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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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Is the Acoustic Piano Culture at Risk?

I’m worried. I drove over to Fresno Piano on Ashlan this afternoon after my return from the Bay area. With an instant camera tucked in my pocket, I would prove my point that acoustic pianos were on their way out and digitals were fast taking over the marketplace. Even before I reached my destination, I received bad news. Our Music Teachers Association President shot off an email that the store had announced its imminent closing. Mark down sales were around the corner.

Despite a shell-shocking article in California Magazine that described Fresno as “a no man’s land with endless miles of strip malls,” the local piano dealership seemed to stand apart as a repository of Steinway grand pianos and high culture. It always enjoyed a loyal following of buyers and had a nice stock of pianos that included a cadre of Baldwin grands filling a large share of its 5000 sq. feet space.

In the late 1990’s the Baldwin company had made a comeback with its “R” series of artist grands and I happened to pick up one of these at a ranch in Clovis for the steal price of $4,500. (Valued on the retail market at 17 to 20K at the time)

Imagine my stepping over horse dung to get within reach of this precious French provincial style beauty.

Fresno Piano was clearly more accessible to most piano buyers, and it seemed to be growing by leaps and bounds. In fact, it acquired the Steinway dealership after Sherman Clay left Fresno, and it even added a Steinway parlor within its space that was decorated by eye-catching paintings of Rachmaninoff, Paderewski and Vladimir Horowitz.

One of these parlor housed grands had been hand-picked at the Steinway factory in Long Island by a team from Fresno Piano that also included the conductor of the Philharmonic, its Executive Director, and a concert pianist from the East Coast. The glittery event was covered coast to coast by Fresno Magazine.

The piano selected, a 9 foot Model D, was purchased for about 105K and became the Philharmonic’s official, NEW piano, replacing the old one that had been ill-maintained for most of its playing life. The lazy, sticking notes, poorly voiced registrations, and lack of overall regulation, had irritated Jeremy Menuhin, in particular, who publicly apologized for his performance of a Mozart concerto before he sat down to play. It evoked memories of Leonard Bernstein doing the same to Glenn Gould when the conductor dissociated himself from the pianist’s unorthodox performance of the Brahms Concerto in D minor back in the 1960s.

Those were the days when the PIANO reigned, and not a digital could remotely compete with the King of instruments.

Now well into the Millennium, Craig’s List featured fewer ads for acoustic pianos, and had a laundry list of clunker uprights for quick sale. The battery powered, or plug in keyboards took up the most space and were picking up steam.

My trip to Fresno Piano verified this consumer turnaround.

Greeted by the “Yamaha DGB I with Disklavier Mark iii, I thought to myself, “Was this a launching pad for another unmanned satellite?” A handsome piece of hardware with every computer generated option known to mankind stood on a raised podium giving it a sense of entitlement. I could easily sit down at this thing and have a full orchestra accompany me while I plunked out a simple right hand melody. No last wish was unfulfilled in sound space. Whatever I imagined as my ideal orchestration was at my fingertip command. Hours, days, months, years of instant musically generated gratification awaited me and millions of others with lesser performance skills and musical background.

The technology based run-down in part, was impressive: “16-note polyphonic Pedals Sustain; amp; shift: Trapwork-integrated solenoids; incremental response Data; Storage Internal Memory 1 MB x 16 flptical sensors Drive System Keys High-power, high-efficiash memory disks (16M B total); up to 9 groups and 99 program sets; built-in calendar/clock/timer File Format Standard MIDI File (format 0
, format 1)/E-SEQ Removable Media Floppy Disk 3.5 2DD (720 KB) or 2HD (1.44 MB) floppy disk Control Unit Main Display Song number plus 24-character x 2-line LCD Function Indicators LEDs Drives Floppy disk Switches Power,woofer x 2,2.5 cm (1) tweeter x 2 Connectors MIDI In/Out, AUX In/Out (R, L/Mono) x 2, To Host (serial port), Foot Controller Ensemble Tone Type Advanced Wave Memory 2 (AWM2) Polyphony 32-note max. Ensemble Parts 16 Voice Module Modes XG,…”

This piece of hardware, while impressive, was by no means as striking as the Roland that was off to the side.

A musical turbo, it definitely grabbed the lion’s share of attention when customers entered the store. Okay, so the gist of this particular piece of space technology, I mean entertainment center, I mean simulated piano… do I have it right? — was to make it easy for a user to have a nice playing experience without much challenge to his or her technical/musical skills. All good and well. Endless hours of listening and playing pleasure was of no harm. But what about the stock of acoustic pianos at the Fresno Ashlan location? I was curious about the sales report for the past year.

Hans Oviedo, sales rep, spoke candidly with me. “We sell about 50/50, but the digitals are fast moving ahead these days.” Another salesperson put another spin on it. The pricey technology was not moving, he said, and it couldn’t offset the losses associated with acoustic piano sales.

Certainly, the Steinway pianos in the parlor were fixtures for too many years. I didn’t see any sign of an overturn. In fact, I played the same M, O, and A models for month after month.

My preference was a model B that wasn’t the centerpiece of the parlor area. It stood off in a corner without much fanfare. The Philharmonic’s Steinway D, grabbed all the attention, being roped off on display between concerts.

If I hadn’t been over-saturated with digital hardware mania during my visit, there was still another enclosed area in the “piano?” store that I hadn’t yet investigated. It was a small room that housed the CVP09 with a big computer screen.

An Internet blurb produced the following. “Introducing Yamaha CVP509: Musical notation and text are clearly displayed on a large screen that not only shows the musical notation, but it can display lyrics, chords and text files made on a PC via simple operations.”

Wow! Very nifty. I soon found myself singing along and toe-tapping my away across the room to the tune of “California Dreamin’,” or something resembling that title? I had meant to jot down the name of the jazzy tidbit but I was too distracted by the dancing notes, having a blast of a time in this “video arcade”? But wait a minute? Where exactly was I?

Was this the Fresno Piano store where I used to bring students to try out real pianos over the years? This same establishment hosted the Music Teacher’s Association meetings each month, and many of our students would have the opportunity to perform onstage in the beautiful, chandelier decorated space, running their fingers over a magnificent Steinway grand.

The good news was that the space age merchandise had not yet made it to the recital hall, though on one occasion a Clavinova sat beside the grand because someone forgot to move it back to the main floor.

The Clavinovas were big sellers over at Fresno Piano, because students at the music school within the store purchased them after having had several months of group classes.

I panned around the establishment with my camera and verified that the place was permeated with digitals. Fresno Piano’s going out of business declaration was the hand-writing on the wall. The acoustic piano was at this historic moment in time dying on the vine. (Three other dealerships in the Central Valley had bitten the dust in the past two years)

To me, everything was still about the economy stupid. The creeping recession had knocked sales down in virtually all areas of the marketplace and while pianos were temporarily losing their appeal among buyers, there was still a heaven sent niche market: Buyers who had cultivated tastes in finer musical instruments would purchase pianos. And Steinways would still be sold to universities conservatories, and orchestras around the world.

Nonetheless, if real books were being replaced with Internet generated E books, it was no surprise that acoustic pianos were taking a back seat to the space age technology — at least for the time being.

One problem would still remain: price tags on the Disclavier and Roland were far too inflationary at 14 to 15K to lure interested, pie in the sky consumers.

The more low budget electronic pianos, easily transported and put on a music stand, saved space, and didn’t need tunings. Many of my students and friends had gone that route in the face of the depressed economy.

So enter Guitar Center as the next takeover store in the wake of Fresno Piano’s demise. Every man’s instrument haven, perhaps?

If you wanted to go Casio PX120 or 130, you could probably cut a deal for $425 to $450. Not bad, but these digital keyboards wouldn’t give you a big orchestra to cushion a few modest treble-based melodies. Besides they were tinning out, and had wobbly, blubbering keys–plus no notes bouncing on a computer screen to shoot down with a BB gun when you became frustrated with the sounds coming from your portable.

In summary, I can only hope that in the not too distant future, there will be a resurrection of acoustic pianos in the good company of digitals. Maybe by Easter, 2012, a miracle will happen and we can celebrate by singing the “Allelujia” Chorus from the Messiah.