New York Times, old disposable pianos, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten, Sohmer upright

A NY Times article on landfills of discarded pianos is thought-provoking;ref=arts&_r=4&adxnnlx=1343746997-So2LFy3bwlbB06xhRqMQ%2FQ

I read reams of comments attached to this article, and most who’d posted were emotionally devastated by a graphic slide show of grand piano dismemberment, pulverization and landfill-dumping. It amounted to an unmarked grave, or even worse, since the dust pile would be untraceable over years.

A principle at Faust-Harrison, a high-profile piano dealer and restorer, said “‘We’re in a disposable economy right now….The whole mentality is replace rather than repair.’”

The fact is that very few pianos are worth overhauling in the first place. Most know that Steinways, Bosendorfers, and old Baldwins from the golden age of piano-building, have a shot at reclaiming their voice even if neglected. (damage accrues not so much from lack of tuning, but by placing an instrument in harm’s way–near the radiator, and then freezing it out in the winter.. soundboards swell and compress.. cracks emerge.. hammer assemblies become time-worn if parts are not replaced in a natural life rhythm)

Then, too, re-builders are charging an arm and a leg to do an overhaul, and many aren’t amply qualified to replace hammers and then properly voice them. You’ll find a lot of braggadocio unsupported by skills needed to back up big EGOs. More often than not, a re-builder will polish the case, vacuum out dust beneath the strings with his fancy apparatus, or use a cloth attached to a rod– saying the piano’s been “refurbished.” I’ve seen such half–baked work too many times.

And yes, we live in an age of the vanishing piano technician–one who was seriously trained and committed to excellence–not the correspondence course enrolee, who barely tunes with or without a machine.

In this day and age, the tuner is not necessarily a technician. I know one who’s REGISTERED (took a fancy exam and passed it) but admits he “can’t repair.” So what do you do with a fine instrument, like a Steinway when it NEEDS work to keep it running smoothly? (Like a car, perhaps? Imagine the plight of a Lexus if mechanics were unable to do tune-ups, change timing belts, etc. and make periodic adjustments and repairs) A piano has thousands of intricate parts that need attention just like an automobile.

Eventually, poor or no piano maintenance leads to illness and eventual death. And so often, the piano owner has little control over his instrument’s destiny. (especially if he’s settled in a small community, or in the boonies)

It’s therefore, not a disposable economy that’s the problem. Rather it’s the age of the dilettanti that fosters a slipping-in and slipping-out of repair, with the least work invested.

A pertinent flashback to my beloved Sohmer upright, the first real piano I laid my hands on, is relevant. A concert pianist, Lucy Brown owned the instrument, and sold it to my mother for a whopping $450! Big money in the 60s.

Once it arrived and was placed in my bedroom in the Marble Hill Projects (Bronx) I relished playing a piano whose every note sounded with rich resonance.

When it was next transported to my apartment on Central Park West, I’d play and sing excerpts of the Messiah to my first-born. How she loved it even as my vintage Steinway M 1917 grand competed for attention. (It had undergone two overhauls in the Big Apple.. one that was pricey and worthless)

Upon my emigration to CA, the Sohmer was returned to my mother for “safe”-keeping. Did I say “safe?” I had no clay Buddha or religious artifact to protect it. Regardless, it made not a tad of difference given extreme humidity shifts in the living room.

The last I heard, the Sohmer had died. In fact, I heard it “live” when I played it in October 2011. It was shadow or skeleton of itself–pathetically ill-maintained and ready for the scrap heap.

Here’s an updated piano sample from my 2014 NYC touchdown:

In a last-ditch effort to save it, I had my mom contact a fine restorer in Westchester to give an assessment.  According to the consultant, not even intensive care was an option. The piano was a soul-less container–without a breath of life remaining.

Yet my piano still sits in mother’s living room as a monument to itself with a repository of fine memories.

Finally, looking beyond the landfill as the destiny of many pianos, one has to consider that to thrive, an instrument needs life support. Somewhere, somehow it’s lacking, and this may be the root of the problem.


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