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RNC has given me
a lifelong career
Mark Fulcher (1981-1984)
Mark, in his own words...
I came down from the rural Scottish Borders in September 1980 to RNC for an assessment in the Sobel Piano Tuning Department. I was very excited about this challenge as I always put 100% into things I am interested in. At the time I was a pupil at Jedburgh Grammar School in the town of Jedburgh, and at 15, subject choices were being made at school with regards to a future career.
At 15, life beyond school isn’t really at the heart of things and it is only when you are faced with making a decision, you realise that life is catching up fast. Being partially sighted, the careers I dreamt of as a younger person could not be fulfilled so after a visit to the Guidance Teacher, and her knowing that I was musician - as much as I played the piano and brass - she delved into a document file and instead of pulling out a file on music colleges, she pulled out a file on piano tuning. I remember saying 'that’s not a job is it?' (remembering the old-boy who tuned our piano once in a while). Anyway, she suggested that it might be a worthwhile career choice given that I was of a musical nature and of course limited in my personal choices due to the wee problem of being partially sighted.
An application was submitted in order to go to Hereford for the assessment and my Mother drove me the 300 miles to Hereford where I was shown to a room in Campbell and she had a lovely room in the Castle Pool Hotel (in September 1980 the room cost was an amazing £13.50). The following day I presented myself along with 16 other hopefuls and we were 'tested' by the staff on aspects of tool handling and hearing ability. All very exciting stuff and I was desperate to get in.
Word came a few days after I returned home, that I was one of five, out of the 17 who had passed, and I could start on 6 September 1981. I was 'wired' at the prospect and although I had a place guaranteed at RNC, the diploma was far from in the bag so I put all my energy into passing the five O-Levels at school in case I needed them to fall back on should I fail the piano tuning course.
RNC – September 1981
My parents drove me down to Hereford on 5 September 1981 with all my stuff and I had a room in Campbell Hall, sharing a lounge with another newby. It was very new to us all, and our first time away from home. We somehow ended up in the Student Union for a Coke or two and chatted amongst ourselves, working out who was on what course and whether or not we thought we would get on with this person or that.
The first day was fantastic and the staff were nice and friendly – making you feel at home and a part of the furniture from the beginning. The three years I was on the course were not always easy, and the pressure was always on to pass with as high a mark as possible (the department was very competitive). I passed my Diploma in March 1984 with Honours along with City & Guilds Part One and Two (Stringed Keyboard manufacture) with Distinction.
The College provided me with work experience at Kemble/Yamaha in Milton Keynes in 1983 and in the same year I worked for an ex-student in Yorkshire in my holidays to gain more work experience. The Piano Tuning department also put on day excursions to Steinways workshop near London and also Kemble/Yamaha to see pianos being manufactured along with Bentley pianos in Woodchester. The department went the extra mile and the staff’s enthusiasm and dedication rubbed off on us all.
RNC - social life
There were plenty of things on offer in and around Hereford. I didn't often drink in the Student Union as there were far better places to go in the city and surrounding villages.
There were also plenty of sporting opportunities. The College organised canoeing on the River Wye on Tuesday evenings in the summer, and skiing at Gloucester on their dry slope. We even went a few times to the Mecca Ice rink in Bristol.
In essence, Hereford had a lot to offer the budding student and that was before mobile phones and email.
I reluctantly left the RNC in July 1984. I had such a good time there both course-wise and socially and met loads of people from different parts of the country and from different backgrounds. It opened your mind beyond your own little world.
I started Mark Fulcher Pianos in July 1984 initially building up a private customer base but tuning state school pianos as well. The area had been under-serviced for years and word got round. I was covering a 60-mile radius within 6 months and by early 1985 I purchased an old school in the village and converted it into a Piano Showroom and workshop.
I took on three franchises with UK piano manufacturers and ran the premises for almost four years before selling it and working from home (parents home) where I could still retail new and second hand pianos but not have the high running costs of premises and all that goes with it.
The British piano industry fell into decline in the late nineties so I concentrated on second hand imports from Japan through wholesale outlets, until the early 21st century where after working a short contract for a company in Granada, I took the plunge and headed out to China where I started to import from Shanghai. After a year, I established my own brand “Otto Schwartz” and then for eight years, I went over to China every 6 months to sort out shipments. This involved changing factories and cities, mainly due to the currency they wanted to deal with, which can make a big difference.
In 2010 I decided to close the import company (Bodemark Ltd) as there were too many people importing and buying in what I would call sub-standard rubbish, that I would not want to put my name to, but unfortunately once these cheap-end instruments started to hit the UK market place, all Chinese instruments started to get tarred with the same brush, so it was time to move on, so-to-speak.
Since 2010, the UK marketplace has changed and so have people’s attitudes. Digital pianos have become common-place and the customer-base of the early 1980s have got a lot older or have passed away. There is new blood coming through but not at the same rate as back in the 80s. I try and move with the market, but the internet has been the bug-bear of all businesses these days and customer loyalty is no more.
It’s not all doom and gloom though and next September I will have been tuning pianos for 40 years. Not a record I am sure, but The Royal National College for the Blind has given me a 'life-long' career which, as long as I have my faculties, can pursue for as long as there are pianos and willing customers.
This year I dropped down to a four-day week and in 2021 I have decided, when working locally, to carry out a three-day week, giving me a four-day weekend. If nothing else, Covid-19 has shown me what I actually need to earn rather than what I think I need to earn. This life is not a rehearsal and it’s time to relax a bit more and enjoy the fruits of past labour.
If it were not for the following people, I would not have the career I now have and I give my thanks to them: Eddie Wilkins, Don Cooper, Mike Wigmore, Nigel Le Feurvre and of course Lance Marshal (Principal)
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