While growing up in the Netherlands, Koen Tholhuijsen spent countless hours in his father’s workshop.
“As an electrician, he had a lot of tools hanging around. As a kid, I was extremely good at breaking stuff,” said the 25-year old. “I would always try and fix things before my parents figured it out. Playing with all those tools was when I started enjoying working with my hands.”
Today, Tholhuijsen uses this curiosity to get ‘in tune’ with his internship as a piano technician at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music. And he gives credit for his ear for music to Western’s Piano Technology Program, which has been training students from around the world for 14 years.
The one-year intensive program has seen students arrive more than a dozen countries – Australia to Ireland, Germany to Cuba – to learn the fine art of piano tuning, repairs and findng that perfect pitch.
Formerly located at Toronto’s George Brown College, the program was revamped and brought to where it belongs – in a music school, said program co-ordinator Anne Fleming-Read. It remains the only piano technology program offered in North America.
“It’s like its own laboratory. This is the perfect location,” she said of the program, tucked neatly in a corner of the Don Wright Faculty of Music Building.
“This is a niche market – and a very small market. There have been several schools throughout the world that are no longer operating,” Fleming-Read said. “Apparently, word gets out you can come here and, in eight months, have what you need to go out and start making a living, and continue your learning.”
With just 14 students in the program each year, Tholhuijsen saw Western as the perfect opportunity for him, despite the fact he was already enroled in a similar program in Amsterdam.
“It was a three-year program. After I did the first half-year, I pretty quickly figured out it wasn’t the right school for me,” said Tholhuiijsen, who quickly began googling piano technology programs. “Western was one of the first ones that popped up right away. The website was good and I got a lot of great information. So, I got in touch with Anne and made my decision.”
Coming to London was delayed as he spent the next year-and-half saving up the $16,000 program tuition. But it was worth the wait, Tholhuijsen added.
“I just wanted to go to a good school and reach my goal of working in the business,” he said. “They teach you the basics of what you’re going to need to be successful. And to be sucessful, you spend on average of 60-70 hours a week in school. That’s a lot of time to put in. But if you do that, there’s a big chance you’ll learn so much.
“They push you to succeed, which is great. My personality needed that pressure.”
Fleming-Read said students appreciate the individual time they receive, with such small classes, thanks to senior technical officer Don Stephenson and resident technician Paul Poppy.
“It allows for a lot of individual and personal attention,” she said. “It’s not just them sitting at a desk. You are working right there with them. You get to see their ‘up’ days, and their ‘down’ days, and respond accordingly. Sometimes, you take risks when you push them harder, but they need to know they can do it.”
While the main program will not be growing, a summer session in Piano Technology is offered to graduates and practicing technicians. A similar one-month program will also be offered for residents of China, an area desperate to educate technicians.
“This will be for those who already have some experience and want to take it to the next level,” Fleming-Read said.
Tholhuijsen joked that despite waiting the year-and-a half to begin at Western, he still graduated before his former classmates in Amsterdam. And a few months into his internship, despite all his training, he admits the learning never stops.
“You are always developing your listening skills,” said Tholhuijsen, who, while not a pianist, dables on the piano. “Everybody has it, everyone hears it, but you really need to develop it, which is why it’s important to put those 60-70 hours in.
“Most people who listen to music will hear different things we hear, as tuners. At the beginning, you barely hear anything, but then you slowly start developing your listening skills and begin hearing more and more. It takes time and, still now, it’s improving for me.”