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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

antique pianos, Ashburnham, authorsden, Clinkscale's Makers of the Piano, Connell York, Fresno, Fresno California, humor, J. Fritz piano, Lillian Freundlich, Massachussetts, music history, musicology, New York City High School of Performing Arts, Oberlin Conservatory, New York City High School of Performing Arts, ornaments, Patricia Frederick, photos, pianist, piano, piano finding, piano instruction, piano lesson, piano society, Piano Street, Piano World,,, pianoworld,, satire, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Kirsten blog, Steinway and Sons,, The Frederick Collection, The Piano Book, uk-piano-forums, Uncategorized, used piano, used pianos, word press,, you tube, you tube video

The Ghost of Fritz? Was I Dreaming?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did anyone in your family play the piano?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I heard shuffling in the background.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The case was closed!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From: pharmacutest
To: Shirley Kirsten

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


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The Fritz Piano of Vienna: A Romantic Era Reborn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Maximilian Rutten

641 Lexington Avenue, New York, N.Y

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

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

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

“I hope this helps.”     Tom Winter

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

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

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

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

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

In a second correspondence, Frederick wrote:

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

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

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

Very truly yours, Patricia Frederick

I replied:

Dear Patricia,

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

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

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


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

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

Patricia Frederick’s comments in full about period pianos:

Relevant link for information on period piano restorations: