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The amazing classical journey of a Unisa millennial

Rising above humble beginnings in Soshanguve near Pretoria, 29-year-old musician and teacher Tshepiso Ledwaba is now one of the most highly trained and sought-after Steinway technicians in the world and possibly the first black African to carry the revered piano manufacturer’s stamp of approval.


Tshepiso Ledwaba is one of the highest trained Steinway technicians in the world

Ledwaba says that he was bitten by the classical music bug when a former teacher at Unisa’s Music Foundation visited his school in 2004, affording learners a first glimpse into the rarefied – yet, to Ledwaba, enchanting – world of classical music. "He also told us about the music tuition projects offered by the foundation and the die was cast," says Ledwaba. "I commenced training at the foundation in playing the recorder, and eventually advanced to the clarinet."

Can-do part of his DNA

Such was Ledwaba’s talent and proficiency that the foundation offered him a teaching contract in 2010. Maintaining and tuning classical instruments is a very costly affair, and wishing to assist his students with repairs Ledwaba, once again drawing on the wellspring of initiative that had already taken him so far professionally, approached the foundation’s director, Prof Karendra Devroop, with the idea of gaining the necessary skills to provide such services in-house.

Devroop, a professional jazz saxophonist and pianist, and also a renowned researcher holding a National Research Foundation rating, immediately saw great merit in the idea. "The Music Foundation has built a collection of music instruments for use in development projects and is also charged with the responsibility to maintain the Steinway grand pianos, Rieger concert organ and Booth harpsichord as valuable assets of the University in good order," says Devroop. "Cutting costs by having some or all of these instruments serviced in-house made perfect sense."

The Steinway connection

Devroop had a longstanding relationship with the Oberlin Conservatory and John Cavanaugh, the Director of the Artist Diploma in Piano Technology at that institution. When Cavanaugh came to South Africa in 2016 to prepare the pianos for that year’s International Piano Competition, Devroop mentioned that there was a need for young, especially black, piano tuners as this was an area sorely lacking in the country. Cavanaugh immediately asked Devroop to identify his best student to be trained personally by him (Cavanaugh) as a Steinway Piano Technician. He also offered a full scholarship. To Devroop it was no-brainer – Tshepiso Ledwaba was the perfect candidate. Coming to the party, Unisa funded his travel and living expenses.

Tshepiso Ledwaba and the Oberlin Conservatory’s John Cavanaugh working their magic on one of Unisa’s Steinway pianos

The Oberlin Conservatory of Music is a private music conservatory in Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. It was founded in 1865 and is the second-oldest conservatory and oldest continually operating conservatory in the United States. Oberlin boasts 240-plus Steinway grand pianos and the longest continuous relationship with the piano maker of any institution in the world.

Ledwaba says that, following a few weeks of culture shock after arriving in the small university town, he went on to form lasting friendships and professional associations during his stay. "I found that when people in Oberlin engage with you they speak with you, rather than at you. My time there was amazing. As a patriotic ambassador I shared a lot about my personal history and the history of our country."

In December 2019, Ledwaba returned from Oberlin as the first black trained and certified Steinway technician on the African continent.  He is currently one of the highest trained technicians in the world.

Opportunity knocks – again

The exposure at Oberlin brought with it further opportunities. "The Aspen Music Festival and School in Aspen, Colorado, is one of the highlights on the American classical concert calendar," says Ledwaba, "with more than 400 events presented over an eight-week period. In 2017 two apprentice piano technicians who were supposed to work at Aspen were unable to. Time was of the essence and the head piano technician at Aspen called up my mentor at Oberlin, John Cavanagh, and he recommended me. I was amazed because at that point I had only been training for five months at Oberlin. I have served as the festival’s technician for the past two years and expect to return regularly.

Enthused by the success that Ledwaba has made of the Oberlin training opportunity, Unisa has approved the creation of the Unisa Piano Repair Centre with Ledwaba as head technician. The centre will manage all of Unisa’s pianos and also repair and service pianos for external clients, thereby generating third-stream income. "As part of my contract I will train three students to work in the repair centre as tuners. I relish this opportunity to pay it forward and to extend the good fortune that I have enjoyed to deserving and talented students."

The full package

John Cavanaugh says that there are many reasons why Ledwaba is perfect for this kind of work. "He is patient, a really good listener, and works very harmoniously with others," says Cavanaugh. "We are really going to miss him at Oberlin because when he walks into a room he brings light. The shop and the conservatory will be a bit dimmer without him. Tshepiso is a natural and very gifted, truly a rare find. He has good leadership qualities and is truly humble, which allows him to teach without creating the impression that he is talking down to his students. Tshepiso is undoubtedly the best student I have taught in a career spanning over 35 years."

* By Philip van der Merwe, Unisa Department of Institutional Advancement

Publish date: 2020-01-31 00:00:00.0