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A Battle of two Steinways, a Yamaha, and a spoiler Petrof

A few years ago, I journeyed to the local Fresno piano dealership to make retail price comparisons with used pianos sold in the private party marketplace. The store, located on Ashlan and Fresno Street had an impressive array of Steinways, Boston and Essex pianos, as well as Yamaha studio upright models and other brands.

An early bird, arriving promptly at 9 a.m. I eyed a traded in Steinway upright, 1968 sitting against the wall in the front. As I raced to sit down at the piano bench to try it out, I instantly experienced its heavenly resonance as I glided my fingers over its keyboard. The instrument produced panoply of shades and colors through touch alone without the use of the sustain pedal which was a testimony to its worth. I would compare its tone to a fine, aged, European wine. Its $17,000 price tag, however, was a bit steep for a 39 year old used piano, though the Steinway name would increase its value over time.

A middle-aged man circulated around the floor sampling pianos. He played one and tried another. In no time, a salesperson was chatting with him. From their overheard conversation, I gathered that this fellow had narrowed down his search to a choice of two pianos—a Steinway vertical and a Yamaha studio upright. He nodded his head in the direction of a brand new Steinway vertical (model 1098) that sat beside the older one that I was playing. Perhaps mine was the mama Steinway while the baby, a recent addition, deserved more attention. The interested customer, “Dan Bates,” who looked about 50, had a cherubic smile. He asked if I would be willing to play the newer one so he could make a sound comparison to the older one. I gladly assisted him as I always enjoyed finding good homes for wonderful, resonating pianos.

I played sections of Fur Elise on each instrument, then shifted to Mozart’s “drawing room” sonata in C Major that contained a lot of rapid scales. From these test runs, Dan and I concluded that the older Steinway upright model 1098 was far superior in tone to the newer one. We also concurred that the asking prices on both pianos were over the top considering the store’s advertised “blowout sale!” The tag on the new Steinway vertical was a whopping $27,000!

Dan asked me try out a Yamaha U-3 vertical (52 inches) that was sitting across the floor near the store owner’s office. Immediately, I noticed that it had very good feel/regulation, but tonally, it fell short of both Steinway uprights. The asking price was over $22,000!

I bounced from piano to piano as Dan listened to them at different angles. He looked like a recording engineer meticulously miking several pianos.

A freelance pianist and guitarist,  he had been back-up for Sinatra and Dean Martin over in Hollywood and Las Vegas. While he played mostly light rock music and 60’s type stuff, he appreciated good classical music and treasured the Steinway sound with its characteristic, resonant bass and shimmering upper registers.

A salesperson was sniffing around us, determined to intervene in a profitable way.

I shooed Dan off to a more private part of the store so we could talk confidentially. “Hey, why not throw out a low bid on the old upright and see what happens?” I said.

Initially embarrassed to offer a meager sum in pursuit of such a high quality instrument, he hesitated but then briskly moved forward and offered the saleswoman $7,000 for the piano, about $10,000 short of the asking price.

She responded in the way he feared. “Are you serious? Did I hear you say “$7,000!?”  He felt very belittled and wanted to bury his head like an ostrich in the sand! She eased up a bit, sparing him further embarrassment. “Okay, let me pass your offer by the boss.”

The way she disappeared into the the back area of the store made me think we were in a car dealership. I could imagine the big guy owner sitting in a smoke filled room “counting out his money” the way the “king” did in the famous nursery rhyme.

A prolonged, intervening silence was killing Dan, keeping suspense and anticipation at an intolerably high level.  It couldn’t go on for much longer without taking its toll on Dan and his blood pressure reading. At that moment, I pictured a reality TV commentator saying to a nationwide viewing audience, “Will Dan get to own the piano of his dreams?”

The salesperson was back far too quickly to entertain such a fantasy. “Sorry, Dan,” she said, “the boss can’t consider your offer but he’ll take another one.”

Dan earnestly needed the sales lady’s sympathy so he broke out a bank statement showing a recent, hefty withdrawal to purchase a snazzy piece of furniture that he regretted having acquired. In this buyer driven frenzied state, I was sure he would produce a score of medical bills, and then disclose all of his assets. Was this dream piano pursuit going to lead to his personal bankruptcy?

Thank goodness, he had a few  moments to sober up, and rethink his plan of action.

“Let me talk this whole thing over with my wife,” he said, reluctantly.

The two of us were now standing in front of the store chatting on and on about pianos. His gray graffiti splattered van was parked nearby. The super size vehicle pegged him as a rocker. My dented blue Caravan minus air conditioning spelled starving, low-life classical musician.

Dan’s monster vehicle was packed with keyboards, guitars, amps, mikes, and other electrical equipment. My loser van accommodated one digital keyboard and a music stand.

Both of us loved to chat about pianos, but we’d already killed the better part of the morning casing out over-inflated pianos and getting nowhere in the process. It was time to go home and do some hard thinking.

***

About a week later, I returned to the dealership drawn by my personal obsession with the old Steinway vertical. It was the bright part of the morning and the store’s curtains were drawn open, casting greater light on the piano I was inspecting. Fortunately, there were no other customers around to distract me, and the hungry dealers were off somewhere in the back drinking coffee.

I started my evaluation by tapping on every note of its keyboard in rapid succession, in every dynamic level, from very soft to loud, and in chromatic, half steps just like singers would warm up. When I detailed the last two octaves, in the highest pitch range, I became trapped in several notes that didn’t spring back to my liking. In fact there were some dead spaces through repeated note attacks. All at once, I felt remiss in not having discovered these note problems the week before when Dan was here. Maybe he’d come back with the money in the middle of the night, break the store lock, and force himself in to acquire what he once thought was his dream piano.

As I continued to detail the instrument, I found even more technical problems. At soft levels, the wholeness of many notes was lost, a deficiency that was attached to “voicing.” There was also evidence of inadequate “prep” work performed on this piano which was not surprising since many dealers would acquire used instruments on trade-ins and then they’d invest as little money as possible in repair/maintenance work in order to reap a profit. I couldn’t blame them, but it was something prospective buyers should be made aware of.

After having completed my meticulous note to note inspection of the Steinway upright, 1968, I could no longer recommend this piano to Dan or to any other buyer until and when the dealer had successfully addressed all the problems that had surfaced.

I watched sales people sipping lattes and sharing casual conversation in the area near the store entrance so I called over to the lady who had nixed Dan’s one and only offer. As soon as I approached the subject of voicing and regulation problems in the Steinway upright, she begged off. “You really need to speak to ‘Frank’ who did the work on that piano,” she said.

“Frank Hendricks” apparently had some good training at Steinway and Sons, NY, and left the lucrative Bay area a few years back to accept an offer to be house technician at Fresno Piano. Dan Fishback, the current store owner, had bought out from Don Bird and established a good working relationship with the New York Steinway factory and then recruited Frank to do his maintenance and repair work. To his credit, Fishback had significantly increased the stock of Steinway grands and boosted sales. The prior owner, Don Bird, had a sparser number of Steinways that always sounded like cotton balls (no resonance). These grand pianos came out of the box, ostensibly without much prep or voicing done, so in their raw, unrefined condition even a tone deaf buyer would know that something wasn’t right. Under the new regime, the pianos were sounding better.

Frank stood over me as I played the 1968 upright and pointed out  some technical problems that I had identified during my inspection. While he listened attentively, he didn’t register agreement with anything I said. His complacent demeanor was puzzling.

“Frank, how can this used piano possibly sell for $17,000 with all these action problems?!” I felt like I was complaining to a dealer about a defective car.

Quickly, I realized that I was putting Frank on the spot which might make him feel very uncomfortable.

“If the truth be known,” he replied in a hushed tone, “this piano needs a whole new set of hammers.”

Such a statement, even sotto voce, was basically an admission of guilt.

“So you’re telling me that a whole new set of hammers needs to be installed in this piano to bring it up to playing standard?”

I felt like a Ralph Nader type consumer advocate and lawyer cross- examining a defendant. “So you’re putting a price tag of $17,000 on a used instrument that currently needs at least $5,000 or more of action work?”

Installing a new set of hammers, voicing, prepping them and more would incur substantial technician fees, and besides this investment of work, hammers would have to be played into for quite some time to achieve a resonance level that would honor the Steinway name.

Hendricks disappeared out of sight. He surfaced in the area where sales people were lounging around holding coffee mugs. I gathered from his hasty departure that he didn’t want to subject himself to any more of my interrogations.

I left the store feeling dejected and as soon as I arrived home, I called Dan to give him full disclosure of my findings. I wanted to be absolutely certain that he wasn’t going to make another offer on the Steinway upright.

Dan reassured me that I shouldn’t worry further. “Guess what?” he said over the phone. “I just bought a Petrof upright in Visalia for 7 grand and I love it. Hey, you gotta come over and play it!”

Lickety split I was at his front door admiring his new musical acquisition. “Not bad,” I said, looking into the exposed action, “and the price is right.” I detailed every note at varying dynamic levels and performed the repetition evaluation across all octaves, just as I did with the old Steinway 1968.

The Petrof, a Czech made piano distributed by Geneva International, Illinois, had definitely passed my rigorous performance exam though it did not have the big resonating bass and refined tone of the old Steinway upright. For $ 7,000, it was a good buy but not necessarily a great investment. Steinways would inflate each year out the door, where most other brand pianos depreciated in value.

I departed from Dan’s place feeling good about his decision to leave the old Steinway behind and usher in the New Year with the purchase of this European musical treasure. It was in mint condition, had a good warranty, and for now, it was his dream piano.

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