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A Table Style Piano with Three Leaves–the whole story in lurid detail

Two days following my encounter with the towering no name upright, I was drawn to a Fresno Bee Classified ad, that listed an antique ”Counsel piano” for sale at “$1500 or best offer.” (First thing that popped into my head was Indian pow-wow- tribal “council?”) What on earth was a Counsel? I snatched up my Pierce Piano Atlas for “counsel.” Often regarded as the “Bible of the Piano Business,” this hefty 400 plus page volume referenced over 12,000 names of pianos with serial numbers, dates of manufacture, and a sprinkle of company history. The late Bob Pierce, a dapper gentleman, piano merchant, world traveler and collector of $30,000 in miniature pianos had compiled an Atlas of piano manufacturers in alphabetical order that became a tuner’s indispensable companion. The volume also included glittery photos of Pierce mingling with the rich and famous and posing beside his decorative instruments. One snapshot revealed a French Provincial spinet that Pierce had personally donated to Lucy and Desi Arnaz for their original TV pilot. It could be seen permanently on the set as the show became a fixture, entertaining television audiences for years!

Robert Furst was another rising star in the universe of pianophiles. His Internet “Bluebook of Pianos” had more than a compendium of serial numbers. It had expanded into a huge database that included pianoforte history and folkore. One of its valuable links offered a wealth of information about vintage uprights and their grades. As I sought to acquire the brand name identity of Alice’s old player, this is precisely where I had begun my journey.

A “piano man with almost 60 years of experience” was Furst’s declaration about himself during a phone interview. He had carried a “book in a blue folder” that was the “largest incomplete volume about pianos.” Over time it grew to more serious proportion, drawing the interest of research-seeking musicologists as well as curious-minded piano mavens and consumers. Learning that this elder statesman researcher had fielded at least “50 e-mails a day,” I asked him about the encroachment of digital keyboards that were threatening to make acoustic instruments an artifact of the past. Stubbornly, he asserted that “there would always be pianos.”

Veteran tuner, York didn’t know anything about Furst’s Online “Bluebook” but he most definitely wouldn’t be caught dead without his yearly, up to date Pierce Piano Atlas. At 84 he was not about to become hooked on the Internet. A consummate collector of salvaged ivory tails, bridle straps, knuckles, hammer butts, and bottles of moth battling cloves, he’d been known to stockpile his Pierce paperbacks since 1965 (first copyright). I’d even seen him pluck one out of a tattered black bag, proclaiming proudly, that he’d never tossed one of these editions in the trash. The same applied to his age worn tuning diaries that dated to 1948, the year he had embarked upon his great adventure as country doc to pianos of all shapes and sizes. From living, breathing musical instruments, to firewood and scrap material, he’d seen just about everything and wasn’t about to exchange his lurid on the job experiences to become a passive Internet maven of pianos.

“I seen pianas so bad, I could barely tune ‘em. They was sometimes fallin’ apart, strings and all, but I did what I had to do. Now my grand pappy gave me some a’ the best advice ever given. “Son,” he said, “ya never tell a’ customer that their piana’s ready for the trash! Ya just grab onto them pins with yer tunin’ hammer, do’s your job, collect yer money, and beat it the hell outa there as fast as ya can!”

York had racked up a record breaking 50,000 tuning related house calls during his illustrious career that included rodent and moth eradications.

“Now I been all over the map tunin,’ repairin’ and moth proofin’ at least 700 pianas a’ year since 1948 so I dun came across every type that’s out there, but off the top a’ my head I can’t remember bumpin’ into any “Counsel” piana,” he had said, when I questioned him about this particular brand.

I had a creeping feeling this newly listed “antique” oddity was going to be one of those tonal abominations that would send me scampering out the door, nauseated to the point of passing out. Pianos like these turned up all the time and their owners usually had a false sense of their value. I had encountered one such disaster during my piano finding travels to the quaint Tower District of Fresno. The piano on sale was a tall Chickering upright that was housed in a dark and dreary living room. With scrolled legs and an ornately filigreed rack, it looked like a nice piece of furniture, but with only 4 of its 88 keys sounding, the seller couldn’t justify her $4,000 asking price. (She had been convinced that the name “Chickering,” alone, would bring in the dollars) While the company enjoyed a sterling reputation in the annals of American piano building, its current, unplayable condition made its antique value die on the vine. In addition, it had very sharp ivory key edges that could easily draw blood from an eager player making it a further liability. Manufactured in 1885, according to its serial number, it might have been of interest to the Smithsonian or Great American Instrument collection in South Dakota. Otherwise it should probably be scrapped!

I had encountered still another Chickering advertised for sale on the Internet that turned out to be more ornate than the vertical I had reviewed in the Tower. Dated to 1873, it was a “square model grand,” a predecessor of the more modern horizontal piano, and was housed in an upscale home in north Fresno.

I must admit that it had the most amazing carved legs and filigreed rack I had ever seen, so as a piece of furniture it was breathtaking, but it was a dead in its tracks sound disaster! Not two consecutive notes successfully played and most were “blanks.” According to owner, Camber Dupree, the item was essentially an “impulse buy.” She had plucked it out of Chesterfield’s, an antique seller located on Blackstone Avenue in Fresno, to the tune of $5,000! And it was no surprise to me that the buyer hadn’t once run her fingers over its keyboard before she purchased it! This was a hallmark habit among antique piano buyers. They were primarily fixated with cosmetics and not focused on a piano’s musical value. But they ultimately learned a hard and fast lesson. To turn around and sell the treasure, obtaining the owner’s assessed value would be an insurmountable challenge. Terry Barrett, technician, said it well when he was inspecting Alice’s no-name upright. “An antique piano is just a different animal.”

The morning I’d stumbled upon Camber Dupree’s Chickering listing, I remembered having seen a clone of it on a Smithsonian postcard sent to me by York. I had received it only weeks after we had met at the American Cancer Discovery thrift store. At the time he had offered to scour the inside of my Steinway M, 1917 grand with his old, reliable Filter Queen canister vacuum. He also wanted to sprinkle the key bed with clove powder to ward off moths but I decisively declined. Cedar chips placed in a bag on the cast iron plate were in my mind sufficient. And I definitely didn’t want to risk having my action clogged up with any powdery substances. It was no different when the late Bob Goolsby, piano tuner, wanted to dowse my action with talcum powder.

As for the Chickering, I had already seen a square grand that was comparable in looks to the one housed in the Smithsonian and since I had recalled that the Frederick collection in Ashburnham, Massachusetts housed a vintage Chickering square model, I forwarded “Patricia” a photo of the one for sale in Fresno. As I had hoped, she quickly replied with excitement:

“Shades of my childhood! This is almost a twin to the Chickering square
grand piano my parents had when I was a child; It was the instrument upon which I had learned to
play. In fact this one looks a little earlier than ours, because the one we owned didn’t have the scalloped molding along the lower edge of the case. Otherwise, however, it looks just the same. These pianos have a very light action,
and a sweet, clear, pleasant tone.

“We just bought a Chickering concert grand of 1862, rather by accident!
It had been in the parish house of an old church in Boston, perhaps
since it was new. Two-and-a-half years ago, my husband was asked to
give the church an appraisal of the piano; what its condition was, and
what work, if any, it might need to restore it to good playing order.

“At the end of this past April we received a call from the church saying
the parish house had been sold, and everything, including the piano,
must be out of the house by the following week! We gave them the names
of a couple of other people we thought might be interested, but neither
one wanted it. The church people called us back, asking us please to
take the piano! So for $250 to the church, plus $750 to truck it out
here from Boston, we added the Chickering to our collection.

“And now my husband has restrung the Chickering with the softer wire it needed,
since its modern replacement strings had a whiny, dirty tone. He has
also been voicing the hammers, making the piano sound quite

“All the best, Pat”

After having seen and played the Chickering housed in North Fresno I wrote to the following to Patricia:

“I wish my note to you about the Fresno housed Chickering could be as positive and uplifting as your last communication. But the 1874 antique square grand was a tonal disaster! Nothing about it worked, though it stood regal and awe-inspiring in a living room full of wannabe ‘antiques’. The only other item of interest was a brass tripod surveyor that dated to the construction of the Empire State building.

“The seller was asking $4,000 for the piano but there was no way she was going to get anywhere near it. I really couldn’t help her as I have never recommended a piano to a student or any other individual that did not have a resonant tone and smooth working action. (Do you think the Smithsonian or that museum in South Dakota that houses old instruments might want it?)

“I think the seller will sadly tear the piano apart and salvage its legs and other. She is thinking about making some kind of wall exhibit out of it. Now I’m sure that at one time this Chickering may have sung like a “nightingale” as yours did. But not so in the here and now. Apparently it was an ‘impulse’ buy as the owner admitted, like so many others I’ve heard about in my travels. Very rarely do antique-seekers judge a piano on its musical merit, as you would know. I guess the J. Fritz Sohn Viennese beauty was an exception. The buyer just turned around and donated this magnificent instrument to the American Cancer Society thrift store. Wish I had room at the time to acquire it. But I had to let it go….Please stay in touch.”

Having tirelessly reviewed many loser “antique” instruments like the old Chickering square grand, I was not too optimistic about what I’d discover during a routine inspection of an “antique Counsel” piano as it was named in the Fresno Bee online classifieds.

A preliminary telephone call to the seller produced the following information about it: The piano had no real name other than it was a “Counsel,” and the date of manufacture was a big question mark. This was par for the course, as most sellers listed their pianos with as little information as possible, mostly out of ignorance. They had no market-based grounding in piano parlance, even though so many of them claimed to be Ebay addicts who scoured the web for comparable pianos in order to set a believable asking price. But the “Counsel” identity quickly evaporated when I thought longer on it, and then it hit me like a ton of bricks!

“I think you may have meant that your piano is a console,” I said with certainty to the seller. “Does your instrument stand about 40 or so inches from the ground?” I asked. He left the phone momentarily to measure it.

Consoles were known to be bit larger than spinets. They stood 40 to 43 or so inches in height if measured from the base to the top. “Spinet” size pianos could measure anywhere from 36 to 39 inches and because of their diminutive size would probably have a smaller tonal projection because of their shorter strings and soundboard. Both consoles and spinets were considered to be “vertical pianos” and sometimes the terms were used interchangeably but not accurately.

Sellers often confused their spinets with consoles or the reverse and never got it right, so buyers stumbled upon these pianos with an associated ignorance that they might have considered blissful.

The seller, “Phil,” concurred that his piano was a “console,” because he thought it measured about 41 inches up from the ground.

“Can you go over to your piano, perhaps, and look at the fall board for me and check the company name.”

He answered, unenthusiastically. “Oh okay, I’ll just go and get a flashlight.” After some audible shuffling, he returned with a compelling reply.

“It says A-E-O-L-I-A-N,” as he spelled out the individual letters, stumbling over a few.” I think that’s what I see,” he mumbled.

It was fascinating information! The Aeolian Company was very reputable during the first part of the Twentieth century and had overseen the manufacture of world renowned pianos such as Mason Hamlin, Knabe, Chickering, and Weber. With its factory located in East Rochester, New York, it upheld very high standards of craftsmanship. It also owned a sterling reputation for making player pianos and pianolas, partnering with Steinway & Sons in the installation of a “duo art” player mechanism in some of its grand models.

In later years Aeolian acquired more piano companies that were not as noteworthy as the originals, and manufactured what were called “stencil” pianos that had a decal name of one brand or another on their fall board, but were basically massed produced. Eventually the Aeolian company was taken over by a Steinway executive named Perez and its was factory moved to Tennessee in the 1970’s when quality production ceased. It wasn’t long before the company disappeared losing its former stellar reputation.
A prospective piano buyer plagued by confusion in the morass of new and used pianos had to be made aware that reputable companies were often bought out by others without a guarantee of fine workmanship associated with the original. This was true when Young Chang, a Korean manufacturer bought out Weber and Knabe that were formerly under Aeolian.

The name “AEOLIAN” intrigued me, and not having yet ascertained the serial number, I couldn’t get excited about it.

“Why don’t you give me your address,” I said to the seller. “Are you’re gonna be home this morning?” I asked.

The seller assured me that the family would be home all day “tidying up the place,” so he told me to come by anytime I wished.

I replied that I’d like to get a jump on it, and could run right over. I carefully jotted down his directions as he recited them: “Now you come down the frontage road on Herndon and Fruit, and then make a left, then a right onto Delno, and another on Boston. Just go into the driveway and you’ll run into my condo on the right.”

I took rapid notes, probably leaving out some important travel details, but figured it was so close by that I could pretty much wing it.

I set out at about 11:00 a.m. expecting to arrive in about 10 minutes, but I ran into an unforgettable delay that will resonate for years to come.

With all my rushing around, finding pianos, teaching, trying to complete my sixth CD, my mind wandered, and I did not have the presence of mind to fasten my seat belt. Maybe I was just lazy and didn’t think too seriously about it, which of course was no excuse for my wanton neglect of safety issues.

In any case, I popped into my car, seat belt-less and headed toward the Fig Garden Village Shopping Center to pick up an instant camera to take photos of the Aeolian. Almost immediately I had become aware of a patrol car shadowing me into the parking lot. It was a Sunday morning, the day before Memorial Day, and there was hardly any traffic on the road, so there was no question that this singular vehicle was tailing me for at least a block. And when I heard a weird siren-like toot come out of it, I was panic stricken! What the heck had I done wrong? I knew that I’d followed the proper arrow down one of the lanes, though it was sometimes hard to see which way the arrow was pointing until it was too late.

I tried to ignore the high-pitched blare emanating from the patrol car, but then something told me to turn my head around and see if this cop car was apprehending me and no one else! Oh my gosh, he was waving me over to a parking spot a few hundred feet away! I could feel my heart pounding!

In no time the officer was leering into my untidy-looking car, telling me that I was being cited for not having secured my seat belt. I was sure he would add more charges against me for having a filthy car interior. There were papers, and Subway sandwich wrappers scattered everywhere! I couldn’t readily find my car registration that was buried somewhere in the glove compartment sandwiched among car insurance forms going back 5 or more years. Fortunately, the officer did not seem too concerned about the car registration because he had already acquired my driver’s license and other information.

“Please get out of your car,” he said in an austere voice.

I was feeling so nervous that I had parked my car in a crooked way, and when I opened the door to get out, it tapped ever so gently on the chrome of the neighboring car.

Suddenly two women walking arm and arm approached a Honda Accord parked next to mine, and one who appeared to be the daughter of her elderly mother, scowled at me. Ironically, I wanted the sympathy of perfect strangers, so I had said to them, “Would you believe, I was just hit with a ticket for not wearing my seat belt!”

“Hey lady,” the middle aged woman replied, “you just smacked your car door against mine and left a big dent!”

I was mortified! What had I done now? This was definitely not my lucky day!

“What are you talking about?” I said sheepishly as I feared I was guilty of more crimes–not just failing to fasten my seat belt. What an unlucky turn of events!

“Well just take a look and see,” the younger woman replied.

I bent down as instructed, and squinted my eyes, searching for the dent. But as hard as I looked I couldn’t find evidence of any damage to the vehicle.

Meanwhile the officer sauntered over, in the midst of writing up my citation, and looked methodically at the whole situation offering a suggestion.

“Why don’t you gently open your car door, Miss, and see the contact point it makes.”

I did as he said in the presence of the two apparently related women who kept backing each other up about what I had done to their car.

The cop was watching intently as my door barely touched the horizontal chrome band that showed absolutely no marks on it. But way above the chrome to the upper left, near the car window, there was a scrape, and some peeling paint finish. It wasn’t remotely near the contact point of my car door.

By this time the law enforcement officer brought home the truth loud and clear.

“Now there’s no way on earth this woman had anything to do with that scratch on your car. It’s definitely an old injury!”

To my amazement, one of my accusers persisted. “Well my mother saw it, and I saw it, too. We were moving when the door slammed on it.”

The cop came in for the killing. “Now you don’t tell me you were driving your car when this lady was pulling over. You were coming out of that clothing store, and your car was parked there the whole time!”

The whole situation was incredible! This one woman was telling a sharp cookie law enforcer that his eyes had deceived him and that he had the memory of a rhinoceros!

He didn’t put up with their crap! “Now listen up,” he said sternly. “If you want to haul this lady into court, she’s going to get my officer number on her citation so she can contact me to testify.”

I was relieved that something was going right for me and that I had the backing of the officer. What little luck I encountered on this abysmal Sunday before Memorial Day had to be savored.

Meanwhile the two scamming women hopped back into their car as the younger one mumbled, “well, we just don’t want to deal with this bitch anyway. Not worth our time or energy!”

I lingered until the officer completed his paperwork. He made sure to tell me that this wasn’t a “moving violation” so I shouldn’t worry about having my insurance rates jacked up or having to go to Traffic School. I briefly mentioned that what the ladies were trying to perpetrate was a Civil Code violation that amounted to “false reporting of a crime.” But he replied that until and when they filed charges against me, that a so-called “misdemeanor charge” could not be pursued against them.

I breathed a sigh of relief that I had escaped punishment for something I had not done to the neighboring car and I thanked the patrol man for coming to my defense, but I also had an increased awareness that I should always affix my seat belt each and every time I entered my car.

It was over 90 minutes since I had left my house to head out to see the Aeolian. To add insult to injury, I got lost on my way to the location, took a wrong turn and ended up in an unfamiliar neighborhood. I had almost given up in my attempt to see the piano, because it was growing hotter by the minute, with temperatures approaching 105 degrees. Without an operative air conditioning system, I was uncomfortably drenched in sweat.

I schlepped home at a snail’s pace, checking to see if any cop cars were remotely in the area, and called the seller to explain my delay

He completely understood my whole situation and told me head over to his place any time during the rest of the day.

I took a much needed lunch break, showered and hopped into my car. But this time I took special care to harness my seat belt. With my camera and tape recorder stacked upon each other, I was ready for action.

When I reached the house that was located in a very nice northwest alcove, I found myself inside its living room, staring at one of the oddest but most intriguing pianos I had ever seen.

It looked like a fancy rectangular shaped antique table without a visible keyboard. It was sitting closed, but looking quite regal. In dark, polished walnut, with a trim of metal engraving, it was a beautiful sight to behold, and its legs were very ornate and attractive. The instrument sat beneath an awesome Renaissance painting that heightened the mood and effect. Totally drawn into the atmosphere created by the piano’s design and its ambiance, I approached it to study its structure and embellishment more personally. The owner, “Phil Kim,” shadowed me and pointed out that the cover to the piano was divided into three leaves, and he carefully unfolded them back to expose the full keyboard. It was quite an experience! To see a piano that opened up like a table in sections was so foreign to what I had encountered in all my piano finding travels. All I could say was, “very, very interesting,” as I was holding off judgment until I actually stroked the keys and detailed the action.

Being squarely in the face of the opened piano, I noted the oval “Aeolian” insignia on the fall board that contained the letters Phil had accurately recited to me on the phone. Thinking back on his original Bee listing of an “antique Counsel” piano, I chuckled to myself about it, but decided not to share this amusement with the seller. Instead, I took out my stringy tape measure to see if the instrument was actually “console” size. To my surprise it measured only 35 inches up from its base making it definitely a “spinet.” It’s more diminutive size led me to believe that the piano might produce a dwarfed tone because the strings and soundboard length were inches less than that of a console though on occasion I had encountered some spinets like the “Acrosonic” (made by Baldwin) and Wurlitzer that had a decent “ping” and considerable projection. But I was not holding my breath about this miniaturized Aeolian that had suddenly come into my life.

My next area of curiosity was the serial number. Since I had my Pierce Piano Atlas with me I knew I should able to readily reference the year of manufacture. Finding the numerical information was a piece of cake in this instance—a lot easier than the experience I had with the auctioned Steinway where I had to crawl under the piano with York’s telephoned instructions.

The Aeolian numerics were nicely located on the cast iron plate: “64311” corresponded to “1920” according to the Atlas listing. In the process of combing the plate, I also clearly observed a bronze colored, engraved “AA” emblem This referred to the “Aeolian American Company,” since the “American Piano Company had merged with the Aeolian Piano Company to form the Aeolian American Corporation in 1932. (Pierce Atlas)

Phil stood in the kitchen watching me intently as I detailed the piano. He was fighting off the flu and coughed audibly. He was tall and sinewy with an Asian background. I’d guess that he was in his late forties. With my Sony tape recorder running, I intended to ask him few questions, explaining that I was writing a book called Dream Piano, and was gathering stories on my piano finding trail. He nodded in approval saying it sounded like a “terrific idea.”

“So when did you purchase this exotic looking piano?” I asked him.

“Well, actually my mother bought it as a gift for my son about 7 years ago and I really don’t know where she found it.”

“Was she the original owner?” I inquired.
“Gee, I’m not really sure and I never asked.”
“So where did she obtain the Aeolian? Was it here in Fresno?”
“Probably not,” he answered. “She lives right nearby in Clovis but I doubt she got it there,” he answered.

“It’s interesting that your piano is over 80 years old. Do you mind if I get in touch with your mom to find out more specific information about the piano and its owner history.”

“Oh no, that’s not possible,” he replied assertively. My wife and I can’t let her know that we’re selling it. She’s 70 years old and it would break her heart.”

Just then Phil’s wife entered the alcove by the living room where the Aeolian sat, and introduced herself as “Yolanda.” She was an attractive, Hispanic looking woman who appeared to be about 40 or so. She was petite and attractive, with a doll-like in appearance. Within a short time, I had learned that she married Phil about 10 years before and they had Kara, who was now 6 and prancing around the house, mostly tinkering with an electric keyboard that was conveniently in her room. I could hear the faint bell like sounds emanating from her keyboard in the distance.

Phil had a son from a prior marriage who lived with the couple until he departed for college.

“He used to play the piano,” Yolanda chimed in. “And he was quite talented. He played a bunch of instruments like the guitar, clarinet, and trumpet.”

“That’s fascinating,” I said. “So he does he come home on vacations and play the piano?”

“No, not very much. It’s just been laying here closed up and nobody’s been using it. My husband and I need to clear it out to make room for other things, though we hate to see it go.”

I had noticed that the two of them were thoroughly cleaning up a living room full of ornate furniture that had an interesting window display of “Betty Boop” dolls, an uncanny interest of Yolanda’s. In the course of our conversation she shared her passionate Boop collecting hobby that was manifest all over the house, even in the bathroom where “Betty Boop” memorabilia painted the walls. I took out my camera and got some snapshots with Yolanda shadowing me.

It was ironic that just two days before, “Alice,” seller of the no name upright, had described her very large Barbie doll collection. There had to be some kind of twist of fate at work here—Alice amassing “Barbies,” and Yolanda acquiring “Betty Boops” and they were both Hispanic and about the same age. But Alice had definitely registered an emotional attachment to her nameless cabinet grand size player, but Yolanda and Phil had cut the umbilical cord to their Aeolian and were ready to sell it as soon as a buyer made a decent offer. They had advertised the piano for $1500 or “best offer”

“Well, let me sit down and play this lovely looking piano” I said, wondering why I had allowed this crescendo of suspense, to build, when I could have run my fingers over the keys when its leaves were folded back. Was this unbelievable or what? A table piano with three leaves, the perfect title for my next book chapter.

From the first I laid my fingers upon it, the little piano sang like a nightingale, but more so than what I had experienced with the Knight piano that was even slightly bigger than a conservative console size piano. It had measured 44 inches, almost 9 inches higher than the Aeolian. Yet this diminutive piano had an enormous reservoir of resonance, and its tone swirled as high as the ceiling and back. It was amazing! And there were no warbling sounds, or false notes in any registers. Everything worked! Knowing all these positives I had to restrain my enthusiasm for it, because I knew immediately that I wanted this piano for myself without a thread of doubt, but for a fair and reasonable price! No one but me was going to own it. I had instantly become an over-possessive lover competing for the loved one. This rose far above the simple acquisition of a musical instrument. I had already become emotionally attached to this small beauty that was a rarity among spinet size pianos. The only down side, was that the instrument had a keyboard full of tarnished key tops. They were definitely not ivories because there were no faintly visible or decisive horizontal lines separating the front from the tail, but they appeared and felt very soft and light. While I loved the feel and consistent action, there were a few ingrained chips that might distract a buyer. But not I, in this case, because the cosmetic irregularities had absolutely no impact on the instrument’s performance, but it could still be a bargaining chip in negotiating down a selling price.

Both Yolanda and Phil seemed suddenly taken by the divine tone emanating from their Aeolian as I had played it steadily for nearly an hour, and I had recorded the whole concert for posterity on my Sony portable.

“Gee, I’ve never heard it sound so beautiful,” Phil said. “You’re making me suddenly appreciate it.”

Alice and her husband had shared the same sentiment, though they clearly had more of a gutsy attachment to their old upright before I entered their home.

“Gosh,” Yolanda blurted out,” maybe we shouldn’t be selling it after all, but you know what,” she continued, “there’s just no room for it here.”

It sounded a bit cold and calculating to my ears. Would this woman orphan a child in this way? I was growing accustomed to these scenarios where the owner of a gorgeous sounding instrument might harbor a love/hate relationship with it. “Caroline” certainly registered this with her Knight piano, as did “Jonathon Jones,” attorney, who stored the “piano of his dreams” in a musty, hot garage but kept a less impressive Baldwin in a comfortable, air conditioned living room environment. All this material was grist for a novel or a TV soap script. And I was in the center of the drama, taking an interior look at the private lives of pianos and their colorful owners who were living out a full length soap opera with their pianos. Maybe we needed a new TV addition to the soap roster—“As the Piano Plays,” or “The Last Days of our Pianos,” or “Guiding Light pianos.” I was willing to write a treatment based upon all my lurid experiences in the piano finding universe!

It was about the right time to check the hammer assembly and I did so using my little flashlight. Spectacular! All the parts were clean as a whistle and the hammer felts were hardly grooved indicating the piano had a long playing life ahead of it.

With all that I intimately knew about this piano, I was not about to let it out of my sight as I had done with the J. Fritz Sohn, the beauty I had spotted at the American Cancer Society thrift store. I would never make the same mistake twice! This was clearly my opportunity to put a deposit down on the heaven sent Aeolian to assure its perpetuity in my home.

“Let me make you an offer,” I said decisively to Phil.

I factored in the age of the piano, its condition, and the local market place for something like this and I came up with a figure of $1,100 as my “best offer” on his price-listed $1500 ad.

“I want to be fair to you and myself,” I insisted. “Anyone looking at the key tops would cringe and walk away from your piano. Most buyers are very visual,” I said.

But I admit that it has a great sound, but still I would have to invest a few hundred dollars to completely re-key it, so I think an offer of $1,100 would factor in my assumed expenses to repair it.

Phil didn’t argue with me. He thought that I’d made reasonable case for my bid, and he was willing to take my $50 deposit. I told him that I needed 3 to 5 business days to complete the transaction because the following day was Memorial Day so banks would be closed. I would be electronically wiring funds into my checking account from my IRA Profit Sharing fund. If all went well I figured I could deliver him a money order by mid-week.

Phil folded the leaves down and closed up the Aeolian piano. “We’re going to take very good care of it for you,” he said. Don’t you worry about it.”

I shuffled out the door feeling consumed with delight. It was like I had just given birth to a baby but the best part lay ahead. I eagerly anticipated bringing the new family member home. Such blessings were few and far between so I savored them as much as I could on this day before the big holiday.


My beautiful little spinet with its nightingale voice arrived on a Friday afternoon about two weeks after I first put down my deposit on it. It looked perfectly placed in a room that already housed two Steinways and two Casio keyboards. Still another digital piano from the Casio Corporation in Dover, New Jersey was on its way as a thank you from the company for my unpaid endorsements of the PX110. Executives had caught wind of my record breaking, non-commissioned sales amounting to at least a dozen at the local Guitar Center.

With my Aeolian safely contained in its new home sitting opposite my Steinway studio model, I took photos of it, and e-mailed them around to a few registered piano technicians. One, named “George Corneliussen,” who I had found on the Internet had rebuilt a 1917 Aeolian grand and seemed to know his way around the block. “Cy Shuster” another piano tech, who posted on Pianoworld.com said he was going to do some research on the piano and get back to me. “Del Fandrich,” a well known American builder of pianos, e-mailed me after he had read my long-winded correspondence and reviewed my photos.

“I doubt your piano was built in the 1920’s because the spinet was a development of the Depression era. The short scales that had been developed for the small grand were converted to make small verticals in an attempt to compete with the rapidly developing radio. Indeed some of the casework on the radios of the time was almost as large as those of the newly developed spinets. The market for the large upright had died with the recession and with changing tastes in home décor. (For more information on the development of the small grand, see the comments of Mark P. Campbell in the book, Piano Tone Building.)

“I really can’t tell you much more about your piano without seeing it and examining it personally. Regards, Del.”

YORK was briskly on the scene, to shine his old, dented lamp on the piano. Since I was understandably very overprotective of my recently acquired treasure, I wouldn’t allow him to take it apart because he was known to man handle more than a few pianos in his time. My Aeolian, like a newborn baby, was getting its first sniff of a new environment, and needed time to adjust.

“Hey, let me get my hands in that there piana, so I kin tell ya more about it,” he said. He seemed like a hungry animal searching for a delectable bone!

YORK and other technicians figured the serial number dating to 1920 was a Pierce Piano Atlas blunder but Robert Furst, of Bluebookofpianos.com was really the first person to question the dating accuracy.

Furst insisted that “spinets” were not manufactured until 1935 so he discounted any dating of my piano before this time. YORK also concurred, saying that from what he could see, the piano had an “indirect blow” action, a spinet defining characteristic. When I followed up, and consulted Wikipedia.com on this very subject, it said that the “drop action,” another term for “indirect blow,” was a mechanical process where the “keys did not engage the action directly; rather they pulled upward on rods called ‘stickers’ which in turn pulled upward on levers located below the level of the keyboard, which then engaged the action. The stickers were sufficiently long that the hammer heads (highest part of the action) ended up at roughly the same vertical level as the keyboard.” (footnote-Wikipedia)

I could hardly process mechanical information like this, and when York tried to capsulize it, I still couldn’t get a handle on it. But I was convinced from the preliminary evidence obtained, that my piano was definitely not produced in 1920.

So I was now confronted with still another mystery that rose to the proportion of what pertained to the “player piano without a name.” It seemed like needing to know a piano’s brand identity and date of origin compared to the intensity of an adopted child seeking its birth mother.

Furst had phoned me the day York was beaming his light into the hammer assembly. The Bluebook of Pianos maven said he wasn’t able to download my most recent photos, but based upon how I described the “table top look of the piano,” he conjectured that it could be a “vertigrand” or “vertichord.” His published Internet notes featured a section on the spinet and its history that I quickly referenced: (footnote source: “The Great Depression and the Asian Invasion, 1930-1959)

“The spinet piano,” Furst wrote, “was a culmination of a trend among manufacturers to make pianos smaller and cheaper. It was dainty looking compared to the old bulky upright… and because of its small size, new actions had to be devised.” He also stated that vertichords and vertigrands were offshoots of the spinet, but he didn’t anywhere refer to the “table piano” model that I possessed. From my own additional cyber research I had located “Haddorf” and “Mathushek” pianos that had comparable leaves and the table appearance of those dated to the 1930s.

Furst received still another set of Aeolian photos from me a week later that he successfully downloaded. They revealed more graphic details of the piano, inside and out, and on the basis of his having reviewed these, he updated his opinion. “Your piano is definitely not a vertigrand,” he insisted. “It’s just a spinet from about 1960!” In his third e-mail to me on the subject, he wrote, “here is my final answer: 1960!” Now it’s true he hadn’t the benefit of evaluating the piano in person, but he didn’t think this was an impediment to his current appraisal. He understandably refuted the 1920 Pierce dating, but his own modification came as an enormous shock! If his assessment was accurate, then my Aeolian wouldn’t be an “antique,” and it would be relegated to the status of a garden variety spinet.

Ironically, I had located an Aeolian match to my piano on Ebay and the seller claimed that the piano, with a serial number a few digits away from mine was at least “80 to 100” years old. We had even talked by phone and compared notes. His particular table style instrument was located in Chatsworth, California, but as it turned out, he didn’t have any conclusive information about the dating. He was hoping that I could enlighten him!

I was determined not to let Robert Furst’s opinions impede me from finding out the truth about my piano. Like YORK, I held to the belief that I had a treasure dating many decades before 1960 and would not be sold a bill of goods to the contrary. York hung in there with me, and traipsed over to my place still another time to inspect the piano. He had the determination of a lion as he headed straight for the Aeolian!

“Now, I gotta put my hands into that there piana to find somethin’ out.”

I couldn’t stop him this time because I knew he was going to clearly establish the date of my piano come “hell to high water!”

He stuck his powerful mitts underneath the action without pulling it out. Looking like a gynecologist, he did an internal exam, minus the rubber gloves. It was definitely a sight to behold as this old man, country doc to “pianas” for nearly 60 years, was going to make the defining date diagnostic sooner than later. I just knew it!

“Well,” he said, “I got just what I wanted. Now you listen at me young lady: This here piana dates to about 1936, and I can tell ya that fer sure, ‘cause ‘I had a problem gettin’ my whole hand inta’ the damn action. In them days, they didn’t know how to make it easy on us tuners to pull it out, and that’s a fact!”

YORK dove down to the rug, and nestled himself up against the pedal lyre, enlisting my help to disengage the lower wood panel. It was a bummer. There should have been a hinge attached to undo the part, but it just wasn’t there. York said this was further evidence that the piano was not from 1960. “It can’t be,” he insisted.

I took photos of YORK in his uncompromised position, tightly squeezed under the Aeolian’s keyboard and once he had successfully dislodged the bottom panel, I took some nifty snaps of the exposed section. Wow! The spruce soundboard was shiny and immaculate! Everything else, including the pedal rods were in ace condition. YORK and I marveled over it, but nonetheless, we still had no hands on proof that the piano dated to the 1930’s. I bent down and cocked my head to get a better look. I searched meticulously for clues hidden in the depths of the piano—in its nooks and crannies, but nothing turned up. It was very frustrating!

YORK didn’t need anything more conclusive to make his assertions. He had been around pianos since 1948 and if he said the piano dated to the ’30s, I could probably trust him, but I needed some hard and fast proof to transmit to Furst and others who had gotten into the action. (pun intended).

Just a week later, Terry Barrett, Registered Piano Technician dropped over as scheduled to tune my Aeolian, and though he had severe vision problems and couldn’t drive a car, he was still the best damned tuner in Fresno. Barrett regularly maintained my Steinways, but this was the first he had seen of my Aeolian and it inspired his admiration. After I played a few selections for him, he remarked about the piano’s lovely resonance, projection, and appearance. We both heartily agreed that the spinet played well and looked absolutely gorgeous. When I brought up the dating issue, Terry quickly begged off, saying he had no experience with these kinds of pianos. At 45 years of age he certainly hadn’t YORK’s savvy about vintage era pianos, and he plainly admitted it.

Terry dismantled the fall board (not done when YORK inspected the piano) and exposed the full length of the key wood. Suddenly, I thought I saw some printed letters in the wood on D-1, the first D on the piano from the lowest end. “Hey, Terry, I see something right here, and I need a flashlight, quick!” I could feel my heart racing because I knew I was onto something! Terry had his own little, high intensity, close up light that he shined on the wood so I could get a closer view. Oh my gosh! We were zeroing in on it! The first letters were “APR” and then I squinted hard to see more. Terry pushed the light down lower so I could view the other characters. As luck would have it, I spotted the numbers “1936” and screamed with delight. TERRY! WE GOT IT!! WE FOUND IT! YIPPEE!!!!!

I felt as happy as Alice did when she beamed her flashlight onto her player piano’s cast iron plate and shouted out the serial number. It was like we both landed the prize!!!

“Geeze, Terry,” I said, “let’s get some pictures of this!” I raced anxiously to my kitchen counter to find a working instant camera. A few had bitten the dust from lying around and had no flash function but I managed to salvage one that seemed to work. Still, I had no faith that this cheap device would capture the numerics that were not as deeply ingrained as the letters “APR.” Terry saved the day by taking out his pricey digital, and focused it smack up against the key wood. He took three close-up shots as I aimed his high power light right at the source. He showed me exactly what the photos captured right after he took them so I got to see all the detail! I felt a rush of excitement knowing we had permanent, indisputable evidence that this baby was born in 1936! Mazel Tov! I thought to myself! Let the world receive this little princess!

“Whoa, I gotta have these pics as soon as possible, Terry! Can you e-mail these to me, later today,” I said with fever pitch anticipation.

“Oh, sure, just remind me by phone this evening and I’ll be sure to send them.”

I felt so relieved to know that I had a treasure from the past that sang better than anything the future could provide. Immediately, I dashed off a note to Robert Furst telling him about my discovery and then I phoned YORK a few times, leaving hyper-intensive messages for him. I made sure to congratulate him for his ardent and somewhat awkward efforts to date my piano. “WOW, Mr. YORK, you are a winner, today! The piano dates to 1936. We have pictures of it. Enjoy your celebrity! And please call me back as soon as you get this!”

It was a magnificent day for me and my piano! And without a doubt, a truth finding victory. I could now happily embark upon my journey with the Aeolian and savor every moment of it until death parted us!

Related Story:

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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 Pianos.com. While it’s common for piano owners to throw up their hands and say,”I know virtually nothing about my piano,” it’s time for a new attitude to replace the old. Even “Alice” was exhilarated to know more about her “player piano without a name” when I enlisted her in the fact finding adventure. While the piano had been virtually un-played for 4 years since its purchase from an antique store for $125, she quickly became my “Dr. Watson” beaming a flash light on its cast iron plate; screaming in delight when she discovered the digits that might help date it. In the case of her particular piano, supplementary information acquired from Robert Furst’s Bluebook of Pianos.com led to its more conclusive identity.

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


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:


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

antique pianos, Clinkscale's Makers of the Piano, humor, J. Fritz piano, music history, New York City High School of Performing Arts, pianist, piano, piano finding, piano finding adventure, piano society, Piano Street, Piano World, pianoaddict.com, Pianostreet.com, pianoworld, pianoworld.com, satire, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Kirsten blog, Steinway piano, The Frederick Collection, uk-piano-forums, Uncategorized, used piano, word press, wordpress.com

Did the Ghost of Fritz ever sell?

I couldn’t resist foraging through my e-mail files for an update on the Ghost of Fritz, whether it sold, was put out to pasture, or dumped, dismembered and forgotten. To my surprise, I located this communication feeding my appetite for a few chuckles:

From: pharmacutest

To:  Shirley Kirsten

Hi Shirley,
“No, I haven’t sold the baby grand. It still looks beautiful and I use it to present my Arbonne Skin Care Products and also to put out Hor d’oevres when I entertain. I will be having an Open House at the end of September, looking at the 22nd, but not completely certain from 2-6 p.m. I will be featuring Arbonne International Original Hand Made Jewelry, “Rock Star Nails,” Hand Made Purses by Good Stuff and maybe Gold Canyon Candles. Let me know if you are interested in attending and I will send you an invitation. I would like to meet you and you will be able to see my piano too! Have a wonderful day, Roan.”
“See her piano?” I thought.  Maybe play it, for starters, but that hadn’t really entered my mind since I had already sampled it by phone. (enough to satisfy my curiosity)
The other day, I spotted another exotic piano sitting in the same location (for too long) at a piano dealership. A Steinway square grand had overstayed its welcome, with no skin care products to rejuvenate it.
antique pianos, Ashburnham, authorsden, Clinkscale's Makers of the Piano, Connell York, Fresno, Fresno California, humor, J. Fritz piano, Lillian Freundlich, Massachussetts, music history, musicology, New York City High School of Performing Arts, Oberlin Conservatory, New York City High School of Performing Arts, ornaments, Patricia Frederick, photos, pianist, piano, piano finding, piano instruction, piano lesson, piano society, Piano Street, Piano World, pianoaddict.com, Pianostreet.com, pianoworld, pianoworld.com, satire, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Kirsten blog, Steinway and Sons, talkclassical.com, The Frederick Collection, The Piano Book, uk-piano-forums, Uncategorized, used piano, used pianos, word press, wordpress.com, you tube, you tube video

The Ghost of Fritz? Was I Dreaming?

I had to pinch myself when I discovered a Craig’s List ad that featured “an antique baby grand piano selling for $1500.”

Staring at me was a larger-than-life “Johann Fritz” that seemed to closely resemble the heart-breaker with the same surname formerly housed at a local American Cancer Society Discovery thrift store! It looked like the one I had sadly let go and lost forever.

Now deep down, I knew that the original Fritz Sohn (son) with a florid rack and scrolled legs, probably had second thoughts about being placed with a City College Assistant Chief of Police who would probably never play it. And as proof of the pudding, the buyer was supposed to call me for piano lessons but never did. Was this beautifully sculptured beauty only a display case, exploited purely for its good looks?

I was staring at a photo of a generation two Fritz that was embedded in a Craig’s List posting. Its fall board revealed an impressive array of calligraphic German proper nouns: “Johann Fritz in Gratz-Auszeichnung aus Munchen, 1854,” a fancier identity than my beloved Fritz Sohn had. But if this builder was the real deal “Johann Fritz,” a famous maker of Forte pianos, then there was cause to celebrate.

In that event, I’d be cell-phoning Pat Frederick of the famous Frederick Early Instrument Collection to tell her the news. We’d be shouting from the rafters, “For unto us a Fritz is given!”

I stared at the Fritz look-alike, re-incarnation of itself, admiring the magnificent contours of an ornate piano that could spark my impulsive middle-of-the-night journey to the location where the exotic instrument was housed. If I wasn’t careful, I might act impetuously against my own best interests.

How many times had I warned my students and others not to fall prey to these seductive, period pianos, worst of all on the Internet where they could suck the juices out of a salivating impulse buyer. It happened to Rebecca McGregor during her out-of-control Online spree. Her Proksch 1905 grand bore the consequences, ending up a skeleton of itself: (See “Funeral of a Cracked Plate”)


At least the ad for the Ghost Fritz, blown up on my computer screen wasn’t hyped. It delivered bare-bones information from the seller:

“I have a beautiful baby grand piano that needs to be tuned. Front of piano says, “Johann Fritz in Gratz- Auszeichnung aus Munchen 1854 Please Pick-up only. If interested please call—or email at —–@comcast.net”

It was 4 o’clock on a Thursday morning, when I felt the effects of sleep deprivation from a long night of Googling, but I managed to squeeze out an extra grain of energy to research this “new” Fritz that had entered my life.

I started the day by planning to phone the seller about her advertised piano. From a Google telephone, name-link search, I ascertained her to be “Roanne Biglione,” an individual supposedly tied to a national ice hockey organization with a network of youth programs. Upon re-examination, I realized that the name was properly spelled “Roann Biglion” without the inserted “e’s” and when I did further Googling, I discovered the woman was an interior decorator.

After rounds of telephone tag, busy signals, and call-waiting episodes, we finally found ourselves conversing about a piano she claimed to know little about.

“I don’t really play the piano,” she insisted, “but I know it definitely needs a tuning.”

I recalled the J. Fritz Sohn artifact at the Discovery thrift store that was a whole- tone below concert pitch. York, the old geezer piano tuner, didn’t want to risk “raisin’ it up” as he claimed the strings would snap under pressure. “Them there wires hasn’t been stretched for a long time, and anyways, the piana is over a hundred! How would you feel if you was that old?” He pretty much dismissed these over-the-hill instruments as pieces of furniture or “junkers.”

Nonetheless, I’d done preliminary research on these exotic pianos, and prepared a whole set of pertinent questions to ask the seller. In fact, they were mounted on a clip board for easy reference.

“So where did you find this piano?” I asked.

“It was at a Somerset auction,” she replied.

“Did you know anything about who owned it before you?”

“Well there were some papers that came with it, but they really didn’t say very much.”

“Did anyone in your family play the piano?”

“Like I said, it’s never been played, but it has always looked very splendid in my living room.”

“Do you mind checking under the lid for a long, horizontal black wooden bar?”

I knew that if it bobbed up and down when the sustain pedal was depressed, then it would have strong ties to the old J. Fritz Sohn piano from the Discovery thrift store.

“Gee, I never really looked inside the piano because I have my skin product line of bottles sitting on top of it. The customers come here and love looking at the lotions set up there.”

I imagined a multicolored display of glass sculptures. My precious Steinway, on the other hand, held a conspicuous pile of worn Urtext editions of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. That was it.

I envisioned the Biglion gatherings. They would resemble the original Tupperware parties held around town, though plastic containers of different sizes were certainly no match for exotic skin care items.

“So where in the living room is your piano located?” I inquired.

“Oh it’s in the center, right smack up against the fireplace.”

It was troubling that she would expose her period piano to such extreme heat without a second thought.

“You know what,” she added, “I think it looks real pretty by the hearth. By the way, I don’t know if I ever mentioned the part under the piano that’s missing.”

I took a closer look at my computer screen, dominated by three photos of her Johann Fritz brand piano, and she was right— the whole pedal assembly and lyre were nowhere to be found! How on earth could I have overlooked this, something so essential to all pianos? I had to be losing my mind from sleep loss.

“So where is the rest of the piano?” I inquired.

It was like asking about missing body parts. There was a macabre twist to this whole plot as it unfolded.

“Oh, I have the one big piece somewhere in the house along with a bunch of screws that fell out on the floor one day.”

The more I learned about this instrument from the seller, the less appealing it became.

“So how big is the piano?” I inquired.

“Let me ask my husband,” she replied. “Jim, can you get a tape measure and see how long the piano is?”

I heard shuffling in the background.

“Oh, okay, it’s what, Jim? 6 feet? No, it’s bigger, about 7 feet or more? Well, it’s almost 8 feet!” she exclaimed.

“Do you think you could bring the phone next to your grand, and run your fingers over a few notes so I can get a sense of its tone?”

I had no intention of schlepping scores of miles, if this piano had already died and couldn’t be resurrected in this lifetime or the next. I had recently seen a Chickering Square grand that was winding its way to the scrap heap for dismemberment and salvage.

In any case, the moment of truth would arrive sooner than later, and no doubt it would be alarming!

As I had expected, the sour-sounding Fritz coming through phone transmission, reminded me of a Kincaid piano that was shipped from New York City to the West Coast by a fireman who’d been on the front lines during 9/11.

It was a sight-unseen cross-country purchase made by a young nurse who voiced no regret about the transaction. Ironically, she referred to the monstrous instrument as her “baby” as I detailed it. But even an infant’s scowl was no match for the howl this piano produced. The hammers were mangled causing multiple notes to sound at the same time. It made me so nauseated to play this butcher block that I had to wolf down a few Pepto Bismol tablets to get through the rest of the day.

From what the interior decorator seller had shared with me about the Fritz, I decided that I would pass on it and never refer the piano to anyone on my client list. But since I didn’t want to hurt the owner’s feelings, I dispatched York to the location to get his second opinion. It was not an inconvenience, since he had a few tuning and moth-proofing jobs out that way.

“Do you mind if my piano tuner drops over to check out your piano?” I asked the seller.

Oh, that would be fine,” she said. “Tomorrow would definitely work for me.”


In the meantime, I telephoned Thomas Winter, the reputed piano restorer in San Francisco who had just done some fine research for me on the authentic “Johann Fritz.”

“Yes,” he confirmed, “Fritz did most of his building in the first part of the Nineteenth century. Then his son Joseph took over the business after his death in 1827 and moved it to Graz, Germany. The veneer work was done in Munich. So the father who died in 1827 could not have been the maker.”

The case was closed!

Everything Winter had said made perfect sense and it conformed to the lengthy script on the fall board that mentioned Graz and Munchen. (Munich) and the year 1854.

“So what do you think of pianos that are not crafted by the esteemed builders, like those that would be made by Fritz’s son and others. Do you believe this particular instrument might be a stencil or decal piano?” (A copy of an authentic brand), I asked.

“Well, you need to have an open mind about it, and even if it’s a stencil, judge it on its own merit,” he answered.

“So what’s your feeling about restoring these old instruments? How do you avoid modernizing them so that they no longer approximate the sound produced during the era to which they belong?” (We’d been through this before with the first Fritz)

“Well, that’s a challenge,” he replied.

Winter had been strongly influenced by the ideas of John Watson, a Conservator of Instruments at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Virginia. Watson’s philosophy of restoration was embodied in a paragraph posted on Tom Winter’s website. Both embraced the principles of “Restorative Conservation”—that is, “returning an instrument to playing condition while preserving its integrity as a historical document.

Pat Frederick, Director of the Frederick Collection of Historical Grand Pianos in Ashburnham, Massachusetts agreed and she’d emphasized over and again in her correspondence that a restorer could not put modern-day strings in a period instrument.

The Finchcock’s Musical Museum in Kent, England was also repository of fine, historic keyboard instruments, many of which had been sensitively restored to performance level. It was located on a picturesque Georgian Manor with 13 acres of wonderful gardens and park land. The Finchcock’s collection had over 100 historical keyboard instruments including organs, virginals, harpsichords, clavichords, and pianos, of which 40 were used in a celebrated concert series that attracted an international audience. There was one particular “Johann Fritz” Forte Piano that was housed among the others in an elegant room with hard wood flooring and period drapery.


The Johann Fritz stenciled version that I had stumbled upon, finally underwent a preliminary review by Mr. York. In the late afternoon he reported back on his findings:

“Well that there piana has some mighty big problems. About half of ‘em notes is stickin’ and the strings is so old, they’s lost their tone. Them hammers all need replacin.’ “

What the old man was saying corroborated what I’d heard of this piano over the phone. Land line or cell connection, it wouldn’t have made a scintilla of difference.

“Now it could use some work on it,” York said, “but replacin’ the strings would cost ya.”

York hadn’t been exposed to the au courant philosophy of piano restoration. Putting modern strings in a Nineteenth century period piece piano was ill-advised.

Tom Winter emphasized that the carbon content of the old strings was vastly different from the modern supply. He even considered the DNA of the inner assembly in his restorations and tried to select fibers of the period.

“Well that their Fritz piana aint in any playin’ condition and might as well be furniture and nothin’ else,” York said.

I wondered why he hadn’t mentioned the missing lyre, pedals and all the rest. I decided not to throw a spotlight on what was obvious. There was no need to embarrass him.

Otherwise, I agreed with his assessment. His appraisal had definitely saved me time and money. I’d just forget this one, and move forward in my travels without the ghost of Fritz ever to haunt me again.

P.S. Several months after Fritz II died on the vine, I couldn’t resist foraging through my e-mail files for an update on the Ghost– whether it sold, was put out to pasture, or dumped, dismembered and forgotten. To my surprise, I located this communication feeding my appetite for a few chuckles.

From: pharmacutest
To: Shirley Kirsten

Hi Shirley, No, I haven’t sold the baby grand. It still looks beautiful and I use it to present my Arbonne Skin Care Products and also to put out Hor d’oevres when I entertain. I will be having an Open House at the end of September, looking at the 22nd, but not completely certain from 2-6 p.m. I will be featuring Arbonne International Original Hand Made Jewelry, “Rock Star Nails,” Hand Made Purses by Good Stuff and maybe Gold Canyon Candles. Let me know if you are interested in attending and I will send you an invitation. I would like to meet you and you will be able to see my piano too!


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The Fritz Piano of Vienna: A Romantic Era Reborn

On a wind swept day in March, while I was shopping in a busy Northwest Fresno plaza, I spotted a curvaceous baby grand piano through the open door of the American Cancer Society Discovery Shop. Its sunbathed, feminine profile and polished wood exterior drew me to it with the force of a magnet. Decades before, I had experienced the same haunting attraction to still another piano, as my father and I walked along Fordham Road in the Bronx, along a bustling, cobblestone street dotted with stores like Alexander’s that attracted a steady stream of buyers.

The first love of my life would be found on this very block, in Mazilli’s warehouse, an odd fixture, among the more popular establishments in the area. Its dark and dreary space housed a sea of eye-catching pianos of all shapes and sizes.

Myron Buchbaum, our corpulent and faithful piano tuner insisted that his friend, Mazilli had a never-ending supply of instruments that were plucked from lavish estates in the north Bronx and then rebuilt to impeccably high standard. To this point, he’d been tuning my Wieser, an old upright piano of questionable value that cost my parents $50 and a lot of anguish. Hardly a note played without buzzing and beating, and some in between the noisy ones, would not sound at all. The piano, however, served me in good stead during my years of study with Miss Schwed, who’d beaten the soul out of me with her ponderous, hand pounding accompaniments on the lid of a music school piano.

Music that managed to squeak through this monstrosity was savored by my endearing parakeet “Tykie,” who, when released from his cage for his daily exercise landed on the keyboard and hopped from note to note, leaving little droppings in his wake. All at once prompted by the music I was practicing,  he’d soar to the ceiling, sometimes bumping his tiny head against it.  “La Chasse” and “Tarentelle” from Burgmuller’s collection of “Twenty-five Progressive Pieces” inspired his fancy free flights, after which he’d settle back down on the keyboard for a restful pause.

As we grew older together over years and my repertoire steadily advanced, he experienced the joy of our newly acquired 1922 Sohmer upright purchased from Lucy Brown, concert pianist. Though the sonorous instrument had become the instant love of my life erasing memories of a toxic tonal hell associated the Wieser piano, the Sohmer would be prematurely retired due to the effects of bitter New York City winters and humidity packed summers. And at the time of a raging blizzard, Tykie would die from pneumonia.

In a matter of years, I was off to the Oberlin Conservatory at the urging of my newest piano teacher, Lillian Freundlich, who nurtured my love for the piano even further. A grad of Oberlin herself, she could see no other option for me.

With a Performance Degree in my hand after four arduous years of study, I was now ready to own my very first grand piano!


The lovely sheen of a medium size, ebony grand situated in the front of Mazilli’s warehouse drew my ardent gaze. It had the elegant Steinway name and lyre emblem imprinted on its fall board.

It was springtime when the grand piano begged me to sample its sound universe. In the space of a moment I was seated in front of it, drawing deep musical phrases from its core, and without reservation, on the spot, I knew that this was the piano of my dreams.

Mazilli, a hunched over man in his fifties, approached the shimmering instrument with a conspicuous limp. He looked like Gepetto in his work apron, holding an odd-looking sharp, metal tool along with an estranged hammer from among 88 installed in a piano. It was obvious to me that he’d taken pause from his grueling labor to nurse along a sale.

By the glaze in my eyes, he knew instantly that I didn’t need his sales pitch. In no time, my father, a railroad man of modest earnings seized the moment and made a piano purchase that would resonate for years to come. Without even a hint of hesitation, he handed $2,800 in cash to the Italian immigrant who had become instant family through this life-changing transaction.


After having been temporarily immersed in memories of the Bronx, I urged myself back to the present–to Fresno where I was currently drawn to the Discovery Thrift store of the American Cancer Society that had a donated piano peering through its entrance way. A neighbor to commercial establishments such as Save Mart, Subway, the Beerocks shop, the thrift store’s bread and butter donations were items of clothing, furnishings, house ware, paintings, and jewelry, but occasionally, a piano would roll onto its floor.

An exotic looking pianoforte in rosewood stood before me with stunning, engraved carvings on its façade that verified it immediately as an antique. Its filigreed rack with retractable candle holders was awe-inspiring. I’d never seen anything like this other than period piece pianos pictured in the glossy finished volume, Clinkscale’s Makers of the Piano. And by its appearance alone, this instrument should have been housed at the Smithsonian or in a comparable museum of rare instruments, not among pot holders and towels placed on a shelf next to it.

I noticed the curvature of the wood on one side, with another abruptly squared off, suggesting the scale of a mid-Nineteenth century piano, but not being a music historian or archivist of early instruments I could only draw on my conservatory background with an abundance of music history courses.

The lovely, feminine appearing piano had “J Fritz Sohn” engraved into a wooden plate affixed to the fall board that evoked the esteemed name of “Johann Fritz” who had built Fortepianos, that were predecessors of the modern piano. Yet I wasn’t certain that “J. Fritz” was related to him. Since sohn translated to “son” in German, it was conceivable that the instrument was made by the son of Fritz, but who would know for sure? I had a formidable appetite to learn more.

Looking at this diminutive and splendorous antique I was reluctant to play it for fear that drawing a sound from it would snap its age old strings and possibly cause it to collapse, but I knew I would take the risk and throw fate to the wind.

The fall board was shaky and out of alignment, requiring a technician to mend it, and while this piano’s magnificent exterior was exceedingly impressive, it might not translate into a remarkable sound image.

I  dared myself to take a seat in front of it and once there, I plunged into its keyboard discovering immediately its capacity to sing out and register its character and personality.

To my surprise, the aristocratic but fragile looking instrument produced a hugely resonant sound that belied its 5 foot dimension. Though it was painfully below concert pitch, but relatively tuned across its keyboard at 100 “cents” down, (one whole step), its striking bass still jumped out of itself, ringing off the plaster walls!  As I drew deep phrases from it, I noticed a conspicuous black pedal bar bobbing up and down each time I depressed the sustain pedal and I couldn’t imagine why a piano builder would install a such a noisy and discombobulating piece of hardware that provided drum beating, accompaniment sounds! These hearkened back to the days when Fortepiano builders installed numerous pedals in these instruments and added built in rhythm sections of tambourines and cymbals. It was quite a spectacle!

My curiosity was heightened by the piano’s construction and how  I felt closer to the strings because of a single escapement mechanism between the key and the hammer. (In later, more developed pianos, pushing down on the key activated a more a complex touch response)

I scoured the Fritz inside and out, searching for clues to its background and identity, but all I could ascertain was its recent ownership history. “Mary Papazian,” a local resident had acquired the piano for $5,000 from Chesterfields, a Fresno antique establishment and she then donated it out to the Discovery Store. Supposedly, it was originally obtained through a San Francisco auction house.

On my way out of the thrift store, I bumped into an elderly man who wore a proper gentleman’s cap and carried a heavy rectangular, black tool box. From his appearance, he had all the markings of a piano tuner, but I didn’t recognize him as someone who had ever entered my piano sanctuary in a search and destroy mission. Most of these fellows in our neck of the woods had learned the trade simply through a correspondence course or by tearing down a piano and then re-assembling it. Many a fine instrument had been gutted in the process.

The stocky fellow, lugging a big metal box headed straight for the antique piano, causing me to retrace my footsteps and linger awhile to establish communication with someone who might own a fountain of knowledge about the Fritz.

“I’m here to look over this piana,” he said. A customer ‘a mine might be interested, so I better be gettin’ myself to work.”

“Are you a piano tuner?” I asked tentatively. “Oh by golly, yes I am,” he answered, “and my name’s York. I been tunin’ pianas fer over 50 years and was trained by my grand pappy. He put me to work at 9 and gave me a whippin’ if I’d be late comin’ to his shop after school.”

This would be one of several treasured anecdotes he would retread over and over in the course of our budding friendship that was ignited in the Discovery Store on a breezy, spring afternoon. Eventually, he would tell me that his grandpa also ran a dairy farm where little York was expected to milk cows.

“Them there cows made me so mad” he said—“They kicked me and swished their tails in my face!”

I wondered if he could enlist his well developed, over-sized hands to make a piano adjustment.

“Mr. York, could you please fix the shaky piano keyboard cover?” I asked.

“I sure kin fix anythin’ so long as it’s needin’ fixin,’ ” he said.

He demonstrated his repair skills by banging out the fall board and removing the end support blocks. Then he re-installed it with a proper hinge attachment.

“Well let me get inside this bugger and see what’s happenin’ here.”

He detached the music rack and took a careful look at the hammers like he was an inquiring country doctor.

“By golly, this thing’s gotta be over a hundred years old! Them their strings are so worn, they’re about to snap, so I ain’t gonna try tunin’ them up to save my life!”

I came closer to see what I had already observed for myself but this time I felt honored to be under the tutelage of what I thought to be a master technician.

“But you know what,” I said, “the instrument plays like a dream and captures the Romantic era sound. You just can’t dismiss that.” It had an uncanny resemblance to Frederic Chopin’s Pleyel piano that I’d encountered on the Internet.

“Nah, it can’t be a musical instrument, period, ‘cause it can’t be tuned,” York said. He’d already broken out his tuning fork and discovered the piano was a whole step below concert pitch verifying my impression of it.

“Well, I have to respectfully disagree with you,” I replied, “because it still produces a lovely tone, and maybe a buyer would have to accept its limitations and enjoy it for what it’s worth.”

“Aw shucks, no,” he said, confidently. “Anybody who buys this bugger, is wastin’ good hard earned money that’s put to better use.”

He was tweaking a string and adjusting its contact with a hammer. The he wrote up an invoice noting what he’d done to the piano, adding the word to “donation” to the slip that was placed on top of the piano.

“That’s very generous of you,” I said, as he was packing up his toolbox.

“Hey is it possible we could find a serial number somewhere inside the case, or maybe a builder’s name so we could get a clue to the date it was crafted?” I asked.

“Well, let me take another look,” he said.

York disassembled the piano once again and showed me a penciled signature that was hard to decipher by its classically styled inscription.

“Oh wow, that must have been the craftsman’s name,” I said. “You can clearly see the “Fritz” part of the signature but without a date attached. Let me get in there to take a photo or two and then I’ll make a few extra copies for you, Mr. York.”

The stocky tuner ducked out of my way as I situated myself at various angles to capture the complete signature and the full piano image. When I was done, York closed the piano and packed up his tools.

“Well, I gotta be runnin’ to my next tunin’ job or I’ll be late fer it.”

I imagined his granddaddy giving him a flogging for being tardy.

On his way out he handed me one of his self made, blotchy business cards, then he headed toward a brown pick up that was visibly packed with piano related hardware.

I had a premonition that we’d meet again soon, I just knew it.


It was more than 6 months later that the Johann Fritz sold. The Assistant Chief of Police at Fresno City College purchased the piano after it was priced down from $5,000 to $2,000. But before it arrived safely in its new home, a local physician had entered the Discovery store and offered quick cash for its immediate possession. Store volunteers who were not made aware of the “hold” on the piano, sold it to the second party, until the manager returned from vacation and restored the instrument to its rightful owner.

I had earnestly wanted to own this priceless Fritz but hadn’t a stitch of extra space to house it at the time. Squeezed into tight quarters with my Steinway M, 1917 eating up most of my living area, I reluctantly let it slip away from me.


I sat at my computer at home sprinkling a few more e-mails with an attached photo of the Fritz, to reputable restorers of old instruments around the country just because I wanted to know more about the Fritz piano and its place in history.

The many responses to my inquiries were heart-warming and informative.

Maximilian Rutten, from the House of Grand Pianos in New York City wrote:

“The ‘conspicuous’ black bar that bobs up and down as you describe it, is an indication that the piano you were so happily performing on was one with a “Viennese mechanic,” an old, now antiquated mechanism to operate the striking and damping system. There are thousands of these pianos left mainly in Europe, from an equal number of unknown makers. They can indeed be wonderful to play. As a matter of fact, most European piano music up until 1880 or even 1890 was composed on such pianos, until the mechanism pretty much as we know it today, became standardized. One of piano history’s many enigmas is why these pianos didn’t get more attention if they played such an important role in the history of classical music repertoire. Indeed, museums have tended to ignore them, not to mention the open market. Pianos as this one can be bought in Europe for a few hundred dollars, even in decent playing condition, because no one is interested in them.

”So my advice is for a buyer to hold on to the instrument and enjoy it as long as he can.”

Maximilian Rutten

641 Lexington Avenue, New York, N.Y

Thomas Winter, who owned a shop in San Francisco where he’d been restoring early pianos for over thirty years, imparted the following information:

“Your description of the piano was excellent. Everything you described is consistent with a grand piano dating to the 1870’s. As for the size, I don’t have a lot to say. Even in the 19th century, grands were built in a variety of sizes. Terms such as baby grand and parlor grand are vague and have no parameters. I’ve always suspected they were invented by salesmen to help sell pianos.

“The penciled inscription is probably the signature of one of the craftsmen who built the piano. I doubt if it will help you date the instrument.

“I hope this helps.”     Tom Winter

Patricia Frederick, the Frederick Collection of early grand pianos, Ashburnham, Massachusetts took precious time to send me two lengthy and fascinating e-mails:

Dear Shirley,
It's the single escapement that gives such a direct sense of being in touch with the strings, due to their having fewer moving parts between key and hammer. The damper mechanism you describe is the standard Viennese model. As you have undoubtedly discovered, you just have to use a lighter foot on the pedal so the damper rack doesn't drop the dampers back on the strings with a crash. (She was referring to the visible black pedal bar that bobs up and down with each depression of the sustain pedal)

“Without knowing the condition of the piano's wrestplank (pinblock), we
couldn't say if it would withstand being brought up to pitch. However,
if the structure of the piano is sound, it should be possible to tune
it to a-440. (concert pitch) Of course it would have to be tuned several times in a
row, in order to let the strings and frame adjust to the new tension.
This is true of any stringed instrument that has been left at low pitch
for a time. 

“If you do find the piano's pinblock can withstand tuning, and if a
string breaks, please be sure any replacement string is not only
the same guage wire, but also the same softness. Modern piano steel wire
sounds horrible on old pianos; it is too stiff to give off the right
overtones, so it sounds whiny and dirty. 

“For heaven's sake, don't let anyone hire any piano technician who thinks the Fritz piano should be "rebuilt", if by that he means replacing the soundboard
and hammers! That would totally ruin the piano! Many technicians have
been taught that every piano over about 50 years old should be rebuilt,
just as a matter of routine. This is simply not true, and results in
the destruction of countless fine old pianos, because the grades of
hammer felt and soundboard wood available today are vastly inferior to
what was available to the original builders. Tom Winter would probably
be someone who can be trusted to work on the Fritz piano.

In a second correspondence, Frederick wrote:

“If you liked the bass on the Fritz piano you played,you would love the bass on our 1846
 Streicher! It is extremely resonant and clear, perfectly articulating the contrapuntal bass lines in Schumann's music, which I feel loses more in the transition to modern piano than the music of any other composer, except maybe Brahms.

“It would probably be well worth your time to make a special trip to New England just to experience our piano collection. As egotistical as this sounds, I am basing this statement not on my own opinion, but on what we hear repeatedly from pianists who visit the collection. The common reaction is that playing these pianos is ‘a revelation,’ ‘a life changing experience.’

“My husband and I have devoted our lives to this project in the belief that musicians need to hear and play these pianos in order to understand and effectively interpret the standard piano repertoire. The piano of today has been designed to meet such different demands that it really doesn’t contribute to one’s understanding of the music of past generations. “

Very truly yours, Patricia Frederick

I replied:

Dear Patricia,

“As you suggested in your last correspondence, many vintage pianos that hardly need overhaul are forever ruined by those who are on automatic pilot to refurbish, restore, recondition, or whatever else motivates some of them to destroy original sounding pianos.

“So, Patricia,  I think you and I are  in agreement about some overzealous re-builders  who have found a new and profitable industry for themselves and will often ruin pianos that might not need anything but tweaking.

“Please know that you and your husband are my heroes in your passionate pursuit of historical instruments such as the Fritz, among others, that you carefully restore and bring to life through historical performances at the Frederick Collection.


I thought back nearly nine months, when I had first encountered the Fritz piano, and how far I had come, through all this time, learning about period pianos and restoration practices. It was an eye opener, to say the least, and an adventure I would always treasure.

Hindsight is 20/20 but I wish I had bought the Fritz and placed it safely in my piano room in northwest Fresno. It would have been a welcome addition to my two Steinways. But as the next best compromise to ownership, I still had the sweet memory of its tone, and every day I admired its colorful photograph amidst my student portraits.

Patricia Frederick’s comments in full about period pianos:


Relevant link for information on period piano restorations: