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Do’s and Don’ts for Piano Buyers and Sellers (Dream Piano’s last Chapter)

DO’s for Buyers

If possible take along a Registered Piano Technician and performing pianist with a good pair of ears to evaluate a used or new piano on the market. You can find a list of RPT members at your Piano Technicians’ Guild online site, or look in the business or Yellow Pages for the PTG in your area.

Check out the serial number of the piano under review by looking inside the piano on the cast iron plate. (It will usually consist of 6 or more numbers) If not found on the plate, the numbers might be located in the back of the instrument, or underneath the piano. (I’ve even seen them on the wood post that holds up a grand piano lid)

Once you’ve acquired the serial number, you can find the corresponding date of manufacture in the Pierce Piano Atlas, or On line at Bluebookof pianos.com where piano companies are conveniently listed in alphabetical order. Sometimes the numbers obtained will not truthfully reflect the piano’s age so don’t be surprised if this occasionally happens. Some companies may not have strictly adhered to chronological dating of their manufactured pianos, but just the same, there may be other clues to a piano’s age, such as its external appearance and internal workmanship. Your tuner should be able to cast some light on the subject if he’s has been around pianos for a long time.

Listen for a piano’s tonal resonance—a long, natural decay rate on notes without depressing the sustain pedal is preferred. But be sure you’re hearing the piano in a realistic sound environment. An acoustically artificial or inflated space in a church or warehouse can play tricks on your ears. When you take the same piano home it may dwindle in projection to half its size.

Test every key of the piano, and look for sticking, or dead notes (notes not sounding) Trust your ears to pick up “warbling” or very out of tune notes. If you press one key and hear two notes sounding, there’s definitely a problem. Your tuner companion should be able to address all these technical questions as they arise and explain what repairs are needed with an estimate of costs.

If all the notes are working, make sure there is a consistent feel from one key to another in all registers. You may prefer a heavier or lighter overall touch—but, regardless, look for consistency of touch.

If the seller claims that the keys are made of ivory, inspect closely to see if there is a horizontal demarcation at mid-point because the true ivory key is divided into a front and tail part. In many cases, the horizontal line is too faint to discern but if you look more closely you can usually see it. Ivory keys may provide a nicer feel for some, but more often than not it does not make such a big difference when compared to plastic. The important issue is the condition of ivory or plastic keys. Are they chipped or damaged in any way? Does this damage affect the feel of the piano at any point? Sometimes, a reputable tuner can file down marginally chipped ivories, or replace a few, if necessary.

Look inside the piano, with the lid up, and see the state of the hammers, strings, soundboard and cast iron plate. Ask your tuner/technician if the hammer grooves are deep or not. You definitely want to ascertain the amount of wear on them and if they need to be replaced in the short or long run. Ask your tuner if the hammers need to be filed down or reshaped to make better contact with the strings. If the piano has a great tone to start with, don’t risk filing hammers down, unnecessarily.

Let your tuner appraise the strings for rust and other defects, and have him assess the piano for Mice, Moths, Moisture, and mold (vertigris) damage.

MAKE SURE TO EVALUATE ANY CRACKS IN THE SOUNDBOARD OR CAST IRON PLATE! Your tuner would be the best person to identify and evaluate these.

Test the piano’s pedals out to see if they’re all working properly. Some instruments may have two—others, three. The right pedal releases the dampers and allows the tone to sustain. It is mistakenly called the “loud pedal,” but it just holds down notes.

If there are only two pedals, the one to the left is the sotto voce or soft pedal. Upon depression in grand pianos, less strings are struck by the hammers. The mechanism is different for vertical pianos. Have your piano technician show you the mechanics of the pedals in vertical and horizontal pianos as they apply. If there are any squeaks, your technician should investigate whether they’re coming from the pedal rod or from inside the action. Repair may involve replacing felt or leather at the tip of the pedal rod, or putting some graphite in the area of the action.

If there are three pedals, then the middle pedal is officially called the sostenuto pedal, and upon depression, after a note or notes are struck, it holds those down, but not any others. A real “sostenuto” pedal has this function in all registers but with most pianos, it is usually unreliable and is rarely used in piano performance.

Look carefully at the finish on your piano, and ask about its wood veneer. See if there are any cracks or defects and have your tuner or another expert evaluate them.

Find out the piano’s tuning and repair history by asking pertinent questions. “When was the piano last tuned, and before that time, how often was it tuned?” Are the hammers and strings, etc. original? Has the piano ever been restored, and what exactly was done? Who did the work, if known? If you can ascertain the tuner and/or re-builder’s name with contact information, then give that person a call and ask about the tuning and repair history of the piano. Ask if there is any paperwork available on the piano, and request a copy of it.

Ascertain if the piano is tuned up to 440 concert “A” pitch. Your tuner can advise in this matter. If not, purchase a tuning fork calibrated to 440 at a music store, and try to ascertain if the piano is flat (too low) or sharp (too high) You would ultimately want a tuner to inform you if he thinks the piano in its current condition can successfully hold a concert pitch tuning, or what compromises in pitch need to be made. A concert pitch tuning bears upon the use of the piano as accompaniment to other instruments. Or if you’re buying a second piano, you want both your instruments match up in pitch.

Ask how many previous owners the piano has had? And inquire if it has been moved a considerable distance during its lifetime (if known) The issue of variable climate, or storage under less than ideal conditions could have had an adverse impact on the piano.

When negotiating a price for the piano, check the newspapers for prevailing rates of pianos of the same vintage and model being sold in your area. Also look on Craigslist.com for pianos of your model and age and what they are selling for. You can also set up alerts on various search engines, such as Oodle.com to inform you about specific piano brand models (spinets, consoles, uprights, grands) with country-wide price comparisons. This gives you a good capsulized picture of the marketplace for pianos of all shapes and sizes. You might also check eBay to see price trends.

Make an offer on a piano that is realistic and affordable within your price range and be sure that the bench is included in the bill of purchase.

If you buy a piano at a dealership, MAKE SURE THE SERIAL NUMBER OF THE PIANO YOU’ve SELECTED IS ON YOUR INVOICE OR SALES SLIP. In addition, write down this serial number immediately, and compare it to the one stamped or engraved into the cast iron plate once your piano is delivered.

DON’T
Purchase a piano sight unseen, on or off the Internet!

DON’T
Buy a piano without the opinion of a registered piano technician and if possible, the additional assessment of a performing pianist or piano teacher who is member of the local Music Teachers Association or who has a known reputation as a fine musician..

For Sellers, DO’s

Have your piano tuned by a registered piano technician before it is put on the market. You want your instrument to make the best possible presentation. Keep the case dusted, and keys cleaned with a light soap solution. Have your piano technician remove any debris on the soundboard. (He can use soundboard steel with a cloth attached)

Learn as much as possible about your piano by researching the serial number and ascertaining from the prior owner what if any work had been performed on it. If you’ve had it restored or refurbished, keep a record of the work completed and have a copy made available for the buyer. If you have any purchase papers or billings, and/or literature on the piano, make these accessible to prospective buyers.

Advertise your piano on free listings that give it good exposure: Craig’s List, Oodle.com, Pennysaver.com, etc and if necessary pay for an ad in your local newspapers. You can also post in churches and on bulletin boards in shopping centers, schools, universities (music department areas) etc. in your community.

Be sure to provide accurate information about your piano’s brand name, model type, wood finish and serial number with date of manufacture. Saying it just needs a tuning may be a red flag, as it might require a lot more to be in playing condition.

DON’T
Clean the inside of your piano with a vacuum cleaner because you can damage the inner assembly parts. Refer internal cleaning needs to a piano tuner.

DON’T
Store your piano near a window where there is direct sunlight. The sun can bleach the wood finish.

DON’T
Place your piano against or near a fireplace, radiator or swamp cooler. Keep it away from vents that create a draft.

DON’T
Place your piano in an area with too much moisture. Make sure to monitor humidity levels with a temperature/humidity measurement gauge. If the room is too dry, you can always sprinkle the area with a few plants. If there’s too much moisture present, you can install a damp chaser inside your piano.

DON’T
Store your piano in a hot or extremely cold garage, or another storage area that is not climate controlled, because it may damage your piano. In addition showcasing an instrument in an undesirable environment reflects negatively on how you care for and treat your piano!

PRICE your piano in the context of what other pianos of your size, brand, model and condition are going for. You can surf the INTERNET and assess sales of your piano on your local Craig’s list, and/or on any number of websites that include used piano listings by city. (Oodle.com, Pennysaver.com, etc.) You can also check EBay trends, if you can find a comparable piano for sale in your area. Keep in mind that a price search must take into account the economics of a particular city that may drive piano prices up or down. You might also compare your used piano sale price to that of a new one of the same brand being sold at the dealer as an enticement to draw an interested buyer. Depending on your piano’s condition, such a comparison might be useful or not.

ADDED recommmedations by a Boston piano technician:

“The technician checking out the piano should look at the bearing, the condition of the bridges, and the condition (tightness) of the tuning pins. If a Dampp-Chaser has been installed in a grand piano, they should make sure it’s a good installation and that there are no heater bars in the action cavity under any circumstances!

“Also, do make sure you have a technician and not a tuner – it’s more than a semantic difference. You don’t necessarily need an RPT as long as the tech is qualified and has good experience. (I’m not an RPT, but my client list includes local music conservatories and a very well known local symphony, and I take great pride in my work. That said, selecting an RPT will *ensure* that you get someone with a level of competence.”

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DREAM PIANO: Overview and Acknowledgments

My two-year long romp on the piano finding trail with York as my professional companion and consultant had been worth all the time spent in, around and under pianos. How else would I have acquired knowledge about the piano’s harp, or cast iron plate were it not for his having the bravado to dismantle it from the Proskch 1905 grand and haul it out to the College of the Sequoia’s welding department. In the face of technicians and others who mocked him for his efforts, he persevered; soda blasted the ugly looking frame and dragged it home for a second wind. Rebecca McGregor, a victim of her impulsive sight unseen Internet piano purchase and an unprincipled seller, had written me a thought provoking e-mail after she had hovered over the plate on full view in York’s driveway. It was a funereal scene.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/10/funeral-for-a-cracked-plate-piano-caveat-emptor/

She wrote, “I actually learned something at York’s, and I think you captured the essence of our meeting and the somber mood. Were we paying for his having tried to mend the plate, I would have stopped him, but with York’s willingness to take it on without payment, we’d have been fools not to let him proceed.” (This was before the plate cracked in two other places as York hauled it to his pick-up truck)

Rebecca had linked hands with Terry Barrett and York’s wife in a prayer vigil over the plate and then helped to flip it on its back to survey its underbelly.

The underside of inanimate things always sparked York’s curiosity and it invariably sent him nose diving under pianos to investigate anything from mice, moths and moisture to the storage of $$$ assets in the crannies of a Kawai.

To my educational advantage, he found it necessary to drag me along on his adventures to prove without a doubt that he had the lowdown on each and very piano he tuned, moth proofed and treated for rats.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/24/me-york-and-our-great-piano-adventure/

And I can personally attest that his tattered, age worn diaries were evidence of his meticulous record keeping since 1948. These should someday be enshrined in the Smithsonian or at least in the PTG (Piano Technician’s Guild) Hall of Fame.

While Terry Barrett, RPT (Registered Piano Technician) argued that bridle straps had no importance in the assembly of uprights, and moths were basically harmless to pianos because they would die eating cyanide based hammer felts, York produced incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. He marched valiantly on his truth finding crusade and produced a Kimball made “Whitney” spinet without bridle straps that had a basic action defect, and he plucked a hammer from his pick-up truck that had the most perfect, moth drilled hole I had ever seen! Such was Mother Nature at work.

As an unofficial “apprentice” to the city’s senior piano tuner, I had acquired trade secrets that no piano technology school or correspondence course would ever impart. Would most “registered technicians” anywhere in the universe know to battle moths with a bottle of cloves? York was always far ahead of his time banishing moth balls from his tool box. “They cause cancer,” he said repeatedly when we stumbled upon pianos that were victims of merciless moth attacks. While I hadn’t yet seen examples of chewed up bridle straps from nest seeking rats, York had promised to phone me immediately if he had a scheduled DECON call at a church or elsewhere.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/30/samick-york-tofujie-and-me-on-the-piano-chasing-trail/

The master tuner without his formal “registration” in the Piano Technician’s Guild showed those who had somehow obtained it that he deserved at least the honorary title because of his decades long association with pianos. Thankfully, the local Fresno chapter honored York by giving him a podium to demonstrate piano restringing, and when he turned up at monthly PTG meetings as a devoted “associate member,” his colleagues always greeted him with a hearty slap on the back.

On the day I had shown up to interview “Laroy Edwards” retired Yamaha senior piano technician, and emissary for the company all over the world, York made his presence known by telling his full length account about the cat that had been trapped under a grand piano lid and miraculously, emerged alive and well, though hairless. York fleshed out, colorful new details each time he spun a piano related tale, though he sometimes forgot that he’d told the story one too many times.

Besides being York’s companion through our two year-long piano adventure, my having compiled these stories was a natural outcome of all the trips made to many homes containing used pianos of an infinite variety–some sold in estate sales and auctions.


https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/12/the-great-piano-auction/


https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/05/used-pianos-estate-sales-and-mr-york-the-tuner/

And in the course of this learning driven journey, I had hoped that readers would willingly share their own piano memorabilia since a keyboard culture may be dying on the vine if not preserved.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/22/is-the-piano-a-dying-breed/

The old upright stories should be written down and treasured. The genealogy of older pianos should be a relentless source of research. Piano owners should learn how to discover the age of their pianos by seeking out the serial numbers on the cast iron plate, and by consulting the Pierce Piano Atlas or the Bluebook of Pianos.com. While it’s common for piano owners to throw up their hands and say,”I know virtually nothing about my piano,” it’s time for a new attitude to replace the old. Even “Alice” was exhilarated to know more about her “player piano without a name” when I enlisted her in the fact finding adventure. While the piano had been virtually un-played for 4 years since its purchase from an antique store for $125, she quickly became my “Dr. Watson” beaming a flash light on its cast iron plate; screaming in delight when she discovered the digits that might help date it. In the case of her particular piano, supplementary information acquired from Robert Furst’s Bluebook of Pianos.com led to its more conclusive identity.

Sharing a systemic approach to the whole research undertaking with Alice, I was able to enlist a new partisan in the preservation of old pianos. In fact, she became very reluctant to part with her stately upright once I had breathed life into it as a performing pianist. But at long last, it finally found a worthy owner who had promised to take good care of it and give it a new home.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/15/a-player-piano-without-a-name/

Another piano, a table style Aeolian with three leaves underwent an equally intense identity crisis as its true birth date was pursued. I couldn’t thank Mr. York enough for his A-1 guesstimate and Terry Barrett for pulling the piano’s action and stumbling upon a note with the date “APR 1936” engraved in the wood. What a miraculous discovery!!

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/26/a-table-style-piano-with-three-leaves-the-whole-story-in-lurid-detail/

DREAM PIANO had been all about the exciting adventure of pursuing and finding pianos, primarily in the private party, used piano market and how these travels of mine had changed the hearts and minds of the many piano owners that I’d encountered. Just making a routine house call to check on a piano up for sale, I’d invited myself into the lives of so my people who possessed the kindness and generosity to share their piano stories. “Ralph Cato,” whom I’d met at the Guitar Center looking for a keyboard to give his daughter for Christmas shared a heart rending story about his first piano and how he stole into the night to pick the lock and play it. Even a US Olympic Team boxing trainer with the exterior of a lion, softened up to share a tender memoir.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/22/cato-his-killer-keyboard-and-a-round-of-piano-lessons/

“Caroline Scheer” opened her heart to me and finally imparted the reason she wanted to sell her beloved Knight piano. This had been a mystery all along, but when the truth spilled out one day during a taped phone interview, all the puzzle pieces fit together. I had learned that her father never kept his promise to buy her a grand piano, like the one she had seen at Delaware University, if she obtained all “A’s” on her report card. How many others would want a grand size piano in their home just because they had been deprived of one early in life.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/16/the-little-knightingale/

In my travels, I had learned that pianos had a wide variety of meanings for different owners. For some, they were not musical instruments at all, but beautiful pieces of furniture to behold. But that might have been because the buyer or seller didn’t know where to begin in assessing the value of something that at one time had a playing life. And from the countless visits I’d made to homes with old pianos, just by playing them, they acquired a new value and meaning for their owners. Maybe there was an important message to heed. Why not bring a performing musician and piano technician to an establishment or home that housed a piano for sale. Why rely on a visual assessment of something that was meant to elicit tones, harmonics, and chords of beauty?

Perhaps the late Anne Meux, whose esteemed Fresno family had been memorialized in a landmark home preservation, experienced an awakening when her pianos came to life the afternoon I had played them. Prior to my impromptu visit, these musical treasures might well have been regarded as decorative furnishings, appreciated only for their external beauty.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/15/anne-meux-her-pianos-and-my-visit/

Pianos I’d encountered that were pretty but without musical value:

So many piano owners found themselves with antiques of the square or parlor grand variety that were quite ornate looking but could not play worth a dime. And when it was time to sell them, they confronted the hard reality that as play-less instruments and artifacts of the past, that no one wanted them in the present or future. So what was purchased for $5,000 some years back would sell for $200 or less in the private party marketplace. Some of these age worn and ill maintained pianos might have had to be donated out to a favorite charity. As Terry Barrett poignantly said, “An antique piano was just a different animal.”

“Sam” Torcaso, owner of Chesterfield’s in Fresno, brought it home that the older uprights were just not selling and the whole marketplace of antique pianos was abysmal. She pointed to the bleak housing situation with foreclosures abounding and the dearth of interior decorators that would be consulted to design the insides of newly acquired homes as reflecting part of the problem. But despite her registered cynicism about the universe of antique pianos, she had always known to advise her customers to bring in a technician before they made any kind of “all sales final,” piano purchase at her establishment. This recommendation showed her respect and concern for those who would buy a piano from Chesterfields and then pass it to their children to learn on.

***
More stories from Dream Piano:

FUJIE had the patience to await the arrival of her dream Kawai K 15 studio upright model piano housed at California Piano,


https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/05/fujie-finds-her-dream-piano-but-buyer-beware/

and “Sharon Cooper” allowed me to include our clandestine tryst in the seedy parking lot beside Ag Hardware where a cash drop was made for a dream piano.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/19/a-high-stakes-piano-finding-adventure-or-was-it-a-sopranos-tv-episode/

Not to forget Dan Bates, who stole off and bought a Petrof piano, while in the grip of his obsession over the Steinway 1968. May the best piano win!!

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/03/a-battle-of-two-steinways-a-yamaha-and-a-spoiler-petrof/

And who could forget the Dream Piano I fought for and won, a French Provincial Baldwin Artist Grand.
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/19/fighting-for-a-dream-piano-hopefully-it-should-not-come-to-this/

On the last lap of my journey, I also stumbled upon “Victor Thasia” who was the first person I had ever met who changed his mind about selling his piano, and was ready to love and cherish it forever. Thanks for sharing your epiphany!

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/16/5007/

And what an opportunity came my way to record on a Dream Piano compliments of the Visalia Piano Gallery:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/13/recording-on-a-sleeper-dream-piano/</a

To “Patricia Frederick,” of the Fredericks collection in Ashburnham, Mass., and Thomas Winter, early piano restorer, San Francisco, my sincere appreciation to you for having provided scholarly words of wisdom about period pianos. What a rare opportunity came my way to play a 19th Century Dream Piano that turned up at the American Cancer Society Discovery Shop.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/27/the-fritz-of-vienna-chopin-reincarnated/

And another period piece that was beautiful on the outside but proved to be a pathetic tonal disaster!


https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/28/the-ghost-of-fritz-was-i-dreaming/

Concluding Bonus Chapter:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/19/dos-and-donts-for-piano-buyers-and-sellers-dream-pianos-last-chapter/

Extra: York’s World War II Musical Memoir
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/06/yorks-wwii-story-in-writing-and-on-video/

More People to Thank:

Terry Barrett, RPT, Fresno gave countless hours detailing pianos for me and helped me write about them from a more technical perspective. While he sometimes disagreed with York about the significance of moth damage and the value bridle straps, he contributed loads of piano related information that enhanced my stories and also assisted sellers in learning more about their pianos.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge all those piano students who gave me my first opportunity to help them find their first real, 88 note, playing pianos. “Michelle” now happily practices on a lovely Baldwin, 1970’s console that had its first tuning, and tweaking by YORK, and my youngest pupil, “Claudia” enjoys her resonating Yamaha studio upright 1992 that I found in the former, Old Hilton Hotel in Fresno where a salvaging company was selling it. I remember how I had managed to get there just at the right time before word got out that two practically new pianos were accumulating dust in a second floor banquet room. Oddly, the Yamaha sat for too long after it was purchased and couldn’t get down the elevator to the ground floor until inspections were made and certification papers filed with the County. In the end, when the piano descended to the first floor level for transport, it was shipped gratis to the base of steps leading to the new owner’s second floor apartment. That’s when a challenge arose! “Elaine,” Claudia’s mother could either pay a whopping $400 to move the piano up two flights of stairs or enlist the help of able bodied neighbors. I wish I could have been there to see how they managed to turn the corner on the landings and push the 700 plus pound piano into the apartment. It must have been quite a sight to behold!

Some piano owners had been luckier than others in moving their pianos. York had told me that the Salvaging company owner, who sold Elaine the Yamaha, tipped over a Kawai piano while he was steering it into another banquet room. “The whole thing just came crashin’ down all at once,” he said. I had dispatched him to give the Yamaha a once over appraisal before it was purchased, and according to YORK, “it passed with flyin’ colors.” While he was at the hotel, he happened to look at the action assembly of the neighboring Kawai console and discovered that the hammers were over-sized and not fitting right. York always knew his stuff when it came to pianos and their interiors. He was also an ace evaluator of piano finishes and could rub the tips of his thickly padded fingers against the grain and ascertain what percentage was veneer.

The old man had done just about everything where it came to pianos. He tuned, repaired, refinished, and moved them. He was quite the master of all trades and he allowed me a share of his knowledge under careful supervision!

Finally, thank you to those who might not have gotten into the pages of this book but who added to my knowledge about pianos of all shapes, sizes, and vintage. I am beholden to “Martin Sigley,” a brilliant player piano restorer who loves what he does like a poet who crafts every word as a jewel. I was so impressed by his little shop that housed an old Behr Player and an “Angelus Orchestral,” and how intensely he worked. The world should regard him as a heaven sent angel. In a universe that values big cars, and expansive, designer homes, there is sadly little room to think about old world type restorers who will someday vanish without the appreciation they deserved in life.

In conclusion, a warm and grateful hug for my 96 year old mother, Jessie Taft Smith who sat relentlessly on the phone in the wee hours of the morning and listened to each Dream Piano chapter as it unfolded and voiced hard fought criticism that drove some periodic changes in my writing. I couldn’t have done it without her.

PS Additional acknowledgments: Peter Wolf, recording engineer, Wolf Sound, Fresno, CA
Bill Sayre, owner, Fasttraxx recording studio, Fresno, CA Heyner Oviedo, Fresno Piano,
The late Anne Meux, Fresno, CA

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On the Meat Rack of used pianos: One that Never Left Its Home

I received a phone call on a June morning from a man who inquired about my piano-finding services. He sounded like he might be from India, but I wasn’t sure.

“Do you help with selling a piano?” he inquired.
“On occasion, I do,” I replied. “It depends on the quality of the instrument.”

I could never represent poor to mediocre pianos. I’d rather starve than risk my reputation promoting those that were pathetic sounding.

The man on the phone wanted to offer his piano for a substantial price.

“It has a big sound that whooshes around the room,” he insisted, “and a Visalia piano dealer said he could get me $1,200 for it.”
His favorable review whetted my curiosity.
“So what kind of piano do you own?” I asked.
“I have a small Wurlitzer,” he answered.
“And are you the original owner?”
“Oh, no, I recently bought it through a friend in Sanger who put me in touch with an elderly lady who was selling the piano.”
“So what did you pay for it?”
“I actually traded my camera for it,” he answered.
This was the first I had heard of such an arrangement.
“You’re saying that you got it without any cash exchange?”
“Well, there was a bit of money added in.”
“So how tall is your piano? Can you measure it from floor to top, and while you’re at it, please check the serial number, located on the cast iron plate by the rack.”
He paused to acquire the information.
“It measures about 39 inches from the floor and I found the numbers, ‘891197,’” he said, proudly.
“Well, first of all you have a spinet size piano, and your serial number dates it to between 1964 and 65.” (I had thumbed through my Pierce Piano Atlas to acquire the information)

At that moment I recalled Sharon Cooper’s first dream piano, a Wurlitzer 1968 that was a few inches taller than this one, and another, of the same vintage that was housed in a Fresno garage.”Scott,” a Lemoore Tires executive had bought his for $500 and was thrilled with his purchase. York had assisted him with the move, providing a dolly to slip the piano into a rented truck saving him a couple of bucks.

The old man knew he would get the tuning job if the buyer had the good sense to properly maintain his newly acquired instrument.

Sharon had fallen head over heels when she saw her “Wurly” and heard its exquisite tone. From my experience with the 60’s models, they were quite resonant, but those produced in the 70’s and 80’s were not nearly as impressive though there were always exceptions. For certain, the Wurlitzer Company went to great lengths to manufacture a lovely cabinet and this enticement above and beyond its resonance seemed to draw interested buyers.

The price tag of $1500 set by the inquiring seller seemed a bit high for the area.

“In all honesty, the market here in the Valley will bear a price of about $500 to $700 for your Wurlitzer piano,” I said, “but much depends on the condition of your instrument– whether it has sticking notes, a bad set of hammers or any other issues that might affect its market appeal.”

Ironically, this particular Wurlitzer piano was located in the boonies of Northeast Fresno, near Jonathon Jones’s place. He had been trying to sell his 1959 Yamaha console that was kept in his stifling, hot garage.

A few blocks away, Camber Dupree housed a 1874 Chickering Square grand that she was about to dismember and memorialize piece by piece over her fireplace. There were no buyers in sight. Rumor had it that she eventually sold its lion’s legs to a local furniture dealer for transplantation to a 1920’s grand.

“Sam” Torcaso, owner of Chesterfields, a pricey antique establishment off Shaw and Blackstone in Fresno, had mentioned in an interview, that one of her customers had bought a “box piano,” (parlor grand), and “gutted it for the center aisle in her kitchen. She took out the keys, did the top with granite and mounted the legs on the wall. It’s whatever their bag is,” Torcaso said in a resigned way. Her assessment of Valley prices concurred with mine. “In these parts, an item might be worth $20,000, but realistically, you can only get about $6,000 for it.” Her inventory was on consignment and occasionally a piano would roll onto the floor.

I had noticed two abysmal sounding verticals stored in her warehouse that would probably sell for no more than $75 each! One of these had several notes that were silent when played. I called them duds.

But despite housing these tonal disasters, Torcaso could lay claim to a beauty, inside and out, that I had stumbled upon at the American Cancer Society Discovery thrift store. The “J. Fritz Sohn,” mid-Nineteenth century musical treasure was probably the best piano ever to come out of Chesterfield’s, and Sam had commented how “shocked” she was when “Mary Papazian,” the buyer, “fell madly in love with the instrument, and then turned around and donated it out!” Apparently, this eye catching Viennese grand was originally acquired at a San Francisco auction house.


***
Checking the Wurlitzer

I found myself dripping with sweat during the 35 minute drive to the seller’s place. And since I had forgotten to ask him his name and phone number, if God forbid I got lost in a stretch of strawberry fields, I’d be out of luck! I recalled how YORK landed us a good distance from Van Ginkel’s house, in this same neighborhood when we were traipsing off in his pick-up to check out the Samick piano. The location harbored awful memories and I wanted to beat it the heck out of the area before the rush of traffic on Herndon Avenue.

At 10:00 a.m. I pulled up in front of a lavish two story house that was the last on a shadeless block of similar houses going for about $600,000 to $700,000, even though from my point of view, this was the last neighborhood I would choose to inhabit. It epitomized Fresno’s building and planning gone wild! There were long stretches of strip malls and homes like these sprinkled in between. To make matters worse, the air was insalubrious and carcinogenic with an overlay of yellow, pink and green. I could barely inhale without a threat to my respiratory system’s well being, especially during summer months when the city was at its worst as pesticide residues swarmed into the Valley.

When I entered the residence on East Palisades Drive, I was greeted by a man with a swarthy complexion, who spoke eloquently with an exotic accent. After a preliminary introduction, I quickly learned that he was named “Victor Thasiah,” (rhymes with “Isaiah”) and came originally from Malaysia. A volunteer, unpaid, fill-in or temporary Minister to a number of Evangelical Christian churches in and around Fresno, he had even been a pastor at the Swedish Baptist Church in Kingsburg that had planted the very established Northwest Church in Fresno that bordered the last rental complex I had occupied.

Before I got too immersed in a record- breaking long conversation with him, I headed straight for his lovely looking piano that sat in his living room with its cathedral ceiling and tiled floors. It was the most ideal acoustical setting imaginable! Next to placing a piano in the shower, an owner couldn’t have elicited a better reverberating environment. (This is not meant to suggest that any instrument should be housed near a source of water since MOISTURE was one of the three big enemies of pianos!) But thinking about bodies of water and pianos, brought to the surface a recollection I had of a Hamburg Steinway grand that was contained in a trendy Redwood City designer house and sat beside a waterfall with a cliff hanging backdrop! The piano was ironically DRY and lifeless to the touch!

Putting aside distracting thoughts of pianos tortured in unhealthy environments, I sat down to play a very attractively encased light walnut Wurlitzer spinet that was favorably situated. From the start, as I ran my fingers over its immaculate looking keys, I knew that this instrument was a winner! There was no question about its amazing resonance and consistent feel! It even played better than the magnificent Knight piano because it lacked the glassy upper treble of the British instrument and hadn’t any awkward-looking black keys. The Wurlitzer tone being warm, sonorous and inviting, induced Victor to sing impromptu over my rendition of Bach’s doleful “Prelude in C” from the Well Tempered Clavier. He had quickly realized that it contained the harmonic backdrop for Schubert’s religioso “Ave Maria,” but to be fair, he had the benefit of my having begun to sing it. With a dazzling bass baritone voice, he joined me for several measures until his voice petered out in the middle where the harmonies became more complex to follow.

As things “played out” I was beginning to learn more about Victor who was obviously a very musical individual, and in “concert” with his professional ministering, had a soulful singing voice. Such an introductory bio engaged my interest.

“So tell me about the piano and why you bought it?” I asked
“Well, I used to have another Wurlitzer of the same size that sat in my library.” He pointed to an adjacent room with an impressive looking desk and many book shelves, but there was no sign of a piano.
“And this instrument came with my wife,” he added, “when we were married 22 years ago. But I now realize that the first piano didn’t have the sonorous, big tone this one has.” He had apparently bought this second Wurlitzer a few weeks ago, and now wanted to sell it. I couldn’t make head or tail of his intentions, so perhaps I needed to break out Freud’s treatise on the first five years of life and its impact on a person’s decision-making in adulthood. This was adding up to an unfolding psychodrama.
“So where is your wife’s piano?” I asked
“Well, just a few days ago I shipped it out to my son who lives with his wife and kids in Ojai. He’s an ordained minister who did Karl Barth studies at Oxford.”
“My, you have a lot to be proud of,” I said. “So is it possible that you purchased another Wurlitzer to replace the one you just sent away?” I thought about emotional loss and how individuals needed to fill an empty void in their lives.
“You might say that,” he said, “but I guess a good buying opportunity presented, and since the piano had a nice ring to it and looked so lovely, I acquired it in the barter arrangement I had mentioned.”

Was he currently speculating in pianos? Buying them for cheap and then selling them at a significant mark-up? None of this added up because he lived in a lavish home and was apparently enjoying a good life. Did he really need the money? Would he cast out a gorgeous looking and sounding piano for a couple of bucks? He said that he had fallen in love with the “ping” sound of this Wurlitzer, and he listened intently as I described the swirl of its vibrations and the naturally long decay of its notes. Was this enough of a good review to make him love and treasure his new acquisition, the spiritual man that he seemed to be at first meeting?

“As I told you by phone this morning,” I said, “there’s a Valley driven asking price for these used pianos of the spinet and console variety. So realistically, you might top out at getting $700 for your lovely instrument. But why on earth would you want to sell this musical treasure in the first place?”

Oops! I did it again. I put my foot in my mouth and made a huge faux pas! Why on earth would I have trekked all the way out to this God forsaken part of Fresno in the stifling heat, to question an individual about his decision to put his piano on the market? Was I a jerk or what?

I knew too many good things about Wurlitzer spinet and console pianos of the older vintage not just from my personal hands on experience, but from what I had read on Robert Furst’s “Bluebook of Pianos” website.(I was willing to forgive him for having miss-dated my Aeolian) As I fumbled through the site’s “Archives,” I found the following pertinent entry:

“In 1935, Wurlitzer had introduced the tradition-breaking spinette proving that a piano only thirty-nine inches high could replace the bulky instruments traditionally produced. Upon the design of this piano was based all modern piano production. Through science, research, and ingenuity, Wurlitzer had developed such exclusive features as Tone crafted Hammers, Pentagonal Sound Board, Augmented Sound Board, etc. to provide a greater volume of rich, resonant tone. A unique achievement in finishes was ‘Wurl-on,’ highly resistant to heat, cold, dryness, and moisture as well as to mars, scratches, and abrasions. It provided an attractive as well as durable and long-lasting finish.”

Larry Fine’s Piano Book clarified that Wurlitzer had ultimately been taken over by Baldwin which had ties to Asian manufacturers, suggesting that the brand name was bought out. Fine asserted that “those crafted in the mid-70’s and 80’s had for the most part, trouble free actions but poor tone.”

Another fascinating bit of information was that in 1985, “Wurlitzer” purchased the Chickering name and the assets of Aeolian Pianos’ Memphis, Tennessee factory when that company went out of business. And for a time, Wurlitzer sold under its own name, verticals and grands made by “Young Chang,” a Korean manufacturer. Fine insisted that during the period of Baldwin ownership, from 1988 to 1990, the Wurlitzer pianos suffered with “inconsistency” and needed considerable “work by dealers to set them straight.” With all that I had read about Wurlitzer and shared with Victor, I maintained that those made by the company in the 60’s, well before its Baldwin/Young Chang takeover, seemed in large part, to own an especially luscious tone. But I always emphasized that I needed to judge pianos on an individual basis.

Victor seemed to have an instant change of heart when I asked him why he wanted to sell his piano. At that point I pressed the record button on my SONY portable and let this man play out his whole story in my Freudian analytical presence. (Readers should be informed that Mr. Thasiah approved release of this interview for publication)

Author: Does your son have the old Wurlitzer yet?
Victor: No, it’s on its way.
Author: Boy, if he only knew what you have here.
Victor: Well, in fact my wife doesn’t even know that I got this other piano. (She was away on a family trip)
Author: Just wait till she hears it. So tell me where did you get the first one?
Victor: My wife came with it.
Author: So it was her dowry, and was it the same vintage as this one?
Victor: Well, she’d had it for thirty years. (This would date the piano to 1977—not necessarily a good year for Wurlitzers)
Author: Did you realize when you owned it that it had a “muffled” sound like you’ve mentioned, or didn’t you think much about it?
Victor: I knew it was “muffled” when I tapped on it, but now with this other one here, I realize that this piano has a much better sound, especially now that you’ve played it for me.
Author: So were you enlightened that the same company could produce a better piano?
Victor: Yes, I think so.
Author: What about the appearance, was it similar?
Victor: The other one was a darker color.
Author: Looks like walnut to me.
Victor: I like this lighter color.
Author: You know Wurlitzer made lovely cabinets—that was another feature of their fine workmanship. So when you first learned of this piano through your Sanger friend, you went out and looked at it—played it?
Victor: I just looked at it and it appeared very much like the other one, only with a lighter color.
Author: Would you say that you were feeling sad that you had sent your old piano away to your son and it may have left a void in your life?
Victor: Yes, perhaps.
Author: Now who gave the original Wurlitzer the most playing?
Victor: None of us played, really.
Author: Is that your son in the picture playing a clarinet. (I pointed to a framed picture above the Wurlitzer)
Victor: Yes, and he got his Divinity Degree from Princeton and then went to Oxford on a Theological scholarship.
Author: Oh my goodness, smart kid! So what does he do now?
Victor: He’s 35 and is an ordained minister in Ojai.
Author: What a great place to live! Beautiful climate! Great air!
So did he request that the piano be sent to him?
Victor: No, we thought we’d give it to the grandchildren.
Author: You had mentioned that he was married.
Victor: Yes, and his wife also graduated Princeton and is an ordained Minister. They have two daughters. (He led me to a living room area where he had family pictures on the wall)
Author: So did your sons ever play the first Wurlitzer piano? Or did they take piano lessons?
Victor: They did when they were young.
Author: Who did they study with?
Victor: “Ann Piran Mamigonian.” My older son tried piano; he tried clarinet, saxophone, so he and his brother were both musically inclined but not very serious about their instrumental studies.
Author: So was the old Wurlitzer piano kept here in this house all those years?
Victor: We have only been here for three years. This is our retirement home.
Author: Oh, so when your children grew up, your piano was in the other home?
Victor: Yes it was.
Author: So would you say that your association with the piano had to do with it having been a steady family companion, rather than a living, breathing musical instrument?
Victor: Well you see, I have lots of friends, and I’m a vocalist, and my wife is also a vocalist. (She sings in the “Sweet Adolines” chorus that performs the barber shop repertoire) We have friends that come over and want to gather around the piano.
Author: So it’s not that you want to show off a piece of furniture. Having a piano seems to be part of your culture.
Victor: Yes, we have always wanted our children to be educated in good quality music and literature and things like that.
Author: So your older son went to Princeton. Where did the younger one go?
Victor: He went to Pepperdine. He’s a church leader, and by profession, he’s a creative director of computer graphics. He and his wife have two children.
(He showed me pictures of his grandchildren posted on the refrigerator)
Author: Is your wife from this country?
Victor: She’s from the US, but my children are from a first marriage.
My former wife is ethnic Chinese, from Malaysia.
Author: So when did you marry your second wife?
Victor: 22 years ago.
Author: I get the picture. You’re a cultured man—you’re a minister—where do currently serve as pastor?
Victor: I was really a Fresno Deputy City Manager by profession.
Author: Then you have a Degree in City Planning?
Victor: I have a Master’s Degree in Metal Technology.
Author: Where did you obtain that degree?
Victor: From Fresno State.
Author: Interesting. What brought you to Fresno in the first place?
Victor: A Secondary Fulbright Commission scholarship.
Author: See this is very compelling. You don’t find many people in Fresno with your credentials.
Author: Now to change the subject a bit. What do you think of the Fresno cultural scene?
Victor: Well it’s not very good because we are overwhelmed by a focus on Ag-Business to the detriment of the arts.
Author: What about the politics of air pollution control and construction gone wild. We have eternal strip malls and a devil may care attitude about the environment.
Victor: Well, policies at the city administrative level often have to do with the growth of jobs so environmental issues and concerns are often put on the back burner.
Author: To shift to another the subject once again, I see that there is a small 23 page book you have authored that is sitting in your library where your old piano used to be.
Victor: Yes, it’s a parable. On the left side you read about a boy blowing bubbles and to the right I have provided biblical interpretation.
***

I thumbed through its pages and found one with a series of floating note bubbles.
It said:
“As I continued
to peer at the growing beauty of the bubbles
I saw some sluggish and shaky
and avoiding them
I saw a few floating at ease
with musical charm.”

Victor had planned to have me play a concert on his “new” Wurlitzer in a few weeks–the one he had wanted to sell for a substantial profit. He had rethought his intention to put it on the market after I had convinced him that his piano was worth keeping. And just maybe the “Ave Maria” resounding through the living room had influenced him.

In any event, this Wurlitzer, once on the meat rack of used pianos, would thankfully never leave its home.

.
From Victor Thasia: 1/16/11
Comment:
Shirley, You have never been forgotten. The piano is still here and friends still
grace our home and accompany me as I sing. Do not be surprised if one day you will be playing here as a guest before my granddaughter Eden (9) who is taking
piano lessons in Chicago. As it is my dream, you will be playing before a small intimate audience in our home.. that dream has never been dismissed – still very much alive and will be done at the right time.
Victor Thasiah

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A Player Piano Without a Name

“Alice,” the owner of an unidentified player, is seen above.

On a sultry Friday morning before a long Memorial Day weekend, I stumbled upon a Fresno Bee ad for a brand-less “piano,” sandwiched among “moving sale” items. The seller’s address traced to a working class neighborhood in south Fresno that probably wouldn’t house a pricey instrument, but I was still curious enough to make the 20 minute trip that might reap unexpected rewards. Driving down Palm Avenue, drenched in sweat, sticking uncomfortably to the seat of my air condition-less, beat up old Caravan, I meandered down Shields to “2416 N. Adoline,” the last house on a never-ending block.

Without a single moving sale sign in sight, I left my car, and tentatively edged toward the entrance to obtain a closer glance at the address. At this same moment, a 40 or so, bespectacled woman appeared holding a self-made sign post and introduced herself as “Alice.”

“Is this the where the piano is?” I asked reservedly. “Yes” she said with a smile, as she nudged me down the quaint hallway of her home.

Before I knew it, I was eyeing the prize, a monstrous size upright piano that stood nobly up against a far wall. It was a mahogany encased, scruffy looking instrument, with a conspicuously sanded exterior that suggested a half-baked attempt at refinishing. The most ornate part of the piano was its leg work. It had a fancy, scrolled mid-portion that would turn heads in an antique store.

I moved closer to this imposing upright to discover its manufacturer and could see fragments of etched Old English letters on its fall board. Some were over-sanded and illegible. The first capitalized letter could have been a “T,” or “F,” but I wasn’t sure. An upper case “J” was also possibility. “i,” “m,” and “b” seemed to follow the first consonant. Looking like Sherlock Holmes with my flashlight and serious investigative demeanor, I quickly enlisted Alice, my side kick, Dr. Watson to scour the old piano for clues to its identity. At my request she measured the instrument from its base to top and came up with a skyrocketing figure of 57 inches that probably dated this piano to the late 19th or early 20th century. But I couldn’t be sure without consulting a reliable source of information such as the Bluebook of pianos.com that had a vintage upright link with photos of old world collectibles.

I combed the fall board scrupulously, seeing “Cabinet grand” and “Chicago” faintly scratched into it, but these words alone, would not furnish a specific company name.

Suddenly I noticed a pair of shutters that identified the instrument as a player, and by parting them I could peer into the area that housed the hammers and related assembly. I would also catch a good glimpse of the cast iron plate where the tuning pins were mounted.

A look through a rectangular opening revealed a clean set of mildly grooved hammers that indicated the piano hadn’t been played very much. If the felts had been significantly worn, a tuner might do some hammer filing or “reshaping” to establish better contact with the strings.

Alice had poured light into the cast iron plate from above. Before I had noticed the shutters, I had stood barefoot on the piano bench, gaping into this piano with its lid open. What a view!

“Gosh, it’s amazing that the company name isn’t engraved into the cast iron plate, “I had remarked.

Since I hadn’t yet laid my hands on this piano to assess its tone, why on earth was I fumbling around its interior, violating its privacy? Did I need a carved in stone identity to go further? Were pedigree papers necessary?

The seller’s flashlight beamed upon a serial number that was engraved into the iron plate. Immediately, Alice was infected with excitement as she recited five numbers in a booming voice,”53882!”

Suddenly we were in possession of a valued piece of information that could potentially date this piano but not necessarily name it, so I diligently resumed my inspection of the fall board to decipher faintly etched letters. Alice was by this time intensely engaged in the process, second guessing my stabs at the mysterious lettering. In the meantime, she had provided some introductory background on the piano that was compelling. Approximately four years back, she said, it had been purchased at a local antique store on Belmont Avenue for $125 and was then loaded into a rented truck by husband, Mark, who lugged it home all by himself.

“It was a bummer to haul that piano in and out of the truck, and I don’t think I’ll ever do it again without a mover!” he said. (The piano probably weighed in at one thousand pounds!)

Alice mentioned that after the overbearing upright arrived in its new home, it was never played.

For all intents and purposes, it was relegated to furniture status in a room filled with collectibles.

She confided that she had been drawn to this dream piano based upon its appearance alone.

“It had an old West, saloon piano appeal, and I could see it standing in my living room right beside my favorite antique lamp.” Alice had apparently never run her fingers over its keyboard before she purchased it even though she’d overheard a customer playing it at the store.

“I couldn’t tell anything about its sound because the store was too big.”

Alice had wanted to take piano lessons, but instead, she decided to teach herself on a Casio keyboard with blinking lights, and never quite transferred her knowledge to the big piano.

Now that I possessed the valued serial number jotted down on a piece of paper, I thumbed through the pages of my Pierce Piano Atlas to try to find a match for the nameless piano. But without a company identity, I would be launching a search in the dark.

“What do you think these few letters spell,” I asked Alice again, in frustration.

She was silent.

I tried substituting a “T” for an “F” at the beginning and guessed at various missing vowels and consonants that might follow. I really needed a Scrabble champion to assist me.

“T-I-M-B-E-R,” I announced in a loud voice, thinking I had finally unjumbled the letters. But what on earth was a “TIMBER” piano? I’d never heard of it.

I checked my Pierce Piano Atlas for a “TIMBER” listing and finding no such brand, I ran down columns of pianos beginning with the letter “T.” I did the same with “F” and then substituted “J” as Alice had suggested. But my efforts were completely in vain!

Discouraged by this fruitless name seeking folly, I asked Alice if I could borrow her phone to call my “technician associate.”

In the blink of an eye, I was speaking with York who said he was sitting in front of an upright piano somewhere out in the country. It seemed like his assignments were more and more in the boonies, perhaps because he was not getting call backs in the city.

“I’m out here in Hanford workin’ on an old vertical,” he said, “ and then I have me a half day’s work out in Lemoore, so I can’t be talkin’ too much.”

“Hey, Mr. York, I’m on Adoline near Shields looking at a “cabinet grand,” about 57 or so inches that has no company name on the fall board. At least I can’t reconstruct some antiquated letters that are badly scratched out, but I do see ‘Chicago’ and a few choice characters on it. We also have a serial number, ‘53882’ and it’s an old player with a gutted mechanism.  Do you have any idea about the manufacturer?”

“Now you just listen up, honey child. I seen millions of these with and without names. And some plays good, but others might as well be scrap metal but I really can’t talk right now ’cause this piana sittin’ here has moths, and I needs to clean ’em out.”

I imagined him blasting out the critters with a bottle of cloves. This was one of his treasured secrets that I was never to divulge. In fact, he admitted that both his apprentices were booted out for having been traitors. They’d spread his final solution to moth infestation all over town!

My futile name hunt had meanwhile squeezed out valuable time to evaluate the piano’s tonal dimension. Finally, I just forced myself to sit down on the bench and play the old upright.

Immediately, this over-sized piano communicated a nobility of character that drew me to its very core. The sound emanating from this awesome vertical resonated off the walls as if it were coming from a full size grand piano. I could easily imagine myself in Carnegie Hall playing to a large audience and I didn’t need a concert size instrument to project the works of Schumann and Chopin and the sweep of the Romantic era. Here I had this no name piano, a “cabinet grand” possessing enough tonal resources to invite listeners into its magnificent sound universe. And aside from needing a good tuning, I couldn’t imagine eager beaver re-builders justifying a restoration. What would they do? Replace hammers that didn’t need changing? Give it a new soundboard that did not appear cracked. A buyer had to be concerned about being approached by a contingent of refurbishing addicts who, for big dollars would do everything to an old world sounding piano to revise and ruin its character. Fortunately, this piano had experienced only a minor renovation. It had a nice new set of key tops that were evenly balanced and weighted so the notes were exquisite to the touch. What more could a concert pianist ask for?

As I continued to play this remarkable sounding instrument, gliding through the works of Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann and Mozart, ending with the “Bach Prelude in C,” from the Well Tempered Clavier, I had acquired an attentive audience of listeners. Alice, her husband and son were seated in the living room glued to the music. Immediately, she began gushing about the piano.

“I’m not sure we ought to sell it now,” she said regretfully, looking at Mark. “I’ve never heard it like this before. It’s so beautiful.” She was wiping tears from her eyes with a laced handkerchief.

“So why don’t you keep it,” I replied.

I knew a drama was unfolding, and I thought about Caroline and her relationship to the “little Knightingale.” While she dearly loved her piano, she was quite willing to part with it.” (A British Knight console)

But Alice’s circumstances were very different. The family had planned to move to Las Vegas in a few months and the cost of transporting a 1,000 pound piano to another state would be prohibitive. Shipping could easily run Alice and Mark between $1200 and $1500 so it made no sense to undertake such a steep expense.

I returned to my concert, serenading the family until a young woman, about 30, entered the home and gawked at the piano. Then she sat down and joined an audience of listeners, not saying very much.

I played “Fur Elise” for the second time, in a such a way, that  anyone mildly familiar with the work would have been drawn into its intimate space without even thinking about it and then I performed a few more short pieces before I paused to sing the praises of this extraordinary old upright. “This is truly an astounding musical instrument and a very rare find,” I told my audience, looking directly at the woman who had recently entered the house. (I knew she might be a prospective buyer) “Most of these older pianos are ready for the scrap metal yard, but not this one. If I were looking for a lovely, singing instrument, I would strongly consider buying it.” The piano had been on the market for six long months and had not attracted interest so it was time to do some serious promotion and get this piano into a loving home.

Alice and her husband, Mark had asked me earlier about what I had thought the piano was worth and I could only compare the instrument to another with a missing player assembly that had comparable resonance. A “Howard” made by the Baldwin Company, had been up for $800 and ended up selling for $200. It had been painted an abysmal grayish yellow but still stole the heart of my client, Marcus Johnson who grabbed it on the spot after I sampled it for him. So having had this experience with a similar sized old instrument, I told Alice that she might start pricing the piano at $500 and maybe come down to $400.

The interested buyer who had joined the audience of listeners in the living room was obviously so taken by the piano that she promised to come back quickly after she spoke with her husband. She seemed very sincere, and I knew in my gut that she would return with an offer.

After she departed, I lingered and took piano photos at various angles. I zoomed in on the fall board that bore the Old English letters and clicked a few photos with Alice and her husband standing by the instrument. Finally, I panned around the living room to get a feel for its ambiance, snapping pictures of various collectibles: two wing back light green chairs, a glass table with an ornate wrought iron base; a light yellow Armoire and laced white curtains in valence. A few fancy lamps, sprinkled around the area added an aesthetic embellishment. The newest piece of furniture was a Lane couch from the ‘50’s and a contemporary looking secretary that stood against a side wall. Alice confessed that her real passion was collecting Barbie dolls but I saw none on display. Apparently, she had several hundred and a coordinated wardrobe for them. Her first acquisition dated back to 1959.

I had planned to be at a recording session at 1:30 p.m. to complete my fifth CD, and looking at my clock, it was well past one. How I had managed to soak up over two hours time inspecting and playing this gargantuan upright piano was beyond comprehension!

“Well, I gotta be going, “I said. “Please keep me posted on the piano and let me know if the lady buyer comes through. If not, I can post a free ad for you on Craig’s list and upload a photo with it.”

Sometimes, I did things like this out of the goodness of my heart, not expecting a financial return. In this instance, I had invited myself into this home not as an interested buyer but as a curious piano finder. And now after having sampled this great sounding instrument, I thought nothing of investing my time in advancing its sale. But my first priority was finding the piano a good home.

**

After my lengthy and arduous recording session at the Fast Traxx Recording studio in downtown Fresno, I headed home thinking again about the nameless, though awesome sounding piano. I said to myself, why not get an opinion from Terry Barrett, the best tuner/technician in town who maintained pianos at Fresno State and tuned the Fresno Philharmonic’s concert grand. He had done such a good job appraising the needs of the Steinway 1920 piano up for auction a few weeks ago that he might throw some light on the awesome “cabinet grand’s” identity.

It was Saturday, the day following my jaunt to Adoline and Terry stood beside me at Alice’s house peering at her nameless piano.

“Looks old to me, about 1905, maybe, because of the size and scroll work,” he said. “But I’m not sure the case is mahogany.”

“Could it be a “Kimber?” I asked, not knowing if such a piano existed—it was basically a shot in the dark.

“No, I don’t know of any Kimbers,” he replied.

“Hey, there’s a “Kimberly” listed right here in the Pierce Piano Atlas,” I said, “but it doesn’t jive with this upright piano.” I mumbled what was in print: ‘Name used on pianos made by a company that failed in 1922.’ ”

“The first letter definitely does not look like a ‘K,’ I commented. “Maybe a “J” would work. ‘JIMBER,’ perhaps?  But it’s not listed in the Atlas, and I’ve already went through all the J’s”

Terry and I were fumbling with the first letter

Blank___ “mber” We were stuck in our tracks. I changed the subject.

“What about the missing player mechanism? What do you know about it?”

“Players started wearing out and had problems in the 30’s,” he answered. They eventually went out of fashion, and were removed. We tuners pull them out all the time.”

Terry beamed some light on the cast iron plate through parted shutters. He relied on me to report back any findings because of his severely compromised eyesight.

I read in a loud voice, “General Furniture Company, and Bell Plate Co.”

“Well that gives you some clues,” Terry said.

I stuck my head through the shutters again. This time I saw some pieces of the player action, and loose, frayed connections.

Then I noticed the words, “patented vertical grand French repeating action” engraved in the plate.

“What on earth is a French repeating action?” I inquired.

Terry was mum and looked pale. He had no idea.

“Maybe the piano’s name is in the back,” I said, returning to the subject of its identity. I gave it a quick look, trying to squeeze myself into a narrow space behind the instrument, but found nothing but a series of criss-crossed wood panels.

Each time I experienced an identity seeking setback such as this, I shifted my conversation to another subject

“So, Terry, my question is, ‘Can this piano hold a good tuning?’ ”

I ran my fingers rapidly over its keys, performing a dazzling chromatic scale from pianissimo (double soft) to fortissimo (double loud).

“Well, I think so,” He answered. “But when exactly was it last tuned?” he asked.

Mark, sitting passively on the Lane couch, chimed in, “about 4 years ago.”

Terry ran his own fingers over the keyboard and encountered a warbling note.

“I think this might be a tuning pin tightness problem, or, it could very well be that when it was last tuned, it was way under pitch.”

“It’s really not that far under concert A” (440 frequencies) I insisted.

“Do you notice how good the hammers look?” I continued. “They aren’t deeply grooved. And what always makes me steaming mad is when too many tuners unnecessarily file hammers down that are producing a beautiful, resonant tone.”

Terry agreed with me. “If you have a great tone, then you don’t file the hammers.”

I thought of how many times York was on automatic pilot to sand down perfectly decent ones. It always made me sick!

“The bridle straps look pretty good,” I remarked–“What do you think, Terry?”

“Oh, I really don’t care about bridle straps,” he answered.

“Mr. York is always talking about bridle straps,” I said.

Terry chuckled.

(“The primary function of bridle straps placed only in verticals is to aid in hammer repetition, but they are not a cure-all for repetition problems”—footnote: Robert Ellis, RPT)

“They don’t affect the playing of a piano, period,” Barrett said.

I knew that York would have  taken Terry to battle on this point because he had sworn that bridle straps had everything to do with good hammer response. And naturally, York always went bravely to war against the mice and rats who “dun chewed up dem straps to build their nests!”

Are these the knuckles?” I asked Terry, as I pointed to some squared off white parts of the hammer assembly. One of my worst nightmare tuners had “polished the knuckles” of my Steinway grand in 1989 sending it back to the Stone Age. I could never forgive him!

“Not exactly, knuckles,” Terry replied.  “Those are hammer butts.”

I quickly returned to the mystery of the piano’s identity.

“So do you think there’s a way to flesh out those missing letters on the fall board?”

Mark chimed in again. “I’ll bet that sanding down the name will give you more of them.”  He insisted that the wood had been previously stripped by someone who’d never completed the work. It was, according to him, “a half-assed job.”

“Yup, it’s been stripped,” Terry said. “And it could very well be that a decal is affixed on the fall board.”

I couldn’t corroborate his statement because the lettering appeared flat on the wood.

“So what do you think of these key tops?” I asked.

I ran my fingers through a shimmering arpeggio.

“Well, yes,” he said, “I notice that new key tops and bushings were installed, and the work was very good. The notes are nicely leveled and squared.”

I interpolated a sprightly 4 octave-scale.

“But look how they replaced the dampers, but not the damper springs,” Terry added. (Dampers are the hammer felts)

“Hey, I see that the soft pedal doesn’t work, and there are only two,” I said.

“Well you should know that pianos with three pedals sell better. Put that in your book,” he said. He knew I was always writing one. “Okay, Terry, that’s your quote.” We both chuckled.

“Did you know that my Steinway upright has three pedals, and it’s very expensive because of the added features? Yet the middle pedal is rarely if ever used.” (The center sostenuto pedal holds down specific notes after its depression, allowing others in different registers not to sustain)

“Yeah,” Terry answered. “I could never understand why manufacturers would put so much work into a third pedal.”

“So what about the hammers? Were they ever replaced?” I asked.

“Well, they only did the upper treble hammers,” he said, pointing to them. “So that’s why they feel heavy because they didn’t lighten them up.”

I couldn’t corroborate the heavier feel in the high treble, so I wouldn’t hold it against the piano.  But Terry was right about the hammers being a lighter color. His whole assessment of the piano was very thorough.

“By the way, is it wise to partially replace hammers?” I asked.

“Well, not really. I usually replace all the hammers so you can get the even tone and feel throughout.”

“So what do you think the piano’s worth?” I asked.

“I’d say, 500 bucks, approximately,” Terry answered.

“Shirley said the same thing,” Mark said, from his seat on the couch.

“Hey, I must be getting good at this,” I answered. “It’s really a great instrument and sturdy piece of furniture, but it’s hard to get good money these days for something like this,” I added.

Terry agreed.”Yeah, it’s just too big, and an antique piano is a completely different animal.”

“Hey, did that young woman ever make an offer on your upright?” I asked Mark. Alice was nowhere to be seen, and I wondered if she was in solitude, despairing about having to sell the piano. But I didn’t say anything.

“Yeah, the interested buyer offered $350,” Mark answered.

“If were you, I’d take the $350 because you’re not going to get another like that anytime soon,” I said.

“That’s probably what we’re going to do because we can’t take the piano with us.”

“Just make sure she moves it herself,” Terry added.” Don’t get stuck paying the moving expenses. You can tell her that the key tops and bushing replacements were an expensive job so don’t negotiate down the price. You also have a good bench right here, and that’s also worth something.”

“Well you know what. We bought it for $125,” Mark said.

“That’s great,” Terry declared. “So take the money and run!”

“You know what,” I said. “I bet a good re-finisher could improve the piano’s overall appearance.”

“Yeah,” but that would be a job,” Terry said.

“Put it this way,” Terry declared, “If an interested buyer is not happy with this piano as is, then he shouldn’t buy it.”

Mark seemed to agree.

When you write your book,” Terry added, “just say it’s a ‘classic piano without a pedigree.’ ”

“That’s exactly what I had written already,” I said. “You read my mind. The latest chapter is titled, ‘A Player without a Name,’ and this is the first piano I’ve ever encountered without an I.D.”

“It’s like a kitty cat that needs a home,” Terry said.

“You got it,” I said. “People look at their pianos like people or pets.”

“As far as I’m concerned, this piano’s pedigree is typical stripped down or gutted player piano,” Terry said.

“Do you think the moths got to it?” I asked.

“Like I’ve told you before, there’s cyanide in the felt. After moths lay eggs, they don’t get very far. It’s not that appetizing to eat the felts, anyway. As felt gets old, it’s less appealing, and besides, there’s other good stuff to eat around the house, like a nice new wool sweater.” We both chuckled.

“What about mice and rats?”

“Now that’s a real problem,” Terry said, “along with cockroaches. The rodents come into the piano and chew up the felts.”

“How often do you see them?”

“Well, pretty often,” Terry answered. “You typically see damage that’s happened in the past. The mice and rats are usually gone when you go in there.”

“And what you do?”

Clean it up,” he said. “I see fairly fresh nests and they’re usually in pianos that have been just sitting there and never played.” Terry looked down at his watch. “I really need to be going.”

“Well, thank you so much for coming down here on such short notice. I really appreciated all your feedback on this no name piano. So what do you think of this idea? Maybe we should get a forensic expert to analyze what’s on the fall board.” Terry had already hastened out the door, but Mark remained and laughed.

I sat down to record myself playing a few selections on my Sony portable: “Fur Elise,” a few “Scenes from Childhood” selections by Schumann and a Chopin “Nocturne.”

Lately I had thought to bring my tape recorder to every house that offered a piano for sale. It was the only way I could capture the drama of each household.

“You know what,” Mark said. “Everyone that looked at the piano didn’t know how to play it. You’re the first person who came through the door and brought it to life.”

“Hey do me a favor,” I said. “When the piano sells and is moved out, can you have Alice call me so I can interview her. I need her gut emotional farewell to the piano.”

I wrapped up the morning by playing the ethereal “Bach Prelude in C,” that had the harmonic backdrop for the sacred, soaring “Ave Maria.”

It was a perfect finale.

***

Before I arrived home, I took my camera to Long’s and developed my photos. The instant camera had done a grave injustice to the piano’s appearance by not picking up its deeply impressive wine color. And the antique furniture in the living room had a veil of cloudy film over it. I knew I needed to acquire a pricey digital camera but money was tight. In just a few weeks my student roster would markedly dwindle due to family vacation periods, so it was not a time to splurge.

My next priority was to check out the Bluebook of Pianos.com for some corroborating information on the huge unnamed vertical. The website featured a vintage upright link that showed photos of pianos from 1875 to about 1930 and graded them for antique value. The more florid, older, instruments attached higher “grades” but value was also tied to an instrument’s condition: (“refurbished” or not; “free of blemishes,” “nicks,” or “scratches,” etc.)

Immediately, I spotted an upright that looked very much like Alice and Mark’s. It was a “Grade V” dated between 1875 and 1905 and had the interesting scrolled legs. I read a compelling description: “The cabinets in those days were usually made of Mahogany that was the choice wood of the day.”

Apart from this information, I had no other clue to the piano’s identity. But a search request form furnished at the site, permitted an interested party to acquire upright-related information for free. Without hesitation, I supplied necessary details about Alice’s piano and sent it to the Bluebook.com site.

The next day, I left a message for Alice to phone me for an update on the instrument, and got Mark on the line, instead. He told me the piano had sold to the young woman whom I had met, and had already been moved out.

“So how is Alice taking it?” I asked.

“Well, she seems to be handling it okay,” he answered.

A full 48 hours later, I was speaking with her, and she seemed resigned to the departure of her treasured cabinet grand.

“My husband had said to me, ’so, do you miss it?’ and I said,

‘Well it’s going to a good home—and that’s what was important to me. When the movers came, I cared more about getting the piano out safely than about ruining the carpet or anything else.”

“So who did the moving?” I asked.

“The woman’s husband, her father, brother, and one girl all pitched in.”

“So 3 guys and one girl moved the piano?” I asked, with disbelief.

“Yeah, they brought it up to a Toyota truck, pushed it in and drove off.”

“Were you able to watch the piano being taken out?” I inquired.

“Yes, I watched it leave and it wasn’t a big deal at that point. The important thing was that I knew the young woman was going to take good care of the piano because she promised me she wasn’t going to let anybody bang on it. I said to her, ‘It’s like you’re taking part of my arm but I’m willing to let it go.’ When we move to Las Vegas, my husband is going into real estate and I’ll be a home care worker. I know someday the time will come when I’ll want to have a piano and I’ll be sure to call you.”

That same evening I opened an e-mail that was sent by Robert T. Furst, Bluebook of Pianos. He had provided a very lengthy report on the nameless piano that could be summarized in one paragraph:

“In addition to the serial number you had provided that dates the piano to 1896, the fact that it was a Player made in Chicago makes me think that the Kimball Company had something to do with it.” He went on to say, that Kimball also made stencil pianos, copies of its own brand using different names, and that “by and large Aeolian and Kimball would have manufactured these.” While he could not be 100% sure that Alice’s piano was a “Kimball,” he felt there was enough evidence to suggest this was its manufacturer.

I felt like I had been told the name of the person buried in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It affixed an identity to a nobody who was a stand-in for so many others.

Alice had loved her piano without its having a name, and giving it a dog tag would probably not change anything. Just the same, I copied the pedigree papers and forwarded them to her.