I wish I could order an instant make-over for gorgeous-sounding pianos that suffer rejection because of imperfect exteriors. By example, one of my students who’d grown attached to her respectable-looking, 70′s era, walnut console piano, was devastated when her family had it whisked away during a move to a bigger house. Apparently, the instrument’s wood grain clashed with the decor of a newly furnished living room.
Yet, the beginning 6-year-old student for whom it was intended, would have ignored the piano’s dings as compared to its ping.
My first real piano, a Sohmer upright in glossy black, wasn’t much of a looker, but it played to the heavens and sang like an angel. What more could I want?
After Oberlin graduation, a Steinway M, 1917, bestowed as a gift by my father, had its share of nicks, glossed over with whatever glop the shop owner on Fordham Road in Bronx had in his apron pocket. Decades later, its many moves to performance venues and rebuilding shops, incurred more dings here and there, yet my love for its golden sound intensified with time.
Pianos absorb the prevailing culture’s obsession with eternal youth and cosmetic perfection. Not surprisingly, quite a few with great soundboards and strings are put on the Goodwill Industry truck as the last stop before the scrap heap.
Connell York, age-defying piano tuner, ivory-key scavenger, and hammer-assembly collector, owes his treasure trove of piano-associated skeletal remains to the premature retirement of towering old uprights. These “antiques” are lined up on Craig’s List as either “free” for the taking, or priced not to sell. As ornate as some appear, their age and size make them piana non grata.
As piano stores drop away like flies and digital entertainment centers appeal to buyers of all ages, acoustic pianos with or without cosmetic eyesores are being put out to pasture. What was once considered space-saving and attractive about spinet and console pianos, is now passe.
Pressing buttons that ignite a shower of big sounds whooshing around the living room beside the streamlined I mac, iPhone, and super big screen plasma TV, are a sign of the times. “Old” technology is not “in.” Even a space-age looking Roland will be replaced by something more spiffy, sexy, and up-to-date.
But back to acoustic pianos that have aged out and lost their family heirloom status. My 1951 Haddorff console was one of those passed down through three generations and suddenly sent on its way. While I benefited from the owner’s decision to cut the umbilical CHORD, it was sad to see this beauty leaving its home without a tear of regret.
Contrast this emotionless separation to circumstances surrounding the sale of an old nameless player piano housed in the Central Valley. A middle-aged owner bound for Las Vegas shed tears upon her blemished piano’s departure, admitting that a “part of her arm” was taken during the heart-wrenching move.
Last year, I spoke to the music-teacher owner of a vintage Gulbransen Grand who reluctantly placed it for sale on Craig’s List. While she sang its praises, describing a piano of great tonal beauty, she expressed a desire to “clean house” in the aftermath of her spouse’s death, and start a new life without lingering memories of the past. The poor piano, loaded with extra-musical baggage carried a burden it least needed. As it was, an older grand with a $3000 price tag in a depressed economy would probably not sell. Like other pianos of this vintage, it would join the roster of fine pianos appealing to the few and far between.
(A recent sale of a 1962 Sohmer baby grand, priced down to $1500, was driven by its beautiful art case, Queen Anne scrolled legs, and florid rack. A hastily produced video about this piano surely helped! But bottom line, its drop dead good looks sealed the deal!)
At DC Pianos in Berkeley, Dennis Croda has an interesting crop of vintage pianos that are appealing in appearance and sound. An Acrosonic console from the 60′s was purchased by a student of mine over there that shimmered and resonated to the exponential. Its gorgeous tone, plus embellished case, gave it more than an edge over brand pianos of comparable size.
(I’ve always regarded Baldwin Acrosonics as the “Cadillacs” of console and spinet-variety pianos. They’re at the top of my list in the used instrument category because of their wide, innovative sound space)
Three thousand miles away in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, Pat Frederick resurrects very old pianos of historical importance that have life breathed into them through regularly scheduled performances. These instruments, replete with dings, still sing in a voice that preserves what composers of the past intended.
(Frederick Collection of Pianos,
In this spirit, pianos that are heading for a premature demise around the country might be revitalized in some form or another. Youngsters starting lessons should have the chance to play a piano that doesn’t sound electronic and devoid of personality. With decent piano maintenance, instead of benign neglect these instruments’ lives can be extended without the dire, end of the line, need for life support.
Even cosmetically unappealing Oldsters should have a place to shine in the musical universe.
In tempo with the times, New York City hosts street pianos decorated in graffiti as part of “Sing for Hope.”
Watch concert pianist, Jeffrey Biegel give a flawless performance of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” on a twangy console in Brooklyn Bridge Park.
Needless to say, the composer would have appreciated this Tin Pan Alley celebration.