by Vincent M. Tagliarino
From the Editor: Most articles that come to my attention are in an electronic format. Occasionally I get an article in Braille, but less frequently do I get one in print. Never does anything these days come from a typewriter, with the mistakes and strikeovers that are so easily corrected with a word processor. This one did, but I hope you will agree it was well worth the effort to transcribe and edit.
Some of the history we have covered in recent issues has emphasized the importance of a university education, but a valid question that blind people whose strength isn’t found in books repeatedly ask is “What's out there for me?” Vincent's story shows that success comes in many forms and doesn't always require a college education or an advanced degree. What is required is identifying one’s talent, exercising the discipline to develop it, and creating the opportunity to try to succeed in making a dream come true. Here is how it happened for Vincent Tagliarino, a charter member of the Buffalo Chapter of the NFB of New York:
Most of my relatives and friends call me Vinny. I had sight until I was eleven years old. Then I started having problems reading the blackboard at a distance. The eye doctor told my parents that I should not strain my eyes, so a friend who had the same eye condition (retinitis pigmentosa) told me that there was a school for the blind in Batavia called the New York State School for the Blind. My parents applied on my behalf, and off I went.
The school made me repeat fifth grade because I had to learn how to read and write Braille. They said that it would take me about a year to do it well. I am extremely happy they made me learn Braille because to this day everything I do revolves around being able to read and write. Unlike the situation for today's school children, I had no choice; Braille it was.
In addition to the normal subjects one studies in school such as reading, writing, arithmetic, and history, the school gave students the opportunity to learn several trades. It offered courses in music, piano tuning, woodworking, poultry (yes, the care and feeding of chickens), home economics, and others I don't now remember.
I knew what I wanted to be; my dream was to become a musician and own a music store. In elementary school I signed up for piano lessons and band. After I entered high school, I signed up to learn how to be a piano tuner. They offered excellent training, and I was impressed by the fact that my piano-tuning teacher was partially blind. After five years of piano lessons I was able to sign up to learn to play the pipe organ. I stayed in Batavia for two extra years to learn other skills that would help me in starting and running a business: how to keep the books, make out bills, and write business letters.
The year I graduated I had to put on a graduation recital using the pipe organ and the piano. The public was invited, and my family came up from Buffalo to hear me play. After graduation I got a scholarship to a summer music camp and enough money for the first semester at Hartwick College in northeastern New York State. Unfortunately my parents did not have enough money for me to continue my college education, so I returned to Buffalo to live.
The first thing I had to do was join the musicians union in order to play in hotels and banquet facilities. The union listed me in the union directory as a piano, accordion, and organ musician. I was also listed as a piano tuner and technician. The latter was a fortunate listing because it helped me meet many piano players who needed someone to tune their instruments.
In my second year out of school and still with no work, I was fortunate to audition for a quartet that played on the road. They knew I was blind and didn't care; all they cared about was that I play well enough to be in their band. I traveled extensively in New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York State. Not only did I earn some money and do some traveling, but I proved that I could sell myself as a blind person and as a musician. This gave me the confidence to keep on trying when times got tough. It confirmed for me what the National Federation of the Blind said about blind people, and I have spent most of my life trying to communicate that message to blind and sighted people alike.
After six months on the road I was offered a job playing piano six nights a week in Buffalo. I took that job because the band did not always have work, and this job let me stay home and avoid the expenses that came with traveling. A blind friend who also graduated from the school for the blind in Batavia was teaching organ and piano lessons in the Wurlitzer Music Store in downtown Buffalo. He was able to get a grand piano to work on and asked me if I could help him recondition it to sell. His idea was that in this way we could both make some money for ourselves. At no charge the store gave us a spot where we could recondition it, and we went to work. While at the store I met the other piano tuners who worked there and also got to know the salesmen. Six months later one of the piano tuners retired, and I was offered a full-time job as the inside piano tuner for this five-floor music store. Needless to say, I was very happy.
In my four years working in the store, I met many musicians and people who wanted me to tune their pianos. These became my private customers, and I handled their business on evenings and weekends. In 1960 I left the store and started my own business doing piano tuning. My mother helped me by driving three days a week, and I hired a part-time driver for the other two days. When I branched out and started to get busy doing repair work, my father let me use his workshop in the basement. Before long I got so much work that I needed more space. The work was starting to take over the house, so I asked my parents if I could build a shop in the back. They said okay, and I immediately went to the bank for a loan. I hired my uncle to do the work. He knocked down the old garage and built a thirty-by-thirty building. With this space I was able to bring in bigger items to work on, and I also started buying used pianos to recondition and sell.
Soon I got into the business of selling new pianos. Before long I once again needed more room. About a block away from my shop, I saw a “for rent” sign on a storefront property. I signed a one-year lease with the option to renew it for a second year. I soon realized I needed more money to buy merchandise and equipment to operate the store and made an appointment with the Commission for the Blind and Visually Handicapped to see if they could help me purchase these things. After I filled out the paperwork and waited several weeks, the Buffalo office of the agency okayed my application and sent it off to Albany, where the higher-ups had their headquarters. A few weeks later I received disappointing news; my request for money to expand my business had been rejected.
Now what could I do? I had already rented the store and ordered the merchandise to fill it. I and those from whom I had purchased my stock had assumed approval from the district office was sufficient. The warehouse had shipped my showcases and other equipment to the store. This was quite a blow to me, so I went to the owner of the warehouse and described my predicament. He felt very sympathetic and understood my situation. He made a deal with me. He asked how much money I could come up with, and, when I told him, he agreed to make me a loan from his own pocket at no interest. Even with this help I had to borrow more money from the bank, but I was able to open the store.
After a year I decided not to renew the lease. The expenses were a little too high. I moved back into my original shop, but several of my friends were excited about what I was doing and wanted to help me meet other people who might increase my business. I was encouraged to join an exclusive business club that offered me a deal I couldn't refuse. In exchange for playing piano at their parties for no charge, I would not have to pay their membership fees, and I would get drinks and food at no cost to me. What a deal! I met a lot of great business people, and, as my friends had expected, this paid off.
Eventually I was fortunate enough to get a franchise on new pianos. Again I started running out of room, so I asked my parents if I could put a storefront on the house and open the whole downstairs area to the public. They said all right, and again I got a contractor to make the needed modifications to the building. Money being tight, I asked an aunt, with whom I was close, if I could borrow some money to pay the contractor, and she said yes. Once again my business was growing and prospering.
Some eight years later I told my wife that I wanted a bigger store near the University of Buffalo. I found a store for sale on Main Street across from the University. Because of a fire in the building, it needed a great deal of remodeling, both inside and out. My wife joked that only a blind guy would buy it, but I saw visions of what this building could be when I was done with it. So I put in a bid and got the building. To buy the building and remodel it, I went to the Small Business Administration for a loan and eventually got it.
What helped this business grow was the name. I named my business Buffalo Piano Sales and Tuning, Inc., with Tagg's Music as a division of the corporation. I thought that with a big name like that I would get a great deal of business, and I did. Three large school systems, several nursing and assisted living facilities, a number of churches, and many residential customers came to trust me to do their work. My business soon employed three professional servicemen, including me. One tuner worked in the shop, one did the residential calls, and I did the commercial work. Because I could do anything required to service a piano, I did more concert work than any other piano tuner in western New York. I can say this with confidence because I worked with one promoter who sponsored concerts six nights a week, Monday through Saturday, and a different concert on Sunday. Many of these concerts were held in a large tent that held about 3,300 people. I had to tune every Monday before the opening night and Sundays before the evening concert. There were about fifty to sixty tunings in the summer alone. Two other big promoters held their concerts at the football stadium. Working for them meant I met many stars. I came to feel very good about myself, knowing I could compete quite successfully with sighted tuners and still manage to build a successful business.
In my many years in business I have learned that it is essential to know your profession thoroughly and to do anything you must do to satisfy the customer. This I was and still am able to do. In addition to tuning and repair, I write up insurance estimates on damaged pianos and give second opinions to many customers who have problem pianos and have been discouraged from fixing them. Many of these I am able to repair.
Back in 1956 I was involved in starting the Buffalo Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind. At that time it was called the Empire State Association of the Blind. I was a charter member, have been a member for fifty-seven years, and have been on the board of directors for most of that time. In 1977 I became president of the chapter and served for twenty-two years until 1999. At that time I asked the chapter to vote in my vice president as our leader; they voted me in as vice president, and I am still proudly serving today.
Since I joined as a charter member, this organization has been very dear to me. I have worked with Dr. Jernigan; Dr. Maurer, for whom I have tremendous respect; and James Gashel, who taught me much about how to work with other people who are blind. When we had a lawsuit against the Blind Association of Western New York, Mr. Gashel and I were on television several times. I was also on the radio for four hours talking about our issues concerning the blind in the sheltered shop. One thing I learned in working with James was that blind people, like sighted people, are quite different from one another, that we all have different wants and needs, and we all bring differing abilities to the world. I learned to understand blind people as individuals.
In the fifty-seven years I have been a member of the Buffalo chapter, the NFB has given me many awards. In 1982 I received my first plaque for distinguished service. In 2006, at our NFB state convention, the Buffalo chapter gave me a plaque for fifty years of service, for being a charter member, and for outstanding service working with the blind. In 2008 the National Federation of the Blind of New York gave me a plaque for my volunteer service.
I have long believed what the Federation says about getting out and mixing with the sighted public to demonstrate that blind people are capable, so I have made an effort to be involved in several activities outside my business. I have belonged to the Lions Club for fifty-six years, and in that time have received awards at all levels from my club, my district, and our International Lions Clubs. I also belong to the Lancaster Depew Chamber of Commerce and was nominated for the businessman of the year award in 2006.
On December 9, 2011, the Herald Tribune magazine and the front page of the New York Times newspaper ran an article about a famous jazz musician, Boyd Dunlop, who is in a nursing facility. He is from Buffalo and played in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other large cities. The nursing home had a piano which was in bad shape, and I was called upon to replace two keys and tune it back to pitch. Mr. Dunlop was so happy that he put my name in the write-up with him. I received calls from friends in Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina teasing me about being a celebrity. What fun!
I like the philosophy that the National Federation of the Blind has taught me: as a blind person you can do it. I have often been encouraged by this and have tried hard to give that encouragement to others. When people care enough to help other people, wonderful things can happen. My story demonstrates it; my life is better for it; and because of my work the world is just a little more in tune.
For further information on the profession of piano tuning, contact:
NFB's Piano Technology Group
Don Mitchell, chairperson
Home: (360) 696-1985
E-mail: <[email protected]>