Spotlights

Face of the Week: Ellen Nash-West of the BCPS Office of Music and Dance Education

Team BCPS is made up of thousands of accomplished and interesting students, employees, and community supporters. “Face of the Week” introduces you to some of the people who make BCPS such an amazing mosaic of talent, caring, and commitment.
01/10/2017

Ellen Nash-West of the BCPS Office of Music and Dance Education

Perhaps more than anyone else, Ellen Nash-West is the reason your child – indeed, every BCPS student of the past two decades – sounds so lovely during the annual winter or spring concerts.

That’s because the 56-year-old Nash-West toils each day to make sure that all 232 pianos in Baltimore County’s schools both work well and sound good. In turn, her work ensures that music teachers have the key instrument they need to educate children from PreK to Grade 12 about the art and joy of song.

“I appreciate other people making the instrument sound wonderful,” says Nash-West, one of only two piano technicians employed by a Maryland school system. (Anne Arundel County Schools is the other.) “But – how it’s supposed to sound, how it’s supposed to feel – it takes a technician to do that.”

“Ellen is the glue that holds the Music Office together,” says Amy Cohn, coordinator of music and dance for BCPS. “She’s the person behind the scenes who makes everything work better, whether it’s tuning pianos, repairing instruments, or helping teachers. Her commitment to music education is inspirational.”

That commitment may be found inside the unassuming but cozy workshop where Nash-West spends much of her time. Tucked into a corner of the Kenwood bus lot in Middle River, the space houses a variety of disassembled keyboards, several block and tackle cranes used to hoist pianos overhead (to repair or replace an instrument’s feet or wheels), a barn-like spraying booth where Nash-West refinishes piano wood, and assorted odd bins stuffed with trumpets or clarinets or hand tools that seem to harken to another century.

Over a school year, Nash-West typically tends to between 20 and 25 pianos at her shop, most of them the upright players that typically inhabit BCPS schools. The music office still inventories 20-30 grand pianos, primarily in the middle and high schools. Most tuning chores are handled by contractors, while Nash-West handles more serious repairs for a stock of pianos that, on average, she says, date to 1974.

And, increasingly, Nash-West has had to learn new skills related to the advent of scores of electronic keyboards that are now common in BCPS schools, especially in elementary schools. “I had to learn how to solder when schools started buying them,” she says.

“In the piano world, keyboards don’t have the issues that acoustic pianos do. But keyboards don’t last as long, either. A keyboard will last about 15 years, where a good acoustic (piano) will last you 50 years.”

Getting in tune

Nash-West began as the lone BCPS piano technician 23 years ago when a former technician retired. With a workshop then located at the old Inverness center in Dundalk, it wasn’t a job that Nash-West had considered initially. “My mother (a nurse at Chatsworth School) made me take piano lessons when I was in elementary school at Johnnycake – once a week – but I didn’t realize its importance until later,” she says.

When her family moved to Carroll County after elementary school, Nash-West kept up with the lessons but drifted towards majoring in education at what was then Western Maryland College, now McDaniel College. It wasn’t until her junior year and two mini-semester courses – in piano and organ technology – that Nash-West found her groove.  

“There was a pipe organ in an old theater that had its pipes messed up when they installed air conditioning in the building. So, myself and two others, we said, ‘Let’s fix it,’ and we spent the semester getting it half-working,” Nash-West says. “We finished the project by making a silent ‘Phantom of the Opera’ movie using the organ. I learned so much then.”

Following a three-month camp in New York where she honed her music technology chops, Nash-West landed a job with Snyder’s Piano Shop in Howard County’s Lisbon community. On the side, she also began a word-of-mouth business as a piano tuner. But after a while, she left Snyder’s and began managing a Maryland vehicle emissions inspection station, where she stayed for 10 years.

“It was easy, and I had just gotten married,” she says of the move. She continued tuning on the side, however, keeping her hand in it, never far away from the music she loved.

When the technician’s job opened in the mid-1990s, Nash-West applied. The landscape was different, though; BCPS had between 300 and 400 pianos then, so many that some went largely unused by schools. Digital keyboards weren’t a thing yet. Much of her time was spent at schools assessing, tuning, or, in some cases, making on-site repairs.

“I did a lot more assessment and tuning then, and we were able to get a handle on inventory. We had (pianos) all over the place, and we were able to sell some,” she says.

As the years passed, Nash-West joined the Piano Technicians Guild, resurrected her own musicianship by playing the organ at church, and continued learning about what she calls the “morphing” world of keyboards and musical instruments. With the advent of the school system’s Exploratory Music program, she boned up on her trumpet skills and allotted some of her time and talents to repairing violins, clarinets, and brass instruments like trumpets.

Once, Nash-West had business cards printed up that contained her personal credo: “A well cared-for instrument is not only pleasing to hear, it is also pleasing to play.”       

She also became a resource to teachers and administrators, gently schooling them in the delicate science of keyboard repair, care, and love. “Ellen made me feel welcome as a first-year supervisor in BCPS,” says Brian Schneckenburger, supervisor of music and dance education for the school system. “Her kind demeanor and willingness to help have been indispensable. It’s a privilege to work with her.”  

As the years have passed, though, Nash-West has seen plenty of changes. Piano companies no longer use fine woods in many of their instruments, for example, preferring less resonant materials like particle board. The older keyboards, she says, have woods “you can’t find anymore – spruce or maple seasoned the way they were 100 years ago.”

And as the world has gone digital, more music-making has as well, including the instruments used. Despite the trends, however, Nash-West doesn’t see a time when piano technicians won’t be needed; “It is a unique position,” she says, “and I hope they keep it, because it is important.”

Being part of the song

These days, Nash-West has her hands full with keyboards that react poorly to the cold weather changes in humidity and temperature. She’s doing a lot of recalibrating of strings and bolts and keys and play. Cohn notes that Nash-West oversees more than 500 keyboards in total and chips in to help repair other instruments and furniture as needed.

“Being multi-talented,” Cohn adds, “Ellen often plays trumpet in the teacher band for the Kids Helping Hopkins fundraiser, too.” 

Nash-West says she continues to learn and continues to love her unique job. In recent years, she has learned how to face down the trepidation of opening up the insides of a digital keyboard, and how to play the scales to test out her repairs to a clarinet, and which teachers like digital and which prefer the wooden acoustic keyboards. She’s seen a harpsichord roll through her shop and discovered an old player-piano living at one school.

At some schools she visits nowadays, teachers assemble children to watch her assess a piano; some children, she says, call her “The Piano Lady.”

“I’ll always do this if I can; I’ll always work with pianos as long as I’m physically able. It’s a job anyone would have fun with,” she says. “Most of all, I think I like seeing children play or learn from an instrument I’ve had a hand in and knowing that I did my best on it.”

Do you know of a special person who would be a good candidate for the BCPS “Face of the Week”? Let us know! Send their name, contact information, and what makes them special to cherndon@bcps.org.  

For more photos, visit the album at the BCPS Flickr page.

 

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