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Blind immigrant tunes pianos, plays too

Wilson Charles, a blind piano tuner, works on a   Street Tunes piano in downtown Everett on  Aug. 11. Wilson, 30, who is originally from Haiti, started playing the piano when he was 15 years old and started tuning pianos  in his mid-20s.  (Associated Press)
Wilson Charles, a blind piano tuner, works on a Street Tunes piano in downtown Everett on Aug. 11. Wilson, 30, who is originally from Haiti, started playing the piano when he was 15 years old and started tuning pianos in his mid-20s. (Associated Press)

EVERETT – The blind Haitian immigrant craned his neck to the right as he struck a key on the outdoor piano and slowly tightened a string, tuning the instrument.

He tried to block out all the other noise. That wasn’t easy.

Buses rumbled along Hewitt and Wetmore avenues. A car alarm went off. Motorcycles roared past.

Wilson Charles, 30, curled his lip into an Elvis-like sneer. He concentrated.

The eight outdoor pianos that are part of Everett’s downtown installation, Street Tunes, need the attention. The instruments, on street corners through Wednesday, are getting steady use. The Northwest summer also plays havoc on their strings.

“It can be challenging,” Charles said of the work.

Granted, compared to what brought him here, the job sounds simple.

Charles was born in Belle Anse, Haiti, a city along the southeast coast of the island nation.

His eyes were always bad.

“Some doctors say it’s glaucoma; some doctors aren’t really sure,” Charles said.

He eventually lost all sight in his left eye and has very limited vision in his right.

As a teenager, he moved to Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, enrolling in a school for the blind. He also started learning piano, an instrument he loves.

“Describe the sound?” he said. “I don’t think I really can, except I can tell you in my mind it sounds unique and special and wonderful.”

He began taking classes with a blind piano teacher in Port-au-Prince – he can’t recall how to spell the man’s name.

He remembers the lessons, though.

He learned where to position his fingers and how to strike the keys. He was taught to keep the correct posture as he tapped out “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

He didn’t dedicate himself fully to piano, though – at least not right away.

He enrolled in college in Port-au-Prince. Political upheaval led him to eventually leave the country in 2002 for the University of Pennsylvania. He studied political science, with hopes of getting a law degree.

But he couldn’t get music out of his head.

In 2008, he changed paths. He moved to Vancouver, Wash., enrolling in the School of Piano Technology for the Blind. It’s the only one of its kind, executive director Len Leger said.

Since its founding in 1949, it has attracted students from around the world. Charles fit right in.

“He’s very talented,” Leger said. “He’s an excellent piano technician. He has outstanding musical aptitude.”

Charles’ time in Vancouver was mostly happy. He met his wife, Sarah Charles, in a church social group. They married in August 2009.

Shortly before graduation, however, the Haitian earthquake struck, killing more than 200,000 people.

Charles wasn’t sure if his mother survived. He tried calling her, but communication to the devastated city was virtually nonexistent.

“I have to tell you, I spent about nine days crying,” he said.

Eventually, he heard back. His mother had narrowly escaped death. She was in a store moments before the earthquake hit. She walked outside for fresh air, the ground shook and the store fell.

While his mother survived the earthquake, his first piano teacher did not.

“He was rehearsing with a choir for a concert and the building collapsed on top of them,” Charles said. “He was a good friend, a wonderful pianist.”

Charles graduated as a piano technician and, sensing opportunity in Everett, relocated here.

He celebrated the grand opening of Moonlight Piano Services in May, naming the business for Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.”

Now, he’s working on pianos for the city at a discounted rate. His contract won’t exceed $2,000.

His wife drops him off at a piano and then leaves him for hours.

“He’s a hard worker,” she said.

He spent about three hours last week tuning the piano at the corner of Hewitt and Wetmore avenues. By the time he finished, a city parks employee was standing there, waiting to help him cover the instrument.

Charles kept him waiting a bit longer.

He sat and played a five-minute impromptu medley: “Angels We Have Heard on High,” Elton John’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” and “Fur Elise.”

Then he stood, smiling. It sounded good.

“I’m the kind of guy who hates mediocrity,” he said. “I’d rather take a longer time doing something, but do it right.”

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