Fujie’s Suzuki Digital piano, purchased at Costco, predated her starting lessons with me. Prior to entering my sanctuary with its two Steinways and wall-to-wall, piano emblem nick knacks, she had been enrolled at Fresno State’s Group classes. Seated at her electronic station with a full deck of 88s mounted on particle board platforms, among rows of students with headsets, she came to realize that this path to learning piano was compromised. In her own words, it was an “espresso packaged short cut.” I would validate her opinion when I gazed at the pricey book she had bought for the course. It advanced far too quickly, leaving Fujie and others lost and out in the cold. In addition, students taking this class had no real opportunity to explore the tonal resources of a real, acoustic piano since the electronic keyboards had a steely, hyper brilliant tone, not significantly modified by touch.
Fujie’s Suzuki brand digital posed the same problem. When she played my Steinway M grand, and explored varied approaches to dynamics (louds, softs, and in between) she could not transfer the experience to her keyboard, and in time, her frustration grew to a point where she considered buying a real piano.
My only reservation was that Fujie had previously rejected the soulful sounding Knight piano, and a decent Yamaha console housed in a garage, so I wondered if she could be satisfied with any worthy instrument that came her way.
I remember the day she called me to check out the local antique store on Blackstone Avenue, off Shaw, which advertised a vintage Wurlitzer grand, circa 1920. While it turned out to be resplendent and a real eye catcher, the instrument itself, was invalidated by several broken strings, a pervasively sour tone, and fake legs. Yes, fake legs!
York had cruised by the day after our visit, and confirmed that the piano had the legs of a turn of the century Chickering. Immediately, I wondered if the donor was the same piano I had recently checked out on Van Ness Extension. The seller had admitted to being frustrated that she couldn’t unload her Square Grand, a drop dead good looking antique sounding like sour grapes, so she considered dismembering it, part by part for consignment.
Voila! I was convinced that the Wurlitzer grand located at the antique store, had benefited from a transplant courtesy of the Chickering. (I wish I had kept the photos of both pianos to prove my point)
But to give the reader an idea of the florid appearance of a vintage square grand, here is a picture of one (a Steinway) housed at Fresno Piano that has not sold in years. Just imagine these lion’s legs transferred to a less ornate instrument.
To cut a long story short, the Wurlitzer grand managed to sell many months later to a Fresno based venture capitalist named “Leonard Ross,” whose hobby was collecting exotic pianos all over the US. As testimony to his lucrative excursions around the country, his office off Sierra and Palm was replete with many instruments, including violins hung from the wall, a harp, and a Steinway B grand, (7 feet long) from the era of clacking teflon bushings. The latter was not among his antique treasures, and had a very difficult journey to sale.
I learned months later, that Ross wanted to unload the Wurlitzer grand because he realized that his $10,000 investment was a big mistake. As it was told to me by his secretary, a former piano student of mine, Len figured out that the instrument couldn’t hold a tuning, and played like a drunken sailor singing off key.
Fujie had agreed that the Wurlitzer was not an option after experiencing its disabling tone, but I was surprised to hear her suggest that we take a drive over to California Piano that was having a closeout sale. Her gesture indicated that she was leaning in the direction of buying a new piano!
The small dealership on Clovis Avenue, about ten miles out of Fresno, bore the tell tale signs of a real close-out, not one of those pretend to fold, business ploys. There were signs plastered everywhere, “selling off pianos at bargain prices,” pinned on windows, walls and in between. Once inside the showroom, however, the story was different. Prices were sky high!
Tags affixed to Pearl River Pianos and Kawai studio uprights were not in the bargain range. Fujie might do better in the used piano market, perhaps, but I realized that she had her heart set on bringing home a virgin beauty.
The Kawai uprights interested me as I had become a fan of the more recent GE-20 series pianos with the Millennium action. I had bought one of these small grands for myself at a significant discount at DC Pianos in Berkeley and a few verticals sitting nearby were equally as impressive. The problem with Kawai was it’s lack of name recognition as compared to the powerful PR machine-driven Yamaha Corporation. If the word got out that Kawai was producing a warmer sounding piano, with decent regulation, more might be sold.
Fujie and I squeezed down an aisle of Kawai studio upright pianos, model K15s, that stood in two rows. Some were ebony while a few were in walnut finish.
With an invitation to play any number of these, I couldn’t resist. Dancing from one to another, I tapped away at numerous keyboards holding the memory of a ping that appealed to me. I detailed the middle, bass and upper treble of several, eliminated some outright, and returned to those that passed the first tonal test. Then I carefully honed in on tone, touch, voicing, key responsiveness in that order.
Most of the selection was unappealing but for ONE piano that jumped out at me. And it was an instrument with a heaven sent DREAM sound and even touch merged together
“Fujie,” I screamed. “Come over here, and try this one out!”
She had been lost around the corner, sampling the first row of pianos. Quickly, she rushed over to the ebony studio upright that I was obsessing over.
“Listen to ‘Fur Elise,’ and tell me what you think,” I said.
She was mesmerized as I was, having those hunger pangs you get when you’ve not eaten in 6 to 7 hours. Only this time, her appetite for this piano was growing in intensity.
“Fujie, this is YOUR piano. You have to get this one, and none other,” I insisted.
She seemed convinced after trying it herself. The piano sang under her fingers as she played her Bach “Prelude in C” from the Well Tempered Clavier with its arpeggios flowing limpidly like water from a fresh stream.
I knew she was hooked.
The only problem was a “SOLD” sign had been pasted onto the rack indicating the baby had been taken! I couldn’t believe we had failed to notice this in our frenzied enthusiasm.
What would we do now? I had no intention of advising Fujie to buy any other studio upright on the floor. None deserved her ownership.
Ed Russo, the dealer on premises, suddenly sauntered over to talk with us. He asked if we needed his assistance.
Anxiously, I asked him about the SOLD sign.
“So we both really like this piano, but I see it’s not for sale?”
I was hoping that there was some kind of mistake and maybe the sign was taped to the wrong studio upright.
“Oh, don’t worry yourselves about it,” he answered.
“The lady who bought it this morning, really wanted a walnut finish, so I’m going to send her a boxed model.”
“But wait a minute,” I said. “Didn’t you put the serial number down on the invoice when you made the sale?”
That would have been the correct thing to do. A buyer had to be sure that his or her selection was validated by this important set of digits. I had warned my students and their parents over and again about making sure to copy down the serial number of the piano they had picked out at the local dealer or Lord knows what could happen.
Ed Russo, answered my question nonchalantly. “Oh, no problem, I never put that number down on the sales slip, so the piano is free and clear to be sold to you.”
At that moment, my heart sank. I could only imagine the buyer receiving the wrong piano, not the one of her dreams, and it would be a major disappointment. Perhaps, she would lose sleep over it, or get terribly ill.
While Fujie and I felt guilt permeating our pores, we managed to get passed it, but it took a few minutes of lingering and serious thought.
For Ed Russo, the day spelled a double sale, and that was uppermost in his mind.
As he processed Fujie’s credit card, new ownership was passed on, and no matter what followed, buyer’s remorse, guilt or whatever, the piano was in good hands. It would have a well maintained life (regular tunings) and a soft cloth passed over its case.
Fujie’s long, and sometimes frustrating piano search was over. It had been an arduous journey but worth the effort.
Fuji’s grandson, Ryder, enjoys the Kawai!
Another Buyer Beware story:
Funeral For a Cracked Plate: