"The Endangered Piano Technician" by James Boyk, arioso7, Dale Erwin, Dale Erwin Modesto California, Dale Erwin pianotechnician and rebuilder, James Boyk pianist, New York Steinway hammers, Ny Steinway vintage piano, piano, piano technician, Piano Technician's Guil, piano technician's guild, piano tuner, piano tuners, piano tuning, Piano World, pianoaddict.com, Pianostreet.com, pianoworld.com, PTG, Registered piano technician, Renner piano hammers, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Kirsten blog, Shirley Smith Kirsten, Steinway piano factory in Long Island, Terry Barrett, Terry Barrett piano technician, voicing pianos, word press, wordpress.com

The voices of piano technicians around the country

I had the invaluable opportunity to interview various Registered Piano Technicians around the country about various aspects of their profession.

First, to become a RPT, the candidate takes an exam that’s administered through the Piano Technician’s Guild (PTG) which has branches in cities all over the country. Since piano tuning is not a licensed profession, PTG “has set up standards of quality workmanship and examinations to test for them.” These cover tuning, regulation and repairs, as well as basic knowledge of piano building and design.

The Guild has two types of members: “Registered Piano Technicians” and “Associates.” “Associate membership is open to anyone with a “professional or avocational interest in piano technology.”

RPT, Israel Stein, a tuner in the Bay area, is one of the PTG Examiners. He’d mentioned in passing, that a time factor is integrated into the tuning segment of the examination. I found this fascinating because some tuners will spend hours tuning a piano, while others might be in and out the door lickety split.

Off the top of my head, I can think of two tuners, both RPTs, who have contrasting tuning styles. One tunes by ear without electronics, and the other comes with a Verituner. The latter tuned a student’s Knabe medium size grand piano with the “machine” in 15 minutes flat, and left the piano “out of tune” when she left. I stood there, jaw dropped, observing the proceedings. Since I had helped the pupil acquire the piano which had not been tuned in approximately two years, I had a keen interest in the quality of follow-up maintenance. A big disappointment!

The machine-dependent tuner, by the way, didn’t play any harmonic intervals in the course of her tuning which surprised me. She calibrated the gizmo, or set the temperament and that was it. I was frankly appalled by the results.

The second tuner, Terry Barrett, who “tunes” by ear will spend hours with my Steinway grand, fussing over every interval, in 5ths, 6ths, 3rds, 10ths, you name it, and by the time he’s wrapped up the whole afternoon, the piano is in excellent “tune.” For repairs, I’m out of luck so my piano remains painfully unregulated.

Sight compromised, by the way, Barrett rides a bicycle to his appointments, bogged down by bags of tools that are carefully weight balanced over both back wheels.

This well-built RPT uses a powerful magnifying glass to inspect the intricacies of a piano’s complex assembly and in fact, solved the mystery of my Aeolian spinet’s date of manufacture using this very implement. SEE Blog: https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/26/a-table-style-piano-with-three-leaves-the-whole-story-in-lurid-detail/

I honed in with his digital cam, and photographed deep into the key bed to capture the “1936” engraving.

Terry is mum about machine vs. ear tuning, so I don’t engage him in any related discussions.

The Central Valley climate, by the way, is kind to pianos with its low humidity in the 40% to 55% or so range. So most pianos will have a decent life span if kept here and tuned every 6 months to a year. (that presupposes a set of strings that are viable; and hammers that have enough felt to give them a lease on life.) Technicians will also argue with reasonable assertion, that the piano, to stay maintained, should be voiced and regulated; checked for moths and mice critters that can attack at any time and eat their way through the action, and updated if parts of the hammer assembly need replacement.



Rick Clark, Piano Doctor/technician at Artistic Pianos in San Diego, says in this regard, “that just about everyone thinks their ancient upright is in good shape and ‘just needs a tuning.’ In fact, these pianos are for the most part highly deteriorated inside where it counts, and age alone takes a great toll on felt and leather.” Kick in the climate on the Eastern seaboard and you often get “rust and Stress Related Deformation to the wood.” He notes that plain old “wear and tear” on the piano from years of playing also “takes a toll”…In essence, most of these pianos are ready for the scrap heap.

But Clark posits a last ditch resuscitation with some reservation: “Sometimes you can improvise/patch up the worst problems and get all the keys to work, and some resemblance of a tuning, but if you’re looking at a total rebuild, “it may be too expensive to justify.”

I should add that rebuilding my 1940’s era, New York City based Sohmer upright was cost prohibitive. It had unsuccessfully braved East Coast weather changes/elements, and stood as a pretty piece of furniture taking up space in the living room. Recently, I mourned its death during my trip back home in upper Manhattan.

Back to “voices” of Registered Piano Technicians:

In this segment, I posed about 20 questions that were sent out and answered by email.

Dave Estey, an RPT working in New Jersey shared his thoughts on pertinent tuner related issues.(He’s a tuner/techician that also does restorations and rebuilds in his shop) http://www.esteypiano.com David Estey Piano Service

First, I asked him where he received his tuner/tech training?

“I apprenticed in a rebuilding shop under an old-timer for about 3 years. I learned the basics under my apprenticeship, but learned much more by hands on experience. This would be the case for all those in the business–you learn by doing and experiencing different problems–pianos–etc.”

My next inquiry focused on the use of machines to tune pianos, always a hotbed of discussion:

“Machines are OK–but also require experience to use. The Sanderson Accutuner is one I’m familiar with, as I own one–using it for training purposes. From my perspective, tuning by ear, the machines are awkward requiring way too much time to work with. If one learns to use them, learns to set them to each individual piano, they are good enough for Jonnie and Suzie taking lessons, but I would not send a tuner who used such a device to a client such as yourself.

“Bottom line, no one can be a decent tuner using a tuning device and not have the basics of aural tuning or a trained ear to some degree. Again, bottom line–the main ingredient to any accurate tuning is raw experience. In my first year of tuning (about 30 years ago) an old timer told me that I wouldn’t know what I was doing until I had tuned 1,000 pianos. I chuckled inside–saying “you gotta be kidding,” but the old guy was right.I don’t care what kind of device you use, including your bare ear–the extremes of bass and treble require practice and experience to be tuned correctly due to imperfections (wild strings) and tonal variations on any piano including a concert Steinway.”

Christopher Hill, concert piano technician, working in the New Jersey area, praised his Sanderson Accutuner:

“I resisted buying a Sanderson Accutuner for FIVE years as my friend/mentor pestered me. I had been tuning for 18 years at the time, and at the concert level. This machine is the best tool I have ever owned. And Yefim Bronfman and others in his business did not say a word when they saw me take it out of my tool case. Even the inventor, Dr. Sanderson, always said at conventions that you MUST use your ear. If it’s a crutch and not a tool you are in trouble. In the past ten days I have worked with Alfred Brendel and Andre LaPlante and neither asked me how I got the piano in tune. They smiled and thanked me, for which I am most grateful. I still thank my friend for his push eleven years ago. (and he has worked for more artists than I ever will….)”

My questions continued in the following order:

How do you think the Piano Technicians Guild can reach out to the community to inform piano owners about the need to regularly tune and maintain pianos?

“They have made great strides with the PTG website but have failed in this effort to put the interests of RPT’s first. This has hurt the organization. The PTG to date has not been working with this website in synergy as they could. PTG gives no preferential order to dealers and re-builders who are RPTs. They are in alphabetical order–so even though I support the Guild, pay for the web site with my dues, have meetings in my shop, I am lower on the list than those who do NOTHING to support the PTG. As a matter of fact, if you look at the piano dealer list, you will find the first listing bumps you off the PTG site to another listing of dealers who have NOTHING to do with the support or interests of the guild.

“I think PTG marketing has a long way to go–they need to encourage more to join as RPTs by making it a distinct BUSINESS advantage to do so. By doing the proper marketing–which would be the website–e.g. working closer with Pianoworld.com–and giving advantage to its members who pay for the site and support the guild–the revenues and marketing budget would increase thereby enabling the piano market to be better informed.”

How can PTG improve services to its members? (Was I being redundant?)

You have my rant about the website. I think PTG is overly paranoid about discussing the business end–pricing, etc. The average tuner in this area is charging about $100 to $110 per tuning, including RPTs. Call GE or Sears to come and fix your dryer–$149.95 to walk in the door and another $25 to turn a screw. Generally, RPTs are charging too little for their experience. Imagine spending decades to hone your skills and charging less than someone who fixes a dryer (no insult to the Maytag guys, but you get my point)

Since you are from New Jersey, I would imagine that the high humidity might require the use of damp chasers. Do you recommend them?

“We have had fantastic results with the pianos equipped with a Damp Chaser system. As a matter of fact, I like to put them in any piano I sell or rebuild. I highly recommend them.”

Finally, a question that was particularly dear to my heart, concerned the choice of hammers placed in a NYC vintage Steinway grand. When my instrument was finally re-built to recup its damages from an untimely assault by a piano technician, I was fussy about the type of hammers the re-builder would install. There was an issue related to employment of Steinway NY hammers vs. the German, brighter sounding Renners. My piano had the NY Steinway variety when it was originally purchased which preserved its singing tone. On the other hand some rebuilders wouldn’t think twice about installing the German Renners (used in the Hamburg grands) in a NY manufactured Steinway.

In the end, after sampling each, I had signed off on the NY variety.

Estey weighed in with his opinions:

“As a matter of fact we use Renner most of the time, unless the client insists on Steinway parts. (He acknowledged the use of Renners in the Hamburg Steinway, which for me has a bright and angular sound)

“The Steinway parts have generally required much more labor to install–I have found their pinning to be inconsistent–the hammers require considerable voicing, and their rep lever springs are just plain obsolete, in my opinion. With Renner rep levers you adjust by turning the screw that can be very exacting. Steinway rep lever springs must be manually adjusted which is a crazy waste of time in my book. Renner hammers (Blues) come out of the box consistent and requiring much less labor to voice properly. Steinway hammers need to be lacquered and romanced. We are capable of doing this work, but unless a customer insists on Steinway parts, I’ll choose Renner in a heartbeat.”

This is a sore point for me. As a performing pianist, in possession of a very tonally beautiful Steinway that now needs much work, I tend to lean toward putting the compatible NY Steinway hammers in my vintage treasure. When Dale Erwin of Modesto resurrected my piano from the dead in the early 90’s, he spent inordinate time “voicing” my piano with my constant feedback. Part of the process was letting me sample the tone produced by a Renner vs. NY Steinway hammer.

In my mind, short-cuts with Renner hammers, that produce more of a brassy sound that belongs to the Hamburg Steinway, or is the DNA of this European instrument should not be gene-cloned into the East Coast manufactured piano. I doubt the builders in the Long Island Factory in New York are putting the Renners in the crop of new and even vintage era pianos. It would make no sense, genetically.

Here’s what Dale Erwin had to say. (Erwin’s Piano Restoration, Inc) I give this shop ***** rating! The man saved my piano! And he viewed it as a singing tone instrument, plying and treating the hammers in such a way as to milk every note for its maximum cantabile effect.

My opener to the discussion:

“Dale, I remember when you rebuilt my Steinway that you let me sample the tone yielded by a Steinway vs. Renner hammer, and I readily chose the NY Steinway hammer that you then voiced and developed magnificently. I was curious as to whether in the long years of your Steinway restorations if you have come to a consensus about whether its best to use the NY Steinway hammers in the vintage instruments to get the Steinway sound? I’m also confused when I hear about re-builds where Renner actions are used in tandem with Steinway hammers. The Steinway factory seems to say that the Steinway pianos need Steinway hammers and other Steinway parts. They insist in the Concert and Artist Department that the Renner implanted hammers in Steinway pianos are changing the gender, so to speak, of Steinway pianos.

Dale: I agree. But the action parts and the hammers are two separate issues. Renner parts are fine parts but I dislike the hammers. The average consumer is overwhelmed by confusion in regard to this whole rebuild area. And I must say that I am compelled to do research and find vintage rebuilt Steinways that have only Steinway parts, en toto to compare with the Renner modified.

Me: The other thing I heard is that replacing soundboards by technicians is a major compromise.

Dale: “What a crock. Yes, it’s the marketing hype of Steinway and Sons. They’d have you believe that they have magic wood and they are the only artisan soundboard makers. Their soundboard-making method is archaic, antiquated, unreliable and outdated. If you ever hear my pianos you’ll know what they say is not true. I saw their Convention display of a Steinway A, 1900. The board was already collapsed even though just rebuilt. Horrible!

Me: When I read James Barron’s The Making of a Steinway Piano, I realized the arduous work that goes into tendering a soundboard, starting with trips to the forest in the Pacific Northwest–and that much of the purchased wood is tossed out with grain, moisture, and other problems…what about modifications to the lyre. Modifying a lyre does not sound right.

Dale: (side stepped my comments)

“So much rebuilding I see is garden variety commercial grade disappointments. Very little artisan quality work in the world.”

Me: I’m fortunate that my Steinway, “M” grand has the original soundboard with a patchable crack. While it needs a going over since its rebuild in the 90’s, it still sings and provides satisfying hours of playing.


To conclude this blog segment, that will be followed by more shared “voices” from the technician community, I’ve chosen a riveting quote of James Boyk, concert pianist, who wrote the “The Endangered Piano Technician,” published in Scientific American, 1995.

In the course of our e-mailed correspondence he questioned my intent in writing an article about the universe of tuner/technicians.

Boyk: “I admire you for all this. I would only suggest with respect to your undertaking, that you keep a focused idea of whom you’re trying to convince, and of what, precisely.

“A) if you convince everyone that they ought to engage top quality tuner/technicians, but such people don’t exist, it won’t change anything. Contrariwise, (B) if you inspire a thousand young people to become tuner/technicians–and even if they are in a position to devote years to training–and they were ready to embark on a career, they would have no work unless customers had been educated to want them–which is where I started this circular paragraph.

“Like all such ‘chicken and egg’ problems, this one is tough to crack.”



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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 Pianos.com. While it’s common for piano owners to throw up their hands and say,”I know virtually nothing about my piano,” it’s time for a new attitude to replace the old. Even “Alice” was exhilarated to know more about her “player piano without a name” when I enlisted her in the fact finding adventure. While the piano had been virtually un-played for 4 years since its purchase from an antique store for $125, she quickly became my “Dr. Watson” beaming a flash light on its cast iron plate; screaming in delight when she discovered the digits that might help date it. In the case of her particular piano, supplementary information acquired from Robert Furst’s Bluebook of Pianos.com led to its more conclusive identity.

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


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:


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


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


Concluding Bonus Chapter:


Extra: York’s World War II Musical Memoir

More People to Thank:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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More Photos from my Dream Piano Adventures

Connell York, Piano Technician:

York examines a moth hole in a hammer felt:

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


A Player Piano Without a Name:


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

Fresno Auction piano, Steinway grand, 1920


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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


From a Piano Teacher’s worst nightmare:


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

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

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

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

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A Player Piano Without a Name

“Alice,” the owner of an unidentified player, is seen above.

On a sultry Friday morning before a long Memorial Day weekend, I stumbled upon a Fresno Bee ad for a brand-less “piano,” sandwiched among “moving sale” items. The seller’s address traced to a working class neighborhood in south Fresno that probably wouldn’t house a pricey instrument, but I was still curious enough to make the 20 minute trip that might reap unexpected rewards. Driving down Palm Avenue, drenched in sweat, sticking uncomfortably to the seat of my air condition-less, beat up old Caravan, I meandered down Shields to “2416 N. Adoline,” the last house on a never-ending block.

Without a single moving sale sign in sight, I left my car, and tentatively edged toward the entrance to obtain a closer glance at the address. At this same moment, a 40 or so, bespectacled woman appeared holding a self-made sign post and introduced herself as “Alice.”

“Is this the where the piano is?” I asked reservedly. “Yes” she said with a smile, as she nudged me down the quaint hallway of her home.

Before I knew it, I was eyeing the prize, a monstrous size upright piano that stood nobly up against a far wall. It was a mahogany encased, scruffy looking instrument, with a conspicuously sanded exterior that suggested a half-baked attempt at refinishing. The most ornate part of the piano was its leg work. It had a fancy, scrolled mid-portion that would turn heads in an antique store.

I moved closer to this imposing upright to discover its manufacturer and could see fragments of etched Old English letters on its fall board. Some were over-sanded and illegible. The first capitalized letter could have been a “T,” or “F,” but I wasn’t sure. An upper case “J” was also possibility. “i,” “m,” and “b” seemed to follow the first consonant. Looking like Sherlock Holmes with my flashlight and serious investigative demeanor, I quickly enlisted Alice, my side kick, Dr. Watson to scour the old piano for clues to its identity. At my request she measured the instrument from its base to top and came up with a skyrocketing figure of 57 inches that probably dated this piano to the late 19th or early 20th century. But I couldn’t be sure without consulting a reliable source of information such as the Bluebook of pianos.com that had a vintage upright link with photos of old world collectibles.

I combed the fall board scrupulously, seeing “Cabinet grand” and “Chicago” faintly scratched into it, but these words alone, would not furnish a specific company name.

Suddenly I noticed a pair of shutters that identified the instrument as a player, and by parting them I could peer into the area that housed the hammers and related assembly. I would also catch a good glimpse of the cast iron plate where the tuning pins were mounted.

A look through a rectangular opening revealed a clean set of mildly grooved hammers that indicated the piano hadn’t been played very much. If the felts had been significantly worn, a tuner might do some hammer filing or “reshaping” to establish better contact with the strings.

Alice had poured light into the cast iron plate from above. Before I had noticed the shutters, I had stood barefoot on the piano bench, gaping into this piano with its lid open. What a view!

“Gosh, it’s amazing that the company name isn’t engraved into the cast iron plate, “I had remarked.

Since I hadn’t yet laid my hands on this piano to assess its tone, why on earth was I fumbling around its interior, violating its privacy? Did I need a carved in stone identity to go further? Were pedigree papers necessary?

The seller’s flashlight beamed upon a serial number that was engraved into the iron plate. Immediately, Alice was infected with excitement as she recited five numbers in a booming voice,”53882!”

Suddenly we were in possession of a valued piece of information that could potentially date this piano but not necessarily name it, so I diligently resumed my inspection of the fall board to decipher faintly etched letters. Alice was by this time intensely engaged in the process, second guessing my stabs at the mysterious lettering. In the meantime, she had provided some introductory background on the piano that was compelling. Approximately four years back, she said, it had been purchased at a local antique store on Belmont Avenue for $125 and was then loaded into a rented truck by husband, Mark, who lugged it home all by himself.

“It was a bummer to haul that piano in and out of the truck, and I don’t think I’ll ever do it again without a mover!” he said. (The piano probably weighed in at one thousand pounds!)

Alice mentioned that after the overbearing upright arrived in its new home, it was never played.

For all intents and purposes, it was relegated to furniture status in a room filled with collectibles.

She confided that she had been drawn to this dream piano based upon its appearance alone.

“It had an old West, saloon piano appeal, and I could see it standing in my living room right beside my favorite antique lamp.” Alice had apparently never run her fingers over its keyboard before she purchased it even though she’d overheard a customer playing it at the store.

“I couldn’t tell anything about its sound because the store was too big.”

Alice had wanted to take piano lessons, but instead, she decided to teach herself on a Casio keyboard with blinking lights, and never quite transferred her knowledge to the big piano.

Now that I possessed the valued serial number jotted down on a piece of paper, I thumbed through the pages of my Pierce Piano Atlas to try to find a match for the nameless piano. But without a company identity, I would be launching a search in the dark.

“What do you think these few letters spell,” I asked Alice again, in frustration.

She was silent.

I tried substituting a “T” for an “F” at the beginning and guessed at various missing vowels and consonants that might follow. I really needed a Scrabble champion to assist me.

“T-I-M-B-E-R,” I announced in a loud voice, thinking I had finally unjumbled the letters. But what on earth was a “TIMBER” piano? I’d never heard of it.

I checked my Pierce Piano Atlas for a “TIMBER” listing and finding no such brand, I ran down columns of pianos beginning with the letter “T.” I did the same with “F” and then substituted “J” as Alice had suggested. But my efforts were completely in vain!

Discouraged by this fruitless name seeking folly, I asked Alice if I could borrow her phone to call my “technician associate.”

In the blink of an eye, I was speaking with York who said he was sitting in front of an upright piano somewhere out in the country. It seemed like his assignments were more and more in the boonies, perhaps because he was not getting call backs in the city.

“I’m out here in Hanford workin’ on an old vertical,” he said, “ and then I have me a half day’s work out in Lemoore, so I can’t be talkin’ too much.”

“Hey, Mr. York, I’m on Adoline near Shields looking at a “cabinet grand,” about 57 or so inches that has no company name on the fall board. At least I can’t reconstruct some antiquated letters that are badly scratched out, but I do see ‘Chicago’ and a few choice characters on it. We also have a serial number, ‘53882’ and it’s an old player with a gutted mechanism.  Do you have any idea about the manufacturer?”

“Now you just listen up, honey child. I seen millions of these with and without names. And some plays good, but others might as well be scrap metal but I really can’t talk right now ’cause this piana sittin’ here has moths, and I needs to clean ’em out.”

I imagined him blasting out the critters with a bottle of cloves. This was one of his treasured secrets that I was never to divulge. In fact, he admitted that both his apprentices were booted out for having been traitors. They’d spread his final solution to moth infestation all over town!

My futile name hunt had meanwhile squeezed out valuable time to evaluate the piano’s tonal dimension. Finally, I just forced myself to sit down on the bench and play the old upright.

Immediately, this over-sized piano communicated a nobility of character that drew me to its very core. The sound emanating from this awesome vertical resonated off the walls as if it were coming from a full size grand piano. I could easily imagine myself in Carnegie Hall playing to a large audience and I didn’t need a concert size instrument to project the works of Schumann and Chopin and the sweep of the Romantic era. Here I had this no name piano, a “cabinet grand” possessing enough tonal resources to invite listeners into its magnificent sound universe. And aside from needing a good tuning, I couldn’t imagine eager beaver re-builders justifying a restoration. What would they do? Replace hammers that didn’t need changing? Give it a new soundboard that did not appear cracked. A buyer had to be concerned about being approached by a contingent of refurbishing addicts who, for big dollars would do everything to an old world sounding piano to revise and ruin its character. Fortunately, this piano had experienced only a minor renovation. It had a nice new set of key tops that were evenly balanced and weighted so the notes were exquisite to the touch. What more could a concert pianist ask for?

As I continued to play this remarkable sounding instrument, gliding through the works of Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann and Mozart, ending with the “Bach Prelude in C,” from the Well Tempered Clavier, I had acquired an attentive audience of listeners. Alice, her husband and son were seated in the living room glued to the music. Immediately, she began gushing about the piano.

“I’m not sure we ought to sell it now,” she said regretfully, looking at Mark. “I’ve never heard it like this before. It’s so beautiful.” She was wiping tears from her eyes with a laced handkerchief.

“So why don’t you keep it,” I replied.

I knew a drama was unfolding, and I thought about Caroline and her relationship to the “little Knightingale.” While she dearly loved her piano, she was quite willing to part with it.” (A British Knight console)

But Alice’s circumstances were very different. The family had planned to move to Las Vegas in a few months and the cost of transporting a 1,000 pound piano to another state would be prohibitive. Shipping could easily run Alice and Mark between $1200 and $1500 so it made no sense to undertake such a steep expense.

I returned to my concert, serenading the family until a young woman, about 30, entered the home and gawked at the piano. Then she sat down and joined an audience of listeners, not saying very much.

I played “Fur Elise” for the second time, in a such a way, that  anyone mildly familiar with the work would have been drawn into its intimate space without even thinking about it and then I performed a few more short pieces before I paused to sing the praises of this extraordinary old upright. “This is truly an astounding musical instrument and a very rare find,” I told my audience, looking directly at the woman who had recently entered the house. (I knew she might be a prospective buyer) “Most of these older pianos are ready for the scrap metal yard, but not this one. If I were looking for a lovely, singing instrument, I would strongly consider buying it.” The piano had been on the market for six long months and had not attracted interest so it was time to do some serious promotion and get this piano into a loving home.

Alice and her husband, Mark had asked me earlier about what I had thought the piano was worth and I could only compare the instrument to another with a missing player assembly that had comparable resonance. A “Howard” made by the Baldwin Company, had been up for $800 and ended up selling for $200. It had been painted an abysmal grayish yellow but still stole the heart of my client, Marcus Johnson who grabbed it on the spot after I sampled it for him. So having had this experience with a similar sized old instrument, I told Alice that she might start pricing the piano at $500 and maybe come down to $400.

The interested buyer who had joined the audience of listeners in the living room was obviously so taken by the piano that she promised to come back quickly after she spoke with her husband. She seemed very sincere, and I knew in my gut that she would return with an offer.

After she departed, I lingered and took piano photos at various angles. I zoomed in on the fall board that bore the Old English letters and clicked a few photos with Alice and her husband standing by the instrument. Finally, I panned around the living room to get a feel for its ambiance, snapping pictures of various collectibles: two wing back light green chairs, a glass table with an ornate wrought iron base; a light yellow Armoire and laced white curtains in valence. A few fancy lamps, sprinkled around the area added an aesthetic embellishment. The newest piece of furniture was a Lane couch from the ‘50’s and a contemporary looking secretary that stood against a side wall. Alice confessed that her real passion was collecting Barbie dolls but I saw none on display. Apparently, she had several hundred and a coordinated wardrobe for them. Her first acquisition dated back to 1959.

I had planned to be at a recording session at 1:30 p.m. to complete my fifth CD, and looking at my clock, it was well past one. How I had managed to soak up over two hours time inspecting and playing this gargantuan upright piano was beyond comprehension!

“Well, I gotta be going, “I said. “Please keep me posted on the piano and let me know if the lady buyer comes through. If not, I can post a free ad for you on Craig’s list and upload a photo with it.”

Sometimes, I did things like this out of the goodness of my heart, not expecting a financial return. In this instance, I had invited myself into this home not as an interested buyer but as a curious piano finder. And now after having sampled this great sounding instrument, I thought nothing of investing my time in advancing its sale. But my first priority was finding the piano a good home.


After my lengthy and arduous recording session at the Fast Traxx Recording studio in downtown Fresno, I headed home thinking again about the nameless, though awesome sounding piano. I said to myself, why not get an opinion from Terry Barrett, the best tuner/technician in town who maintained pianos at Fresno State and tuned the Fresno Philharmonic’s concert grand. He had done such a good job appraising the needs of the Steinway 1920 piano up for auction a few weeks ago that he might throw some light on the awesome “cabinet grand’s” identity.

It was Saturday, the day following my jaunt to Adoline and Terry stood beside me at Alice’s house peering at her nameless piano.

“Looks old to me, about 1905, maybe, because of the size and scroll work,” he said. “But I’m not sure the case is mahogany.”

“Could it be a “Kimber?” I asked, not knowing if such a piano existed—it was basically a shot in the dark.

“No, I don’t know of any Kimbers,” he replied.

“Hey, there’s a “Kimberly” listed right here in the Pierce Piano Atlas,” I said, “but it doesn’t jive with this upright piano.” I mumbled what was in print: ‘Name used on pianos made by a company that failed in 1922.’ ”

“The first letter definitely does not look like a ‘K,’ I commented. “Maybe a “J” would work. ‘JIMBER,’ perhaps?  But it’s not listed in the Atlas, and I’ve already went through all the J’s”

Terry and I were fumbling with the first letter

Blank___ “mber” We were stuck in our tracks. I changed the subject.

“What about the missing player mechanism? What do you know about it?”

“Players started wearing out and had problems in the 30’s,” he answered. They eventually went out of fashion, and were removed. We tuners pull them out all the time.”

Terry beamed some light on the cast iron plate through parted shutters. He relied on me to report back any findings because of his severely compromised eyesight.

I read in a loud voice, “General Furniture Company, and Bell Plate Co.”

“Well that gives you some clues,” Terry said.

I stuck my head through the shutters again. This time I saw some pieces of the player action, and loose, frayed connections.

Then I noticed the words, “patented vertical grand French repeating action” engraved in the plate.

“What on earth is a French repeating action?” I inquired.

Terry was mum and looked pale. He had no idea.

“Maybe the piano’s name is in the back,” I said, returning to the subject of its identity. I gave it a quick look, trying to squeeze myself into a narrow space behind the instrument, but found nothing but a series of criss-crossed wood panels.

Each time I experienced an identity seeking setback such as this, I shifted my conversation to another subject

“So, Terry, my question is, ‘Can this piano hold a good tuning?’ ”

I ran my fingers rapidly over its keys, performing a dazzling chromatic scale from pianissimo (double soft) to fortissimo (double loud).

“Well, I think so,” He answered. “But when exactly was it last tuned?” he asked.

Mark, sitting passively on the Lane couch, chimed in, “about 4 years ago.”

Terry ran his own fingers over the keyboard and encountered a warbling note.

“I think this might be a tuning pin tightness problem, or, it could very well be that when it was last tuned, it was way under pitch.”

“It’s really not that far under concert A” (440 frequencies) I insisted.

“Do you notice how good the hammers look?” I continued. “They aren’t deeply grooved. And what always makes me steaming mad is when too many tuners unnecessarily file hammers down that are producing a beautiful, resonant tone.”

Terry agreed with me. “If you have a great tone, then you don’t file the hammers.”

I thought of how many times York was on automatic pilot to sand down perfectly decent ones. It always made me sick!

“The bridle straps look pretty good,” I remarked–“What do you think, Terry?”

“Oh, I really don’t care about bridle straps,” he answered.

“Mr. York is always talking about bridle straps,” I said.

Terry chuckled.

(“The primary function of bridle straps placed only in verticals is to aid in hammer repetition, but they are not a cure-all for repetition problems”—footnote: Robert Ellis, RPT)

“They don’t affect the playing of a piano, period,” Barrett said.

I knew that York would have  taken Terry to battle on this point because he had sworn that bridle straps had everything to do with good hammer response. And naturally, York always went bravely to war against the mice and rats who “dun chewed up dem straps to build their nests!”

Are these the knuckles?” I asked Terry, as I pointed to some squared off white parts of the hammer assembly. One of my worst nightmare tuners had “polished the knuckles” of my Steinway grand in 1989 sending it back to the Stone Age. I could never forgive him!

“Not exactly, knuckles,” Terry replied.  “Those are hammer butts.”

I quickly returned to the mystery of the piano’s identity.

“So do you think there’s a way to flesh out those missing letters on the fall board?”

Mark chimed in again. “I’ll bet that sanding down the name will give you more of them.”  He insisted that the wood had been previously stripped by someone who’d never completed the work. It was, according to him, “a half-assed job.”

“Yup, it’s been stripped,” Terry said. “And it could very well be that a decal is affixed on the fall board.”

I couldn’t corroborate his statement because the lettering appeared flat on the wood.

“So what do you think of these key tops?” I asked.

I ran my fingers through a shimmering arpeggio.

“Well, yes,” he said, “I notice that new key tops and bushings were installed, and the work was very good. The notes are nicely leveled and squared.”

I interpolated a sprightly 4 octave-scale.

“But look how they replaced the dampers, but not the damper springs,” Terry added. (Dampers are the hammer felts)

“Hey, I see that the soft pedal doesn’t work, and there are only two,” I said.

“Well you should know that pianos with three pedals sell better. Put that in your book,” he said. He knew I was always writing one. “Okay, Terry, that’s your quote.” We both chuckled.

“Did you know that my Steinway upright has three pedals, and it’s very expensive because of the added features? Yet the middle pedal is rarely if ever used.” (The center sostenuto pedal holds down specific notes after its depression, allowing others in different registers not to sustain)

“Yeah,” Terry answered. “I could never understand why manufacturers would put so much work into a third pedal.”

“So what about the hammers? Were they ever replaced?” I asked.

“Well, they only did the upper treble hammers,” he said, pointing to them. “So that’s why they feel heavy because they didn’t lighten them up.”

I couldn’t corroborate the heavier feel in the high treble, so I wouldn’t hold it against the piano.  But Terry was right about the hammers being a lighter color. His whole assessment of the piano was very thorough.

“By the way, is it wise to partially replace hammers?” I asked.

“Well, not really. I usually replace all the hammers so you can get the even tone and feel throughout.”

“So what do you think the piano’s worth?” I asked.

“I’d say, 500 bucks, approximately,” Terry answered.

“Shirley said the same thing,” Mark said, from his seat on the couch.

“Hey, I must be getting good at this,” I answered. “It’s really a great instrument and sturdy piece of furniture, but it’s hard to get good money these days for something like this,” I added.

Terry agreed.”Yeah, it’s just too big, and an antique piano is a completely different animal.”

“Hey, did that young woman ever make an offer on your upright?” I asked Mark. Alice was nowhere to be seen, and I wondered if she was in solitude, despairing about having to sell the piano. But I didn’t say anything.

“Yeah, the interested buyer offered $350,” Mark answered.

“If were you, I’d take the $350 because you’re not going to get another like that anytime soon,” I said.

“That’s probably what we’re going to do because we can’t take the piano with us.”

“Just make sure she moves it herself,” Terry added.” Don’t get stuck paying the moving expenses. You can tell her that the key tops and bushing replacements were an expensive job so don’t negotiate down the price. You also have a good bench right here, and that’s also worth something.”

“Well you know what. We bought it for $125,” Mark said.

“That’s great,” Terry declared. “So take the money and run!”

“You know what,” I said. “I bet a good re-finisher could improve the piano’s overall appearance.”

“Yeah,” but that would be a job,” Terry said.

“Put it this way,” Terry declared, “If an interested buyer is not happy with this piano as is, then he shouldn’t buy it.”

Mark seemed to agree.

When you write your book,” Terry added, “just say it’s a ‘classic piano without a pedigree.’ ”

“That’s exactly what I had written already,” I said. “You read my mind. The latest chapter is titled, ‘A Player without a Name,’ and this is the first piano I’ve ever encountered without an I.D.”

“It’s like a kitty cat that needs a home,” Terry said.

“You got it,” I said. “People look at their pianos like people or pets.”

“As far as I’m concerned, this piano’s pedigree is typical stripped down or gutted player piano,” Terry said.

“Do you think the moths got to it?” I asked.

“Like I’ve told you before, there’s cyanide in the felt. After moths lay eggs, they don’t get very far. It’s not that appetizing to eat the felts, anyway. As felt gets old, it’s less appealing, and besides, there’s other good stuff to eat around the house, like a nice new wool sweater.” We both chuckled.

“What about mice and rats?”

“Now that’s a real problem,” Terry said, “along with cockroaches. The rodents come into the piano and chew up the felts.”

“How often do you see them?”

“Well, pretty often,” Terry answered. “You typically see damage that’s happened in the past. The mice and rats are usually gone when you go in there.”

“And what you do?”

Clean it up,” he said. “I see fairly fresh nests and they’re usually in pianos that have been just sitting there and never played.” Terry looked down at his watch. “I really need to be going.”

“Well, thank you so much for coming down here on such short notice. I really appreciated all your feedback on this no name piano. So what do you think of this idea? Maybe we should get a forensic expert to analyze what’s on the fall board.” Terry had already hastened out the door, but Mark remained and laughed.

I sat down to record myself playing a few selections on my Sony portable: “Fur Elise,” a few “Scenes from Childhood” selections by Schumann and a Chopin “Nocturne.”

Lately I had thought to bring my tape recorder to every house that offered a piano for sale. It was the only way I could capture the drama of each household.

“You know what,” Mark said. “Everyone that looked at the piano didn’t know how to play it. You’re the first person who came through the door and brought it to life.”

“Hey do me a favor,” I said. “When the piano sells and is moved out, can you have Alice call me so I can interview her. I need her gut emotional farewell to the piano.”

I wrapped up the morning by playing the ethereal “Bach Prelude in C,” that had the harmonic backdrop for the sacred, soaring “Ave Maria.”

It was a perfect finale.


Before I arrived home, I took my camera to Long’s and developed my photos. The instant camera had done a grave injustice to the piano’s appearance by not picking up its deeply impressive wine color. And the antique furniture in the living room had a veil of cloudy film over it. I knew I needed to acquire a pricey digital camera but money was tight. In just a few weeks my student roster would markedly dwindle due to family vacation periods, so it was not a time to splurge.

My next priority was to check out the Bluebook of Pianos.com for some corroborating information on the huge unnamed vertical. The website featured a vintage upright link that showed photos of pianos from 1875 to about 1930 and graded them for antique value. The more florid, older, instruments attached higher “grades” but value was also tied to an instrument’s condition: (“refurbished” or not; “free of blemishes,” “nicks,” or “scratches,” etc.)

Immediately, I spotted an upright that looked very much like Alice and Mark’s. It was a “Grade V” dated between 1875 and 1905 and had the interesting scrolled legs. I read a compelling description: “The cabinets in those days were usually made of Mahogany that was the choice wood of the day.”

Apart from this information, I had no other clue to the piano’s identity. But a search request form furnished at the site, permitted an interested party to acquire upright-related information for free. Without hesitation, I supplied necessary details about Alice’s piano and sent it to the Bluebook.com site.

The next day, I left a message for Alice to phone me for an update on the instrument, and got Mark on the line, instead. He told me the piano had sold to the young woman whom I had met, and had already been moved out.

“So how is Alice taking it?” I asked.

“Well, she seems to be handling it okay,” he answered.

A full 48 hours later, I was speaking with her, and she seemed resigned to the departure of her treasured cabinet grand.

“My husband had said to me, ’so, do you miss it?’ and I said,

‘Well it’s going to a good home—and that’s what was important to me. When the movers came, I cared more about getting the piano out safely than about ruining the carpet or anything else.”

“So who did the moving?” I asked.

“The woman’s husband, her father, brother, and one girl all pitched in.”

“So 3 guys and one girl moved the piano?” I asked, with disbelief.

“Yeah, they brought it up to a Toyota truck, pushed it in and drove off.”

“Were you able to watch the piano being taken out?” I inquired.

“Yes, I watched it leave and it wasn’t a big deal at that point. The important thing was that I knew the young woman was going to take good care of the piano because she promised me she wasn’t going to let anybody bang on it. I said to her, ‘It’s like you’re taking part of my arm but I’m willing to let it go.’ When we move to Las Vegas, my husband is going into real estate and I’ll be a home care worker. I know someday the time will come when I’ll want to have a piano and I’ll be sure to call you.”

That same evening I opened an e-mail that was sent by Robert T. Furst, Bluebook of Pianos. He had provided a very lengthy report on the nameless piano that could be summarized in one paragraph:

“In addition to the serial number you had provided that dates the piano to 1896, the fact that it was a Player made in Chicago makes me think that the Kimball Company had something to do with it.” He went on to say, that Kimball also made stencil pianos, copies of its own brand using different names, and that “by and large Aeolian and Kimball would have manufactured these.” While he could not be 100% sure that Alice’s piano was a “Kimball,” he felt there was enough evidence to suggest this was its manufacturer.

I felt like I had been told the name of the person buried in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It affixed an identity to a nobody who was a stand-in for so many others.

Alice had loved her piano without its having a name, and giving it a dog tag would probably not change anything. Just the same, I copied the pedigree papers and forwarded them to her.