Aiden Cat, Aiden the Cat, blog, blogger, blogging, cat, cats, feline, felines

The Life of a Cat on April Fool’s Day

There’s no doubt who’s King of the Castle with his Keyboard Crown.

What else would I expect?

He really wanted the whole piano bench to himself:

How did he manage to sneak off with my sneakers? They weren’t there the last I saw them.

He’s decided I can’t go anywhere without him.
Better yet, he wants me to stay home all the time.

Face it, he’s cute even when sleeping.

When he’s awake, what a pretty face.

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In a Piano Teacher’s Arsenal: The Magic bullet piece (VIDEO with Aiden Cat joining in)

There’s always a piece of music lurking somewhere that can save a young student from quitting piano. For those of us who teach the great masterworks, passing a cultural legacy to the next generation, we know lickety-split when it’s time to break out our ammunition: the magic bullet piece.


An 11-year old had gotten into a rut practicing Rameau’s Menuet en Rondeau. As far as I could see, there was no tomorrow unless a treat was tossed her way a.s.a.p. Oddly, it came straight from the Chocolate Factory, compliments of Willie Wonka. And if this album had remained sequestered in a dark closet where it had amassed dust, it would have been headed for a meltdown.

But a twist of fate caused a reversal of fortune.

Not only did “Oompa-Loompa Doompadee-Doo” come out of obscurity, but it stimulated my student’s musical appetite. Her slow and steady practicing paid off as she artfully navigated the Willy Wonka piece in the good company of Aiden cat who’d been wooed to the piano bench by a handful of Greenies. Once mesmerized by the mysterious, modal melody, he stayed put for over 30 minutes.

Currently, the student who was slipping and sliding, is now back on track with her piano studies, mixing it up with classical and popular. Down the line, additional morsels from Willy Wonka will keep her musical appetite primed. How about, “Pure Imagination,” and “The Candy Man.”

Please share your favorite magic bullet pieces:

Others that have worked: (Combined with minuets, sonatinas, sonatas, classical marches, Romantic character pieces, etc)

Arrangements of these selections can be found at appropriate levels:

Star Wars
Colors of the Wind
Beauty and the Beast
Hedwig’s Theme from Harry Potter
Phantom of the Opera
The Entertainer
The Lion Sleeps Tonight
In Dreams from Lord of the Rings
A Beatles Medley
Liz on Top of the World from Pride and Prejudice
West Side Story selections
Sound of Music medley
Looking through the Eyes of Love from Ice Castles

Added by Jessica:
Bella’s Lullaby from Twilight. Why oh why?

From Lisa:

Possible Magic Bullets for intermediate/advanced students …

* Linus and Lucy (Vince Guaraldi’s theme from Charlie Brown)
* Theme from Pink Panther
* Bumble Boogie
* The Heart Asks Pleasure First (Theme from The Piano)
* Andrew Lloyd Webber
* Abba’s music from Mamma Mia
* Clocks by Coldplay (cool piano intro)
* Jon Schmidt does a lot of really neat stuff that is also technically challenging (he has several sheet music books available — I’d suggest “Waterfall,” “All of Me,” “Ridin’ West.”)
* William Joseph’s compositions — he has a couple books out and my personal faves are “Within” and “Piano Fantasy”

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The Joy of Teaching Piano to Young Children (Videos)

Starting a very young child on a musical journey is joyful, exciting and challenging. The first baby steps taken at the piano will be memorable for both teacher and student, so careful thought and preparation are needed.

At the very outset, I believe in nurturing an awareness of the singing tone and how it is created. In the most fortunate circumstance a child has a real acoustic piano to practice on at home in order to experiment with various tonal shades, timbres, “colors” that we explore at our lesson. This consciousness of what the instrument can elicit as we tap into the imagination and inhabit a universe of sound exploration, requires attentive and sensitive listening. This is where the teacher can be the magical guide. At this crucial point of engagement, lessons can take off in positive directions and bond the student to the whole creative musical process.

Singing is an activity universal to childhood and a teacher who taps into this celebration of musical expression, will go a long way toward imbuing what the singing tone is about as it applies to the piano. The goal will be to teach a child to “sing” through his fingers and shape a phrase as he or she would vocalize it.

Learning hand position formation is important at the beginning of study, and it is not rigid but gently round, with curved, not curled fingers. The teacher can gently nudge the student in a relaxed physical direction by suggesting the light embrace of a ripe plum in his palm. The consequences of squeezing it too tightly will be amusing to the child, but well taken.

While materials such as Faber Piano Adventures provide great launching pads for formal piano study, it is the teacher who has to translate all the notes and symbols in these primer method books into a language comprehensible to a child and his universe of play. The playground as music teacher is certainly a concept that applies to the piano lesson and its content for very young children.

Staccato notes suggest lighthearted images: students often imagine that they are bouncing on a trampoline, or listening to popcorn pop. They will spontaneously share an activity that is suggestive of crisp, detached, staccato notes. Run with it and enjoy!

When teaching the legato, (smooth and connected) singing tone, images of gliding on ice, floating clouds, rolling waves, inspire children to play expressively and not hammer out notes in a mechanical way. The flexible, “spongy” wrist is the great shock absorber, and it should be demonstrated as well as modeled.

To imbue a sense of a steady beat, the teacher can guide the student along with a very buoyant motion of her hands and arms, and NOT refer to a clock, or metronome. After all, the beat is a frame for the music which can bend with the breeze as phrases taper to their conclusion. It is never static and stultifying. Animated clapping exercises shared back and forth between teacher and student are always helpful.

There is a joy to teaching very young children, because imaginations can happily run wild and create a very exciting, inspiring space that both teacher and student can inhabit.

Kirsten Productions: Aviva Kirsten, video editor

Cat related:
Aiden makes another appearance in this video:

Other Related:

For Toddlers and pre-schoolers before piano study is undertaken:

American Orff-Schulwerk Association - Music and Movement Education
Music and movement teachers find in the Orff Schulwerk a total approach to fostering creativity and conveying musical knowledge and skills.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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 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.

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!!

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.

“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.

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.

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,

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.

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!!

And who could forget the Dream Piano I fought for and won, a French Provincial Baldwin Artist Grand.

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!

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

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

Concluding Bonus Chapter:

Extra: York’s World War II Musical Memoir

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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Piano Tuner, York on Mice, Rats, Moths and Cats (Video, part 2)

In this part two follow-up to York’s World War II Memoir, the seasoned piano tuner relaxes into his emblematic animated conversation, telling the world how to eradicate mice, rats, and moths from pianos. Oldsters watching better have a fresh pair of Depends, because York lets loose with some mighty over the top, funny lines.

Throw in a cat under the lid story, and you’re in for an unforgettable treat.

Finally, listen carefully to York’s concluding remarks, as he becomes philosopher and sage all in one. Live to the fullest, he says, and never stop learning! At 84, he’s gotta right to tell the rest of us how it’s done!

We close with York’s favorite song, “Waltzing Matilda” with a montage of photos rolling by. Be prepared to shed some tears. I did.


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Samick, York, Tofujie and me: On the piano-chasing trail

York called me from a client’s home in Clovis right after our great treasure-seeking adventure under the Kawai 7-foot grand piano. He’d been appraising a Samick studio upright manufactured in 1990 that was owned by Joel Van Ginkel. “I’d appraise it at about $2000,” he said, “but between you ‘n me, he’ll unload the piana’ for a lot less ‘cause he’s movin’ to L.A.”

A few months before York had given me a bum steer, sending me on a wild goose chase to a no man’s land Evangelical Church in East Fresno. My gas-guzzling van had very nearly collapsed on me after I’d found myself  on the outskirts of town driving in circles before I’d located an abysmal-sounding, console-size Everett.  Its cage-like vibrations in the middle range and mangled hammer assembly caused multiple notes to sound when any one key was depressed. York claimed this 1982 model had been manufactured in a USA based Yamaha plant which he believed gave it added prestige.

According to information contained in Larry Fine’s, The Piano Book, Buying and Selling a New or Used Piano, Fourth Edition, the Everett Company had been acquired by Yamaha in 1973, and until 1986 had manufactured a line of Everetts along side its US-made Yamaha pianos.  Fine suggested that “these verticals like the Yamaha verticals of the time were considered reasonably good but by no means outstanding.” He added that a “variety of silly, nuisance problems could easily have been solved in the factory had anybody cared enough to spend a little time on them.”

Fine’s book provided easy-to-read summaries of piano company histories, though it didn’t have a numerical catalog to date instruments, except for a special Steinway piano listing. The Pierce Piano Atlas remained the most authoritative and complete compendium of serial number listings.

As a conscientious piano finder I always researched a particular manufacturer and its history before I tested out a used piano for sale. York’s second opinion was also requested when I discovered some hammer or other issues that marred an otherwise decent sounding piano. If an instrument had a nice voice and personality, and passed a piano-related smog check, then I could comfortably recommend it. But if I’d been tipped off that a company had a history of recall and repair problems, I’d heed the red flag.

Pearl River pianos from Mainland China in their early years of production were a good example. Larry Fine substantiated their shaky beginning noting that the company name was “present in the US market several years before, but was discontinued because the quality at that time was not good enough to allow the brand to survive in the marketplace.” In fact, I had learned that many of these pianos needed repeated service and repair, and more than a modest number of US piano dealers refused to keep stocking them. 

A few reputable piano technicians posted their negative opinions on at the TECHNICIAN’S FORUM, which steered me clear of a particular Pearl River piano,  located 35 miles away in Merced. I figured my time was better spent reviewing an instrument with a higher performance profile. By the same token, if I’d known in advance that I might be reviewing a Steinway grand with Teflon bushings, I would probably pass on it.

According to D.L. Bullock, registered technician, Steinway and Sons installed these clackers in their actions in the 1970s which caused a “zoop zoop” sound or squeaking noise when the keys were in motion.” Certain notes rattled as the Teflon cylinders also rattled in their wooden box holes.” He insisted that “these parts designed in Teflon could not be bushed with felt because the hole for the Teflon was way too big.” (“Teflon Bushings in Steinway Pianos—by D. L Bullock–MMD Archives September 2005 2005.09.17).

This tuner found only one solution for the problem: Replace the piano action with a completely new one at a shop price of $4250 (using Renner hammers) This was a 2007-based estimate. Now imagine if the buyer had a teflon tip-off in advance, he could have saved himself $$$$ and lots of anguish.


The Samick piano that I’d planned to sample had already acquired my preliminary investigation. From consulting Fine’s Piano Book, I had learned that Samick, at that time, was one of the largest piano manufacturers, and that some of its instruments had been made in Indonesia and Korea. In the mid-80’s, the company hired a German designer, Klaus Fenner, to improve and redesign its scales. The manufacturer claimed that these new pianos had “Imperial German Scale Designs,” so ostensibly, pianos with the Samick name and no other, (the company had produced Kohler-Campbell, and other lines) would likely be of the European variety.

Fine insisted that Samick’s “World Piano Series, developed just a few years before and revised in 1999 represented the company’s best instruments because of their being produced in a separate facility reserved for “premium” pianos. Supposedly, better materials were being used, and processes of manufacture had improved. But even having this information, I would reserve judgment until I personally inspected the piano. Too often, I had read sterling reviews of piano and piano companies, only to discover that on site, these instruments performed way under par.

My friend’s Kohler Campbell grand was a classic example. Her “black stallion,” that replaced her diminutive singing nightingale Knight piano was a great loss to her students who fondly remembered its tonal beauty. I recall how I’d nudged York into the adjacent room that housed the grand and whispered that he needed to run his fingers over the Kohler-Campbell. It was right after he had inspected the Knight.

Tapping some of the grand piano’s notes in various registers, York lashed out at the instrument in a big booming voice.

“Now this here piana’ aint worth a dime! Who the hell bought this son of a gun? It’s real tubby right here in the bass! Not worth more than a junker!”

I  signaled York to quiet down because Caroline was within earshot. She’d be stung by his offensive remarks.

Pianos were very close to being pets, sons, or daughters for many owners so an assault on an instrument’s integrity could launch uncontrollable rage or even a deep depression. While Caroline had acquired a thick skin in the course of months as potential buyers had openly declined her Knight piano, she deserved to be spared a bout of anger directed at her precious black stallion.


I was thinking again about my adult piano student, Fujie and whether the Samick, which I’d yet to evaluate, would be a good match for her.  She’d already turned down the “Knightingale” because of its minor black key irregularities and passed up bidding on a 1920 Steinway auction piano, so why would she suddenly go for the Samick.

If the truth be known, no piano on this earth could be worse than her Suzuki digital. From my up front and personal inspection, her fancy piece of technology was thoroughly incapable of creating a note-to-note legato (A smooth and connected sound) Instead, the player would have to fight the instrument at every playing! For heaven sakes, who needed to be at war with one’s own piano or keyboard? There were enough problems in the world like hunger and global warming!

Over the course of months, Fujie had become spoiled playing my Steinway grand at lessons, and in time she began to cultivate an appreciation of finer pianos. Slowly but surely she had come to realize that her Costco-acquired Suzuki digital could not meet her needs. The transfer of what we had worked on at her lessons to its hands on application at home just didn’t register. As far as the digital piano universe was concerned, I swore by the old Casio’s PX110s and I’d talked them up to many of my students who wanted to supplement their acoustic pianos with something that had interesting tonal options. Sadly, Casio started manufacturing bigger, glitzier keyboards with an infinite number of bells and whistles, and had shortchanged the “acoustic grand piano” sound. They’d invested in computer screens and oddball sound effects, forgetting that piano students who could not afford pricey acoustic pianos, needed the best possible simulated grand piano tone along with the comparable “hammer weighted action.” I’d switched over to the Yamaha Arius as my digital instrument of choice.


I had left a few messages for the Samick seller to set up an appointment at a time convenient for Fujie and me.  A retiree, she had ample space in her life to study the cello, make pottery, and run a business of her own. In fact, she founded and operated the Tofujie Company that produced her homemade Tofu. No fresher tasting bean cake existed in all of Fresno and at $2 a square it was no small bargain!

Fujie was a prized adult piano student. She would either bubble over with delight at her lessons, or conspicuously register her frustration. “I know my thumbs are too tight when I play my scales,” she’d say. I had shown her how to practice these exercises to obtain smoothness and clarity of sound by demonstrating the “tunnels” in each octave through which the thumbs passed. They would need to swing smoothly under these without making obtrusive accents. The imagery seemed to work. Students would make “tunnel fingers,” and gently embrace a bubble in their hands when they played.

Fuji and I had planned a trip to the Fresno Philharmonic to hear cellist, Lynn Harrell, but I had a greater interest in the dream piano recently acquired by the orchestra. A search committee composed of the conductor, Theodore Kuchar; Executive Director, Don Reinhold and other administrative staff had flown to the Steinway factory in Astoria, New York where they met up with concert pianist, Derek Han. After shuffling through a selection of nine foot concert grands that were regarded as prized musical instruments by factory experts, the committee rejected all of them, and basically threw up their hands in frustration. One asked, “Do you have anything in one of the back rooms?” As it turned out, a beauty was wheeled over, that was just about completed, but not quite ready for sale. According to the maestro, it had the thunderous bass and the amazing projection that was needed in Fresno’s Saroyan Theater!

Our Central Valley city had come a long way in raising its cultural consciousness since I had arrived from the Big Apple in 1979.  My personal concert debut at Temple Beth Israel in Fresno had received the following headline: “Fresno Proves Musical Mecca for Pianist from the East!” (It was a far cry from the truth at that time)


As I thumbed through the pages of my Pierce Piano Atlas to ascertain more information about the Samick Company, I heard a pounding at my front door. It had to be my teenage piano student, “Michelle,” who was due at any moment. The knock was so loud and aggressive that I angrily shouted from the top of the staircase, where I was perched, “Okay, okay, I’ll be right there, Michelle!” Well to my surprise when I opened the door, I either perceived Michelle in drag, or York. When I gained my equilibrium, I realized that it was definitely York, bearing a bag of apricots in one hand and piece of my entertainment center in the other. He had repaired one of the wood compartments that had a missing central panel and was returning it.

“These are good apricots,” he said, cheerfully, as he made his way to the refrigerator

Just then, someone else was knocking. It had to be Michelle who was late by ten minutes. Meanwhile, York had sauntered back over to my Steinway upright to test its tuning- He tapped on the “C,” 8 notes (an octave) above the middle that sounded slightly flat when compared to the same note played on my Steinway grand. Soon I found myself playing a duet with him to test the unisons between both instruments which turned out to be a bit sour. My upright’s “C” had definitely fallen a few “cents” down in pitch probably due to recent Valley weather changes. But like a bolt out of the blue, York leaped over to my kitchen area and grabbed a meat-cutting knife, then jumped back over to my larger piano, and stuck it in the crevice between middle C and D to keep the note sustaining while he leaped back over to the second piano beside it, and tinkered with the same note. It was an Olympian feat for a man over 80 but I wondered why on earth he had wedged a knife between the keys of my precious Steinway! It could easily damage the wood.

“I do this all the time,” he said, “especially when I’m tunin’ two pianos side by side.”

I experienced a sudden surge of anxiety as I watched the teetering knife staked in my keyboard. It looked like King Arthur’s sword set in stone! What tuner in his right mind would take a sharp implement like this and wedge it between two notes of a Steinway grand to keep a note sounding?!

“Mr. York, please take the knife out of the piano!” I said, nervously. Sadly, the old man was in his own universe, sizing up the warbling C of one piano as compared to the other. “Listen up,” he said. “Can you hear what I hear?”

I didn’t answer, not wanting to argue with him.

York extracted the knife to my relief, and returned it to the kitchen area.  He felt very at home sorting his apricots on the counter and placing them in my refrigerator. But first he wanted to give me a lesson in how to properly serve them. Were we planning a party or what? I thought.

“I’ll leave you to yer piana lessons after I get that there entertainment center panel installed,” he said. “Hey, do you happen to have one of them Philips screwdrivers?”

I scoured my kitchen drawer and handed him the same tool he had used a few days before when he had visited.

Meanwhile, Michelle, my piano student, had been observing the whole spectacle with infinite patience.

“Hey, do you know Michelle, Mr. York?” I said. “She’s the daughter of the woman you tuned for several months ago. Remember I picked out that Baldwin console piano out in Hanford owned by a retired music teacher and called you from the location about lazy notes and hammers? Michelle’s mom was with me. I was helping her select a piano for her daughter.”

“Geeze, I don’t remember. Was it the piana with the mice?”

Michelle had a budding smile as I winked at her.

She couldn’t resist telling him that one of the keys on her new piano had a problem. “One of the notes won’t go completely down,” she said.

“Well, here’s your Ripley’s Believe or Not fixit man,” York replied.  “I kin fix anythin’ that needs fixin’  Did I tell you about the three, newborn mice that I pulled outa an upright in Dinuba? A few notes felt blocked like yours, and after I inspected that there piana’, I just went for my eight-inch tweezers and yanked the babies out.”

He paused for a moment.

“Geeze, I still can’t remember yer Baldwin piana,” he said.

I tried to refresh his memory. ”

“Mr. York, remember? It wasn’t an Acrosonic, but it had the Baldwin plate on it. You came out to tune and repair the piano after it was moved into Michelle’s home in northwest Fresno. I was right behind you, sitting on the living room couch watching everything you did that day, and Michelle’s mom was enjoying your stories. She was very intrigued by you.”

At that moment, I recalled how she had winked at me when York took a short break to retread one of his tangential tuning adventures. He inevitably fleshed out the 3M enemies of a piano: Mice, Moths, and Moisture.” If I hadn’t heard it ten times over, it might be entertaining.

York fumbled around with his age-worn black address book that contained an infinite list of pianos that he had tuned for the past several decades. He had shown me at least 7 or more of these tattered diaries that were replete with piano brands, serial numbers, paragraphs, and other notes, describing the condition of each and every instrument he had tuned going back to the late 40’s. He said he averaged about 500 tunings a year!

“I still can’t find Michelle’s piano,” he said.”What was the customer’s last name?

“Mr. York, do you remember the lady with the Spanish accent who offered you some Green tea? She was a pediatrician, originally from Chile. We hovered over you while you were working,” I said.

“Oh, wait a minute! Was it the Baldwin console piana with the stickin’ notes?”

“Yes, and you did such a good job fixing them, but now you really need to set up another appointment to repair the note Michelle is complaining about.” I felt like a mother leading a child by the hand.

“Oh, okay,” York replied. “Well the piana needs to be tuned every 6 months without fail. So how long has it been, now?” He asked.  He’d been struggling to find the date of his last visit, thumbing nervously through the tattered pages of his chewed-up black appointment book.

I looked over at Michelle. “When did your mom purchase your piano? Wasn’t it right near your last birthday?”

“I think it was back in November,” she replied. “But I’ve never met Mr. York before. This is the first time.”

“Oh, yes,” I said. Now I remember, your mother was going to get you a piano for your birthday and make it a big surprise. So we drove up to Hanford to see the Baldwin, and we arrived 15 minutes early because the seller had scheduled two appointments at the same time with interested buyers. What a sticky situation! We parked the car and knocked on the door, hoping we could get the first peek.

“Wow, were we lucky that day,” I continued. The seller was home earlier than expected so we got into the place, and sampled the piano for about 15 minutes. Your mom loved the piano instantly, though I had a few concerns about some sticking notes and wanted to call Mr. York about them. Just then the door bell rang and your mom responded like an alarm clock.

“Yes, we definitely want the piano,” she had said very loudly, cuing me in on it. Then she grabbed the owner’s hand and stuffed a bunch of cash into it.

“The footsteps of an approaching family were audible, so I put two and two together and realized that your mom’s timing and strategy had been perfect!”

Mr. York had been listening intently to the whole story probably wishing he’d been at the site to show off some of his piano testing skills—but he’d been booked on another job that day.

“Well, I’ll be on my way,” he said, coming out of his foggy silence. “Gotta apply Decon on a rat-infested piana.” He had told me about a particular concert grand housed in a downtown Gospel Church that harbored a rat’s nest. He said he’d put pellets inside the piano to draw out the rodents and wanted to follow up on it.

“Okay, Mr. York, I’ll remind you about setting up a time to work on Michelle’s piano. And by the way, maybe we could meet up at Van Ginkel’s to test out the Samick. So far I haven’t heard a word from from the seller.”

Within hours of Michelle’s lesson, York was back at my place, drawn to it like a magnet.

“Hey it’s the walnut man!” he exclaimed, as the door swung open. The old tuner was standing there with a bag of whole, unshelled walnuts.

“Hey, I got these from a neighbor who raises ’em on a big ranch!”

I wondered if this was the same fellow who traded 40 pounds of walnuts for one of his tunings?

York plopped himself on a folding chair in my adjacent office, after I invited him in to view the latest photos I had taken of him just two days before when we enjoyed our perky adventure under the Kawai piano.

“Here, take all these photo copies,” I said. “You can show these to your wife.” I said this coyly to get a rise out of him.

Suddenly, his cell phone rang and on cue, York motioned over to me in a whisper, “Hey, that’s my wife so don’t ya say anything.” She was apparently still out of town, visiting with relatives in Oklahoma.

He’s was chatting while I sat at my computer, a stone’s throw away, taking notes.

“Yeah, Ladine, I’m home and just turned on the furnace,” he told her. “It’s been cold here in the last few days. But right now I’m here sittin’ in my pick-up  gatherin’ up a few things. I’ll be back in the house soon.

“Did ya have a good visit with yer people?” York had told me that Ladine was part Cherokee Indian.

“Did ya guys have a pow-wow or a rain dance or somethin’ like that? Did it rain pretty good over there?” York asked.

“Oh yeah, I had a very good five days out here in Fresno, and all next week is completely booked. I been workin’ really hard,” York told his wife.

“Ya gonna be home on Tuesday? York continued.  “Well, okay, dear, I look forward to seein’ ya. In the meantime, I’ll call Randy and have him fix the commode. He’s definitely gonna have ta take it loose and redo it.

“Well, no I haven’t made the bed since ya’ left. Just kept it that way so I guess I’ll have ta change the sheets when ya come back.”

He never mentioned me, or our recent escapade under the Kawai piano.

“Oh, well, yeah, I just ate at McDonald’s so I’m not hungry, but most of the time, I been drinkin’ water and eatin’ nuts.” (He obviously wanted her to feel sorry for him)

It seemed like he really needed his wife to be around to make some decent meals for him.

“Well, okay, dear, ya have a nice few days over there, and I’ll see ya soon,” the old man said.

I could tell that these two people had a very warm relationship and that York was indeed a very happily married man.

“Guess, I should be goin’,” he said. “It’s gittin’ dark and I gotta hit the road.”

The following  week I’d finally gotten to the Clovis boonies to try out the Samick piano that York had raved about. To cut a long-winded story short, it was case of bad workmanship—the hammers, strings and soundboard collectively elicited a stream of lackluster pebble sounds when I depressed the keys. From my perspective, the manufacturer had produced a robotic, stenciled wooden box lacking a voice. Where Pinocchio experienced his transformation from wooden puppet to person, this Samick 1990, had no chance to ever become a real piano.

I had registered my negative feelings about the Samick after York had driven me to the location getting both of us lost in the process. Refusing to follow the Map Quest directions I had printed out for him, he took an insane route of his own choosing that landed the two of us in a stretch of strawberry fields. “Geeze, I don’t know how it happened!” he said. “But I’m goin’ to git us straightened out before night falls.” 

He had insisted during our last telephone conversation that Joel Van Ginkel, who was selling the Samick, would produce a piano worthy of my time. “It’s a gem of a piana,” he had said, “and the man is anxious to sell ‘cause he’s movin…heck of a nice guy, that Van Ginkel fella.”  Fujie was supposed to have met us at the place to check out the instrument, but she was too tired to make the trek. As it turned out, the abysmal-sounding console was not worth her time.

York’s folksy referrals had often landed me in homes and churches located in the Fresno and Clovis periphery that contained disastrous, ill-maintained pianos. Some had farm-like sounds emanating from them, and others had elicited high-pitched friction noises and whistles. The action buzzes would drive me absolutely mad!

“I fixed a few squeaky pedals in my time,” York had said.

I always anticipated his earth-shaking pronouncement that “the biggest enemies of a piano were moisture, mice, and moths.” It was at the core of his daily conversation and inevitably produced a colorful adventure.

“Hey, did I ever tell ya about the time I found cat food in a spinet piana?” he said, as we were humming along the open road in his pick-up.

This was an account he had never shared with me.

“Well, two farmer brothers in Hanford was complainin’ that their keys wouldn’t go down, so I drove out to the country to investigate.

“When I got there, I felt somethin’ under the keys, so I removed the key slip. And right then and there I sees cat food from stem to stern—under all 88 keys.”

“Wait a minute, Mr. York. Are you telling me that you found wet cat food inside the piano?”

“Nah, I mean the stuff, dry as a bone, that was under them keys–the pellets them cats eats.”

“So how on earth did a cat get into the piano in the first place?” I asked.

“Well, listen up, ‘cause I haven’t told ya the whole thing yet. Now them farmer boys has 20 cats outside on their property and they’s got cat food everywhere. But it wasn’t no cats that put the food in the key bed; it was a bunch ‘a mice that carried the pellets into the piano.”

“Mice!??  How on earth did the dry food pellets get so high up into the key bed?”

“You aint listenin’ to what I said. Them there mice traveled from the pedal area up into the keyboard, urinating along the way.”

“Are you serious, Mr. York?”

This had to be the most far-fetched story I had heard from him to date.

“Yup, them mice carried their pellets from outside the piana’ –climbed up the first bass string and then jumped under the keys.”

“So why on earth would these critters have deposited the pellets in the key bed in the first place?” I asked.

”Cause mice needs a place to store their food for a rainy day,” he replied. “And they’s got a family to feed.”

“Well how did you handle the whole messy situation?”

“I done git the farmers help. They shoveled out the pellets—two or three pounds, two inches deep– the whole width up and down the 88 keys and it took all about three hours to clean it up!”

“What about the urine, Mr. York?”

“They’s wiped it off alright, but them mice has no morals. They dun urinated the whole way up, and made them strings turn black and spotted.”

“Oh my gosh, what a story! Did you tell the farmers how to get rid of the mice?”

“Well, I dun told ‘em to use Decon and draw them outa the spinet. But they thought about it and decided not to folla through ‘cause they was afraid one of their cats would eat a mouse and drop dead from the coumidin.”

“Were you ever able to tune the spinet after they shoveled out the cat food?”

“Oh yeah, fer sure…I dun tuned it and got it up to good pitch. Seems the urine on the strings didn’t make no difference.”

This was the most eccentric adventure that had ever dribbled from York’s mouth. There had been nothing to match it during the time I’d known the man.

The final words on the Samick

While I had ruled out the Samick for Fujie after our faltering adventure, York insisted the piano held up in the world of new and used “pianas.” “Well, he said, if this one won’t work fer yer friend, they’ll be others down the line that just might be the dream she’s waitin’ fer.”

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A High Stakes Piano Finding Adventure, or was it a Sopranos TV episode?

A woman named “Sharon Cooper,” phoned me one Saturday morning about my helping her select a console size piano in a modest price range. She had heard about my piano finding activity from a friend.

Inquisitive and intelligent, with an animated personality, she had an ardent curiosity about the whole process of finding a suitable instrument and what it entailed.

A quick Google search of her name following our conversation, linked me to an abstract of her eclectic presentation at California State University Fresno: “A Post-Patriarchal Renaissance: An Examination of the Changing Status of Women in Russia.”

From reading the project overview, I felt an immediate connection with this woman, whose writing had revealed a feminist dimension that I had associated with my own travels through life.  Just a few years before, I had sparked a successful effort to organize Fresno substitute teachers who had been earning $65  per day for nearly ten years despite the requirement of a college degree. It wasn’t that my investment of energy was a specifically feminist undertaking, but the gusto associated with making something unforeseen happen, by defying the odds, attached a certain energy that some might conventionally equate with the male gender

My follow-up e-mail to Sharon bubbled with excitement over what we seemed to have in common. In a reply, she gave a more realistic  account of her life, that clarified aspects that I would not have otherwise known about.

“Hi Shirley,

“My goodness, that project you had referred to, was undertaken many years ago.  As an undergraduate at CSU Fresno, I did write a paper on feminist Russian politics, which was published in an academic journal. I also had the opportunity to ‘present’ before a scholarly audience at CAL Berkeley and at the Western Social Science Association’s annual conference. My fifteen minutes of fame!  At the time I had intended to pursue a Ph. d in East European Politics.

“Since then my life has taken a more sensible, albeit mundane, turn.  I completed my Master’s Degree in Public Administration at CSUFresno and I now work as a Personnel Administrator at the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.  While the Air District is an environmental agency, I wouldn’t expect that my name would be connected with any environmental links, since I work on the administrative side of things (HR)……”

Surely her connection to the administrative side of air pollution control had eluded me, but now knowing that she was involved in a public interest pursuit that benefited those trapped in our oxygen deprived San Joaquin Valley made her an instant comrade. (no pun intended)

As I read more of Sharon’s note, I learned that she commuted to Fresno from her home in Lemoore, a farming town about 35 miles away, well known for its Air Force Base. As a coincidence, I had recently located a lovely Wurlitzer console piano for a Lemoore Tires executive who paid all of $550 for it and obtained York’s assistance, extricating the instrument from a scalding, hot garage.

Still another Wurlitzer console had crossed my path that came with a white enameled exterior that would fit nicely in a color coordinated bathroom. Yet this oddity was the centerpiece of a conservatively furnished living room in dark walnut. Aside from its strange finish and lack of color coordination, it had the name “Hohner” welded into its cast iron plate. Even York was perplexed by the information I had relayed.  “Geeze, it sounds like that there piana ain’t no Wurlitzer at all ‘cause the Hohner Company made harmonicas.”

I remembered my Hohner mouth organ and how I treasured it. The instrument happened to be dropped off by my aunt one Christmas day, and no matter what I played, it always sounded right. York claimed that he tooted one himself with considerable skill. The story goes that he also played the cornet and received an army commission for having led a band or two. He had mentioned having received a quick promotion when he heeded the request of a Colonel to box a Yamaha grand that was housed in a burnt down factory in Japan during World War II. For all intents and purposes, the officer was pilfering a piano with York’s assistance.

The Wurlitzer

My association with the name “Wurlitzer” dated to my years growing up in New York City.  As a a violin student, simultaneouly pursuing  piano studies, I would frequent a mid-town Manhattan store, named “Wurlitzer’s” that had Strads and Amatis, and other priceless treasures hanging from racks in neat rows. Violinists, Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zuckerman would sometimes cruise through the space trying out any one of the exotic fiddles that suited them and their displays of virtuosity would attract wide attention among customers looking for the best wound strings for their more modestly valued violins.

Otherwise, Wurlitzer and its association to pianos only grew in familiarity as I traveled the nooks and crannies of Fresno and beyond hunting down prospects for my students or anyone else seriously in the market for a used piano.

In doing my required research on the Wurlitzer piano, I had first consulted the Bluebookof and printed out the following paragraphs:

“Rudolf Wurlitzer set up a manufacturing plant in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1861. Four years later he opened a retail shop and expanded the distribution business across the US.

“In 1880 Franz Rudolf Wurlitzer started to make pianos, and the company grew and became particularly well known for military and mechanical instruments….

“In 1935, Wurlitzer introduced the tradition-breaking spinette piano, proving that a piano only thirty-nine inches high could replace the bulky instruments traditionally produced. Upon the design of this piano is based all modern piano production. Through science, research, and ingenuity, Wurlitzer has developed such exclusive features as Tonecrafted Hammers, Pentagonal Sound Board, Augmented Sound Board, and many others to provide a greater volume of rich, resonant tone. A unique achievement in finishes is “Wurl-on,” highly resistant to heat, cold, dryness, and moisture as well as mars, scratches, and abrasions an attractive as well as durable and long-lasting finish. The complete line of Wurlitzer pianos offers a wide range of spinette, console, and studio-type designs, finished in a variety of fine woods, hand-rubbed to satin smoothness, and priced to suit any budget. Noted for their perfection of performance and beauty of appearance, Wurlitzer pianos give enduring satisfaction and are a handsome addition to any setting…”


The odd appearing white Wurlitzer that stood before me in a Woodward Park area home was in my opinion, overpriced at $2,000, but it had enough of a voice to justify about half the amount. Fresno prices were always going to be lower than comparable piano sales in big cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco. A seller had to be realistic and practical about attaching a price tag to one of the lesser known pianos in the Central Valley or come to terms with not parting with what they often regarded as the world’s most sought after treasure.

With a good tuning and voicing, this particular Wurlitzer might have been a worthy addition to a home, though the seller refused to kick in the necessary dollars to tune it.

Among private party sellers of used pianos, this was the universal chant: “The piano’s been hardly played so why should I tune it!” Or, “the buyer’s gonna tune it anyway so why should I assume the cost.”

In his well respected Piano Book, Larry Fine emphasized that tuning a piano was the best measure taken to advance its sale. “By having the piano tuned and minor repairs made before selling it, the seller will eliminate any problems that would distract or confuse a prospective buyer… He concluded that “piano owners who tune and repair their pianos sell them much faster and at a higher price than those who don’t, easily recovering their expenses several-fold.” (P. 203, “Selling Your Piano” from The Piano Book, Buying and Owning a New or Used Piano)

While the out of tune, white Wurlitzer might not have been the best option for Sharon, I decided it was something to pass by her as I automatically clicked, email, “send.”

She replied within a few days.

“Please forgive my delay in responding– we just returned from an out of town trip, but to be honest, this Wurlitzer doesn’t sound like a piano that I would be interested in pursuing. While the look of it isn’t my first concern, I can’t imagine having a white enamel piano, unless you tell me it’s an under-priced Steinway. Surely the right piano is out there, though I’m sure it may take a little time to find it. Meanwhile, I’m excited about the prospect of having my very own piano, so I’m willing to wait for the right one.”

I couldn’t help but see a tie in to the dating game. How often we’d heard men and women say that the right someone was out there, and it was just a matter of time.

With pianos, it was no different.

The little “Knightingale” was a prime example. The malaise and delay associated with its purchase were tied to countless requests for photographs, followed by a disturbing silence after these images were transmitted. Without a filigreed rack, fluted legs, or a light wood sheen, it was ostracized, sitting in its lonely corner until tapped by a buyer who finally saw beyond its rather plain exterior.


As it happened, sometime in the middle of the week after I’d spoken with Sharon Cooper, I’d spotted an amazing photo of a vintage 1939 Howard grand piano (made by the Baldwin Company) that was posted on Craig’s List. The name “Howard” carried a positive association since I’d recently located a tall 1929 vintage upright of the same manufacturer that turned out to be a proverbial ugly duckling with a redeeming tonal soul. York had appraised it at $800 and noted its lovely resonance in his written assessment.

But somehow I hadn’t made the connection when I launched my own trip to the outskirts of town to evaluate what turned out to be this very piano for Marcus Johnson, a young father of two small boys, who with his wife had been searching for the tallest, oldest upright that could be found. Unfortunately, four months had already passed and I hadn’t located anything that had a remotely decent tone.

I vividly recall the afternoon I had knocked on the door of an upscale home in Northeast Fresno, greeted by a youngish woman who led me down a narrow hallway to a dark bedroom. It contained an age worn, tall upright with a dull gray-yellow painted finish. A real eye sore!

The seller, a collector of guitars, psalteries, and some other exotic instruments, reported that the piano had been passed down through her family but had to be sold because of  her remodeling and relocation plans. Since time was of  essence, she had planned to donate it out to a women’s shelter if it didn’t sell quickly.

Based on the look of  this old vertical, I had guessed that it had a slim chance of sounding half way decent. In my experience, most uprights in the 60-70 plus age range were largely ill-maintained. They could have been placed up against radiators or exposed to cold drafts. Many of these senior instruments might have been rarely tuned. Others had been infested with moths that had eaten away at their felt. Maybe the mice and rats had gotten to this one, and chewed up the bridle straps and dampers. A great majority of these vintage verticals could have cracked soundboards from extreme moisture, and temperature changes.

Given the negatives associated with many of these aged pianos, sometimes called clunkers, I was  shocked to discover the extraordinary tone and resonance produced by this 68 year old Howard upright!

For at least an hour I was wooed by it, spinning out countless Romantic melodies that best displayed its sonority. In a hypnotic trance while playing, I forgot where I was and what brought me to this piano, but I had a faint memory of having phoned Marcus to come over to experience it as quickly as possible.

Within 30 minutes, I heard the family sauntering down a long hallway as they approached the bedroom where the piano stood. For their procession, I was playing a doleful Chopin Nocturne, the theme song of the movie, The Pianist, which had the backdrop of World War II Poland. The soulful strains drew Marcus and his wife closer to its sound source and he later confessed that “we knew instantly from the moment we entered the hallway, that this would be our piano.”

A lovely family of four, including two small boys stood there gazing upon a sallow-looking upright with redeeming tonal richness and internal beauty. Marcus lingered with his brood and experienced more of the piano’s tonal virtues. Then he ceremoniously handed the seller a check for the asking price of $200, promising to treasure and care for this piano, as well as restore its original cherry finish. He sounded like a groom taking his wedding vows.

The seller, a cancer survivor, who headed up an organization, “Songs for the Cure,” was relieved that her piano had found a worthy family to receive it. In the spirit of celebration she wrote a lovely letter to all of us the following day.

“I am so happy to the see the piano move on to individuals that will appreciate it. I, like you all value the quality and history of musical instruments. The stories that a piano could tell!

“Shirley, Thank you for your assistance with the sale. How wonderful that there are people like you who enable the right instruments to be connected to the right people.

“And thank you, Marcus for being willing to see the cosmetic potential of the piano. I can picture what it will look like once you are done with your care and efforts to restore it.”


I quickly re-focused my attention on a 1939 Howard grand piano that had a magnificent photographic presence on Craig’s List. Sharon had already stumbled upon it when combing the “Musical Instruments” section. By coincidence, our e-mails of excitement about this piano had crossed paths.

The grand was listed for $1,495, offered by “the piano lady of Oakhurst,” a seemingly eccentric woman who had moved the piano to Fresno from its prior home in the mountains.

Its description revealed original ivory keys and a lovely mahogany finish. I conjectured that its tone would should at least approximate that of the Howard upright, the one which had recently found a good home.

Sometimes I would imagine myself taking possession of a finer instrument like this newly advertised grand, against my own free will, though I was absolutely unable to afford any more pianos. My living room had barely accommodated a Steinway grand and upright, as well as two Casio keyboards so it was beginning to look like a piano showroom. In truth, Sharon deserved to own this Howard grand piano, that is, if it lived up to its sterling reputation.

Sharon e-mailed me the day before I had planned to  check out the grand:

“Wow, I would most certainly consider this piano if it turns out to be something that you would recommend. It looks so beautiful from the photos.”

Another communication arrived a few hours later.

“I just spoke with my husband (He had brought the Craig’s List posting to my attention) and he suggested that I let you know that we’re ready to make an offer on this instrument right away, if you just give us the ‘go ahead.’ ”

This was the kind of premature excitement that could crescendo to a fever pitched pursuit of the wrong instrument.  Rebecca McGregor’s ordeal  was a case in point . She’d purchased her Proksch, 1905 grand over the Internet in the heat of passion, without ever having stroked its keys. The consequences were tragic.

Now Sharon was feeding an adrenaline surge, that could backfire if the piano didn’t pan out as expected. She might suddenly fall headlong into a pit of depression like so many eager beaver piano hunters who had preceded her.

The High Stakes Adventure

Sharon trusted me enough through our many telephone conversations to have me separately evaluate the Howard grand without her. She hadn’t been able to take a day off to make a jaunt up to the piano’s location , so we both decided to meet over her lunch hour at the parking lot of Fresno Ag Hardware, a stone’s throw from her Air Pollution District Office. There, she would deposit $1800 in cash into my purse, which included a few hundred extra dollars in case another buyer seriously vied for the piano. She felt it would give me some wiggle room in negotiations with the seller.


The parking lot was vast. Not ever having met Sharon in person, except through our brief communications by telephone and e-mail, I would not have had an easy time locating her among strangers traversing a bustling commercial area in a dubious part of town.

“Look for a tall, mid forties, red head,” she had said.

“I’m short, brown haired, and drive a beat up, blue Caravan,” I had replied.

The scene at the Ag Hardware parking lot was straight out of a Sopranos TV episode. Opening scene: I tentatively edged my van forward, looking for a tall woman with red hair. At the same moment, she was straining to find a diminutive, brunette in the din of the afternoon. Why on earth didn’t I tell her that I’d be carrying a turquoise colored zippered bag with the letter “K” on it  that would draw her attention!

I put the breaks on, and  stepped out of my van, judiciously eyeing my surroundings, and headed for the store entrance that provided some needed shade. It was at least 105 degrees!

I figured that Sharon could spot me more readily if I was standing under the store’s awning at the front of the lot.

Holding the conspicuous soft turquoise purse in my hands, I looked like a potential drug dealer making a drop. Now I was worried that a patrolman might pull up and question me because I was was beginning to play out a part where I appeared and felt  guilty standing there holding the bag. Having this real concern, I walked over to the middle of the parking lot, jiggling my car keys in my left hand so passersby including store security, would believe I was  heading over to my parked car. I glanced frequently behind me, to check if I was being shadowed by a thug who’d grab the money he thought was in the purse and run, or by a cop who’d apprehend me for suspicious activity. At that very instant, in the nick of time, a tall, attractive red head approached me with a wad of cash and deposited it silently into my purse. Mission accomplished!! I looked over my shoulder for one last time.

We both knew instinctively, that we had no time to chat because if we lingered, it might have attracted under cover cops bent on making a drug bust. This particular corner of Blackstone Avenue was a hub for cruising prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers and other shady characters. We had to get our butts out of the area as quickly as possible!


Within a few hours of our high stakes parking lot encounter, I was surprised to see Sharon’s parked car in front of the house where the piano was being sold. She had apparently received last minute permission from her boss to leave work early for personal business. What a great turn of events, I thought, as I handed  back the $1800 in cash to its rightful owner—You might say, it was reverse cash drop in an upscale part of town.

We promptly entered a Spanish style, two-story house shortly before 1:30 p.m. finding no other cars parked in front of it. Luckily, another buyer had not materialized! Such an early bird catches the worm opportunity could well have been the harbinger of good luck.

The eccentric Piano Lady of Oakhurst, however, was nowhere to be seen. Instead her grandson, appearing to be in his 20s represented her and greeted us politely. The piano, now displayed in living color,  the featured attraction of a large room with a vaulted ceiling, did not look as appealing as it had on Craig’s List. It was smaller in dimension with a lackluster finish. Someone had to have photo shopped it.

As I ran my fingers over its keys, there was no resonance or personality springing from its core. In fact I had discovered numerous notes that when struck produced more than one tone. Upon further investigation I found some twisted, unaligned hammers that may have been the cause of the problem. Going over 88 keys with a fine tooth comb, I had readily decided that this Howard grand piano had little value as a musical instrument and looking over at  Sharon, I could feel her painful expression of agreement.

We lingered in front of the decorative two-story home and shared our mutual unhappiness.

“It’s okay,” she said. “I very much enjoyed meeting you even though I’m disappointed that the piano didn’t turn out to be what we had hoped for, but I’m not going to get discouraged. I just know the right piano is out there, but we may have to search for a while.”

I had heard this from her before. She had the patience of a saint along with good intuition. It was probably just a matter of time, before we would stumble upon the piano of her dreams.

As fate would have it, Sharon Cooper’s musical treasure turned up right in her own back yard as the song went.

She called me within a week of our heartfelt disappointment with the 1939 Howard grand to tell me that she had stumbled upon an ad for an older Wurlitzer piano that had been placed in her local newspaper.

The exact age of the piano was not clear, but its approximate 60’s vintage excited my interest. The older Wurlitzer consoles of this era were ones I had a preference for, though it was not cast in stone, that I could so easily generalize their superiority.

Sharon had promptly set up a time for both of us to see the piano that jived with both our schedules. I had preferred that that she drive me to the location because I had the usual propensity to get lost in unfamiliar territory. This problem that dated to my elementary school days when I repeatedly failed map reading exams. I didn’t know north from south, east from west, so I could possibly end up homeless on the open road. To the contrary, I knew the geography of the piano in my sleep and I’d never get lost among a maze of 24 scales in the major and minor keys. Go figure?

Sharon successfully contacted the seller whose home was located just around the corner from hers and set up an appointment for an early Saturday morning. She had agreed to drive me in the company of her husband to a two story framed abode in an old, downtown section of Lemoore that housed the piano.

“Dave,” Sharon’s husband greeted me warmly. He had a cherubic face and warm-hearted nature. On the last lap of acquiring an elementary Ed. Teaching credential, he had looked forward to a mid-life change of occupation. He had previously owned a private plane repair business but now eagerly anticipated teaching second grade. It seemed like the perfect match endeavor.

Sharon gave me a driving tour of Lemoore and its environs as we approached the old residence with the Wurlitzer. She mentioned having relocated to this farming community from the Bay some years ago and had two grown daughters from a previous marriage. Dave and Sharon were the parents of “Elizabeth” an unexpected mid-life blessing who filled their life with her effervescence.

We were approaching a lovely wood framed house with an attractive porch. The owners, a husband and wife came out to greet us. Shortly, we were led to a lovely pecan Wurlitzer that according to the Pierce Piano Atlas dated to 1968.The piano’s appearance was feminine and curvaceous, with fluted legs that gave it an antique flavor. The cabinet was very lovely and enticing.

I was hoping that if this piano played anywhere as nicely as it looked, that we’d certainly have a winner for Sharon and her family.

I didn’t hesitate to approach it and try it out.

The tone that instantly emanated from this fragile console was remarkably good. I could feel the “ping” from one register to another, and the bass was particularly defined for such a small piano standing just 42 inches from the ground. In some ways it resembled the Knight piano in its total projection though this Wurlitzer was not as bright sounding. I studied every register in detail and tapped out each note at different dynamic levels. I found a few lazy hammers that could be easily adjusted, but I wanted York to double on my opinion just to be safe.

It was a coincidence that he was just around the corner tinkering with a large grand, and agreed to take a break and scoot over to test out this diminutive piano.

The arrival of York was always a trip!

“So where’s that there, Wurlitzer?” He was already lost in this expansive house.

“Oh I sees it,” he said. A cat jumped across the room distracting him for a moment. Then it perched itself atop the Wurlitzer.

Given this cue from the prancing animal, York couldn’t resist telling one of his long-winded stories, but first he paused to introduce himself, tipping his cap in Sharon’s direction.

“Hey I gotta story ‘bout a cat that will make yer hair stand up.” We huddled around the piano waiting with bated breath to hear it. Sharon, her husband and I were all ears.

“Well I was tunin’ this big grand piana in a nice part of Fresno,” he says, “and there was a cat that liked to jump up into it and make herself comfy, an’ all that. So the owners decided one day ta’ put a little pillow inside it with some cat nip. Well before ya could say ‘Jack Robinson,’ the cat got caught under the lid of the piana because the owners dun went away to Carmel fer the weekend and forgots that they closed it up. Now the maid came out there on a Monday mornin’ and seein’ no sign of the cat, but smellin’ somethin’ funny comin’ from that there piana, she opened it up and see’d a hairless cat that looked like it had went through a thrasher! Now that there animal didn’t even have an eyebrow left but was still alive and kickin.’ So she dun seen poop and pee all over the inside of the piano, cause there’s no restrooms fer cats in there, and that there maid just didn’t know what to do. So she phoned the owners and told ‘em what happened. First thing they said is, ‘call York, he can fix anythin’!!’ Well, I gots to the place real quick and starts to do my work. I cleaned up the insides of the piana, and dun tore out all the cat hair that was twisted around the strings and hammers, and then I did watcha call damper stem and felt replacement. What a mess! It cost ‘em people at least $600 fer what the cat had did!”

Sharon and I were no longer amused by York’s prolonged story-telling because we needed him to focus entirely on the piano once and for all and not waste our precious time.

At this point the house cat that was perched on the piano had scampered off in fright to the kitchen making it easier for York to dismantle the Wurlitzer and check out its assembly.

“Oh, wow, this is a nice piana,” he said, “with a damn good looking set a’ hammers. Here, let me take my soft cloth and clean ‘em up. Well it’s been played a bit, but not much,” he said. “Still has plenty of felt on ’em. Now let me check the response on ‘em. Ah, yeah, I can see some lazy hammers in there, but it’s not a problem ‘cause I can fix anything that needs fixin’.’” How many times had I heard this same chant before!

“It’s got a nice ping to it,” I interjected, as I ran my fingers over a string of notes.

“Yes sirree, it’s gotta a nice ring to it and alls it needs is a few adjustments here and there and an ace tunin.’ “

“Hey, Mr. York,” I said, “Sharon and I need to have a private conversation about making a bid on the piano. It’s definitely time to talk business.”

We huddled in the porch area and discussed strategy. The asking price was “$750” so I advised Sharon to offer the seller, “$550” for it, not a penny more.

Sharon felt that she needed some space and a little time before she spoke to the sellers. The seller’s wife was a school teacher and the husband a pilot. They and their two children were about to relocate to Louisville, Kentucky because dad had a new job flying planes for the military. Obviously they were in a crunch to sell the piano because they couldn’t take it with them. That imminent circumstance definitely favored the buyer.

In a short time, Sharon had clinched the deal and emerged from her negotiations with a huge smile on her face!

“There’s cause for celebration,” she exclaimed. For a bargain price she had acquired her first dream piano! “I love my Wurly,” she screamed!

We all drove away from the Lemoore home feeling the ecstasy that owners of “new” pianos would appreciate. Sharon could hardly wait for her Wurly to arrive at her house and I was delighted that I had contributed to all this rejoicing!

Another piano had found a good home!