on; students begin right away working at the piano for part of the day.

After graduating in 2001, Flint became self-employed. Today, she enjoys a mix of work. Doing business as Lady Piano Tuner (http://www.ladypianotuner.com/) she does tunings and repair on the South Shore. She says she also has been doing repair work in another piano professional's workshop.

Flint clearly relishes her new career. ''I love everything about it - even the dirt,'' she declares. More specifically, she says she enjoys tuning, figuring out why something doesn't work and fixing it, working with her hands and with power tools, and getting to meet new people. Although the work is ''physically rigorous'' and involves both a lot of repetitive motion and time in the car driving from place to place, ''this is just an incredibly great fit for me,'' she says. Gore agrees: ''The sparkle and energy that she has about her work - it's really, really nice to be around.''

Flint thinks she's already making more than she did as a medical secretary. She acknowledges that it helps that she doesn't have to buy health insurance since she is covered by her husband's plan. In the first few years, self-employed piano technicians may find their income meager as they build their businesses, says Debbie Cyr, a piano rebuilder and tuner who works for David Betts, head of the piano technology department at North Bennet Street School. (Cyr provided that initial tuning to Flint's piano.)

Once established, a piano technician who is self-employed in the Boston area should, Cyr says, be able to gross $60,000-plus, before expenses and taxes. Technicians can also opt for employment at organizations ranging from piano dealers to university music schools, she says. Those who complete the two-year program and work as employees (rather than going out on their own) start at about $29,000 upon graduation, said Mary Richards, director of student and alumni services at North Bennet Street School. With eight to 10 years experience, those graduates who choose to work for someone else rather than themselves might make between $40,000-$50,000, plus employee benefits, Richards says.

Demand for piano technicians is high nationwide because there are only a few programs in the US and Canada that train them, says Cyr. She reports that the school could never fill all the jobs that come to it from around the country.

Boston boasts two piano technology programs. There is also the New England Conservatory School of Continuing Education, which offers a two-semester certificate program in piano technology, said Dorothy Messenger, a public relations and marketing assistant at the school. Cyr says that because some students stay in Boston after they finish their studies, ''we certainly have enough'' technicians, although the market isn't saturated.

While she says that piano technology was historically a male-dominated field, Cyr estimates that about 15-20 percent of today's technicians are women.

Today, one of Flint's sources of new customers comes from an arrangement whereby she provides warranty tuning for a piano retailer - just like the tuning that made such a difference in her own life.

''I love pianos,'' she says. ''I have no illusions of being a musician or anything: I don't play that well. But taking care of them, and fixing them, is such a great way to express my love for the instrument.''

Martha E. Mangelsdorf ([email protected]) is a freelance business writer and editor.