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A Long Lost Concert Program turns up on a dusty grand piano

One of the fringe benefits of tidying up a piano room filled with unsorted piles of music and the rest, is finding a gold mine of goodies that have been missing for months, if not years.

Have you ever experienced lost this, found that–found that, lost this?

It’s embarrassing, but as we age, more of the latter occurs. (found/lost, found/lost, ad nauseum)

At least one happy hunting ground experience, however, produced a recovered memento of a Tanglewood concert. The embracing story surrounded the late Isaac Stern who stole my heart playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto with the Boston Symphony. It was during a music camp summer spent in Lenox, Massachusetts.


Tracking my 6 or so years as a violinist, I found myself in the throes of two music camp experiences. The one at Merrywood acquired a memory bank of richly woven anecdotes.

Its unique proximity to the Tanglewood Festival afforded weekly trips to Sunday morning BSO rehearsals, and interspersed jaunts to chamber music and orchestra concerts. These were the bread and butter of our musical lives.

The singular concert carved into my memory, besides one where Lukas Foss played the Bach d minor concerto, was Isaac Stern’s appearance under Charles Munch. (During the summer, 1961 there were a host of guest conductors ascending the podium.) A uniquely compact maestro, Pierre Monteux, climbed up a solid oak stool, looking like an elf, though he conducted like a giant.

After Stern’s riveting performance under the stars with a shell embracing soloist and orchestra, I should have had consideration for my fellow campers who were squeezed into carbon-emission fuming buses awaiting a missing teen. Who could that have been? (Was I a runaway- in-progress or just a love-sick adolescent hounding an autograph?)

I was off and running from the brood of Merrywooders who were bound for Ruth Hurwitz’s quaint camp-site bordering the property of French Hornist, James Stagliano. A well-known imbiber, it was a well-circulated legend that BSO Jim took a swig from his horn right smack in his orchestra seat. Was it NOT saliva he was shaking from his mouthpiece?

Stagliano’s early-morning horn calls started our day following a blaring Bach “Brandenburg” 5, piped into the second floor where we campers slept in tightly-squeezed cots.

Our daily schedule included practice periods, ensemble rehearsals, private and group music lessons, choir singing by the fireplace, and campfires. But these activities were no match for our tour de force trips to the Berkshire Festival concerts.


The night of one sweltering July, Isaac Stern outplayed himself igniting my immediate impulse to race after him for a morsel of human contact plus a time-honored autograph.

I found him standing regally in the Green room wearing his signature silk scarf. An adoring mom was beside him. He looked worn by fatigue, but signed my program in a gesture of kindness. I will always remember his generosity.

Tears had flowed down his cheeks during his performance making it even more emotionally poignant. Or might those droplets have been beads of sweat contoured by sizzling hot lights? It’s fascinating how the memory creates its own staging. A tender pouring would have added a nice effect.

The aftermath:

Following my autograph-seeking coup with Stern, I was hunted down by camp authorities and grounded for a week. Punishment was meted out: no s’mores at the Saturday campfire. (chocolate-covered marshmallows) and a suspension of attendance at chamber music concerts in the shed. (not a venue for paddling)

That’s not all that happened at Merrywood.

An August camp concert provided a breath-taking finale!

Read more!

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Mozart memories, reflections and revisits (Videos)

Andante: second movement, Mozart Sonata K. 545 played on my Steinway, 1917, M.


My relationship to Mozart and his music began with the violin. At the Merrywood Music Camp in Lenox, Massachusetts, only a stone’s throw from Tanglewood, I encountered Eugene Lehner, first violist of the Boston Symphony when I played second violin in a string quartet. At the time, in 1960 I was simultaneously fiddling and tickling the ivories.

In the company of more seasoned chamber ensemble, I was privileged to rehearse and refine one of Mozart’s most divinely beautiful works:

The Quartet in G, K. 387 (first movement)

Lehner, in his 50s at the time, danced around us with a warm smile, conducted as we played, cajoled, hummed, gestured in every which way to make us “sing” with warmth radiating through our very beings. He wanted each of us to give everything we had, and we did, slipping into a universe of imagination, inspiration and pure beauty. I’ll never forget the experience.

At Performing Arts High School in the mid 60s, I had the unique experience of playing the first movement of Mozart’s piano Concerto in G, K. 453 at the Winter concert where a radiance flooded the stage creating a special ensemble between orchestra and soloist. It was my second Mozartean journey that followed my having studied the Mozart Sonata in D K. 311.

My teacher, Lillian Freundlich, the next inspiring individual to flow out of my music camp experience came backstage in the glare of the spotlight to remind me of what we had worked on for months, and how all my practicing was worth the effort. (Ironically, her nephew, Douglas, a Merrywooder had led me to his aunt when I most needed a teacher to guide me through the basics of producing a singing tone)

Mozart became the staple of my practicing as I branched out following my years as a student at the Oberlin Conservatory. Once settled into my own studio apartment on W. 74th Street and Amsterdam, I selected the Sonata in A Major, K.331 composed uniquely in Theme and Variations form, with a culminating Ronda Alla Turca as the final movement.

In my confined creative space that was dominated by an imposing Steinway grand, gifted by my father, I learned the Piano concertos in D minor, K. 466, and C Major, K. 525.

From there it was on to learn and teach more of Mozart’s sonatas.

The composer has always presented a special challenge for the performer. One cannot over pedal, or under pedal his music. The Alberti, “broken chord” bass must not sound monotonous or grinding, but supply a warm underpinning for an operatically spun melody, especially in Mozart’s slow movements.

Certainly the impetus for playing Mozart in a molto cantabile style was aided by suggestions from Eugene Lehner and Lillian Freundlich.

It has also been awe-inspiring to hear the composer’s trios played with a harpsichord instead of piano, creating a timbre, that perhaps Mozart intended. I’ve included a link to performances of this genre.

In a word, I thank those who’ve helped me realize the spirit and soul of the Master’s music so that it’s realized in a style that is convincing and aesthetically pleasing.

BIO (Eugene Lehner, Wiki)
Eugene Lehner (1906 – 13 September 1997) was a violist and music educator.

“Mr. Lehner, as he preferred to be addressed, was born in Hungary in 1906. Originally named Jenö Léner, he performed as a self-taught violinist from the time he was 7. When he was 13, the composer Bela Bartok heard him play, and arranged for him to pursue his studies formally. At the Royal Conservatory of Music in Budapest, he studied the violin with Jeno Hubay and composition with Zoltan Kodaly. In 1925, soon after his graduation from the conservatory at 19, he joined the Kolisch Quartet.

“Lehner was a violist with the Kolisch Quartet from 1926 until 1939, performed with the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 39 years (the only player to be invited to join without an audition by Serge Koussevitzky), and continued teaching chamber music at the New England Conservatory of Music and Boston University well into his retirement. Late in his life most coachings were given at his home in Newton. The modest upstairs room he coached in contained photographs covering every wall from all the quartets that he mentored – a real “wall of fame”. Lehner was widely regarded as one of the greatest living experts of the interpretation of chamber works by Alban Berg, Anton Webern, Arnold Schoenberg, and Béla Bartók, having been involved in the premieres of several of such works during his time with the Kolisch Quartet. As a member of the quartet, Lehner gave the premieres of Berg’s Lyric Suite, Schoenberg’s Third and Fourth String Quartets, Bartok’s Fifth Quartet and Webern’s Second Quartet.

“When the Juilliard Quartet was formed, they spent a summer in intensive coachings with Lehner. He advocated playing string instruments with tempered intonation, in the spirit of Bach.

“Lehner studied violin with Jenö Hubay and composition with Zoltan Kodály.”

Related Links:

A Breathtaking Camp Finale: About Merrywood

Mozart: The 1788 trios Elaine Comparone, Peter Seidenberg, Robert Zubrycki & The Queen’s Chamber Trio

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DREAM PIANO: Overview and Acknowledgments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More stories from Dream Piano:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concluding Bonus Chapter:

Extra: York’s World War II Musical Memoir

More People to Thank:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Patricia Frederick’s text is provided in full where it had some missing parts in the Fritz Blog.

Due to margin mechanics problems, part of Patricia Frederick’s text was missing in today’s blog on the Fritz piano, so here are the entire paragraphs which have relevance to the discussion.

Patricia Frederick

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

Second missing paragraph:

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

Next paragraph in completion:

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

Thanks for your patience and understanding.

Shirley Kirsten

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The Fritz Piano of Vienna: A Romantic Era Reborn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Maximilian Rutten

641 Lexington Avenue, New York, N.Y

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

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

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

“I hope this helps.”     Tom Winter

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

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

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

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

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

In a second correspondence, Frederick wrote:

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

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

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

Very truly yours, Patricia Frederick

I replied:

Dear Patricia,

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

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

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


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

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

Patricia Frederick’s comments in full about period pianos:

Relevant link for information on period piano restorations: