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A Day with Two Piano Finalists

A Kawai and Chickering were in a tight race, until one took off and surpassed the other.
My whole Saturday was consumed with evaluating two pianos: a practically brand new “Kawai” 5’1″ grand and a larger, nearly 5’8″ size “Chickering,” 1980.

The Kawai captured my interest because a smaller studio upright of the same brand had been purchased by my adult student, “Fujie” on the day she had journeyed from piano hell to heaven. Once she had laid her hands on Yamaha’s chief rival, it was a fait accomplis.

The only other Kawai I had known up front and personal was the seven footer YORK had crawled under looking for money. Having enlisted me as a diving partner in this senseless expedition, I had my in depth view of a mammoth size piano that yielded absolutely no clue about its resonance or regulation. Only a journey back up to the deck, with a note to note review of 88 keys, produced a verdict. If I had stepped on pebbles, it would have produced the same effect.

So now I realized that Kawai had gone miles to improve its pianos after Fujie had acquired a tonally gorgeous and well regulated instrument that sent me scurrying to check out the bigger model.

A graceful woman with the look of a ballerina greeted me at 9 a.m. in her stately Old Fig Garden residence amidst her feverish housecleaning. She took a breather to sit within yards of her Kawai piano and partake of my house concert that included the works of Bach, Beethoven, Schumann and Chopin. She even relished the intermittent glissandi and chromatic scales at every decibel level imaginable that was part of my in depth assessment. Pleased with this piano’s lovely sonority and meticulous regulation (feel from note to note) I called “Jean,” who was in the midst of a torrid search for her dream grand piano, and suggested she hop down a.s.a.p to try out a “winner.”

My piano-seeking adventurer had already rightfully declined a “Knabe” 1978 grand that was housed in a cedar trim residence, plush in the mountains of Mariposa, where bears and mountain lions lurked and kept the seller’s dogs chained in a protected area. While this particular piano was safely stored within a climate friendly room with indirect sunlight and at no risk for attack, it hadn’t struck a bond with me or Jean that would take it from its safe quarters.

Jean turned out to be a stickler for detail in choosing the right piano. After she ran her fingers over the Kawai, I could tell her enthusiasm dwindled. Perhaps it was because she had checked out a Chickering grand the day before in a pollution hell south of Fresno–a journey purified by the heavenly sounds emanating from an ebony grand with an especially resonant bass. My curiosity peaked after she waxed poetic about it.

Chickerings were historic competitors with Steinway in the first few decades of the 20th century and those manufactured before the factory move from East Rochester, New York to Knoxville, Tennessee, were worth a look. The distinguished “Aeolian” Company had fathered “Mason and Hamlin,” “Chickering,” and “Weber” among other piano luminaries before all these once reputable pianos were bought out by Chinese companies who had enlisted cheap labor to manufacture instruments of lesser quality. (my opinion)

The Chickering located in Riverdale, California, had the old pedigree, and its one and only owner received the piano from her father who worked at Sherman Clay in Los Angeles and hand picked the piano for his grandson. This was a good beginning.

In just 5 minutes of running my fingers over its keys, I understood Jean’s excitement about it. The regal looking piano with its elegant inscription on the fall board, had the best of the old world sound, like sipping seasoned wine as accompaniment–with an irresistible resonance over its full keyboard, interrupted only by a problematic tonal break from the mid range to the bass–but otherwise a dream. Maybe one note needed voicing down, and two others required a minor adjustment, but despite these irregularities, the finish line was in sight, and this piano would be in the winner’s circle. (York had bounced by, giving the instrument his seal of approval)

The Kawai, though a worthy second place contender, was all but forgotten, though it had made a good run and should have rightfully acquired an appreciative owner. I had decided then and there to be its advocate and place it in a good home.

Jean had already contacted the piano movers after having made a sincere commitment to buy the Chickering, and I had to give her enormous credit for choosing the more mature sounding piano of the two. Not for a moment was she distracted by what was newer and under Waranty for the next ten years. Her pearly words of wisdom resonated on the trip from Riverdale back to Fresno, “What difference does any of that make if you don’t really love the piano.”

A Related Reading:

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DREAM PIANO: Overview and Acknowledgments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More stories from Dream Piano:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concluding Bonus Chapter:

Extra: York’s World War II Musical Memoir

More People to Thank:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Recording on a SLEEPER Dream Piano

On a whim, I had decided to make an hour long trip to Visalia about 50 miles south of Fresno to sniff out the stock over at the “Piano Gallery.” (This was before it went out of business)

A medium size establishment in an upscale shopping mall, it was owned by “Ginnadiy Merkerin,” a Russian immigrant in this thirties who’d left his position as a dealer associate at “Fresno Piano” to start his own business.

The “Petrof” grands and uprights, his bread and butter lines at this new store, had been sleepers in a marketplace that heavily promoted the Asian staples, “Yamaha” and “Kawai,” and the “Nordiska” 7 foot grand, a hot entry from Mainland China had obtained sterling reviews in Larry Fine’s, hot-selling, Piano Book: Buying and Owning a New or Used Piano. The more elite pianos such as Steinway were sold at dealerships that had established relationships with the Astoria, Queens Factory. The positive ties forged between the owner of Fresno Piano and Steinway, New York, for example, had led to the successful factory purchase of the William Saroyan Theater’s dream Steinway concert grand piano that was meticulously maintained and housed in a specially designed, climate controlled room. Its acquisition and follow-up care reflected an increased support for the arts by a circle of Fresno donors who represented the city’s hard rock business community.

Still the Fresno recording environment had remained unfriendly to serious performing musicians who wanted to program the Classical music repertoire and make cd albums. There was no studio that housed a real acoustic piano.

The day I sauntered into Visalia’s Piano Gallery, I encountered row upon row of tight fitting Petrof uprights and grands. Prancing down narrow aisles, testing piano after piano, I couldn’t get excited about any of them because none could be singled out for tonal beauty or individual personality.

In the distance, at the back of the store, sitting atop a wooden riser, I noticed an imposing grand piano that conspicuously bore the name “Nordiska” on its side, and since I had spotted Fine’s review of this exact model in his most recent “supplement,” I was drawn to it out of curiosity.

Fine had written that the “Nordiska 7 foot grand model had an especially good sound and touch, the best yet Chinese-made piano.”

Nordiska’s distributor, “Geneva International,” Illinois, provided an overview of the instrument’s antecedents in its glossy brochure that I snatched from a table beside the imposing grand. One particular paragraph jumped out at me.

“In 1988, when Europe was in the midst of a deep recession the Swedish Nordiska manufacturer ceased operations. The Dongbei Piano Company located in China, was looking to produce a superior Chinese piano and proceeded to acquire the scale designs, machinery and virtually everything else from the Nordiska Company.”

As I read further, I realized the bond that had been forged between the Chinese and Swedish piano manufacturers just might have produced an out of the ordinary instrument but the true test of quality would be revealed in the playing.

Sitting before me was a notably European sounding piano of high quality. As I ran my fingers over its keys, the instrument shimmered in all octaves and provided a broad range of dynamics. I could feel an instant connection to the soundboard, as my fingers drew out an unlimited reservoir of resonance. Yet despite this piano’s tonal beauty and impeccable regulation from note to note, it was relatively unknown to the public. Like the Kawai, it lacked the high profile, aggressive marketing that was associated with its chief competitor, “Yamaha.”

While the older Yamaha grands in the “C” series had an appealing brightness, most, in my experience, would inevitably turn stringy over time. Where Steinways seemed to ripen over years with continued playing, Yamahas would for the most part, not age gracefully. This bore out with a brand new Yamaha grand piano purchased by one of my adult students at Fresno Piano who paid nearly $20,000 for a handsome looking, medium size instrument that had a dry, lackluster sound. And while it had passed through a full period of initiation, being played for at least two years, it hadn’t matured into a piano with a “voice” and personality. Yet, in an alcove nearby, a trade-in Acrosonic (Baldwin made console) from the late 60’s played circles around it.

The Nordiska, sitting upon a throne in the Visalia Piano Gallery, elevated it above the more mundane pianos on the floor. The instrument had made such an indelible impression through its playing performance, that I entertained the idea of asking to borrow it for a Fresno recording session. Having no spare funds to underwrite its rental and transport, I hoped that Ginnadiy would donate it to me, and maybe, in the process, we could give the piano a good dose of needed exposure.

The Name Nordiska and its association

I thought back on my piano finding travels and how I had become aware that a form of commercial racism permeated the sales universe. The Nordiska name belying its Chinese manufacturer had come across as a “European” piano, but no one seemed to know much about its workmanship. Those who had knowledge of its Continental heritage, would still point to its underlying Chinese identity and readily dismiss it as just one of those new pianos pumped out of the Mainland. When Yamahas first arrived, anything “made in Japan” was similarly frowned upon, until perceptions changed in the course of years.


Ginnadiy was surprisingly receptive to my request to obtain the Nordiska to make a CD.
“You just name the day, and I’ll have it delivered to you, free of charge,” he said.

I was shocked by his generous offer because only months before I had approached the authorized Steinway dealer in Fresno, and had asked to loan the house piano, a 7 foot concert grand, only to be told that I had to foot the complete bill of $1,500, rental and shipment included. For a starving musician like me whose rent and utilities easily exceeded this sum, my dream of recording on a worthy piano had evaporated.


A shiny, ebony Nordiska grand arrived at the “Peter Wolf Sound Studio” within weeks of my having found it among a sea of average pianos. It was the rose draped centerpiece of a classy, towering space in downtown Fresno that had an awesome, climate controlled environment. While Nashville, Tennessee was the hub of Country Western music recording, the Wolf Studio seemed like a Sony Classical equivalent with its imposing, vaulted ceilings and advanced technology. The engineering board, vast and complex, made in Holland had been snatched up by Peter during one of his escapades around the state. He had placed a pair of bronzed antique Western statues on its rim and had a few surreal paintings sprinkled around his quarters.

An eccentric addition to Fresno, the 37 year old sound engineer, recommended to me by a music teacher friend, poured his heart and soul into each and every one of his recording projects. Clearly as a gesture of generosity, he had offered to donate his studio time and personal services on behalf of the current Nordiska project because he hoped that he might get to keep the towering piano. Uncannily, he had encountered the same Nordiska 7 foot model O grand at the NAMM show (National Association of Music Merchants) in Anaheim weeks earlier, and admitted to me that he had fantasies of miking it up for a recording session. Such a dream would soon be fulfilled.

I had programmed album selections easily recognized by music lovers and the general public. “Fur Elise” and the “Moonlight Sonata” stood out as works that would appeal to listeners who might enjoy a classics sampler that encompassed diverse periods of musical composition. This disk would not have lengthy sonata movements. The longest composition would be “Chopin’s Nocturne in B flat minor,” a doleful “night piece,” with a passionately turbulent mid section, followed by a quiet return to the opening theme. This was a work I had lived with since age 13 when I had first embarked upon my advanced piano studies with “Lillian Freundlich” in New York City. A teacher with extraordinary teaching and performance gifts, she sealed had my love affair with the piano.

The elegant Nordiska grand dominated the main room of the Wolf Sound Studio and was undergoing a last minute check by one of Ginnadiy’s tuners.

Suddenly, I noticed a problem with the piano. The soft pedal audibly squeaked when depressed and had to be promptly fixed or I wouldn’t be able to make the triple ppps (softs) in the Chopin Nocturne or in the muted sections of the Beethoven “Moonlight” Sonata. Because I took great pride in creating a broad palette of colors in my performances, I would definitely need the sotto voce or mute pedal for “La Fille Aux Cheveux de Lin,” a dreamy, French Impressionist work by Claude Debussy.

The knotty situation evoked memories of my 1922 Sohmer upright that had intermittent squeaks in its sustain pedal that drove me up the walls. The only comparably unpleasant sound was the shriek of chalk on a blackboard!

“Myron Buchbaum,” the relentless, nerdy tuner of my Sohmer piano that sat in a small room in the company of my very musical parakeet whose chirps or cackles affirmed or denounced my piano playing, made more than one emergency call to our Marble Hill projects apartment to address the problem. Not once but several times, the pudgy fellow would fail to find the squeak as he was uncomfortably scrunched into a narrow space beneath the piano with his ear to the floor. Every time I heard the pedal squeak, Buchbaum didn’t. Then when he finally acknowledged it, he dispensed part of a can of oil into the pedal joints to correct the problem. No sooner had he fixed everything and headed out the door, that I heard the squeak again and raced down the hallway to catch him before he disappeared into the elevator. Each time I grabbed Buchbaum in the nick of time, begging him once and for all to annihilate the squeak, it turned out to be a prolonged, frustrating, and fruitless pursuit. In the last analysis, I had to painfully accept a sporadically squeaky sustain pedal.

The Visalia Gallery piano tuner, likewise, couldn’t get a grip on the Nordiska pedal problem. He had tried everything—dis-assembling the action and tweaking the dampers. He even inserted WD-40 directly into the pedal area but to no avail. In the meantime, I was getting a bit testy about the whole thing, wondering why Ginaddiy had failed to properly detail the piano before it was sent over to the recording studio. If York were here he’d certainly know how to fix it, but today he was off in Tranquility, moth proofing a piano.

I took a few deep breaths to calm myself down, and decided that the squeaks were not worth a further drain of my energies. I’d make do, and play the Nordiska without using the soft pedal. If I increased my overall sound projection, I’d be able to scale down my dynamic levels when needed.

Time was short. Peter couldn’t donate more than a complete afternoon and evening to the project and the next day following the session, the piano had to be returned to Visalia though there was always a chance it could remain a bit longer. Perhaps by some miracle, the musical treasure would become a permanent addition to Wolf Sound notching up Fresno’s recording environment and making it a hub for fine classical recording artists far and wide. A nice fantasy.

Peter had proposed a plan for the recording session that was a bit unorthodox.
Upon his recommendation, he would retire to the lounge, turn on the power, and leave me to my own devices in my area in front of the sound engineer’s glass window.

It worked. I was a free spirit left alone to play a heaven sent piano with no distracting hand signals, or prompts from the engineer. I inhabited a fancy free space that was filled with a divine sonority emanating from a grand piano that would be immortalized on disk with Wolf Sound’s imprint!

The session ended by midnight when I had no more adrenalin to pump out, yet I experienced an overwhelming, though pleasurable exhaustion.

Peter had meanwhile returned to his station behind the glass, winked at me, and began to shut down power in the space. The lights out, we parted, and I headed into the darkness to my dilapidated Dodge Caravan van bursting with delight that I had recorded on a dream piano. It would remain one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life!

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Fujie Finds her Dream piano, but Buyer Beware!

Fujie’s Suzuki Digital piano, purchased at Costco, predated her starting lessons with me. Prior to entering my sanctuary with its two Steinways and wall-to-wall, piano emblem nick knacks, she had been enrolled at Fresno State’s Group classes. Seated at her electronic station with a full deck of 88s mounted on particle board platforms, among rows of students with headsets, she came to  realize that this path to learning piano was compromised. In her own words, it was an “espresso packaged short cut.” I would validate her opinion when I gazed at the pricey book she had bought for the course. It advanced far too quickly, leaving Fujie and others lost and out in the cold. In addition, students taking this class had no real opportunity to explore the tonal resources of a real, acoustic piano since the electronic keyboards had a steely, hyper brilliant tone, not significantly modified by touch.

Fujie’s Suzuki brand digital posed the same problem. When she played my Steinway M grand, and explored varied approaches to dynamics (louds, softs, and in between) she could not transfer the experience to her keyboard, and in time, her frustration grew to a point where she considered buying a real piano.

My only reservation was that Fujie had previously rejected the soulful sounding Knight piano, and a decent Yamaha console housed in a garage, so I wondered if she could be satisfied with any worthy instrument that came her way.


I remember the day she called me to check out the local antique store on Blackstone Avenue, off Shaw, which advertised a vintage Wurlitzer grand, circa 1920. While it turned out to be resplendent and a real eye catcher, the instrument itself, was invalidated by several broken strings, a pervasively sour tone, and fake legs. Yes, fake legs!

York had cruised by the day after our visit, and confirmed that the piano had the legs of a turn of the century Chickering. Immediately, I wondered if the donor was the same piano I had recently checked out on Van Ness Extension. The seller had admitted to being  frustrated that she couldn’t unload her Square Grand, a drop dead good looking antique sounding like sour grapes, so she considered dismembering it, part by part for consignment.

Voila! I was convinced that the Wurlitzer grand located at the antique store, had benefited from a transplant courtesy of the Chickering. (I wish I had kept the photos of both pianos to prove my point)

But to give the reader an idea of the florid appearance of a vintage square grand, here is a picture of one (a Steinway) housed at Fresno Piano that has not sold in years. Just imagine these lion’s legs transferred to a less ornate instrument.

To cut a long story short, the Wurlitzer grand managed to sell  many months later to a Fresno based venture capitalist named “Leonard Ross,” whose hobby was collecting exotic pianos all over the US. As testimony to his lucrative excursions around the country, his office off Sierra and Palm was replete with many instruments, including violins hung from the wall,  a harp, and a Steinway B grand, (7 feet long) from the era of clacking teflon bushings. The latter was not among his antique treasures, and had a very difficult journey to sale.

I learned months later, that Ross wanted to unload the Wurlitzer grand because he realized that his $10,000 investment was a big mistake. As it was told to me by his secretary, a former piano student of mine, Len figured out that the instrument couldn’t hold a tuning, and played like a drunken sailor singing off key.

Fujie had agreed that the Wurlitzer was not an option after experiencing its disabling tone, but I was surprised to hear her suggest that we take a drive over to California Piano that was having a closeout sale. Her gesture indicated that she was leaning in the direction of buying a new piano!

The small dealership on Clovis Avenue, about ten miles out of Fresno, bore the tell tale signs of a real close-out, not one of those pretend to fold, business ploys. There were signs plastered everywhere, “selling off pianos at bargain prices,” pinned on windows, walls and in between. Once inside the showroom, however, the story was different. Prices were sky high!

Tags affixed to Pearl River Pianos and Kawai studio uprights were not in the bargain range. Fujie might do better in the used piano market, perhaps, but I realized that she had her heart set on bringing home a virgin beauty.

The Kawai uprights interested me as I had become a fan of the more recent GE-20 series pianos with the Millennium action. I had bought one of these small grands for myself at a significant discount at DC Pianos in Berkeley and a  few verticals sitting nearby were equally as impressive. The problem with Kawai was it’s lack of name recognition as compared to the powerful PR machine-driven Yamaha Corporation. If the word got out that Kawai was producing a warmer sounding piano, with decent regulation, more might be sold.

Fujie and I squeezed down an aisle of Kawai studio upright pianos,  model K15s, that stood in two rows. Some were ebony while a few were in walnut finish.

With an invitation to play any number of these, I couldn’t resist. Dancing from one to another, I tapped away at numerous keyboards holding the memory of a ping that appealed to me. I detailed the middle, bass and upper treble of several, eliminated some outright, and returned to those that passed the first tonal test. Then I carefully honed in on tone, touch, voicing, key responsiveness in that order.

Most of the selection was unappealing but for ONE piano that jumped out at me. And it was an instrument with a heaven sent DREAM sound and even touch merged together

“Fujie,” I screamed. “Come over here, and try this one out!”

She had been lost around the corner, sampling the first row of pianos. Quickly, she rushed over to the ebony studio upright that I was obsessing over.

“Listen to ‘Fur Elise,’ and tell me what you think,” I said.

She was mesmerized as I was, having those hunger pangs you get when you’ve not eaten in 6 to 7 hours. Only this time, her appetite for this piano was growing in intensity.

“Fujie, this is YOUR piano. You have to get this one, and none other,” I insisted.

She seemed convinced after trying it herself. The piano sang under her fingers as she played her Bach “Prelude in C” from the Well Tempered Clavier with its arpeggios  flowing limpidly like water from a fresh stream.

I knew she was hooked.

The only problem was a “SOLD” sign had been pasted onto the rack indicating the baby had been taken! I couldn’t believe we had failed to notice this in our frenzied enthusiasm.

What would we do now? I had no intention of advising Fujie to buy any other studio upright on the floor. None deserved her ownership.

Ed Russo, the dealer on premises, suddenly sauntered over to talk with us. He asked if we needed his assistance.

Anxiously, I asked him about the SOLD sign.

“So we both really like this piano, but I see it’s not for sale?”

I was hoping that there was some kind of mistake and maybe the sign was taped to the wrong studio upright.

“Oh, don’t worry yourselves about it,” he answered.

“The lady who bought it this morning, really wanted a walnut finish, so I’m going to send her a boxed model.”

“But wait a minute,” I said. “Didn’t you put the serial number down on the invoice when you made the sale?”

That would have been the correct thing to do. A buyer had to be sure that his or her selection was validated by this important set of digits. I had warned my students and their parents over and again about making sure to copy down the serial number of the piano they had picked out at the local dealer or Lord knows what could happen.

Ed Russo, answered my question nonchalantly. “Oh, no problem, I never put that number down on the sales slip, so the piano is free and clear to be sold to you.”

At that moment, my heart sank. I could only imagine the buyer receiving the wrong piano, not the one of her dreams, and it would be a major disappointment. Perhaps, she would lose sleep over it, or  get terribly ill.

While Fujie and I felt guilt permeating our pores, we managed to get passed it, but it took a few minutes of lingering and serious thought.

For Ed Russo, the day spelled a double sale, and that was uppermost in his mind.

As he processed Fujie’s credit card, new ownership was passed on, and no matter what followed, buyer’s remorse, guilt or whatever, the piano was in good hands. It would have a well maintained life (regular tunings) and a soft cloth passed over its case.

Fujie’s long, and sometimes frustrating piano search was over. It had been an arduous journey but worth the effort.


Fuji’s grandson, Ryder, enjoys the Kawai!

Another Buyer Beware story:

Funeral For a Cracked Plate:

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More Photos from my Dream Piano Adventures

Connell York, Piano Technician:

York examines a moth hole in a hammer felt:

Terry Barrett, RPT, Registered Piano Technician is pictured below getting ready to tune the Aeolian table style piano. In the process, he discovered its true date of manufacture as April, 1936 (engraved into a key after he pulled the action) confirming York’s estimate to a tee. The mystery surrounding the piano’s age was solved.

A Player Piano Without a Name:

After much belabored research, the probable identity of this old upright piano was a Kimball. As seen below, the fall board revealed only partial information about the instrument because of its scratchy surface. In its heyday, the piano had a working player mechanism.

Fresno Auction piano, Steinway grand, 1920

The dusty piano seen in this photo was embroiled in a bidding war. Leading up to the auction day, hungry pursuers fell all over themselves. I was one of them.

Steve, the auctioneer, Fresno Auction Company is seen below. I had never met anyone this tall in my life. He had to be near 7 ft in height.

Steve expertly auctioned off the vintage Steinway 1920 piano that garnered $16,000 in 2007. Both Terry Barrett, RPT, and Connell York appraised the piano at a far lower value due to its need for significant repair work.

The Winning Bidder is pictured below. From what I gathered, he routinely donated out the pianos he obtained at these auctions. The Steinway 1920 was apparently headed for a church of unknown identity.

Funeral of a Cracked Plate: A soap opera surrounding an undistinguished, 100 year old grand piano that was purchased by Rebecca McGregor in an Internet buying spree. The instrument, a visually appealing antique caught the woman’s attention and eventually became her prize possession, making its arduous cross country voyage from Georgia to California. Sadly, some time either before or after its arrival in Fresno, the piano suffered a cast iron plate breakdown, and had to be mercifully taken from its owner.

Connell York fought desperately to save the piano, by hauling the monstrous plate over to the College of the Seqouias for welding. The the rest is history….

Above: Before the plate was laid to rest, some prayers were recited over it. In the prayer group: Terry Barrett, Ladine, York’s wife, and John McGregor, husband of protagonist Rebecca McGregor, owner of the 1905, Proksch grand purchased on the Internet. (A-440 pianos, inc)

Terry Barrett has his own very personal moments with the plate.

In November, 2010, approximately 3 years following the plate funeral,  the CEO of A-440 pianos pleaded guilty to smuggling ivories into the US. These were used in his rebuilding projects.

The Little Knightingale: This beauty was given up for adoption by its owner, Caroline, and the reason became clear as the story drew to a conclusion.

From a Piano Teacher’s worst nightmare:

My Pedal guard, designed and built by Fujie Robesky, one of my adult piano students, was meant to protect the damper, sostenuto, and soft pedals from damage or injury by students with poor impulse control.

A legal contract was also drawn up to minimize further assaults to my piano.

Fujie R. Long-time adult piano student, tofu maker, and ceramic aritst.  In the photo below, she is sitting beside her new Kawai studio upright that she purchased at California Piano in Clovis during its closeout sale.

She crafted a beautiful keyboard bracelet for me that’s pictured below her photo:

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The Big day for Claudia M. and others, minus Aiden the Cat

Saturday was the culmination of little Claudia’s practicing. She was scheduled to play on a musical program without Aiden the cat beside her on the piano bench. As a second banana, I would replace my adorable feline as the duet partner of my pint size 8 year old student on the stage at the Fresno Piano recital hall. She would do her encore performance of “Doorbell” from Faber’s primer Piano Adventures along with the “I Like Song.”

This time parents, relatives and friends would be in attendance.

We certainly had a good rehearsal under our belt when the camcorder rolled a few days earlier at my home studio. Claudia, held her own, riveted to her music and never distracted by Aiden’s presence. I happily played the teacher accompaniment at my second piano, out of video range.

About 8 of my 30 students participated in a set of recitals that had different theme headings such as Halloween, Dance inspired, and General repertoire. The event was sponsored by our local Music Teachers Association of California, MTAC and was months in preparation.  Duets for two players at one piano, or at separate pianos were also lumped into some combined theme categories. It was a joyful occasion which invited more than a smattering of nervousness and cold feet.

Most students just don’t get enough opportunities to perform for each other during the year, and sometimes their practicing is a bit erratic given their school schedules, extracurricular activities, and homework obligations. But despite these obstacles, most do the best they can under the glare of stage lights and rolling camcorders aimed directly at them.

Sometimes cell phones will go off, unnerving them. Or tantrums by toddlers and infants will knock them out of balance, but most will happily finish their pieces with some sense of pride, grabbing a bow for good measure.

On Saturday, all the Halloween category performers were rewarded with a bag of candy, which was enough to keep them coming back to participate in the next planned recital. An encore for sure! All participants were given orange ribbons for their efforts.

The spirit of sharing was definitely in abundance during all the Fall Festival recitals, with strains of beautiful music shared back and forth.   Congratulations to Evan, 8 year old Claudia and 10 year old Claudia, Sakura, Mai, Nayelli, Albertina, and Ilyana who all graced the stage with poise and elegance. And with special reverence for the composers who made this special day possible, we thank Rameau, Latour, Johann Christian Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach, Beethoven, Grieg, Tansman, Kabalevsky, Gillock, and the Fabers.