Young South African Steinway Piano Technician Emerges

By Ray Mwareya

For 170 years, Steinway - the German-American piano company- has crafted the world´s grandest pianos, but no Black African technician has ever received its highly coveted certification—until now.

In December 2019 Steinway certified South African Tshepiso Ledwaba, 31, after years of training at the highly respected Ohio-based Oberlin College and Conservatory, where he honed his listening and tuning skills. The college works with Steinway on a certification process that includes recommendations from Oberlin as well as students taking exams at a Steinway factory.

Mr. Ledwaba is the first Black African to receive the certificate, Steinway International confirmed to Africa Renewal.

“Steinways are handmade pianos meaning each piano has gone through the handiwork of skilled artisans,” says Mr. Ledwaba.

“Steinways are to music what premium BMWs are to autos,” emphasizes Professor Karendra Devroop, who performs on the global music circuit and is Mr. Ledwaba’s mentor.

Steinway pianos are high-end pianos, and each can cost as much as $200,000. Said to be quite temperamental, their wood and metal structures require delicate handling. They are sensitive to weather conditions and are highly susceptible to damage in very warm or very cold weather.

Professor Karendra Devroop. He discovered Mr. Ledwaba. Photo credit: University of South Africa Music Foundation.

Crowning moment
The certification was a crowning moment for Mr. Ledwaba. “It feels surreal,” he tells Africa Renewal.

Mr. Ledwaba’s affection for piano technics and subsequent certification was pure serendipity.

He grew up in Soshanguve, a poor township in Pretoria. On completing his high school education, he began singing at musical shows in poor communities.

Prof. Devroop, who is also the director of the University of South Africa (UNISA) Music Foundation, met Mr. Ledwabain in 2004 at a music event. The organisation works in poor communities in South Africa to develop music and performances.

He was attracted to Mr. Ledwaba’s singing talent, saying: “He is a phenomenal singer, a wonderful vocalist; he started as a classical and African musician.”

Later on, Mr. Ledwaba started playing the clarinet and a bit of jazz upright bass, even as he trained with the foundation on how to implement community outreach projects.

In 2010 UNISA offered Mr. Ledwaba a contract to teach children musical instruments. The teaching experience made him realize there were few good technicians around to fix the tens of thousands of instruments in South Africa’s informal music sector.

“I had to teach myself to replace a spring that went astray,” he recalls, adding: “It was a light-bulb moment for me. I realized we needed more classical music technicians of colour.”

He requested Prof. Devroop to get UNISA to provide in-house training on repairing musical instruments.

In 2016, Oberlin’s Director of Artists Diploma in Piano Technology John Cavanaugh visited South Africa to refine pianos at that year´s International Piano Competition. He asked his friend Prof. Devroop to recommend his best student for training as a Steinway Piano Technician on full scholarship.

Prof. Devroop immediately seized the opportunity to recommend Mr. Ledwaba. “I felt he would be a good fit. He has very strong piano skills, very good with his hands, which is something unique when working with pianos,” says Prof. Devroop.

The overarching goal was for Mr. Ledwaba, on his return from the United States, to train other black piano technicians in South Africa.

“The opportunity [to train at Oberlin] got me very excited,” Mr. Ledwaba reminiscences. “If we have a technician who is qualified in-house, it would save UNISA a lot of money, money that it could then invest in more communities.”

The organisation in October 2020 established the UNISA Piano Repair Centre with Mr. Ledwaba as the head technician.

Shortage of black piano technicians
Generally, black piano technicians are hard to find in countries across Africa, including in South Africa. “That´s a skill that is sorely needed in our country and across Africa — good, high-level skilled piano technicians,” laments Prof. Devroop.

Among other factors, he attributes the scarcity of piano technicians in South Africa to the apartheid system, which did not provide opportunities for black piano technicians.

Mr. Ledwaba explains further: “The available technicians, mostly white, got their piano knowledge under the tutelage of their parents, uncles, etc. They keep the skills within their families.” He believes the situation will steadily improve in the coming years.

There are thousands of African choirs in South Africa, and there is a piano accompanying each choir, says Prof. Devroop, meaning that there’s a huge need for more technicians so that “people making music can have good pianos.”

“We need instrument technicians to help the children who are poor and also with township musical instruments so that we don’t spend money sending instruments to pricey, legacy companies that charge high fees,” elaborates Mr. Ledwaba.

Prof. Devroop confidently believes there will be more Ledwabas in the future. “I am still a teacher at heart,” enthuses the Steinway-certified Mr. Ledwaba.