Home Township Hero

Tshepiso Ledwaba ’20 brought the talent to become a world-class piano tech. Oberlin gave him the training.

June 21, 2021

Cathleen Partlow Strauss '84

Tshepiso Ledwaba.
Photo credit: courtesy UNISA

There are 12,116 parts that make up a Steinway grand, and beyond that, every piano has its own personality. The instrument presents myriad opportunities to sculpt the feel and sound for individual pianists or even for individual pieces. The distinctive training, time, experience, and mentorship it takes to be a Steinway-level technician is more akin to artistry than craft.

Most pianists don’t have a command of what happens on the inside of a piano that makes it sing or sag. So it is the technician’s job to steer a pianist in the right direction—toward a particular instrument or in the adjustments made to one. Technicians at this level must have highly developed musical sensibilities and an incredibly discerning ear. They must establish trust with the pianists they work with—to hear the artists’ perspectives, then make decisions on how to coax the instrument to respond in the right ways.

In 2014, Oberlin launched the Artist Diploma in Piano Technology, developed in partnership with Steinway, to meet a need in the music world—and at Oberlin. The conservatory’s collection of some 234 pianos had amounted to a mountain of annual maintenance. Pianos fill practice rooms, professors’ offices, and performance spaces across campus. Piano students, faculty, and a busy calendar of guest artists require pianos that not only sound good and are mechanically healthy but which are, in many situations, tailored to the specifications of particular performers and repertoire. While Oberlin had been teaching introductory and intermediate piano technology classes to Oberlin undergraduates for years, the students being trained weren’t capable of helping keep up with the demands of the conservatory’s pianists and instruments. The two-year program grew out of Steinway’s deep history with Oberlin, which has been an “All-Steinway School” since 1877—the longest continuous relationship with Steinway of any institution in the world.

The same year the piano tech diploma was launched, and 8,376 miles from Oberlin, in the South African township of Soshanguve, a young man named Tshepiso Ledwaba experienced something of a revelation. The clarinet he played was damaged and needed repair, but there was no one in the area who could do it. Ledwaba picked the brain of a visiting juror for an international flute and clarinet competition taking place at the University of South Africa, or UNISA.

“He told me I should learn to repair instruments,” Ledwaba recalls. “He said, ‘There is a need here!’ And it became suddenly obvious to me: Do this. Earn money!”

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Tshepiso (pronounced “tseh-PEE-soh”) Ledwaba was the first in his family to study music formally. His training began while he was a middle-school student with after-school programs run by UNISA, the country’s largest university. UNISA dedicates significant resources to community outreach, arts, and promotion of African culture, and its Community Music Foundation educates some 1,400 students between the ages of 2 and 23. Without this program, there would be no music instruction in Soshanguve, nor in four other townships in the Gauteng Province that UNISA serves. Like many community music programs across the world, its goals go beyond music training: UNISA envisions its efforts as a way to boost confidence in students and to provide positive alternatives for young people who face crime, drugs, and poverty in their everyday lives.

South Africa’s townships today retain many characteristics they had under apartheid. Located on the outskirts of major metropolitan areas, they are marked by underdeveloped infrastructure and racial segregation. Though legal discrimination of this type was abolished in the early 1990s, the country’s long-held racist structures and related violence continue to plague its people of color. Lack of access to continuing education and vocational training, disproportionally high unemployment, and deep disparities of wealth still define these areas and exacerbate the country’s slow economic growth.

Ledwaba’s neighborhood was built as part of the government’s Reconstruction and Development Project. RDP houses are one story and simply constructed out of cinderblock, some faced with stucco or brick. They are often flanked by informal settlements—areas with wood and corrugated metal dwellings.

Ledwaba and his two siblings were raised in one of these small, four-room houses, surrounded by a “stop-nonsense wall”—a security barrier—that separates the hand-poured concrete front yard from the street. Two outside “boys rooms” were later built for Ledwaba and his older brother by their father, a now-retired painter and glazer. The home is sparely furnished, but has the essentials. In the heat of summer, a ceiling fan moves the air. There is space enough that Ledwaba’s mother ran a kindergarten out of the house for much of the time he was growing up.

After finishing high school in 2008, Ledwaba earned his UNISA Music Teacher Accreditation. He started working for the university’s Community Music Foundation in 2010, tutoring students in music theory, clarinet, and recorder.

At first, his parents were not supportive. “Music is only entertainment—not a job,” he remembers them saying. And though this was work he loved, it supplied a frustratingly low income, especially with the responsibility he felt toward his family. It simply was not enough.

In 2016, Ledwaba was appointed project coordinator for Soshanguve’s community music program. He had also taken up the bass and played gigs with various pick-up groups. That year, he was introduced to John Cavanaugh, Oberlin’s executive director of keyboard technology and founder of the piano tech program, who was in Pretoria as the official technician for the 13th UNISA International Piano Competition, which Ledwaba served as a support staffer. He had no idea at the time of the changes that were to come.

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Ledwaba’s introduction to Oberlin was already long in the making. In 2011, South African jazz saxophonist, music educator, and university administrator Karendra Devroop visited Ohio to talk about ideas for student exchanges between Oberlin and South Africa’s North-West University, where Devroop was director of the music school and conservatory. During that visit, Oberlin Professor of Economics Barbara Craig, who had met Devroop in South Africa, put him in touch with John Cavanaugh.

“John asked me ‘What’s the piano world like in South Africa?’” says Devroop. “I told him it’s actually very good, it’s very strong. We have world-class performers who have emanated from our country and gone on to international careers. However, we are not cultivating young technicians, and it’s a very big concern because the piano fraternity is growing.

“John took no time and offered to come over during winter term and work for free.
It would be his way of ‘giving back.’ So I brought him to North-West University in Potchefstroom in 2013. I made the arrangements for him to work on our pianos for
two weeks.”

Cavanaugh and Robert Murphy, Oberlin's associate director of piano technology, traveled to South Africa with five conservatory students who had taken Cavanaugh’s courses. They tuned “many, many pianos,” Cavanaugh says, as part of their winter term project.
Bobby Ferrazza, director of Oberlin’s Division of Jazz Studies, was there at the same time with a group of Oberlin jazz students, as was A.G. Miller, emeritus professor of religion. “It was A.G. Miller who suggested that if I were to look for a student to teach in Oberlin, I should look for an African student to teach in order to help them get from under the thumb of apartheid,” says Cavanaugh.

The connection Craig and Miller made between Devroop and Cavanaugh proved fortuitous.

Piano technology students learning at a keyboard.
With the action removed from the piano, John Cavanaugh (left) guides Tshepiso Ledwaba and two classmates in a hammer felt resurfacing technique using a sandpaper file. (photo by Julie Gulenko '15)

“In 2015, when I was taking on UNISA’s next international piano competition, I needed an official piano technician,” says Devroop. “New regulations and decreased funding at the university made it impossible for me to bring in the technicians from the Hamburg Steinway facility we had previously used, so I called John and asked for some ideas. He offered to come for the rate I could afford.”

UNISA, like Oberlin, is an All-Steinway School—the first institution on the African continent to earn the designation, bestowed by Steinway & Sons Hamburg in 2011. The university has presented international and national competitions for piano and other disciplines since 1982; Oberlin piano alumnus and Steinway Artist Spencer Myer ’00 took first prize at the 2004 competition, a credential that effectively launched his international performing career.

“While John was in South Africa,” Devroop says, “we spoke again about the need to develop piano technicians so I was not always in this bind. That’s when he made another extraordinary offer.”

Cavanaugh told Devroop that if he sent him a qualified student, he would personally take him under his wing at Oberlin and teach him to be a fine piano technician. “The first person I thought of was Tshepiso.”

Ledwaba had been a student and then tutor in the UNISA Community Music Project for about eight years when Devroop joined the administration and took over management of the outreach program in 2011.

Tshepiso Ledwaba.
“Tshepiso’s accomplishment is very important…That Oberlin could intervene to help us in this way, to produce an expert of this kind, on pianos, and on the Steinway, I think is very important.”—Thabo Mbeki, Chancellor of UNISA and former President of South Africa (photo courtesy of UNISA)

“From day one that I met [Ledwaba], there was something unique about him,” says Devroop. “His personality is fantastic, but he is also the kind of person who is ever willing to assist. If there was a visiting ensemble to take care of or concert that needed to be set up, Tshepiso would be the first one to put his hand up and say, ‘I’ll be there.’ Because of his personality and his ability to work and to learn, I gave him as much responsibility as I could because he was such a reliable guy.”

Cavanaugh and Devroop spent the next year wrangling institutional support and resources from Oberlin and UNISA. The cost for this kind of study and travel was unimaginable for Ledwaba and his family. The two men also guided Ledwaba through contractual agreements with UNISA as well as the student visa process.

“I knew that if I gave him the opportunity, he would make the most of it,” says Devroop.

“Tshepiso is also such a humble person that, as a representative of UNISA, I knew he would be a good ambassador for our institution.” Oberlin and UNISA collaborated to find ways to get Ledwaba the training he needed at Oberlin, where he arrived in January 2018.

“It was absolute culture shock,” Ledwaba remembers. “Everything about it. And it was cold. I had just left summer in South Africa, and even though John prepared me, Ohio is cold! But I was very excited to get to work. My classmates had already started in September, so I wanted to get in there,” he says with a laugh.  

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With the piano technology program, Cavanaugh and Robert Murphy realized a vision and solved a workload problem. It addresses a need for technicians and provides more advanced training to students who are ready to pursue careers as artist technicians.

Designed for a minimum of three students each year, the program has graduated 10 students thus far.

“At Oberlin, students certainly gain a complete understanding of voicing and touch,” Cavanaugh says. “They get a broad sense of how pianos really work, and they understand how the keys relate to the inside and the whole body of the piano.

“More than that,” he adds, “they are learning to bridge the gap between piano technology and the concert pianist.”

Cavanaugh brings pianists of all ranks and varieties—students, professionals, accomplished amateurs, faculty, guests, classical, jazz—into the shop on a regular basis so the students learn to hear and communicate clearly. “I teach them how to listen to an artist, interpret what they want, adjust the instrument to satisfy them, and then how to negotiate priorities when you can’t satisfy them.”

The program is rigorous and hands-on. Classes are held every day in the piano shop. Students work on projects and practice skills on parts of pianos that are stationed across the space. They are assigned work throughout the conservatory’s piano collection for daily maintenance. They travel for special instruction and additional training and participate in summer internships and apprenticeships, also arranged by Cavanaugh.

For two summers, Ledwaba worked at the renowned Aspen Music Festival and School in Colorado, under the leadership of its head of piano technology, Justin Holcomb. The festival produces 400 concerts in eight weeks—a trial by fire for technicians.

Holcomb was impressed with Ledwaba’s skills and affable demeanor and immediately designated him head apprentice. During those summers, Ledwaba learned to tune pianos very quickly, knocking out six a day. He prepared the piano for a June 2019 performance by jazz great Gregory Porter. It was his favorite experience at Aspen.

dignitaries smiling for a photo.
“I’m a small boy amongst big giants. I’m privileged, honored, and humbled to even be able to take a pic with them, all because of piano tech,” says Ledwaba (center), flanked on the left by UNISA Vice Chancellor Mandla Makhanya and John Cavanaugh and on the right by Thabo Mbeki and Karendra Devroop. (photo courtesy of UNISA)

The culmination of all that Oberlin piano tech students learn comes in the final semester, when they travel to the New York Steinway factory for a week of intensive scrutiny. Steinway has developed exams specifically and only for the Oberlin Artist Diploma Program—an honor that involves preparing a grand piano, then receiving a final grade. Ledwaba traveled to New York for his exam in April 2019.

“Tshepiso excelled in everything,” Cavanaugh says. “He got the highest score ever. He prepared a piano to factory standards—also put his own spin on it—and came up with a really nice instrument. The Steinway examiner called me immediately and said, ‘This guy is amazing.’”

After 18 months of intensive instruction, two summer apprenticeships, and another semester of mentorship under his belt as an employee in Oberlin’s piano workshop—during which Ledwaba completed training in belly work and woodworking skills, action regulation, restringing, tuning, and voicing—it was time to go home. His student visa was expiring, he was homesick for family and old friends, and with the next UNISA International Piano Competition about to commence, he was needed in South Africa.

By the time Ledwaba returned, preparations for the 2020 UNISA competition were under way. Cavanaugh was there with him, tasked with installing a new set of hammers in a Hamburg Steinway concert grand, then setting up the piano to perform in an international competition. Ledwaba prepared a second Hamburg concert grand under his supervision and, says Cavanaugh, “He did an outstanding job.” They pulled 12-hour days to get things in shape, a rigorous schedule that Ledwaba embraced.

“It was such an amazing and awesome privilege to be working with my mentor, teacher, American dad, and friend, John Cavanaugh,” he says of the experience.

The competition’s opening events were attended by the university’s top administrators, as well as dignitaries, students, the competition’s 30 participants (including jazz pianist Michael Orenstein ’18), 10 distinguished international jury members representing the jazz and classical worlds, and Ledwaba’s family.

Devroop lauded Cavanaugh and Oberlin and the role they had played in Ledwaba’s education.

“UNISA cannot thank you enough for filling this gap in our country. There are no words in my vocabulary to express how sincere our gratitude is to you.”

Devroop also announced the establishment of the UNISA Piano Repair Centre, which would be housed on the Pretoria campus—and headed by Ledwaba. Ledwaba now begins a five-year contract with UNISA as one of the most highly trained and sought-after Steinway technicians in the world. He has received training at Steinway’s New York factory and is scheduled to receive training at its Hamburg factory. He also has been charged to teach three students, carrying the structure of Oberlin’s piano technology program to South Africa.

Cavanaugh was invited to address the audience and soon turned his remarks toward Ledwaba.

“It was my pleasure to meet Tshepiso Ledwaba four years ago when I came here. Sometimes, I am interested in students because of their personality. It was very clear to me from the beginning that Tshepiso wanted to do this. The interest he had and the questions that he asked made me certain that, along with his training as a musician, he might be perfect for this. As it turns out, he is the best student I’ve ever had.”

The hometown crowd erupted in a boisterous round of whistles and applause.

Cathleen Partlow Strauss '84 is director of Conservatory Communications. This story originally appeared in the spring 2021 issue of the Oberlin Alumni Magazine.

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