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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
respectable.

“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.

THE AEOLIAN’S MYSTERY DATE

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

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DREAM PIANO: Overview and Acknowledgments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***
More stories from Dream Piano:

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Concluding Bonus Chapter:

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

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

More People to Thank:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

antique pianos, Caroline Scheer, Connell York, estate sale, Fresno Piano Store, humor, Kawai, Knight piano, Mr. York, New York City High School of Performing Arts, Oberlin Conservatory, New York City High School of Performing Arts, old upright, photos, piano auction, piano finding, piano finding adventure, piano instruction, piano lesson, piano pedagogoy, piano repair, piano room, piano scales, piano society, Piano Street, piano student, piano teacher, piano technician, piano technician's guild, piano tuner, piano tuning, Piano World, pianoaddict.com, Pianostreet.com, pianoworld, pianoworld.com, Proksch piano, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Kirsten blog, Steinway and Sons, Steinway grand piano, Teach Street, Terry Barrett, uk-piano-forums, Uncategorized, word press, wordpress.com, you tube, you tube video

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.

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

A Player Piano Without a Name:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/15/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

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

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….

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

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.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/12/a-440-owner-pascal-vieillard-found-guilty-read-on/

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.

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

From a Piano Teacher’s worst nightmare:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/11/05/a-piano-teachers-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:

antique pianos, Baldwin piano, bluebookofpianos.com, cat, cats, Connell York, Howard piano, humor, Knight piano, Larry Fine, Mr. York, old upright, pianist, piano, piano finding, piano finding adventure, piano repair, Piano Street, piano teacher, piano tuner, piano tuning, Piano World, pianoaddict.com, Pianostreet.com, pianoworld.com, satire, Shirley Kirsten, talkclassical.com, Teach Street, The Piano Book, Uncategorized, used piano, used pianos, word press, wordpress.com, Wurlitzer piano, you tube, you tube video

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hi Shirley,

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wurlitzer

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

She replied within a few days.

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

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

With pianos, it was no different.

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another communication arrived a few hours later.

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

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

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

The High Stakes Adventure

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The arrival of York was always a trip!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another piano had found a good home!

 

C. Bender, Caroline Scheer, Craigs List, Holland, Knight piano, Mr. York, music, Oberlin Conservatory, New York City High School of Performing Arts, pianist, piano, piano repair, piano student, piano teacher, piano technician, piano technician's guild, piano tuner, piano tuning, Pianostreet.com, pianoworld.com, satire, Shirley Kirsten, Uncategorized, used piano, word press, wordpress.com, you tube, you tube video

Pics of the Little Knightingale, me, York, and Caroline

There’s York, piana tuna,’ joining the crowd at Caroline’s. He harbored doubts about Knight pianos until he inspected this one. You can see his time honored lamp with its twisted neck hanging down over the piano. Missing are his Filter Queen moth eradication machine and can of Decon.

Read: The Little Knightingale

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

C. Bender, Caroline Scheer, Connell York, Fresno, Fur Elise, Holland, humor, J.S. Bach, JS Bach, Knight piano, Mr. York, New York City High School of Performing Arts, Oberlin Conservatory, New York City High School of Performing Arts, pianist, piano, piano repair, piano teacher, piano technician, piano tuner, Piano World, pianoaddict.com, pianoworld.com, satire, Shirley Kirsten, Steinway piano, Uncategorized, used piano, used pianos, wordpress.com

The Little Knightingale

It sang like a nightingale the morning I stroked its keys, yet it has always been a relative unknown in the world of big name pianos such as Steinway, Baldwin, and Yamaha. From an innocuous three-line ad posted on Oodle.com, I discovered that this very Knight piano was for sale, housed in northwest Fresno just a mile or so from my home. A British made studio size vertical manufactured in 1969 by Alfred Knight, Ltd, it made its maiden voyage from Amsterdam, Holland to the USA surviving the winds and tides of crossing the Atlantic. On the last leg of its journey, the noble little lady arrived in Fresno, California, faced with an extreme shift in temperature and humidity that would have damaged if not destroyed instruments of lesser quality.

Alfred Knights built in the years before 1974 (marking the death of the manufacturer and its sale to another company) achieved recognition for their scale and design. In the Piano Book, Buying and Owning a New or Used Piano, the author, Larry Fine, wrote:

“The Knight was a remarkable English vertical piano, not well known in this country but very highly regarded in Europe and among piano designers. In addition to impeccable workmanship throughout, Knight Pianos had a few technical features that were fairly unique to it.”

Fine specifically mentioned the “mounting of the pin block in a pocket cast in the plate, and the use of exceptionally hard phenolic tuning pin plate bushings, both of which enhanced tuning stability.” Legend had it that John Lennon owned a Knight.

The seller of the nightingale, Caroline Scheer, an attractive, middle aged woman who taught piano part-time, had married Peter, a Dutch businessman in 1973 and following their betrothal in Delaware, they relocated to Holland. With a portion of wedding gift money, Caroline purchased a piano of her choice. Having had formal musical training at the University of Delaware, she relished the opportunity to pick a carefully selected instrument at C. Bender, a local Amsterdam instrument distributor.

“I fell instantly in love with my little Knight,” Caroline said.

She mentioned that she had eyed a Baldwin grand, and two uprights, a Steinway and a Berlin-made Bechstein in the same showroom.

“The European piano had a dark, somber tone,” she insisted. As soon as she had acquired her dream Knight, she christened it, “Caroline” in honor of herself. Its serial number, “46613” dated it to 1969, though it was “new’” by all accounts. I could hardly characterize the 44 inch console as diminutive and fragile. Its tone was expansive and resonant, belying its size. In some ways it played like a grand, especially in its extreme bass and treble registers that had unusual resonance and projection. This piano was amazingly voiced with a more subdued mid-range framed by defined, shimmering tonal contours on either side. It culminated in an almost glassy upper treble that gave keyboard-wide arpeggios (broken chords) a wonderful splash of sound at the top.

There was only one problem that plagued this lovely piano. An assortment of odd looking, misaligned black notes were sprinkled across its keyboard that could easily distract a buyer. In reality, the freakish keys had absolutely no effect upon the piano’s performance.

The anomaly could have had a variety of explanations. The Knight could have been injured in the factory before it was boxed and sent off to the dealer. But if this were the case, Caroline Scheer should have noticed it the day of her selection and she insisted that the “bad notes” were not present then.

She claimed the ill-balanced ebonies appeared virtually “overnight.”

“My little piano had been placed in a container on the boat, and I know it happened somewhere along its journey,” she insisted.

Caroline was certain the problem surfaced once the piano landed in Fresno, California in December, 1975.

From my perspective, a conspicuous crack on the lower left side of the oak finished cabinet was more noticeable than the awkward appearing ebonies. An injury to the case could easily knock $500 to a thousand off the $3,500 selling price, a tag too steep for a vertical pushing 40 without name brand recognition. But despite the cabinet imperfection and warped looking notes, I could confidently talk up the piano to my students and other interested buyers.

I was convinced that the Knight would be the perfect instrument for Fujie, my 67 year old adult beginner who needed a real piano. She had been playing an abysmal sounding Suzuki digital and hated it!

Caroline leaned against the kitchen counter as I spoke.

“If you don’t mind, I’d like to have a pupil of mine try your piano.”

She dabbed her eye with a handkerchief after listening to me play Fur Elise, the Schumann Arabesque, and a Chopin Nocturne on her “little” instrument.

“It brought back memories of my daughter practicing,” she said.

The piano, which sat on hard wood flooring, was placed against a blue wall with colorfully mounted paintings. It definitely was not the main feature of a very elegant home filled with pricey, original masterpieces of art and furniture.

The center of attraction was a newly acquired Kohler & Campbell grand piano in polished ebony that stood in an adjacent room beneath a vaulted ceiling and chandelier. According to Caroline, it was acquired at an estate sale held by a friend whose aged father was about to enter a nursing home. Caroline said she had gotten the piano for a “steal price,” but had expressed reservation about fortuitously acquiring what she thought was a bargain. “I thought I might have insulted my friend by getting the piano for a disrespectfully low figure.”

It so happened that a musician circulating among the crowd remarked that the piano had greater worth than the asking price, and while this boosted Caroline’s confidence about her purchase, she continued to harbor guilt about it. Only after her dear friend, “Karen,” had reassured her that the piano belonged in her exclusive care without regard to dollar and cents issues, did Caroline let go of her concerns.

Though I was intensely curious about the Kohler selling price, I had never inquired about it in deference to Caroline Scheer’s privacy.

“Do you mind if I try out your grand piano,” I asked her tentatively?

“No, of course, go right ahead,” she replied.

Within five minutes of playing the Kohler & Campbell piano, I had sized it up. A perfunctory run across its registers revealed an instrument with a dull, lackluster tone that had audible whistles from what I’d guessed were friction-related problems in the action. The sustain pedal also squeaked audibly and no matter how I approached the piano, I could not elicit any tonal beauty from it. Even if I had imagined an idealized sound and had striven to attain it, the instrument would repeatedly fail me.

The “Kohler” brand portion of its name, shared with a well known sink, fleshed out its mediocrity. A basically inferior piano with numerous internal problems, it was greatly diminished by the Knight that played circles around it, though half its size.

From having spoken with Caroline about her new acquisition I wasn’t sure that she realized her Kohler, nicknamed “black stallion,” was no match for the shimmering Knight, or maybe she did and there was something I hadn’t been told that factored into her decision to put it up for sale. It was this psychodrama that drew me into situations like these.

“I’d like to bring my adult student, Fuji out here to review the piano,” I reminded Caroline, “and I want Mr. York, my piano technician associate, to take a good, hard look at the crooked keys and evaluate them.” I needed to be absolutely sure that the misaligned notes were not a symptom of a larger, more serious problem.

Caroline seemed thrilled that I’d taken such a personal interest in her Knight piano though she could plainly see that I was not enthralled with her “black stallion.”

“I’m so very pleased that you love my Knight as much as I do,” she said.

Her words belied her intention to put her faithful musical companion up for adoption.

***

York arrived at Caroline’s the next day, preceding Fuji by a full hour. He’d always been an early bird ever since his grandpa, also a piano tuner, drilled it into his head that being late might well be a capital crime.

“If my granddaddy didn’t give me a spankin’ right then and there, then I got one from my momma later in the day,” he said.

York confessed that his grandpa was quite the cusser.

“He’d be lettin’ off steam and he’d cuss real bad right in front ‘a me.

“One day my mammy called me over, and said, ‘Now, Connell, has grandpa been talkin’ dirty in the shop?’ And naturally, ‘cause I didn’t want to lie, I told her, Yeah grampa had been cussin.’

“Well, she made me tell her exactly what grand pappy said.”

York blurted out the words: “f—n, son of a b—tch.”

“My momma dun grabbed me by my neck and dragged me into one of them bedrooms and gaves me one helluva lickin.’ Then she dun washed my mouth out with soap.”

***

York had already dismantled the Knight and mounted his deeply dented metal lamp to throw light on the hammers, strings, and pins.

He’d said he once tuned another Knight that wasn’t worth “nuthin,” and from that day on he’d bad mouthed all British pianos as “bein’ no good! They’s don’t know how to build ‘em,” he insisted.

Nevertheless, the old man remained busily engaged, checking out the hammers.

“Geeze, looks mighty clean in there, and them hammers is like new.”

He referred to the felts that were barely grooved, meaning they’d shown little wear and tear. From their appearance, the seller’s daughter had hardly practiced or she could have fibbed that she did. Who would ever really know? I had students who swore they practiced with an egg timer forced upon them by a strict parent. Even with this abhorrent practice in effect, it didn’t necessarily guarantee quality practicing.

York was looking at the tuning pins.

“Like brand new,” he said

Then he took out his tuning fork and tapped it on his knee, lifting it to his right ear.

“Oops, the “A” is down about 10 cents!”

Ten cents wasn’t too far from where the note should have been. York didn’t need to make a stink about it, but I knew he would, just to have something negative to say about the piano. He’d have an excuse to show off his tuning skills.

“Hey, what’s with those black notes that look misaligned?” I asked him.

“Where’s them notes?” He replied.

I carefully pointed out about 5 or 6 that were sprinkled around the keyboard.

York then studied them with the concentration of a rocket scientist.

“Okay, now listen up,” he said.

“The glue on them notes just didn’t dry properly in the factory, and then they was forgotten along the way.”

“So are you telling me that there was a quality control problem at the factory?”

“Well, just about,” he replied. “Not good fer the company’s reputation.”

“My question is, will these crooked keys get any worse over time?”

“I can tell ya, as sure as hell freezes over that nothin’s goin’ happen to them black notes, and if ya want, I kin fix’em up by ungluin’ ‘em and then regluin’ ‘em.”

I had a gut feeling that these plaguing keys should be left alone since they were working just fine.

York noticed the crack on the side of the cabinet.

“Well now there’s somethin’ I can treat, and makes it look a lot better. How’d this happen?” He turned toward Caroline who was in the kitchen peering over at York.

She reluctantly answered. “My husband, Peter, and a few of his friends were bringing the piano out to the patio of our condo for a special event and they just lost their balance and that’s how it got nicked. Every time I think about it, I want to cry,” she said, woefully.

Peter stood next to Caroline looking like an ostrich wanting to bury its head in the sand.

“Well, ya should never try to move ‘a piano yerself,” York chimed in.

“Now I used ta move pianas, and learned the trade from my grand pappy. He would have me put the dolly under the piana’ when he was about to move one out. And he always said, ‘now son, if you think I’m gonna drop the piana, you run like hell!’”

Caroline and Peter were not amused by York who’d overstayed his welcome. He’d become a permanent fixture in the tight space occupied by the Knight.

Fuji arrived just then, and made a beeline to the piano without much of an introduction.

She was strictly business, sitting there, tinkering with the keys. She could barely play her “Bach Prelude in C,” but had a few short elementary pieces under her belt.

“Hey what’s wrong with these black notes?” She said.

Wouldn’t you know she would focus on something cosmetic! As sure as the sun set in the west, I was convinced that Fuji would not be the future owner of the Knight and Caroline sensed it, too.

I nudged her off the piano bench so I could play a few more selections.

York was leaning against a couch, listening to me pour my whole soul into the piano. The Knightingale responded nicely to a wide palette of dynamics.

Fuji had begun to appreciate the lovely, resonance of this piano, but she couldn’t see herself parting with her money to acquire it.

“What’s the asking price on the piano?” She inquired.

“It’s a rock bottom $3,500!” I replied.

Fuji shook her head in disapproval. “Well I’m just going to pass on this one.”

It was a fait accomplit. Fuji was out of the running, but I wasn’t sure I’d be able to attract any buyers because of the over-inflated price tag and misaligned notes.

The next day I placed the Knight piano on Craig’s List purely out of altruism. What seemed like an orphaned child needed to find a good home.

I posted ads all over the Internet making sure to word each one differently so I wouldn’t be caught spamming. I posted on the London and Holland Craig’s lists to attract buyers who might be conducting business in Europe and the USA, in the hopes someone would recognize a British piano that was not a household name in the states. I had read on Piano Finders.com, a Bay area website that the Knight piano had a small but devoted following of admirers and was considered to be comparable in quality to better German or Austrian pianos.

Through my Internet postings, I had received an e-mail from David Chandler, a San Diego Knight owner who mentioned that his piano measured 50 inches, and was “done in highly patterned rosewood originally for a furniture show in London, then was shipped to the West Coast.”  He had owned his piano for 35 years and “thought its sound was improving.”

Another Knight aficionado, Conrad Nick Tucker, e-mailed me from Chicago requesting that I provide him with his piano’s year of manufacture based on its serial number. He insisted that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra once housed a Knight as a rehearsal piano. Because this statement whetted my curiosity, I immediately phoned Frank Villella, Archivist, Rosenthal Archives of the Chicago Symphony who researched my inquiry and wrote back:

“Unfortunately, we don’t have any documentation in the Archives regarding a Knight piano. For the past several years we have exclusively used Steinway and Boston pianos in our rehearsal spaces; prior to that, we used Baldwins. “

**

I had purposely decided not to upload a photo with the Craig’s List Knight ad because it might have exposed the piano’s freakish black keys. But I  knew that I wasn’t concealing anything that would in any way hinder the piano’s performance.

I chose instead to flesh out the “voice” of the piano as resembling that of a “nightingale,” and I waxed poetic about a lovely instrument whose remarkable tone haunted me day and night.

Within a few days of my having posted numerous online ads, I received an astonishing e-mail from a gentleman named “Rolf Utermohlen” who resided in Holland, very near the C. Bender establishment where Caroline had originally purchased her Knight. Uncannily, Rolf wrote that he was searching this very neighborhood for an older Knight piano just like the one I had advertised.

I read Rolf’s e-mail with disbelief!

“Dear Madam,

“I enjoyed your story of the “singing Knightingale.”I am not a pianist but I am looking for a piano for my wife who is a clavecimbelo player and needs a piano for accompanying singers in the romantic repertoire.

“I look for a second-hand instrument and would have a nice instrument for a moderate price. I just traced a Knight piano which had a good sound and I consider to buy that piano.

“Yesterday I read your enthusiastic message about the Knight and nervousness gets hold on me. I had a restless night dreaming of Knight pianos falling upon me. My wife does not understand my excitement altogether but she knows that such tempests never go away.

“I am 57 years old, and it reminds me of the days I went to the Conservatorium for my flute study (1979) and browsed and phoned entire Holland in getting the best flute. At last a friend flute player found a flute for me in Costa Mesa, California.

“I write this mail two streets away from the place Mr. C. Bender had his piano shop until 1995. A thousand of times I passed this shop without knowing it sells Knight Pianos. Last week I heard that Bender was a participant in the Knight holding and the monopoly to sell Knight Pianos in Holland.

“I have two questions for you. Can you recommend me literature about Knight Pianos? And secondly, and more important: I would like to have a photo of the Knight you saw in Fresno. Next Sunday my wife and I probably see 2 Knights in East Holland (one from 1960 and one from the seventies) and they all look different. As you have a good specimen, the photo can give me an impression what kind of instrument I perhaps can choose. When I have made up my mind and the piano is in my home, I will let you know.”

Sincerely yours, Rolf Utermöhlen, Zaandam, Holland

This letter was so heart-warming that I immediately forwarded it to Caroline and predicted that her Dutch husband, Peter would especially appreciate Rolf’s communication for its praise of the Knight.

I received a piano finding update from Rolf:

Dear Shirley,” My wife and I visited Arnhem to see 2 Knights. The first was an older one (19.000 series, made 1958-1960). Then another, near the serial number 32162 (the number 81000 I gave you appeared to be a patent number not the serial number!) “It was an interesting day, for the instruments were of a different character. It was obvious for me that both Knight instruments had a clear tone. The older one measures 1.05 meter and I heard a little lack of depth in the bass section, but still a strong tone for such a small sized piano. My wife found some unevenness when pressing some of the keys, probably caused by intense use of the piano. 

“At the moment she started playing on the next Knight, I had immediately a fantastic feeling about it. Being the sound is slightly less round than the first, this instrument resonated in the whole room with a shimmering tone!  And I was dreaming of it again last (K)night… It had only a crack of 10 cm in the soundboard at the top in the left corner.

“For both pianos we have to pay $1500. It is worth the money, but added with transport we found it too much. Moreover we were the only persons in Holland who are really interested in these instruments….

“This evening we are going to the one with serial number, 44579 not so far away from the same model you have seen in Fresno. I saw this instrument already myself two weeks ago, being also very good. If my wife is satisfied with it, we will buy that instrument. Probably we try this week some German Schimmels and Ibach for comparison and then we make up our mind.”

Greetings, Rolf

Another e-mail shortly arrived:

“Last evening we went to see our last Knight. I found it a very little bit less shimmering, but still very good. It stands on a vinyl floor in a corner of the room. The instruments of Sunday stood on a wooden floor and we see the ones in daylight. It is always difficult to compare instruments in different rooms.

“The instrument was in good shape and playing it had a good feeling. Needing some minor repair perhaps. Price: $600, so this is an interesting price and we think we shall do that. We decide next week.” Yours Sincerely, Rolf

Several weeks later Utermohlen acknowledged receiving photos I had sent him showing me performing on the Knight:

“I am sorry that I did not yet answer your last mail. Indeed I got your mail and I loved the photos seeing you playing on the Knight. Within a short time I hope to make some photos myself. Beforehand I have to apologize that my hairdress is not so beautiful as yours.

“Last week my Knight piano arrived. I bought it around six weeks ago. I found $600 too much so I offered $500 and the seller accorded (I think he was glad to get rid of the instrument.) Then I had to manage the transport from Leiden to Zaandam.  He offered to move the piano for $50 around the middle of May, and so the Knight arrived Wednesday last week.

“For the first time I felt a little disappointed to hear the sound in my own house. Certainly I believe that “your” Knight was a selected specimen. Moreover it was the end of a period of looking for an instrument, and, like a good Dutch proverb says, ‘possession of the thing is the end of all pleasure.’ Looking back, it reminded me of a period in February and March in which I was looking in a fanatic way for a piano, and simultaneously there were your evocative web mails about the Queen of Knights in California. It was the period of sleepless nights and restless checks of advertised pianos.

“After I had made my decision, I kept looking for Knights and, always, there are in my thoughts other, better, cheaper, and more interesting pianos (Knights)!

“For the moment it all has come to an end. One has chosen his instrument and one has to live with it!” Lovely greetings, Rolf Utermohlen.

***

Caroline and Peter had the patience of saints as they awaited a buyer like Rolf to approach them with a serious offer. I had even made a modest bid on the piano that I could ill afford!

Caroline refused my first offer on her piano, and awaited another after she countered. As we continued to exchange e-mails, a creeping tension weighed upon our relationship that no longer permitted me to continue the bidding. We had become adversaries in this transaction, battling for financial control of the Knight so eventually I withdrew my final offer and went back to representing her lovely piano in the free marketplace.

Along the way, a few spammers surfaced. The first attack came in the form of a correspondence from “Britney Back” who inquired in fractured English about the Knight piano and included a cc list of Yahoo.com addresses. One traced to Karen E, Lile, President of Piano Finders.com. Thinking that she might be dubiously involved in the sale of the Knight, I sent her a confrontational e-mail, to which she responded that her address was among others that had been spammed by Ms. “Back.”

“I was not aware of your Knight Piano,” she insisted. “I got a spam/scam email from Britney that I did not reply to,” she explained. “I assume that she spammed you at the same time and that’s why our emails were listed together in this person’s message to us. Just for your reference I would not reply to Britney Back as this is most likely a fraudulent buyer who is spamming all the email addresses that are on Craig’s List.”

If this was a harbinger of more disturbing mails to come, it certainly played out in a second stage assault. This time someone named “Chillen Schafer” attacked:

“Hello Sales,” she wrote.

“Can I please know the availability and give away price of this item (referring to the Knight piano)

“I am interested.”

Somewhat naively, I responded: “The piano is selling for $2,500 (Caroline had lowered the price) Please call me back for further details as I will be home for the next hour or so and then will be back in the early afternoon. “

I don’t know why I was so gullible right after being spammed by “Britney Back. “

Chillen responded to my e-mail:

“ Hi Sales,

“Thanks for the prompt reply.

“I am purchasing the item for my nephew who just graduated from the (?) music school…..hope it’s in good and presentable condition. Surely I would have arranged for a meeting with you, if not for my present official assignment in Ontario.

“Let me have the weight of the item and your personal information to receive the payment.

“My hubby will make arrangements for shipping.

“Hope to hear from you soon.”

Chillen

I was confused by the emails and whether they were legit. A part of me knew this person was a shady spammer, and I was probably bait on a hook, but I still needed to see the whole thing played out.

Stupidly, I forwarded Caroline, all of Chillen’s e-mails and notified Chillen to this effect. Then I added insult to injury by giving the questionable buyer the seller’s telephone number, adding, “It is now 4:30 a.m. here in California so a good time to call would be after 9:00 a.m.”

Chillen answered:

“Thank you, sales! I will contact them as soon as possible.  Kindly assist in making sure I get the piano. I’ll contact you for feedback.”

“Chillen.”

It was becoming crystal clear that Chillen was an imposter, but to be sure, I kept writing and waiting for more evidence of a scam. I wrote back:

“Please provide your phone number and also call me at (559) —.—- If you are interested in the piano, you should consider seeing it and playing it first. The buyer prefers that the piano purchase be made in person only.

Chillen’s subsequent reply was the giveaway!

“Thanks for your kind gesture.

“I am presently with my hubby in West africa (not capitalized) on a research project.

“You can reach me directly on +2348056083298”

I came in for the killing!!

“NO SPAMMERS, PLEASE!”

Chillen’s last words were:

“Why that?..why?!”

**

As luck would have it, the Knight drama finally reached a denouement. A Bay area woman who had a cultivated interest in fine pianos, came forward to claim the Knightingale.

I called Caroline about two weeks after the Knight was moved out of its innocuous corner and replaced with an ornate, antique desk.

“How are you feeling since the Knight was taken?” I asked.

“Well, I’m very happy that it’s in the loving care of a good owner,” she answered.

And what was it like the day the movers came? Were you able to emotionally withstand the loss?”

“I took it really well, I think.”

“Did you cry at all?” I inquired.

“Well, not in front of the three weird looking people who hauled it out. This one guy looked like a pirate with tattoos all over his body.

Peter made an interesting remark several hours after the piano had left our home. He said, “Can you just see the piano, armless and legless hitch-hiking back to Fresno?”

The image made me choke up with emotion. I probably felt sadder than Caroline about the departure of her little Knightingale. After all I had waxed poetic about the piano and had become very intimate with it, stroking the keys and drawing beautiful music from the instrument. Even one of Caroline’s little 7 year old students, also named “Caroline” had asked to play the Knight after it was replaced by the Kohler & Campbell as the official teaching piano. “Mrs. Scheer,” she had asked one day, “Can I play on the little piano because I have so many good memories?”

After the Knight was gone, but never to be forgotten I had one last question for Caroline Scheer that had haunted me ever since I laid my fingers on her piano.

“Tell me why you sold away your resonating Knight and kept the duller sounding Kohler & Campbell grand?”

“Well, when I was child,” she said, “my father promised to get me a grand piano like the one sitting in the concert hall at the University of Delaware, that is, if I got all “A’”s on my report card. And so I studied very hard, applied myself, and obtained the good grades he demanded. “And guess, what?” she paused, lowering her voice. “I never did get the piano he had promised me. So here we are, so many, many years later, and I have finally gotten what I deserved.”

There were two ways to look at her answer. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the double entendre which for me, eased the pain of the Knight’s departure. Yes, I thought, perhaps, she had gotten what she deserved.