York called me from a client’s home in Clovis right after our great treasure-seeking adventure under the Kawai 7-foot grand piano. He’d been appraising a Samick studio upright manufactured in 1990 that was owned by Joel Van Ginkel. “I’d appraise it at about $2000,” he said, “but between you ‘n me, he’ll unload the piana’ for a lot less ‘cause he’s movin’ to L.A.”
A few months before York had given me a bum steer, sending me on a wild goose chase to a no man’s land Evangelical Church in East Fresno. My gas-guzzling van had very nearly collapsed on me after I’d found myself on the outskirts of town driving in circles before I’d located an abysmal-sounding, console-size Everett. Its cage-like vibrations in the middle range and mangled hammer assembly caused multiple notes to sound when any one key was depressed. York claimed this 1982 model had been manufactured in a USA based Yamaha plant which he believed gave it added prestige.
According to information contained in Larry Fine’s, The Piano Book, Buying and Selling a New or Used Piano, Fourth Edition, the Everett Company had been acquired by Yamaha in 1973, and until 1986 had manufactured a line of Everetts along side its US-made Yamaha pianos. Fine suggested that “these verticals like the Yamaha verticals of the time were considered reasonably good but by no means outstanding.” He added that a “variety of silly, nuisance problems could easily have been solved in the factory had anybody cared enough to spend a little time on them.”
Fine’s book provided easy-to-read summaries of piano company histories, though it didn’t have a numerical catalog to date instruments, except for a special Steinway piano listing. The Pierce Piano Atlas remained the most authoritative and complete compendium of serial number listings.
As a conscientious piano finder I always researched a particular manufacturer and its history before I tested out a used piano for sale. York’s second opinion was also requested when I discovered some hammer or other issues that marred an otherwise decent sounding piano. If an instrument had a nice voice and personality, and passed a piano-related smog check, then I could comfortably recommend it. But if I’d been tipped off that a company had a history of recall and repair problems, I’d heed the red flag.
Pearl River pianos from Mainland China in their early years of production were a good example. Larry Fine substantiated their shaky beginning noting that the company name was “present in the US market several years before, but was discontinued because the quality at that time was not good enough to allow the brand to survive in the marketplace.” In fact, I had learned that many of these pianos needed repeated service and repair, and more than a modest number of US piano dealers refused to keep stocking them.
A few reputable piano technicians posted their negative opinions on PianoWorld.com at the TECHNICIAN’S FORUM, which steered me clear of a particular Pearl River piano, located 35 miles away in Merced. I figured my time was better spent reviewing an instrument with a higher performance profile. By the same token, if I’d known in advance that I might be reviewing a Steinway grand with Teflon bushings, I would probably pass on it.
According to D.L. Bullock, registered technician, Steinway and Sons installed these clackers in their actions in the 1970s which caused a “zoop zoop” sound or squeaking noise when the keys were in motion.” Certain notes rattled as the Teflon cylinders also rattled in their wooden box holes.” He insisted that “these parts designed in Teflon could not be bushed with felt because the hole for the Teflon was way too big.” (“Teflon Bushings in Steinway Pianos—by D. L Bullock–MMD Archives September 2005 2005.09.17).
This tuner found only one solution for the problem: Replace the piano action with a completely new one at a shop price of $4250 (using Renner hammers) This was a 2007-based estimate. Now imagine if the buyer had a teflon tip-off in advance, he could have saved himself $$$$ and lots of anguish.
The Samick piano that I’d planned to sample had already acquired my preliminary investigation. From consulting Fine’s Piano Book, I had learned that Samick, at that time, was one of the largest piano manufacturers, and that some of its instruments had been made in Indonesia and Korea. In the mid-80’s, the company hired a German designer, Klaus Fenner, to improve and redesign its scales. The manufacturer claimed that these new pianos had “Imperial German Scale Designs,” so ostensibly, pianos with the Samick name and no other, (the company had produced Kohler-Campbell, and other lines) would likely be of the European variety.
Fine insisted that Samick’s “World Piano Series, developed just a few years before and revised in 1999 represented the company’s best instruments because of their being produced in a separate facility reserved for “premium” pianos. Supposedly, better materials were being used, and processes of manufacture had improved. But even having this information, I would reserve judgment until I personally inspected the piano. Too often, I had read sterling reviews of piano and piano companies, only to discover that on site, these instruments performed way under par.
My friend’s Kohler Campbell grand was a classic example. Her “black stallion,” that replaced her diminutive singing nightingale Knight piano was a great loss to her students who fondly remembered its tonal beauty. I recall how I’d nudged York into the adjacent room that housed the grand and whispered that he needed to run his fingers over the Kohler-Campbell. It was right after he had inspected the Knight.
Tapping some of the grand piano’s notes in various registers, York lashed out at the instrument in a big booming voice.
“Now this here piana’ aint worth a dime! Who the hell bought this son of a gun? It’s real tubby right here in the bass! Not worth more than a junker!”
I signaled York to quiet down because Caroline was within earshot. She’d be stung by his offensive remarks.
Pianos were very close to being pets, sons, or daughters for many owners so an assault on an instrument’s integrity could launch uncontrollable rage or even a deep depression. While Caroline had acquired a thick skin in the course of months as potential buyers had openly declined her Knight piano, she deserved to be spared a bout of anger directed at her precious black stallion.
I was thinking again about my adult piano student, Fujie and whether the Samick, which I’d yet to evaluate, would be a good match for her. She’d already turned down the “Knightingale” because of its minor black key irregularities and passed up bidding on a 1920 Steinway auction piano, so why would she suddenly go for the Samick.
If the truth be known, no piano on this earth could be worse than her Suzuki digital. From my up front and personal inspection, her fancy piece of technology was thoroughly incapable of creating a note-to-note legato (A smooth and connected sound) Instead, the player would have to fight the instrument at every playing! For heaven sakes, who needed to be at war with one’s own piano or keyboard? There were enough problems in the world like hunger and global warming!
Over the course of months, Fujie had become spoiled playing my Steinway grand at lessons, and in time she began to cultivate an appreciation of finer pianos. Slowly but surely she had come to realize that her Costco-acquired Suzuki digital could not meet her needs. The transfer of what we had worked on at her lessons to its hands on application at home just didn’t register. As far as the digital piano universe was concerned, I swore by the old Casio’s PX110s and I’d talked them up to many of my students who wanted to supplement their acoustic pianos with something that had interesting tonal options. Sadly, Casio started manufacturing bigger, glitzier keyboards with an infinite number of bells and whistles, and had shortchanged the “acoustic grand piano” sound. They’d invested in computer screens and oddball sound effects, forgetting that piano students who could not afford pricey acoustic pianos, needed the best possible simulated grand piano tone along with the comparable “hammer weighted action.” I’d switched over to the Yamaha Arius as my digital instrument of choice.
I had left a few messages for the Samick seller to set up an appointment at a time convenient for Fujie and me. A retiree, she had ample space in her life to study the cello, make pottery, and run a business of her own. In fact, she founded and operated the Tofujie Company that produced her homemade Tofu. No fresher tasting bean cake existed in all of Fresno and at $2 a square it was no small bargain!
Fujie was a prized adult piano student. She would either bubble over with delight at her lessons, or conspicuously register her frustration. “I know my thumbs are too tight when I play my scales,” she’d say. I had shown her how to practice these exercises to obtain smoothness and clarity of sound by demonstrating the “tunnels” in each octave through which the thumbs passed. They would need to swing smoothly under these without making obtrusive accents. The imagery seemed to work. Students would make “tunnel fingers,” and gently embrace a bubble in their hands when they played.
Fuji and I had planned a trip to the Fresno Philharmonic to hear cellist, Lynn Harrell, but I had a greater interest in the dream piano recently acquired by the orchestra. A search committee composed of the conductor, Theodore Kuchar; Executive Director, Don Reinhold and other administrative staff had flown to the Steinway factory in Astoria, New York where they met up with concert pianist, Derek Han. After shuffling through a selection of nine foot concert grands that were regarded as prized musical instruments by factory experts, the committee rejected all of them, and basically threw up their hands in frustration. One asked, “Do you have anything in one of the back rooms?” As it turned out, a beauty was wheeled over, that was just about completed, but not quite ready for sale. According to the maestro, it had the thunderous bass and the amazing projection that was needed in Fresno’s Saroyan Theater!
Our Central Valley city had come a long way in raising its cultural consciousness since I had arrived from the Big Apple in 1979. My personal concert debut at Temple Beth Israel in Fresno had received the following headline: “Fresno Proves Musical Mecca for Pianist from the East!” (It was a far cry from the truth at that time)
As I thumbed through the pages of my Pierce Piano Atlas to ascertain more information about the Samick Company, I heard a pounding at my front door. It had to be my teenage piano student, “Michelle,” who was due at any moment. The knock was so loud and aggressive that I angrily shouted from the top of the staircase, where I was perched, “Okay, okay, I’ll be right there, Michelle!” Well to my surprise when I opened the door, I either perceived Michelle in drag, or York. When I gained my equilibrium, I realized that it was definitely York, bearing a bag of apricots in one hand and piece of my entertainment center in the other. He had repaired one of the wood compartments that had a missing central panel and was returning it.
“These are good apricots,” he said, cheerfully, as he made his way to the refrigerator
Just then, someone else was knocking. It had to be Michelle who was late by ten minutes. Meanwhile, York had sauntered back over to my Steinway upright to test its tuning- He tapped on the “C,” 8 notes (an octave) above the middle that sounded slightly flat when compared to the same note played on my Steinway grand. Soon I found myself playing a duet with him to test the unisons between both instruments which turned out to be a bit sour. My upright’s “C” had definitely fallen a few “cents” down in pitch probably due to recent Valley weather changes. But like a bolt out of the blue, York leaped over to my kitchen area and grabbed a meat-cutting knife, then jumped back over to my larger piano, and stuck it in the crevice between middle C and D to keep the note sustaining while he leaped back over to the second piano beside it, and tinkered with the same note. It was an Olympian feat for a man over 80 but I wondered why on earth he had wedged a knife between the keys of my precious Steinway! It could easily damage the wood.
“I do this all the time,” he said, “especially when I’m tunin’ two pianos side by side.”
I experienced a sudden surge of anxiety as I watched the teetering knife staked in my keyboard. It looked like King Arthur’s sword set in stone! What tuner in his right mind would take a sharp implement like this and wedge it between two notes of a Steinway grand to keep a note sounding?!
“Mr. York, please take the knife out of the piano!” I said, nervously. Sadly, the old man was in his own universe, sizing up the warbling C of one piano as compared to the other. “Listen up,” he said. “Can you hear what I hear?”
I didn’t answer, not wanting to argue with him.
York extracted the knife to my relief, and returned it to the kitchen area. He felt very at home sorting his apricots on the counter and placing them in my refrigerator. But first he wanted to give me a lesson in how to properly serve them. Were we planning a party or what? I thought.
“I’ll leave you to yer piana lessons after I get that there entertainment center panel installed,” he said. “Hey, do you happen to have one of them Philips screwdrivers?”
I scoured my kitchen drawer and handed him the same tool he had used a few days before when he had visited.
Meanwhile, Michelle, my piano student, had been observing the whole spectacle with infinite patience.
“Hey, do you know Michelle, Mr. York?” I said. “She’s the daughter of the woman you tuned for several months ago. Remember I picked out that Baldwin console piano out in Hanford owned by a retired music teacher and called you from the location about lazy notes and hammers? Michelle’s mom was with me. I was helping her select a piano for her daughter.”
“Geeze, I don’t remember. Was it the piana with the mice?”
Michelle had a budding smile as I winked at her.
She couldn’t resist telling him that one of the keys on her new piano had a problem. “One of the notes won’t go completely down,” she said.
“Well, here’s your Ripley’s Believe or Not fixit man,” York replied. “I kin fix anythin’ that needs fixin’ Did I tell you about the three, newborn mice that I pulled outa an upright in Dinuba? A few notes felt blocked like yours, and after I inspected that there piana’, I just went for my eight-inch tweezers and yanked the babies out.”
He paused for a moment.
“Geeze, I still can’t remember yer Baldwin piana,” he said.
I tried to refresh his memory. ”
“Mr. York, remember? It wasn’t an Acrosonic, but it had the Baldwin plate on it. You came out to tune and repair the piano after it was moved into Michelle’s home in northwest Fresno. I was right behind you, sitting on the living room couch watching everything you did that day, and Michelle’s mom was enjoying your stories. She was very intrigued by you.”
At that moment, I recalled how she had winked at me when York took a short break to retread one of his tangential tuning adventures. He inevitably fleshed out the 3M enemies of a piano: Mice, Moths, and Moisture.” If I hadn’t heard it ten times over, it might be entertaining.
York fumbled around with his age-worn black address book that contained an infinite list of pianos that he had tuned for the past several decades. He had shown me at least 7 or more of these tattered diaries that were replete with piano brands, serial numbers, paragraphs, and other notes, describing the condition of each and every instrument he had tuned going back to the late 40’s. He said he averaged about 500 tunings a year!
“I still can’t find Michelle’s piano,” he said.”What was the customer’s last name?
“Mr. York, do you remember the lady with the Spanish accent who offered you some Green tea? She was a pediatrician, originally from Chile. We hovered over you while you were working,” I said.
“Oh, wait a minute! Was it the Baldwin console piana with the stickin’ notes?”
“Yes, and you did such a good job fixing them, but now you really need to set up another appointment to repair the note Michelle is complaining about.” I felt like a mother leading a child by the hand.
“Oh, okay,” York replied. “Well the piana needs to be tuned every 6 months without fail. So how long has it been, now?” He asked. He’d been struggling to find the date of his last visit, thumbing nervously through the tattered pages of his chewed-up black appointment book.
I looked over at Michelle. “When did your mom purchase your piano? Wasn’t it right near your last birthday?”
“I think it was back in November,” she replied. “But I’ve never met Mr. York before. This is the first time.”
“Oh, yes,” I said. Now I remember, your mother was going to get you a piano for your birthday and make it a big surprise. So we drove up to Hanford to see the Baldwin, and we arrived 15 minutes early because the seller had scheduled two appointments at the same time with interested buyers. What a sticky situation! We parked the car and knocked on the door, hoping we could get the first peek.
“Wow, were we lucky that day,” I continued. The seller was home earlier than expected so we got into the place, and sampled the piano for about 15 minutes. Your mom loved the piano instantly, though I had a few concerns about some sticking notes and wanted to call Mr. York about them. Just then the door bell rang and your mom responded like an alarm clock.
“Yes, we definitely want the piano,” she had said very loudly, cuing me in on it. Then she grabbed the owner’s hand and stuffed a bunch of cash into it.
“The footsteps of an approaching family were audible, so I put two and two together and realized that your mom’s timing and strategy had been perfect!”
Mr. York had been listening intently to the whole story probably wishing he’d been at the site to show off some of his piano testing skills—but he’d been booked on another job that day.
“Well, I’ll be on my way,” he said, coming out of his foggy silence. “Gotta apply Decon on a rat-infested piana.” He had told me about a particular concert grand housed in a downtown Gospel Church that harbored a rat’s nest. He said he’d put pellets inside the piano to draw out the rodents and wanted to follow up on it.
“Okay, Mr. York, I’ll remind you about setting up a time to work on Michelle’s piano. And by the way, maybe we could meet up at Van Ginkel’s to test out the Samick. So far I haven’t heard a word from from the seller.”
Within hours of Michelle’s lesson, York was back at my place, drawn to it like a magnet.
“Hey it’s the walnut man!” he exclaimed, as the door swung open. The old tuner was standing there with a bag of whole, unshelled walnuts.
“Hey, I got these from a neighbor who raises ‘em on a big ranch!”
I wondered if this was the same fellow who traded 40 pounds of walnuts for one of his tunings?
York plopped himself on a folding chair in my adjacent office, after I invited him in to view the latest photos I had taken of him just two days before when we enjoyed our perky adventure under the Kawai piano.
“Here, take all these photo copies,” I said. “You can show these to your wife.” I said this coyly to get a rise out of him.
Suddenly, his cell phone rang and on cue, York motioned over to me in a whisper, “Hey, that’s my wife so don’t ya say anything.” She was apparently still out of town, visiting with relatives in Oklahoma.
He’s was chatting while I sat at my computer, a stone’s throw away, taking notes.
“Yeah, Ladine, I’m home and just turned on the furnace,” he told her. “It’s been cold here in the last few days. But right now I’m here sittin’ in my pick-up gatherin’ up a few things. I’ll be back in the house soon.
“Did ya have a good visit with yer people?” York had told me that Ladine was part Cherokee Indian.
“Did ya guys have a pow-wow or a rain dance or somethin’ like that? Did it rain pretty good over there?” York asked.
“Oh yeah, I had a very good five days out here in Fresno, and all next week is completely booked. I been workin’ really hard,” York told his wife.
“Ya gonna be home on Tuesday? York continued. “Well, okay, dear, I look forward to seein’ ya. In the meantime, I’ll call Randy and have him fix the commode. He’s definitely gonna have ta take it loose and redo it.
“Well, no I haven’t made the bed since ya’ left. Just kept it that way so I guess I’ll have ta change the sheets when ya come back.”
He never mentioned me, or our recent escapade under the Kawai piano.
“Oh, well, yeah, I just ate at McDonald’s so I’m not hungry, but most of the time, I been drinkin’ water and eatin’ nuts.” (He obviously wanted her to feel sorry for him)
It seemed like he really needed his wife to be around to make some decent meals for him.
“Well, okay, dear, ya have a nice few days over there, and I’ll see ya soon,” the old man said.
I could tell that these two people had a very warm relationship and that York was indeed a very happily married man.
“Guess, I should be goin’,” he said. “It’s gittin’ dark and I gotta hit the road.”
The following week I’d finally gotten to the Clovis boonies to try out the Samick piano that York had raved about. To cut a long-winded story short, it was case of bad workmanship—the hammers, strings and soundboard collectively elicited a stream of lackluster pebble sounds when I depressed the keys. From my perspective, the manufacturer had produced a robotic, stenciled wooden box lacking a voice. Where Pinocchio experienced his transformation from wooden puppet to person, this Samick 1990, had no chance to ever become a real piano.
I had registered my negative feelings about the Samick after York had driven me to the location getting both of us lost in the process. Refusing to follow the Map Quest directions I had printed out for him, he took an insane route of his own choosing that landed the two of us in a stretch of strawberry fields. “Geeze, I don’t know how it happened!” he said. “But I’m goin’ to git us straightened out before night falls.”
He had insisted during our last telephone conversation that Joel Van Ginkel, who was selling the Samick, would produce a piano worthy of my time. “It’s a gem of a piana,” he had said, “and the man is anxious to sell ‘cause he’s movin…heck of a nice guy, that Van Ginkel fella.” Fujie was supposed to have met us at the place to check out the instrument, but she was too tired to make the trek. As it turned out, the abysmal-sounding console was not worth her time.
York’s folksy referrals had often landed me in homes and churches located in the Fresno and Clovis periphery that contained disastrous, ill-maintained pianos. Some had farm-like sounds emanating from them, and others had elicited high-pitched friction noises and whistles. The action buzzes would drive me absolutely mad!
“I fixed a few squeaky pedals in my time,” York had said.
I always anticipated his earth-shaking pronouncement that “the biggest enemies of a piano were moisture, mice, and moths.” It was at the core of his daily conversation and inevitably produced a colorful adventure.
“Hey, did I ever tell ya about the time I found cat food in a spinet piana?” he said, as we were humming along the open road in his pick-up.
This was an account he had never shared with me.
“Well, two farmer brothers in Hanford was complainin’ that their keys wouldn’t go down, so I drove out to the country to investigate.
“When I got there, I felt somethin’ under the keys, so I removed the key slip. And right then and there I sees cat food from stem to stern—under all 88 keys.”
“Wait a minute, Mr. York. Are you telling me that you found wet cat food inside the piano?”
“Nah, I mean the stuff, dry as a bone, that was under them keys–the pellets them cats eats.”
“So how on earth did a cat get into the piano in the first place?” I asked.
“Well, listen up, ‘cause I haven’t told ya the whole thing yet. Now them farmer boys has 20 cats outside on their property and they’s got cat food everywhere. But it wasn’t no cats that put the food in the key bed; it was a bunch ‘a mice that carried the pellets into the piano.”
“Mice!?? How on earth did the dry food pellets get so high up into the key bed?”
“You aint listenin’ to what I said. Them there mice traveled from the pedal area up into the keyboard, urinating along the way.”
“Are you serious, Mr. York?”
This had to be the most far-fetched story I had heard from him to date.
“Yup, them mice carried their pellets from outside the piana’ –climbed up the first bass string and then jumped under the keys.”
“So why on earth would these critters have deposited the pellets in the key bed in the first place?” I asked.
”Cause mice needs a place to store their food for a rainy day,” he replied. “And they’s got a family to feed.”
“Well how did you handle the whole messy situation?”
“I done git the farmers help. They shoveled out the pellets—two or three pounds, two inches deep– the whole width up and down the 88 keys and it took all about three hours to clean it up!”
“What about the urine, Mr. York?”
“They’s wiped it off alright, but them mice has no morals. They dun urinated the whole way up, and made them strings turn black and spotted.”
“Oh my gosh, what a story! Did you tell the farmers how to get rid of the mice?”
“Well, I dun told ‘em to use Decon and draw them outa the spinet. But they thought about it and decided not to folla through ‘cause they was afraid one of their cats would eat a mouse and drop dead from the coumidin.”
“Were you ever able to tune the spinet after they shoveled out the cat food?”
“Oh yeah, fer sure…I dun tuned it and got it up to good pitch. Seems the urine on the strings didn’t make no difference.”
This was the most eccentric adventure that had ever dribbled from York’s mouth. There had been nothing to match it during the time I’d known the man.
The final words on the Samick
While I had ruled out the Samick for Fujie after our faltering adventure, York insisted the piano held up in the world of new and used “pianas.” “Well, he said, if this one won’t work fer yer friend, they’ll be others down the line that just might be the dream she’s waitin’ fer.”