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The most popular blog explores piano teacher/student relationships

I’ve been aware that this particular writing seems to touch a nerve, or strikes a chord of recognition among piano teachers, parents and students: https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/03/09/pulls-and-tugs-two-sides-to-the-studentteacher-piano-lesson-relationship/

It’s only rival in popularity on my roster has been “Funeral for a Cracked Plate,” a real life soap opera about a piano buyer who slipped up by ordering a piano off the Internet without having requested an inspection by a registered piano technician.


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

Regardless of whom should have been blamed for a vintage Proksch (a lesser known Czechoslovakian grand piano) ending up with a cracked plate (or harp) the buyer was at least redeemed when the lucrative owner of a piano exporting business was nailed by the feds for illegally smuggling ivory into the country. (There are laws on the books against it)

The appeal of this writing was probably tied to old man York, a homespun Fresno piano tuner who was schlepped cross-country by the buyer to tiny-town Georgia to testify about the plate and its mishap. When the pair arrived at the courthouse, the judge thought York, at least, was “no expert” due to a legal technicality, and basically closed the case, sending the two home packing.

York thought it was a case of redneck justice.

The flashback scenes of a bare plate sitting on one of those wooden horses used at parades, was surreal. For me it evoked a rotunda in the Capitol without an honor guard. The post-mortem gathering in York’s Northwest Fresno driveway included a piano tuner hunched over the thing like he was praying, York, his wife, the buyer, her husband, and myself, the photographer.

The whole plot and its aftermath was grist for a movie.

***

Back to piano teachers and their often shaky vocation as fleshed out in the numero Uno Blog.

It’s hard to gauge exactly who would identify with the adventures of a piano teacher in any town USA– preferably a less cosmopolitan area like Fresno as compared to New York City.

I’m not sure the Big Apple contingent of piano instructors would run into students whose music landed in a pick-up truck headed for Texas. More than likely, an album might be left on a subway train bound for Queens or Brooklyn–a less appealing journey to write about.

Back in my early days, when I was a traveling piano teacher in New York City, I never encountered students without music because they didn’t budge from their apartments for lessons. Yet there were time old excuses for not practicing. Among them, HOMEWORK absorbed most of the blame.

Adult students

A 50ish lady who lived in an apartment a few floors above my mother in the Inwood section of Manhattan, was a hard-working, Irish civil servant who thought taking piano in her later years, would be a piece of cake. She figured it was, at best, a transfer of her typing skills.

With that impression intact, she lasted for 6 months, and then moved on to crocheting. A no drama momma, she barely registered any emotion upon her departure.

I didn’t endure any power struggles with parents during my years teaching back East. It was probably because New Yorkers were riveted to TV and other news media for the latest bulletin about a serial killer–either Son of Sam, or another lunatic let loose in Central Park to attack joggers.

Little energy was left to fight with the piano teacher over repertoire choices or time switches.

I don’t recall any beefs about fees in those days either. Parents would neatly tuck cash into my palm, and sometimes send me home with a bell jar of chicken soup, or freshly made Borscht. It felt good.

I must admit that one of my Korean parents here in Fresno, rushed over to my place after I e-mailed her tragic news that my treasured blog, “After the Fall” had bitten the dust.

And to make matters worse, tech support was at a loss to help.

So what!

Who could care less about a silly, old blog, when the economy was rapidly tanking?

Still the Korean pastry arrived like clock work, and the sugar high gave me energy and motivation to re-write the blog from scratch. It came back miraculously, paragraph by paragraph.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/10/20/after-the-fall/

In all candor, my personal blog favorite is usually the newest one I’m writing, though I have to confess that “Pulls and Tugs” still tickles my fancy, and makes me laugh like crazy, especially when I get to the part about the missing music and the Lone Star State, along with a choir of parents screaming for changed lesson times.

To preserve our unique piano teaching culture, I believe we should ardently gather stories like these from around the country and publish them in an anthology.

Let’s begin…

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

More Photos from my Dream Piano Adventures

Connell York, Piano Technician:

York examines a moth hole in a hammer felt:

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

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

A Player Piano Without a Name:

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

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

Fresno Auction piano, Steinway grand, 1920

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From a Piano Teacher’s worst nightmare:

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

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

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

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

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

antique pianos, estate sale, humor, Mr. York, music history, pianist, piano, piano auction, piano instruction, piano lesson, piano pedagogoy, piano repair, piano student, piano teacher, piano technician, piano technician's guild, piano technique, piano tuner, Piano World, pianoaddict.com, pianoworld.com, Proksch piano, Shirley Kirsten, Steinway piano, Uncategorized, used pianos, word press, wordpress.com, you tube, you tube video

The Great Piano Auction

Photo of York, piano tuner, standing beside the Steinway auction piano

Fresno Auction Company
  • Public & Private Auctions
  • Estate Liquidations
  • Appraisals

On an early Tuesday morning, in December, 2008, I spotted an eye-catching Fresno Bee Online ad for an estate auction that listed a “Steiney” (?) grand piano among an Allen theater harpsichord organ; rare, old bound books, some sewing machines, and random furniture. Naturally, the piano grabbed my attention. Only weeks before I’d missed a Steinway “A” that sold for a meager sum on the auction block. I could have kicked myself for ignoring an Internet advertisement that listed a “piano” without further description. Had I known it was a Steinway, I would have pursued it with the force of soldiers doing battle.

Meanwhile my friend, Rebecca McGregor had called to tell me that her friend and neighbor, Gloria Larsen had passed away and left behind two grand pianos: a Steinway and Baldwin.

“Do you want to hear something that will make you really sick?” She said.

I couldn’t imagine what she was about to share.

“Do you know that a gorgeous Steinway grand sold for $7,000 last week at an Estate Sale right by my house and it was my friend, Gloria Larsen’s piano.”

I remembered that Larsen had two, a Steinway grand and a less remarkable Baldwin that were the centerpieces of her expansive living room. In this main part of the house, she also had Chinese paintings, intricately colored bowls and carved Asian wood screens. What a  classy lady she was, and a member of our local Music Teachers Association. That’s how I knew her. It was more than a coincidence that the news Rebecca communicated involved a mutual friend.

On a particular occasion, I had the opportunity to play Gloria’s very resonant and well maintained vintage Steinway for a performance of Beethoven’s Tempest sonata. It was at a luncheon sponsored by our MTAC.

No doubt Rebecca’s call was a heads-up reminder that I should not overlook a singular opportunity to view and play a piano like a”Steiney,” that was just two letters removed from the real deal. Its true identity, however, remained a mystery.

With a consuming passion, I carefully followed the Fresno Bee Online ad link to the “Fresno Auction Company” website that listed the piano correctly this time, as a “Steinway” with no further information given. Eager to acquire more specific details, I grabbed my phone, dialed the contact number, and found myself chatting with the big guy, “Steve,” whose image appeared in living color on the web. From the posted photo, he looked like a lean, middle-aged man with a rancher background. My gut instinct was in high gear.

From my pressured speech delivery, so typical of a Bronx native, I knew that Steve the auctioneer sensed my extreme interest in the piano and therefore disclosed, without my having inquired, that the instrument’s finish was “walnut.” What else could I have expected from someone who didn’t routinely deal with fine musical instruments?

Most folks out over this way in the Central Valley, were drawn to a piano’s exterior, no different from how they selected a date on the Internet.

Piano seekers around these parts and into Clovis rodeo country rarely paid attention to what really counted about a piano– its tone, touch and resonance. Their superficial preoccupation with a piano’s cosmetics was what got so many of them into trouble as it had with Rebecca McGregor when she ordered a flashy one Online. Yet at this point in time, before her piano’s cracked plate was officially buried in a moving ceremony, she still harbored a hope that piano tuner, York could resurrect it from the dead.

***

Meanwhile my appetite was growing in intensity for more specific information about the auction piano.

“It’s the serial number I really need,” I told the auctioneer.

“Could you possibly find it for me? It would be a 6 or so digit number stamped into the cast iron plate in the area of the music rack.”

“I’m not at the location right now,” he replied, “so if you give me your phone number I’ll call you back later in the day.” He was very nonchalant, and in no mood to do anything in a hurry.

On the other hand, I was on pins and needs, barely able to wait another minute to acquire the age of this piano. Was it manufactured between 1905 to 1944 during the golden years of piano building, or did it date to the 60’s or 70’s? There was always a possibility that the the piano could have been manufactured during a period when teflon bushings were installed that caused an uproar among concert pianists around the country. Many complained about clicking noises that emanated from teflon infiltrated actions so Steinway and Sons incurred losses, having to re-bush the affected instruments. It didn’t exactly help the company’s image. At the time CBS was in charge, having bought it out.

I gave Steve my phone number just as he was about to hang up. “Just leave me a message because I might be out of the house or teaching,” I said.

The delay was very disappointing but I utilized the time to shoot off an e-mail to Fujie, one of my adult students, linking her to the Fresno Auction website with the piano listing. I clung to the hope that this might be the piano of her dreams, though she had recently passed up a resonant British Knight piano, as well as a Yamaha studio upright that I had recommended to her. She had told the sellers that she was so used to playing my Steinway at her lessons that she was like a spoiled child who wanted only something of the same or better quality.

“Fujie,” I wrote in an early morning e-mail, “check out this listing for a Steinway grand. I think it might be well worth your time. Maybe we could meet at the location at 8 a.m. on Thursday, during the preview, to try it out.”

I was going to see her shortly for her lesson at 9:30 a.m so I would  show her the print-out of the ad and do a Map Quest for directions. I had already planned in my mind to make an advance trip down there so I wouldn’t get lost on the day of the auction event. What could be worse?–going in circles in Old Fig Garden while the piano slipped out of my reach.

Looking back on this whole adventure, I had to  ask myself, why I decided to telephone York about the piano.  As it played out, he had an equally fervent fascination with the instrument.

“By golly, I needs to get my daughter a Steinway, and I’ve missed a couple chances to git one, so I’m mighty interested in this particular piana,” he said.

“Well, please know, Mr. York that you have formidable competition and a keen opponent.” What was I saying? I didn’t need another piano, and Fujie was pretty stubborn about committing to a purchase of this magnitude though I was hoping this piano would tweak her interest.

“Sure as heck, all’s fair in war,” he replied, leaving out ” love.”

“So, watcha know about this piana,” he asked. “How old is it?”

“That’s  exactly what I ‘m trying to find out,” I said. “And I should know a lot more later today.”

“Well I have ta be goin,” York said, “’cause I gotta a few pianas filled with moths that needs treatment.” He was always finding larvae in pianos, and made a sizable part of his living eradicating all traces of it.

***

Meanwhile Fujie arrived for her lesson after taking her downtown Ceramics class. A beginning piano student, at age 67, she was very enthusiastic about learning the piano, so much so, that she eagerly tackled her scales and arpeggios with enviable energy. Sometimes I wished my teenagers would borrow some of her vim and vigor.

When she arrived I would assign some contrary motion scales starting with thumbs placed at middle C— the hands separated in opposite directions to achieve a balanced, articulated sound. I had decided to register my anticipated excitement about the estate sale piano after her lesson. Otherwise, it would distract both of us from our task at hand.

Fujie seemed to have come a long way since our last session, adjusting the level of her wrist as I had suggested, allowing more freedom of motion in her scale playing. She had also increased her gravitational connection to the instrument.

I loved working with Fujie on a physical/spiritual plane, because she had a voracious appetite for this kind of study, and it was rare to have an adult student who soaked up every last bit of insight that I managed to draw out of myself.

Her lessons were normally prolonged and intense just because we both savored the experience, but today I was distracted by the Steinway and the promise it held for Fujie, if not for myself. Should York turn up at the auction, Fujie would probably over bid him if the piano caught her ear. She had a strong competitive spirit.

Immediately, I thought back on my first meeting with York at the American Cancer Society Discovery store in Fresno.

He turned up one day to detail an 1870’s period piano with a Viennese action that I had fallen in love with and generously donated his appraisal services.

I was impressed with his expertise as he picked through the piano’s action and described its mechanics in detail. From then on, I referred clients to him for tuning, and he would sometimes check on used pianos for me that I had found on Craig’s List and the Bee that needed inspection.

In this way we had became good friends, and he considered me a kind of apprentice, at least in the area of teaching me about the inner workings of a piano and how to evaluate the hammers, strings, and presence of moths.

***

The Steinway was becoming an obsession. I looked for any excuse to dart over to its location well before the auction. Steve still hadn’t returned my call with the promised information about the serial number so I decided to make a pest of myself and phone him again.

“Steve, any news on the date of the piano?” I asked, anxiously.

“Golly, I still haven’t made it over there, but I’ll call you once I look in the piano and find the number you need.”

“It’s really important that you locate this number as soon as possible, because it will clue me in on the piano’s playing condition.” I knew in my heart that very old Steinways of the vintage variety would likely need significant restoration, and this information would no doubt color my interest in it.

At this point, I was ready to jump in my van, head south to Old Fig, and plunder the grounds people to let me enter the piano sanctuary. I would comb the cast iron plate until I found the valued, ingrained digits.  Steve was obviously not as motivated to get the age scoop on the piano. He was as complacent as the average buyer about digging down and doing some instrument related research.

“Okay, so I’ll wait to hear from you,” I said. “In case you forgot, here’s my phone number: (559) —  —-”

“Just a second,” he said, “I have another call.”

I knew it was probably about the piano and he might keep my on hold indefinitely. I had no patience to wait through other people’s conversations, so I just hung up and went about my business.

***

Steve phoned a few hours later and apologized for the delay, but more importantly, he woefully admitted that he had not been able to secure the requested serial number.

“Gosh darn it,” he said. “I just can’t find the information on the plate.”

“Are you sure you looked in the right place?” I answered, nervously.

“It‘s definitely not in the front area by the music rack, as you told me.”

“Okay, is it possible for me to drop over there, and take a look for myself?”

“Well, if you can come down in the next 15 minutes, I’ll be here to let you in.”

“No problem,” I answered. “I have a window before I start teaching later in the afternoon, so I’ll head right over.” I wasn’t going to blow this opportunity to get through the door before anyone else did. I would not only find the serial number, but I’d get my hands on that piano to assess its character and personality.

My Map Quest directed me to go down Palm to Lansing Way, make a left, and then turn right on Wishon. Fujie told me that if I crossed the railroad tracks, I would have overshot Lansing.

I couldn’t miss this turnoff because the directions were clear and straightforward. But knowing my propensity to get lost in my own residential neighborhood, I was bound to hit a snag along the way.

It turned out that Lansing Way was shut off to through traffic. A big “DO NOT ENTER SIGN” greeted me, causing my heart to pound rapidly! How long was Steve going to wait for me? Maybe he would think I was a goofball who never intended to show up in the first place, like so many potential bidders who probably jerked him around.

I had already crossed the railroad tracks despite Fujie’s admonition, and if I continued to head south, I’d end up in the seedy part of downtown Fresno. I had to find a way to make a quick U-turn and head back to the place where I encountered the snag. Panic stricken, I thought about driving right through the “Do Not Enter” street with the bravado of an overanxious buyer.

I circled around Dakota, crossed the tracks and drove, above speed limit to Lansing Way. If I had the braggadocio to drive through the sign, cops would pour in from all parts of the city and County trampling over themselves, such was the disorganization of our Fresno law enforcement agencies.

I don’t know how I managed to think rationally to avoid breaking the barrier right then and there. It came as a revelation that I could back up one street before Lansing Way, turn in, and follow my Map Quest for the rest of the route. Whew! I was in not heading for a jail sentence. It was smooth sailing to a house nestled among the pines.

The “Sold” sign was posted at 3636 Wishon, the listed auction site and the maintenance crew I had imagined would be ardently working, was in full force, preening the property. I had lost about ten minutes going in circles, so I hoped Steve had patiently waited for me. Anxiously pounding on the front door, I heard someone shuffle toward it, and jiggle the lock. Then the mystery resident jiggled the lock again—this went on for all of five minutes, turning me into an off- the-road enraged maniac! I kept shouting, “Anyone there?” No response. What was I going to do?! If I gave up and left, I would be blowing a valuable opportunity to case out the piano. I muttered to myself, “what the heck is going on here—Is this some kind of sick joke?”

I followed a narrow, shrub lined path that led to a garage and entrance to the backyard. I saw garden implements and old, tattered lawn chairs all piled up with numbers on them. At least, I could hedge my bets that this was the right location.

A Hispanic-looking maintenance man greeted me.
“I’m looking for Steve,” I said to him, breathlessly. “He told me to come over and see the grand piano.”

“Oh, okay, you want to see the piano.  Just go up those steps, through the kitchen and turn left,” he said, meekly.

I followed his directions to a tee, and plodded through a messy kitchen with torn up linoleum floors and a musty smell. This was no mansion in the Bluffs (A northwest Fresno prime location overlooking a sprawling golf course) It was an earthy home in a rustic terrain. Old Fig Garden was located along the original Van Ness Boulevard, not to be confused with Van Ness extension that led north to the bourgeois section of Fresno, dotted with newer homes on tiny parcels. Old Fig was classier than the northern most tip of Van Ness II. It had stately old homes of immense area, large plots, with mature trees. Some of the properties had long, tree lined driveways. This particular home, already sold, was not as imposing as most along the block and it looked ill-maintained. Steve had mentioned that the deceased owner, Jerry Benet, was a glittery, retired, hairdresser with an impressive instrument collection.

My interest in his “harpsichord” equaled my curiosity about the Steinway piano, but I wasn’t sure if the listing of a “harpsichord organ” was correctly entered in the Fresno Bee ad and at the Fresno Auction Company Internet site. I had never heard of two such disparate instruments lumped together. Each, with its own distinct timbre, would overshadow the other.

Steve greeted me holding an auctioneer’s clipboard. He had earplugs connected to his cell phone. His amazing height, easily over 6’ 5” was so striking, that I imagined him to be on stilts, lumbering around a three ring circus. I had never in my life seen someone bear such resemblance to a bean pole! He looked so lanky and undernourished that I thought he’d come tumbling down from just from a snag in the flooring. Surely he had been offered a spot with Ringling Brothers, or at least a basketball scholarship.

The piano was center stage in a sun deprived living room, still looking regal and beckoning. I couldn’t resist running my fingers over it even before launching an intensified search for the serial number. Instantly, I invited myself into its sound universe.

My Chopin “Ocean” Etude resonated beyond expectation. It delighted in my fortissimos and contrasting pianissimos, producing a velvety tone in all registers. Though not fully in tune, the piano showed character and personality, drawing me repeatedly back into its inner sanctum. My only reservations about this instrument had to do with an assortment of lazy notes that did not adequately spring back. This problem more than likely reflected a glitch in the internal action assembly that would need to be addressed by a technician. Upon closer inspection, I noticed that the hammer felts were deeply grooved suggesting a lot of playing on them. In fact, they were some of the deepest imprints I’d ever seen.

My next order of business was to obtain the true date of the Steinway’s manufacture, so I pushed the music rack back in diligent search of the ingrained numbers just as they appeared on my own piano as “185152,” right beside the tuning pins in the front. Strangely,  I found nothing there—or elsewhere from my vantage point, standing in front of the piano bench. I expanded my search in the direction of the tail end of the piano, borrowing Steve’s flashlight, in the process. I felt a creeping embarrassment for not locating the information immediately since I had flashed my multiple music degrees in Steve’s face. He was probably thinking, this lady is just full of herself. But at least he was impressed with my “live” musical performance that didn’t come with an attached resume. “You play really well,” he had remarked.

“Geeze, I’m at a loss to find the serial number,” I admitted, sheepishly. “Do you mind if I use your phone to call my tech associate, Mr. York?” I thought it was necessary to attach myself to York in a business capacity to justify my standing in the world, as a budding piano expert.

Steve was fielding a bunch of calls, so I had to wait a painstaking twenty minutes to make my cellular connection. Meanwhile the clock was ticking and I counted less than a half hour to the start of my late afternoon piano lessons.

I acquired the phone in the nick of time, having York on the line from one of his Fresno boonies locations. As expected, he was working arduously to rid a piano of moths and mice. It made me continuously wonder how often the old man invested his energies in actually tuning and regulating these instruments!

“Hey, Mr. York, you won’t believe this, but I’m down here at the house with the Steinway that‘s up on the auction block tomorrow.”

“Oh, really,” he answered. “You dun got down there in a flash!”

“Well, I’m experiencing lots of frustration trying to locate the darn serial number. It just isn’t to be found anywhere on the cast iron plate. Do you have any ideas for me?”

“Now listen up real carefully—you gotta take a flashlight and go under that there piana, and look for them numbers by the soundboard.”

I had taken this subterranean route before when York had me squeeze under a 7 foot Kawai in search of Mr. Aguardando’s stash of money. It was proof that he had established intimacy with his client and knew everything about him.

Now he was sending me back down there in search of a serial number on a Steinway.

York stayed on the phone as I panned the flashlight across the piano’s underbelly, suddenly spotting the number on one of the wooden cross bars. “Wow! I found it!” I shouted, hoping York could hear me over the cell phone that was only yards away.

Steve loudly applauded me–. “Nice going, Shirley, what’s the number?” York must surely have heard his booming voice.

“199072!” I proudly exclaimed!

York lingered on the line through my travail and made sure to take complete credit for the discovery.

“ Na you tell that fella over there that I found that number for you! Tell him York knew where it was!”

“Whoa,” I said, thumbing through the pages of my Pierce Piano Atlas, this serial number dates the piano to 1920! Holy Moly! It’s the real; thing—a vintage Steinway!”

I didn’t’ want to register too much excitement about the piano, because Steve would get wind of my enthusiasm and jack up the starting auction bid. I had no idea how all this worked, but I knew to temper my words, at least for the time being.

I signed off with York and gave the cell phone back to Steve.

“So what do you think it’s worth?” he said.

I was afraid he’d ask me that question so I answered, reservedly.

“Well, it all depends on what kind of work is needed, so I‘d have to get a tech’s opinion before I would venture an educated guess.”

Steve knew through the estate sale grapevine that Gloria Larsen’s piano had sold for $7,000 only weeks before and he commented that perhaps this piano would go for the same or less. The truth was that Gloria’s piano was far better maintained than this one, and had an established right to sell for more.

The Auction

The Preview was set for the following day at 8 a.m. two hours before the official proceedings. In the meantime, I planned to ask Terry Barrett, piano tuner and Mr. York to both come down in he early morning to size up the piano and its restoration needs.

***

Before my piano lessons officially began, I checked my e-mail for developments in the Rebecca McGregor’s cast iron plate case. I knew that York was the least reliable source of unbiased information since it was his idea to remove the 250 plus pound monstrosity and take it from there. If things went sour, Rebecca would have gotten wind of it before I did. York had this ego thing. He had to prove that he could fix anything that needed fixin’ even if the challenge was beyond any human’s capacity to conquer. He probably would not share any backslides related to the already shattered plate, and would keep these to himself as long as he could.

I was staring at McGregor’s latest cryptic bulletin in my inbox: “After Mr. York called me last night, I just cried.” She provided no further details so I shot back a concerned e-mail: “Please tell me what happened.”

A note from Fujie drew my attention next: “Subject: Piano”

“Shirley as much as I would like a REAL piano, I am not ready to spend thousands of dollars for one right now. I’m afraid to look at the Steinway since it will be very tempting to bid on it tomorrow. As a result I will not even check it out. Thank you for thinking of me but I really need to focus on my immediate needs. Fujie.”

As I read her e-mail I experienced a deep reservoir of disappointment. Maybe she was right to steer clear of something so tempting. But at the same time, I couldn’t help but think that this pass on the Steinway was Fujie’s dream deferred.

***

The Preview

Terry Barrett hovered over the soon to be auctioned Steinway, 1920 while my tape recorder was running to capture his comments for posterity. I considered him to be one of the most able tuners in the Central Valley if not beyond. Partially blind, he biked to his tuning jobs, and had more than overcome his handicap by using a very powerful magnifying glass to carefully inspect the intricacies of a pianos’ complex interior.

After my Steinway piano had suffered damage at the hands of another less able tuner in 1989, I had decided that only Terry could be intimate with my Steinway. That was, of course, after Dale Erwin of Modesto, a brilliant rebuilder, had given it a complete overhaul to perfection.

York had breezed through the Old Fig house, before Terry, and he bumped into me as he was leaving. “So what did you think of the piano, Mr. York?” I asked.

“Well, it’s definitely got some problems that needs workin’ on.”

“Can you be more specific?” I said.

“That there area on the plate is fulla dirt and that layer of dust ‘cumulated can affect the tone.”

“So you’re telling me, the muck on the plate, if cleaned will improve the tone, sizeably?”

“Well, that’s one of them issues that needs to be looked at.”

“Mr. York, I noticed the hammers were very, very grooved so do you think they need replacement at this point in time.”

“Geeze, without pullin’ out that there action,” I kin hardly say. But right at this minute I’m off to use Decon on a church piana a.s.a.p or some mighty aggressive mice is gonna chew up them felts!”

Terry thankfully lingered to answer more of my questions.

“So do you think any real hammer replacement is required here, Terry?”

“Well they’re worn for sure. I mean I declare them pretty well shot. But you can live with them and still get some years out of them. I can certainly reshape them by evenly filing them. But the bigger problem is the corrosion between the notes and that’s what’s causing the lazy feel. As a temporary stop gap measure I would use some Vertigris repellant –just a surface application and not a real cure. I’d really have to get into the center pins to do a more thorough job.”

“What about the moths, Terry? Should we be concerned about a past or future infestation?”

He chuckled. “I’ve seen them eat a bit, once in a while, but hardly that much. There’s actually cyanide in the felt so that if they ingest too much, they’ll die!”

“Hey, I see a critter over there under the strings,” I said, with concern. “Maybe it’s a decomposed moth.”

“Go ahead, tell everybody about the moths and keep the price down,” he said, wryly.

“Now what about this note, C, eight notes above middle C?  I just noticed it warbling today. Can’t figure it. It went bad overnight, because it was perfect yesterday when I played a few selections. Can a note go sour that fast?”

“Well, either somebody messed with it or it slipped. If it slipped then you got a real repair problem.”

“Can you answer one or two more questions before I let you go? Let’s say you put a ton of rebuild work into this piano–Number one, what would it cost and what do you estimate the percentage of improvement from the restoration?”

“I’d guess $10,000 in repair work is needed, and you’re looking at about 25% improvement in tone and feel.”

***

I was alone with the piano again, though bidders were slowly but surely trickling in. Before long there was an audience of listeners, as I played the piano with an abandon that drew more than a few toward the piano. Most of the attention was focused on the finish. One woman leaned over me and gawked at the music rack, running her fingers over it. “Do you know if it’s walnut,” she asked. “I stopped playing a Bach Prelude, to reply. “I think it’s what they term, “dark walnut.” I raised my voice for emphasis.

I had placed my portable tape recorder next to the piano, to preserve this musical experience on audio but I had no intention of perpetuating the more mundane remarks of intersecting bidders.

One woman placed her cell phone above my head telling her mother how wonderful the piano sounded. Another fellow who looked around 70, insisted he wanted to acquire the piano in order to donate it out to a church. He wasn’t sure which one yet. A middle aged, neatly dressed man named “Craig,” said he needed to replace his Yamaha with a higher grade piano. He definitely eyed me, suspiciously as a competitor for the prize!

Despite Fujie’s declined interest in the piano, I decided I would hang in there and bid on it myself though I hardly had the funds to back it up. I’d have to electronically wire money from an IRA into my sparse checking account and in the process blow my whole financial future for having one more dream piano added to my growing collection.

A full 4 hours before the piano would go on the block, I decided to go home to snatch a bite.

Within twenty minutes I was wolfing down a mouthful of tofu on whole wheat toast, when suddenly I heard 4 loud thumps on my door—the drumbeat was a giveaway. It gave off a tribal resonance that suggested York was in the neighborhood.

Why on earth was the old man coming over here in the middle of the day? Surely he had not completed his mouse safari.

I expected he would be toting a bag of oranges but this time he handed over a small sample of apricots intermingled with shelled walnuts.

“So what’s up, Mr. York. Have you Deconned out the rodents in that there church?”  Sometimes, I found myself inadvertently talking like him.

“No, I had to move on to a school with an Everett spinet that was smashed ta pieces. An outa control kid took a hammer to it.”

“Now what exactly did they expect you to do about it?” I asked.

“Alls I kin say is I tooks some matchin’ keys from my pick-up and glued in a few replacements. It’s a big job requirin’ a few trips, but I told ‘em this is what I’m chargin’ to get them keys back in playin’ condition.”

He always told me that school pianos took the most punishment and were his worst nightmares next to huntin’ down rats, of course.

“So you stayed over there at the auction?” he asked.

“Yeah, I spent about two hours horsing around with the piano and it just kept growin’ on me,” I answered.

“Now, listen up, I want to make you an offer you can’t refuse. If you was to bid on that piana fer me, I would write ya a check for the amount of sale and an extra couple hundred thrown in. That way ya kin write the whole thing off as a tax deduction.”

The whole hair-brained idea made no sense and it was a form of money laundering.

“Sorry, Mr. York, but if you want that piano badly enough, you’ll have to drop over there and throw out your own bid.”

“Well, even if I got myself over there, I’d offer no more than $4,000 ‘on it, cause that there piana is so fulla dirt it would take my filter queen, on full power, to blow it out,” he said.

Terry Barrett, meanwhile, insisted that the dust accumulation in the Steinway piano had absolutely no influence on its tone. The same was echoed by other local tuners such as Goolsby and Chester Barnett. A few other local technicians had no opinion at all.

I arrived at 3636 N. Wishon just about 20 minutes before the piano was up on the block as bidders and interested onlookers were amassing. There was no doubt the piano was a magnet for big attendance as it sat nobly, center stage, throwing off a shimmer. Among the crowd stood Rebecca McGregor whose aristocratic presence was immediately communicated. Though she had granted me a telephone interview detailing her whole ordeal with the Proksch piano, I had never met her in person. (Her journals were forwarded to me by mail)

An attractive, middle aged woman, she had written all those poignant e-mails to Vieilliard and Ron, setting them straight in very polished prose. Tentatively, she edged toward me, saying, “Shirley? I’m Rebecca.” We shared instant chemistry between us and soon found ourselves engaged in lovely musical conversation. She had heard me play some selections on the Steinway and remarked about its beautiful resonance. “You have to look beyond the warbling notes,” she said.

“Yes, it’s a very valuable instrument, despite its bad tuning and needing repair,” I replied.

Just then we were both distracted by a Frankenstein look alike with plastered down, thinning hair who lunged toward the Steinway piano. He grabbed the bass strings with his bare hands, plucking them with such force, that his actions threatened the piano’s safety! He did it again and screamed, “I can buy all of you out! You just wait!!” At that point he threw his business card in my direction and it landed on the piano rack. I noticed his imprinted name, “Les Graham.” According to York, the sleazeball owned a piano warehouse in a seedy part of town by the scrap metal yards. York claimed Graham was a drunkard with an unsavory past. “You don’t wanta meet up with that there fella without an escort,” he insisted. I yelled at the drip to stop fiddling with the strings and Rebecca McGregor chimed in. Before long, the greasy looking character retreated to an area beside the Allen Organ in an adjacent room and shut his foul mouth.

Steve stood by with his amazingly towering presence and identified the Steinway & Sons as item number “404.”

“This is the last lot of the day,” he announced. “It’s a 1920 piano, with a matching bench, dark walnut finish, okay? Its serial number is 199072. It’s an M, five foot seven grand.

“Alright on the Steinway & Sons, we’re going to start the bidding. I have 3 thousand dollars goin’ on it. Does somebody want to bid $3500 on the Steinway?

“3500, now 4 thousand (my bid) I have 4 thousand, 4500 bid, 4600, 5,000, 5250, 5500, (my bid again), 5750, we aren’t all done? 6 thousand, 6100 the bid, now 6200, now 6300—I have 6 thousand three hundred. Are we all done at 6300 dollars? Going once? 6400, now 6500, now 6600? Are we all and all down—6600 now 6700, 6900—7000, 71, 72, now 73, 74, 75, 77, 78. ” An older man was throwing outmost of the bids.  7900 was ‘Richard’s’ bid, a middle aged fellow Steve repeatedly named during the proceedings. He was vying with the older man for bid control. “7900,” the old man shouted. “8 thousand,” countered Richard.

“Can you play the piano?” the older man sarcastically asked his rival. Steve continued in a booming voice, “8 thousand the bid, 8250, 8350, 8450, 85, 86, 88, 89, 92550, now 9500.” It was definitely a battle between two men because everyone else had dropped out. As far as I was concerned the bidding had gone way out of control!

“9750, 10 thousand, now 10 thousand, now 11 thousand, 12, 12 and ½, 13, 13, 500, now 14 thousand, the bid—14,250, 14,750, 15, 15 thousand one, 15 thousand, 2—15 thousand 3—15 thousand 4 hundred, are we all done at 15,400. 15 thousand five-hundred’s the bid, 15 thousand, 6, 7, 8 —15 thousand 9 hundred, 16,000! 16 thousand’s the bid. Are we all done at 16 thousand dollars?” The older man topped out at 16K. Richard surrendered.

“SOLD out at sixteen thousand dollars to number 411!” Applause!

All the dropouts looked unhappily resigned to the outcome. I, for one, didn’t feel very bad about the bidding at all, since my offer was trampled early on, and the outcome was far from a squeaker. If the piano had sold for $5,600 or $6,000, I would have felt gypped out of a solid chance to be a contender. But two men of means raced down the track leaving the rest of us behind.

The older man said he would fulfill his promise to donate the Steinway to a church of his choice. He had also successfully bid on the aristocratic looking Allen Organ that had no electrical power, and sat there, lifeless. Ironically, I hadn’t observed one person asking to try it out to see if it worked.

Steve later told me that rats had chewed up all the wiring. Was this a budding buyer beware story, a sequel to McGregor’s nightmare? I wish York would have checked the organ for rodents during the auction preview, but he was too busy detailing the Steinway. Looking back on it, he would surely have said, “I told ya so!”

***

A-440 Pianos, antique pianos, cast iron piano plate, Connell York, cracked piano plate, Internet sale scams, Pascal Vieillard, piano repair, piano technician's guild, Piano World, pianoworld.com, Proksch piano, Shirley Kirsten, Uncategorized

Funeral for a cracked plate (piano) Caveat Emptor!


The brief ceremony above was followed by preparation for interment. More funeral photos are added at this writing’s conclusion.

The plate, before it was laid to rest….

No one will believe this story, except those who trust their eyes to bear witness to a tragedy that befell a piano and its owner. The photos attached to the text flesh out a particular misfortune in graphic detail giving credence to the statement that truth is stranger than fiction.

If anything can be learned from this epic ordeal, it’s Buyer Beware!

“Shattered Dreams,” is a chapter from my manuscript about pianos; the people who sometimes impetuously buy and love them; abandon them; and then often try to re-claim them. Add in sleazy Internet scams, shady international dealers, foul play, and you have a burgeoning soap opera starring any number of exotic pianos that end up in the trash as firewood, stripped of their dignity, and sometimes left bare-boned without a case. One particular cracked plate, a skeletal remain of an antique European grand, the Proksch, endured so much abuse that it was laid to rest in a stirring ceremony, with its owner overwrought with grief.

**

The story was initially relayed to me by Connell York, piano tuner, and long-time friend. His client, used him as an expert witness in a legal claim she had filed against the company that sold her the piano.

Proksch 1905 grand piano–A Shattered Dream

Rebecca McGregor, an avid community fundraiser, mother, and wife of an established tax attorney, regretted having selected in cyberspace what she thought was the piano of her dreams. Her 12-year-old daughter, a devoted piano student with a less than perfect piano, needed a replacement according to her teacher, so Rebecca followed her fast-tapping fingers to the Internet where she encountered an eye-catching 1905 Austrian Proksch grand piano in a flawlessly finished ebony cabinet with Empire legs, ornate brass casters and a carved fleur-de-lis music rack.

A link to the seller, A-440 Pianos through the eBay network revealed a universe of “New and Vintage premium pianos” of promised excellence.

The company, in Lilburn, Georgia was one of the first to capitalize on the budding potential of online commerce. Ron Smith, who worked for owner, Pascal Vieillard, told me by phone that the company had aggressively forged ahead with its sales on many levels, attracting buyers within the state, out-of-state, and all over the world by cyber and through personal contacts.

“We have a showroom right outside Atlanta and a second residence of 2,500 square feet that houses more pianos, and a huge warehouse full of boxed ones,” he said.

Scanning through columns of online posted photos of exotic European pianos such as Bosendorfer, Petrof, and Bechstein that were separated from more mainstream brands such as Yamaha and Kawai, an Internet visitor would immediately appreciate the vastness of A-440’s inventory and its relatively easy access.

What made the virtual tour so engaging was a seductive soundtrack of moody 40’s era piano pieces that evoked the opening of Woody Allen’s “Play it Again, Sam,” with its smoke-filled bistro.

I was instantly entranced by the site, as I scrolled through reams of dream pianos, many of which looked enticing enough to own.

From my two Online visits to A-440 Pianos, I could easily understand how Rebecca McGregor might have launched her piano search right there in cyberspace accompanied by the strains of a bluesy piano.

She admitted that after she spoke with the owner, Pascal Vieillard, a French merchant who jet-set all over the world from Europe to China, Japan and back to expand his inventory, she got suckered in. “He was so charming,” she said, “and on one occasion, while I was speaking with him by phone, he communicated so touchingly with his children. I thought to myself, how could someone this caring be anything but trustworthy.”

I was chatting with assistant, Ron Smith, about a Victorian looking grand piano that resembled a Fritz piano on sale at the American Cancer Society Thrift store in Fresno, when he abruptly transferred me to “a period piano specialist.” In no time I was listening to a heavily accented Frenchman named “Pascal” (the owner) who talked with authority about a “Zacha & Sohn” piano that could have been a look-alike.

“Zeese pianos made in Vienna in the mid-19th Century, zey look very seemilar,” he insisted.

“So would they have the Viennese action?” I inquired.

“Ah yes, defineetly.”

“Do you know if this one has a black pedal bar that bobs up and down?” I asked.

“Oh, most certainly,” he replied.

“So do you actually restore these pianos?”

“Ah yes, we have very esteemed people in Europe who do the restorations.”

Ron Smith had mentioned in our first conversation that most buyers purchased a piano and then restored it later.

“Makes no sense to put all that work into an instrument before it’s sold,” he insisted.

Ron’s statement could have been invalidated. Restoring period pianos was a gray area since there was no guarantee of success. If a piano was not well-born like a Steinway or Bosendorfer, re-stringing and re-hammering it might be an exercise in futility. It would yield little if any improvement in tone and projection.

Thomas Winter, San Francisco restorations specialist had said that rebuilding an early piano was a big question mark. He was joined by a growing choir of cynics.

In truth, the Proksch piano, with a serial number that revealed its age to be over 100 years old, was not a good choice for restoration because of its marginal pedigree. While it looked aristocratic, it did not spring from nobility.

Nevertheless, Rebecca McGregor’s attraction to the Proksch increased after she heard its “lovely tone” over the phone. And Pascal Vieillard nursed her infatuation by providing more exotic details about its restoration.

“This piano was built by an ex-student of the BOSENDORFER PIANO-MAKING SCHOOL and rebuilt by Helmut Schonberger, a master technician in LEIPZIG, Germany (He worked on several pianos for the Viennese OPERA house and other very picky institutions) We do not even come close in the U.S.A. to do this kind of quality work…all parts are German ABEL HAMMER and custom-made Renner.”

He instilled even more confidence in the buyer by telling her that the Proksch was “an investment-grade piano with a flawlessly finished cabinet” that her daughter “would pass on to her children.”

Rebecca McGregor may not have asked the right questions before she plunged into buying the Proksch. In a heart beat, she wrote a personal check for $10,500 made out to “A-440 Pianos” without thinking about hiring an independent and unbiased, registered piano technician to give the piano a good rundown. Just this measure alone might have saved her future anguish.

As the piano took its belabored cross-country journey to Fresno, California, from Atlanta, Georgia, it got hung up in delay when it had arrived on the West Coast. Transferred from one mover, Keyboard Carriage, to Schafer Brothers, a series of complications increased the buyer’s despair.

“I’m not going to call because I am too angry,” McGregor wrote to Ron and Pascal. “I don’t know what you’ve formerly found to be courteous about the movers, but I can assure you that they have been rude, abrupt, and arbitrary.”

She’d been promised the piano on a certain day, but was told she would first receive a call to verify delivery. Too many times, the updates faded in the wind.

Understandably distressed by the vagueness of delivery, she logged every complication along the way in her personal journal:

“Ron Smith said he could give me only an estimate but not the actual date of the piano’s arrival. Was I crazy? He kept telling me to calm down and the more condescendingly he spoke, the madder I got. AND the more we argued about stupid semantics, the later the delivery became and the more circuitous the route.. first to Santa Barbara, then to the Bay area and then the piano will be the last drop in Fresno before the truck heads to Los Angeles. ”

In a second e-mail sent to Ron, the buyer expressed even further frustration.

“The delivery men came at 6:00 p.m. last night. I can’t begin to tell you about the series of phone calls and misinformation that flew around. They left a message on my cell phone (which I rarely use) telling me that they would be here at noon.

“I had some questions about the piano and I asked many times if the finish was in good condition. When it finally arrived well past its due date, it looked fine, but the side and back were covered with cracks in the cabinet that went through the veneer. The finish had been applied over these cracks, so it wasn’t something that surely happened after I received it.”

Rebecca had also noted “how odd it was that the piano had stainless steel and metal screws alongside brass adornments. She wanted to match all of them in brass but wondered if these screws were especially made for pianos.

“The sound was excellent, as far as she could tell at this point,” she wrote in the journal, recapitulating her email to Pascal. “But several of the keys stuck and it was impossible to play last night. The piano tuner would be coming today at 1:00 p.m. and we’ll see what he can do to remedy the situation… I’ll let you know what the tuner says today. This is a lovely piano and I hope we can resolve some of my concerns.”

At least one sticking key had been identified before the piano left the showroom and Pascal had promised to fix it. Now there were several sticking keys that Bill Barrett, Fresno piano tuner, thought might be caused by their shifting in transport from Georgia to California. McGregor had hoped this would be the only problem to remedy as she had been very impressed with the piano’s tone.

During his first piano inspection, Barrett said that “the inner workings of the piano had been beautifully restored.” What remained then, were the touch-up issues on the finish. On this very subject Pascal replied by e-mail a few weeks after the Proksch’s arrival in Fresno in early April 2005:

“Hello, I am back from Germany and I am glad to see that you are in agreement with me about the tone quality of this piano. Feel free to call me tomorrow regarding touch-up of the cabinet.”

Cosmetic matters put aside, the future of this piano as a credible musical instrument had not yet been sealed in stone.

Seven months passed after McGregor’s correspondence with Vieillard about the cabinet irregularities before she shared more upsetting news with him:

In an e-mail dated November 2, 2005, she wrote:

“I apologize for taking so long to deal with the finish on the piano. Now it seems to be the least of our problems….My daughter practiced last night just before bed and again this morning. She has a recital on Sunday. This afternoon when she began to practice after school, 8 to 10 of the keys were suddenly off, very flat and tinny.

“I called our tuner and asked if he could do us a favor and come over immediately. He did his best to tune the piano again (This is its fourth tuning since we’ve had it) but he noticed that one of the major screws holding the cross-bar on the harp had cracked in two. Now that the piano is tuned, it stills sounds very bright, tinny, and simply not right.

“The tuner indicated that the repair was going to be major and that he would refer us to someone who could handle it. I am beside myself. It sounds like a different piano, and now I’m concerned about the integrity of the harp itself! Please tell me what more you know about the repairs made on this piano before we spend another dime!”

McGregor had noticed for the first time when the tuner pulled out the piano action, that most if not all the screws in the cross-bar of the cast iron plate had been shimmed with smaller screws drilled into the center of each of the larger screws. It indicated that repair work had been done before shipment from Georgia.

Pascal had replied from Japan that he was interested in seeing “pictures of the problem from close and not so close.” He insisted that the company had bought the piano “already redone.”

McGregor replied that “the piano really sounded terrible, not the mellow tone both you and I remembered. Last night my daughter said that it sounded worse than her old piano. ..It’s now so discordant that we can barely tolerate listening to her practice.”

McGregor’s anger reached fever pitch when she e-mailed Pascal on November 7, 2005.

“From our tuner’s viewpoint, it seems that the Capo d’Astro bar has been warping and tension on the strings finally caused the bolt to snap. (This literally happened over night) My daughter played before bed and when she returned to the piano after school the next day, the sound and tuning had changed dramatically. There’s also a full crack in the bar at the junction where it meets the harp. I’ve included the photograph of the peeling powder coating which was not noticed until we removed the music stand (piano rack).”

McGregor had sent Vieillard ten photos that graphically exposed cracks to the cast iron plate and its horizontal bar (Capo d’Astro) She also included one picture of her daughter “trying to practice” on the morning after the meltdown.

“Needless to say, we’re devastated!” she wrote. “This is a gorgeous piano, visually, but now it’s unplayable! We await your advice and response.”

The buyer’s declaration about the piano’s failure also applied to a Johann Fritz 7 foot piano that was being sold by a Visalia interior designer who marketed skin products on the side. I had learned from York who visited the location that this piano was just a pretty piece of furniture with no value as a musical instrument.

***

Meanwhile, Pascal responded to Rebecca in a doting, but evasive way as she continued to record the back and forth communications.

“Of course the best picture is the one of your daughter playing the piano,” he said. “Please give me a call. I have a few ideas.”

Enraged, McGregor replied.

(November 14, 2005)

“…I cannot imagine that you expect us to walk away from what you referred to as an ‘investment for generations to come.’ “The piano was $10,000 as I am sure you recall, and the fees for delivery, repairs and tunings, fixing the “stuck” key (a pre-existing condition according to you), the flaws in the finish (which miraculously appeared en route), the peeling gold powder coating on the plate and now an irreparable crack in the plate, make the piano useless and of no value! Would you just walk away? What do you expect me to do? Better yet, what should I tell my daughter about her piano?”

There was no further correspondence between Rebecca and Vieillard from that point on as recorded in her journal. In the months following, she had dealt with complications from breast cancer and several related surgeries that drained her energies. When she was back on her feet and able to think things carefully through, she decided to file a small claims action against A-440 pianos. The decision was fueled in part by a letter she received from the owner of a reputable piano company located in the Bay area. He had reviewed her detailed piano photos and wrote back:

“I looked at the pictures. Repairs are not recommended. You have already over-invested in this piano. Stop now and cut your losses. By the way the idea that this was an ‘investment quality instrument’ is ludicrous. You can count the number of investment quality pianos on one hand. They are all household names and are very expensive.” He was referring to Steinways, Mason Hamlins, Bosendorfers and a few other choice brands.

“So sorry about your experience with these——people in Atlanta. Legal action is about your only recourse, but I have no idea if that is even possible. People buy pianos every day sight-unseen on the Internet, and it’s “buyer beware,” but it seems like a very risky proposition to me. With a little research most folks get very shy of deals like this.”

The piano company owner’s words summed up lessons to be learned from fly-by night purchases of Internet pianos. Even if a buyer had perceived a piano’s lovely tone by phone, long distance, it would not amount to a thorough evaluation of a 100-year-old instrument.

Hindsight is 20/20 but perhaps McGregor should have had a tuner from Atlanta pull the action and carefully inspect the cast iron plate for incipient signs of weaknesses or outright cracks. One would think that Vielliard, a confirmed Associate Member of the State’s Piano Technician’s Guild would have made sure that such detailing would precede the piano’s shipment. But it was still unclear whether the piano had shown signs of metal fatigue at any point in its life before delivery to the owner.

Mr. York, an old-time tuner friend, had become involved in the sticky situation at about the time Bill Barrett, his professional colleague noticed the cracks in the cast iron plate.

About a year following Rebecca McGregor’s ordeal, York came over to my house to provide me with background on the cast iron plate. He described it as the piano’s “back bone” and as such, it was subject to at least 40,000 pounds of pressure (2 tons) exerted by the weight of the strings. If the plate cracked, the piano was “really in bad shape,” basically, terminal, he insisted.

According to information gleaned from “Five Lectures on the Acoustics of the Piano” presented by Harry A. Conklin, the cast iron plate was “the supportive structure for all the strings and had to be strong enough not to break under the load of strings, and it needed to be stiff enough to offer good tuning stability…A massive structure in 9 foot concert grands, it might weigh between 342 and 396 pounds.”

Pascal Vieillard had not offered the buyer a warranty on the Proksch piano. He had included this statement within a response to the small claims action filed against A-440 Pianos. by Rebecca and John McGregor in May, 2006:

According to this merchant with an international trade profile, “The plaintiff purchased a piano that was shipped in good condition and received in good condition. The piano was over 100 years and carried no warranty. There was no way to foresee the trouble the Plaintiff would have with the piano 7 months after receiving it.”

McGregor’s Declaration asserted that “Defendant, Pascal Vieillard represented to Plaintiffs that the piano was sound; was an investment-quality instrument and would be played for years to come. The piano was instead not merchantable or fit to be played for any substantial period.”

In a written opening statement the buyer detailed what Ron Smith, Vieillard’s associate had said before the piano purchase was concluded:

“He told me that he could not provide me any written guarantee, but the one thing he would tell me was that he would verbally guarantee the plate, explaining that everything other than a plate could be repaired and that a plate should be my only real concern. I had no idea what a ‘plate’ was but took him at his word.”

Connell York had been enlisted to be McGregor’s one and only expert witness at a trial held at the Gwinnett County Courthouse, in Lawrenceville, Georgia in early August, 2006.

“I wanted ta help the lady out, and do a much as I could fer her,” York said as he was pointing to the Capo d’astro bar inside my Steinway grand, a raised horizontal part of the plate.

“So do you think the cracks were pre-existing, even before the piano arrived in Fresno?” I asked.

“Well ya just never know, they’s could have been the beginnings of cracks way back before they’s was discovered.”

“And what would actually cause these cracks?” I asked.

“Well they’s coulda come from plain old metal fatigue. That there piana, whatever it’s called, is 100 years old. What would ya expect?”

It’s a Proksch, Mr. York!” I said. I could barely pronounce the name myself without spitting or losing my breath. Rebecca McGregor, on the other hand, said it gracefully with the hint of a lovely Eastern European accent—she just glided through it.

“So could the cracks have been caused by the long piano move across the country?”

“Aw shucks, no,” York answered. “If them movers had dropped the piana, the case woulda’ been destroyed first, well before that there plate would.”

“Well, maybe repeated tunings had caused undo tension to the plate.”

“Now that’s entirely possible,” he said, “cause that piana’ is so old, it maybe couldn’t take too many tunins cause we’re talkin’ here about 40,000 pounds a pressure applied by the strings! Now listen up,” he continued, “way back in them old years, pianas wasn’t built to be tuned up as high as 440 frequencies. They’s was set at 435, ‘bout 30 cents down, so that there pooch piana or whatever she calls it, wasn’t hell bent on getting’ its pitch raised.”

To brush up on my knowledge about cast iron plates, I located an article in the November 2000 Piano Technicians Journal, titled “Piano Plate Breakage a Case Study.” Steve Brady, RPT Editor, stated that “plates rarely break and when they do, it is probably because of their inferior or faulty design.” He added that when the plate breaks, “it is not uncommon for it do so some years after the piano was built. Stress fatigue in metal occurs with the passage of time, and microscopic cracks do grow until the part finally fails.” He concluded, therefore, that piano tuners can’t be blamed for causing plate damage simply by raising the pitch of strings.

***

Rebecca McGregor had flown York to Atlanta, Georgia and then they drove off to Lawrenceville, nearly getting lost.

“Mr. York couldn’t follow the exit signs for me and I’d been told that the citizens of Atlanta complained about them, too,” she said. “The more exits we missed, the more anxious we became.”

When the two of them managed to arrive at the Gwinnett County Courthouse, Small Claims Division, they looked southern justice straight in the eye. Not a court reporter was in sight, and the defendant’s attorney kept voicing objections to every last bit of York’s testimony. Unfortunately, the judge sustained nearly all of them.

McGregor summed up the courtroom scene. “Mr. York really did his best to explain, but neither the judge nor the defendant’s attorney would allow him to complete a thought. Additionally, we were both simply frightened and out of our element.”

She was beside herself trying to make some headway fleshing out the truth of her tragedy, but the judge recused her star witness just as she was beginning to make inroads.

“That there attorney on the other side was in the judge’s hip pocket,” York said.

Plaintiff McGregor could barely continue. She felt so downtrodden that she wanted to take the earliest plane out of Atlanta. Even her own testimony had been barred because the judge ruled that she was not an “expert.”

“When it was all over,” she said, “Mr. York called his wife and I called my husband, both of us sounding exhausted, frustrated and close to tears.”

The Defendant, Pascal Vieillard, 45, owner of A-440 Pianos had dominated the courtroom all along with his argument that the piano had been shipped from the store in good condition, without a warranty, and whatever happened to a 100-year-old piano, 6 or so months after delivery was the buyer’s problem.

Curious and concerned about the absence of a reporter transcribing testimony at the trial, I contacted a Gwinnett County court clerk who insisted that having the trial recorded would clog up a court system that was meant to move claims of $35 to $15,000 briskly along.

Jonathon Jones, attorney, Fresno, whose garage housed his Yamaha dream piano that I had recently detailed, echoed the opinion of the Georgia clerk:

“Shirley, Concerning the small claims case to which you refer, the fact that there was no court reporter is not unusual. Small claims court is closest to arbitration. The intent is to get small disputes under $15K, resolved without clogging the main court system.”

In a telephone interview I conducted with Pascal Vieillard on May 11, 2007, he stated unequivocally that he had offered the buyer, Rebecca McGregor an even exchange on the damaged Proksch but that she declined.

“I don’t know if she told you how many times I made zis same proposal, but she said, “I don’t trust you anymore so I am not going to buy another piano from you!”

According to Vieillard, he believed that he had tried to satisfy the customer by offering her this option and therefore felt spared further blame. When questioned about whether he would encourage customers to get a technician’s opinion from any number of members of the Atlanta Piano Technician’s Guild before making a purchase of his pianos, he shied away from saying yes. “Well, we all know each other,” he said.

During the course of the interview, Pascal Vieillard verified his Associate membership in the Atlanta Technician’s Guild and admitted that he had not passed the required exam to become “registered.” Mr. York was also an associate member of the local PTG and had not passed a comparable examination. Vieillard stated that he obtained a two year Associate Degree in Piano Technology at Western Iowa Tech in 1988.

In follow-up interview with Rebecca McGregor, conducted on May 12, 2007, she responded to the statements made by Viellard:

“Oh my God, he said on the witness stand under oath that he graduated the University of Iowa!! I distinctly remember this because I thought it was ironic that he had graduated from my father’s alma mater.

“As for his offer to exchange the piano, it’s a lie, simple and without question. The only offer he made was to meet me at the big NAMM trade show in Los Angeles in January and allow me to buy one of the pianos there at cost, through him. Additionally, he offered to take my piano back if I paid the freight and was willing to take any money he could get for selling it as “salvage”. That was the only offer that was made and he is, once again, lying if he tells you anything different.

“I distinctly asked him to either to refund my money or give me another piano, and he refused. Wouldn’t I have been a fool not to have taken such an offer, to have instead, incurred the additional cost of flying to Atlanta? “

***

York was standing beside my Steinway bemoaning his Gwinnett County courtroom experience

“Maybe it was just plain red neck justice or somethin,’ ” he said.

“Well, it could have been,” I replied, “but the important thing was that Rebecca did her best to expose her side of the story.”

Acting as her own attorney she had prepared her case meticulously, putting together a binder of photographic exhibits, e-mail correspondence between her and the A-440 Piano Company principles, court filed papers, exhibits of her check payment and moving vouchers, plus a very dramatic opening statement that poignantly told her story.

But despite her best efforts, the judge ruled against the plaintiff simply by checking off a box. He was not required to render a written opinion.

It might as well have been Judge Judy’s court of least resort.

York insisted that “it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

**

Looking Back

With considerable time having passed since the trial, Rebecca McGregor is still bitter about what happened, but she’s learned through painful experience that she should never have purchased a piano sight unseen.

I asked her how she would advise buyers who were looking for their dream pianos amidst a slick marketplace of avaricious sellers.

“I would say once and for all, never buy a piano without obtaining the opinion of a certified piano technician, and make sure you look at it and see it for yourself—have someone play it for you, and then touch it with your own hands. You should lay under the piano and look from the bottom up, because there are so many little things that can go wrong. It’s most important that the plate be in stable condition, because everything else can be fixed.”

Rebecca clings to the hope that York can help her get the plate repaired. He’s already taken up the challenge by hauling all of 250 plus pounds to the College of the Sequoias in Visalia where there’s a welding department and students eager to test their mettle with this huge chunk of iron.

“It will be interestin’ to see what happens,” York says. “Ya just never know. They might be able to repair them cracks and then I can just put the strings an’ everythin’ else back in where they belongs. Could work, or not. But let’s hope it does.”

Finale

The story never had the happy ending York had hoped for. Sadly, when he carried the plate from the welder at the College of the Sequoias to his awaiting truck, it cracked in two other places and had to be laid to rest.

Additional funeral pictures are shared here:

Mr. Barrett, a Registered Piano Technician, above, who consulted on the plate before it was declared dead, is seen praying over the victim.

Rebecca McGregor the owner and tragic victim of a piano selling scam, checks the plate for any signs of life, even though for all intents and purposes it had already died.

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***

READ HOW THE FEDS NAILED VIEILLARD:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/11/19/pascal-vieillard-a440-pia_n_785913.html