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Playing Bach on the piano: pedal or no pedal

I thought I was dazed silly on this topic, ready to bury it in a time capsule for generation Z Baroque scholars to quibble about while the polar ice caps have their ominous, final meltdown.

No such luck. A hot debate is brewing on Facebook, of all places, and the posts are surviving annoying POKES.

Bottom line:

What does it take to convert a pianist who always played the first Bach Prelude in C, Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One, WITH pedal. (Remember how it became the sonorous underpinning for the religioso “Ave Maria”) Should we therefore trade a rich bed of harmony for a bare bones framing?

Bach Prelude in C

I was a cynic, if not a blatant heathen, refusing to surrender my precious RIGHT pedal in the interests of PURITANICAL purity, even if Andras Schiff adjudicated my aesthetic decision about Prelude 1 on the Final Judgment Day! (Schiff’s Bach performances were notoriously sustain-less)

With stubborn resistance, I would stick to my pedal, holding it down as long as I needed to….

That is, until I had a consciousness-raising in the days following my recent trip to New York City.

Seymour Bernstein, celebrated pianist, author, scholar and composer, weighed in at the piano, while Elaine Comparone, world-renowned harpsichordist demonstrated at her music/love/repository.

Two side-by-side playings with commentary fed my intellect and spirit.

Seymour advocated a pedaling that was NOT at the beginning of the measure, in the usual legato bar-to-bar sequence, so commonly embraced, especially by those who were into the harp-like effect. His mid-measure pedal depression after the first E of the opening broken chord, with an echo effect driven by sub-groupings of notes, was inviting. In a unique way, it allowed a counter-voice in the bass/tenor to have a clear and defined outline, and for the first time, I heard a separation of voices reflected in a pleasing counterpoint.

The uppermost soprano line had also gained more prominence through this approach.

Finally, Seymour’s revolutionary impulses were registered in a decision to make the CLIMAX of the prelude the final secondary DOMINANT of the Sub-Dominant in measure 32 right before the Coda. He insisted that this very CODA would “lay an egg” otherwise. (Would I chuckle and go along with the menu?) I always considered the peak of this composition to be measure 29 at the PRIMARY DOMINANT juncture after which I tapered off to a relative whisper in a silky diminuendo. (using judicious pedaling so as not to muddle the notes)

Seymour chose to leave the coda entirely pure.. no pedal underfoot.

Juxtapose his interpretation with Elaine Comparone’s. But why should we compare what the harpsichord might say in its own unique language? Still, harpsichord-inspired ideas swam around my head for days in the wake of my NYC departure.


Harpichordists use finger pedaling at times to create desired sustain. And I watched Elaine hold down notes as she played the Prelude in C both at the harpsichord and then at the piano. Sandwiched in were performances that were improvised in a charming way to flesh out hidden appoggiature. A cascade of FOUR voices emerged to my astonishment!

The video provides more detail and explanation.

The upshot of this touchdown was my having second thoughts about my former pedaling choices that were framed in legato style, but had become modified by Seymour’s awakenings.

Where would I ultimately settle along the pedal/no pedal spectrum?

As I resumed my practicing and teaching schedule in California, I was wooed to the following performance rendered by Irena Koblar, a favorite of mine in the Scarlatti-playing universe. Naturally, I was more than curious about her feel for Bach, a Baroque contemporary:

While I loved her singing tone, I felt something was missing in the counterpoint. (She used legato pedaling through the Coda) and made the climax at the predictable PRIMARY DOMINANT measure, with a nice tapering to the end.

Last year, one of my student’s used the same legato pedaling in our annual Spring recital, producing a lovely reading. Naturally, at the time, the fruit didn’t fall far from the tree.

Into the present:

At the request and prodding of a FACEBOOK friend, Louise Hullinger, and having absorbed Elaine Comparone’s example at her Knabe grand piano following the harpsichord rendition, I decided to try Bach’s Prelude in C without pedal. It was the first time I ventured into a drier yet equally satisfying universe.

Enlightenment! I didn’t feel stripped of the piano’s soul. And I could follow voices, without undue attention to my foot pedaling activity.

While the final verdict isn’t in, I’m going to separate from my pedal companion in a civilized manner.

Who knows what the future might bring? It could invite a reconciliation or change of heart in the Baroque cosmos of performance practice.

For certain, the sustain will not be completely banished from my playing universe. I’ll continue to embrace it in the good company of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and their heirs who followed in the long line of musical masters.


Baroque music, J.S. Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach Prelude in C, Journal of a Piano Teacher from New York to California, Kabalevsky, Kabalevsky Galop, Kabalevsky Op. 39 Children's pieces, pianist, piano, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten, The Well Tempered Clavier, wordpress,, you tube, you tube video

A third year piano student shines playing J.S. Bach’s C Major Prelude (Well-Tempered Clavier)

Sakura, 12, is preparing the Bach C Major Prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier Book I, for the upcoming MTAC Celebration Festival (Music Teachers Association of California) And she’s right on course heading for a satisfying performance in March.

Being Left-Handed, she’s given her Right extra compensatory practicing in an effort to acquire satisfying equality. But like others predisposed to the Left Hand, she wasn’t completely sure she could meet the genetic challenge. But as revealed in the Bach reading, she met her goal with nice success.


It’s all in the mind and how it conditions the body.

A student with natural physical gifts, Sakura had previously displayed her spry wrists in Kabalevsky “Galop.” In a convincing forward motion she sprang into an ebullient G, producing well-shaped phrases.

Following in the Baroque style with grace and agility, she floated through the Bach C Major Prelude with a widened dynamic palette, that afforded a gratifying listening experience.

On a personal note, Sakura, age 12, speaks fluent Japanese and German and comes down from the California foothills where skiing is one of her past-times. Up that way, the air is crystal clear though sometimes it causes a light-headed feeling from sheer elevation.


In the Fall, Sakura hopes to attend University High, a premier charter school for the arts which is situated on the Fresno State University campus.

Always a joy to teach, she practices conscientiously and goes the extra lap to improve her playing.

On the side, Sakura does Aikido, an activity that precedes her lesson. The giveaway, obviously, is her attire.

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Piano Lesson in Progress: Slow tempo, J.S. Bach Prelude in C minor, BWV847, student, Claudia, age 11

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Great Piano Teaching Moments

This remarkable piece of film footage inspired a stream of others.

Nadia Boulanger (b.1887-d.1979) the esteemed teacher, composer, theoretician, organist, pianist, taught and influenced so many great musical creators such as Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copeland, Virgil Thomson, Walter Piston and Philip Glass.

From Wikipedia:

“Boulanger’s teaching methods included traditional harmony, score reading at the piano, species counterpoint, analysis, and sight singing (using fixed-Do solfège). She disapproved of innovation for innovation’s sake: “When you are writing music of your own, never strain to avoid the obvious.”[7] “You need an established language and then, within that established language, the liberty to be yourself. It’s always necessary to be yourself – that is a mark of genius in itself.”

In this brief teaching encounter with a 10 year old student, Boulanger identifies a change of key or “modulation” in a Mozart Fantasy as a moment of poignancy. She illuminates a harmonic transition from the somber B minor tonality to the brighter D Major as the student draws closer to the composer and his intention.

Madame Boulanger’s teaching, albeit just a snatch, puts into perspective why a total musician cannot just read notes, learn proper fingering, and perhaps identify a few rudimentary chord progressions.

Layers of learning over years foster an in depth exploration of the musical art form.

Rosina Lhevinne

I turn to another influential teacher with a video sample from her studio. The wife of esteemed concert pianist, Joseph Lhevinne, Rosina came into her own after her husband’s death and subsequently joined the esteemed Juilliard faculty. Van Cliburn, John Browning, Misha Dichter, John Williams, and Edward Auer were among her well known students.

By way of anecdote, I heard Madame Lhevinne play at the old Juilliard School at W. 125th Street in Manhattan on the occasion of her 80th birthday. She divinely performed the Mozart Piano Concerto no. 21 in C Major under the able baton of Jean Morel. It was a historic performance, surpassed only by her appearance at age 82, with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, playing the Chopin E minor Piano Concerto.

In the course of this film, Lhevinne helps the young Misha Dichter by singing phrases herself while artfully shaping them. She also demonstrates weight transfer between fingers in fostering a legato, or smooth and connected touch. In the introduction preceding the masterclass, Artur Rubinstein, John Williams, John Browning, Robert Mann, and Misha Dichter make compelling comments about Lhevinne’s approach to teaching.

Here are a few other snatches from classes of inspiring teachers:

Richard Goode shares his ideas about Chopin and Beethoven.

Murray Perahia: Words of wisdom about the music of Bach and mood setting.

Alfred Brendel presents a Masterclass at the New England Conservatory:

I was fortunate to have observed one of Brendel’s classes at the Oberlin Conservatory and he, like Rosina Lhevinne sang phrases to communicate shape, and stroked the keys rather than attacked them. He played with an immaculate singing tone, and encouraged the participating students to do the same. It was very inspiring, to say the least. The masterclass given by Georgy Sebok was as illuminating for the same reasons.

Finally, Lang, Lang, mentors young Derek Wang, who plays a Liszt Rhapsody. (The teacher fleshes out the color dimension of the composer’s work and demonstrates hands on, expressive possibilities)

If you have your own favorite teaching moments, please feel free to share them.

Footnote: I participated in two masterclasses that took place in Fresno, Calfornia with Murray Perahia and Oxana Yablonskaya. The first was more lengthy, and very memorable. Murray worked with me on the first movement of Beethoven’s d minor, “Tempest Sonata” and fleshed out the structural dimension. Yablonskaya did a lot of demonstrating herself, but was more focused on the singing tone as it applied to a Chopin Nocturne.

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DREAM PIANO: Overview and Acknowledgments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More stories from Dream Piano:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concluding Bonus Chapter:

Extra: York’s World War II Musical Memoir

More People to Thank:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On the Meat Rack of used pianos: One that Never Left Its Home

I received a phone call on a June morning from a man who inquired about my piano-finding services. He sounded like he might be from India, but I wasn’t sure.

“Do you help with selling a piano?” he inquired.
“On occasion, I do,” I replied. “It depends on the quality of the instrument.”

I could never represent poor to mediocre pianos. I’d rather starve than risk my reputation promoting those that were pathetic sounding.

The man on the phone wanted to offer his piano for a substantial price.

“It has a big sound that whooshes around the room,” he insisted, “and a Visalia piano dealer said he could get me $1,200 for it.”
His favorable review whetted my curiosity.
“So what kind of piano do you own?” I asked.
“I have a small Wurlitzer,” he answered.
“And are you the original owner?”
“Oh, no, I recently bought it through a friend in Sanger who put me in touch with an elderly lady who was selling the piano.”
“So what did you pay for it?”
“I actually traded my camera for it,” he answered.
This was the first I had heard of such an arrangement.
“You’re saying that you got it without any cash exchange?”
“Well, there was a bit of money added in.”
“So how tall is your piano? Can you measure it from floor to top, and while you’re at it, please check the serial number, located on the cast iron plate by the rack.”
He paused to acquire the information.
“It measures about 39 inches from the floor and I found the numbers, ‘891197,’” he said, proudly.
“Well, first of all you have a spinet size piano, and your serial number dates it to between 1964 and 65.” (I had thumbed through my Pierce Piano Atlas to acquire the information)

At that moment I recalled Sharon Cooper’s first dream piano, a Wurlitzer 1968 that was a few inches taller than this one, and another, of the same vintage that was housed in a Fresno garage.”Scott,” a Lemoore Tires executive had bought his for $500 and was thrilled with his purchase. York had assisted him with the move, providing a dolly to slip the piano into a rented truck saving him a couple of bucks.

The old man knew he would get the tuning job if the buyer had the good sense to properly maintain his newly acquired instrument.

Sharon had fallen head over heels when she saw her “Wurly” and heard its exquisite tone. From my experience with the 60’s models, they were quite resonant, but those produced in the 70’s and 80’s were not nearly as impressive though there were always exceptions. For certain, the Wurlitzer Company went to great lengths to manufacture a lovely cabinet and this enticement above and beyond its resonance seemed to draw interested buyers.

The price tag of $1500 set by the inquiring seller seemed a bit high for the area.

“In all honesty, the market here in the Valley will bear a price of about $500 to $700 for your Wurlitzer piano,” I said, “but much depends on the condition of your instrument– whether it has sticking notes, a bad set of hammers or any other issues that might affect its market appeal.”

Ironically, this particular Wurlitzer piano was located in the boonies of Northeast Fresno, near Jonathon Jones’s place. He had been trying to sell his 1959 Yamaha console that was kept in his stifling, hot garage.

A few blocks away, Camber Dupree housed a 1874 Chickering Square grand that she was about to dismember and memorialize piece by piece over her fireplace. There were no buyers in sight. Rumor had it that she eventually sold its lion’s legs to a local furniture dealer for transplantation to a 1920’s grand.

“Sam” Torcaso, owner of Chesterfields, a pricey antique establishment off Shaw and Blackstone in Fresno, had mentioned in an interview, that one of her customers had bought a “box piano,” (parlor grand), and “gutted it for the center aisle in her kitchen. She took out the keys, did the top with granite and mounted the legs on the wall. It’s whatever their bag is,” Torcaso said in a resigned way. Her assessment of Valley prices concurred with mine. “In these parts, an item might be worth $20,000, but realistically, you can only get about $6,000 for it.” Her inventory was on consignment and occasionally a piano would roll onto the floor.

I had noticed two abysmal sounding verticals stored in her warehouse that would probably sell for no more than $75 each! One of these had several notes that were silent when played. I called them duds.

But despite housing these tonal disasters, Torcaso could lay claim to a beauty, inside and out, that I had stumbled upon at the American Cancer Society Discovery thrift store. The “J. Fritz Sohn,” mid-Nineteenth century musical treasure was probably the best piano ever to come out of Chesterfield’s, and Sam had commented how “shocked” she was when “Mary Papazian,” the buyer, “fell madly in love with the instrument, and then turned around and donated it out!” Apparently, this eye catching Viennese grand was originally acquired at a San Francisco auction house.

Checking the Wurlitzer

I found myself dripping with sweat during the 35 minute drive to the seller’s place. And since I had forgotten to ask him his name and phone number, if God forbid I got lost in a stretch of strawberry fields, I’d be out of luck! I recalled how YORK landed us a good distance from Van Ginkel’s house, in this same neighborhood when we were traipsing off in his pick-up to check out the Samick piano. The location harbored awful memories and I wanted to beat it the heck out of the area before the rush of traffic on Herndon Avenue.

At 10:00 a.m. I pulled up in front of a lavish two story house that was the last on a shadeless block of similar houses going for about $600,000 to $700,000, even though from my point of view, this was the last neighborhood I would choose to inhabit. It epitomized Fresno’s building and planning gone wild! There were long stretches of strip malls and homes like these sprinkled in between. To make matters worse, the air was insalubrious and carcinogenic with an overlay of yellow, pink and green. I could barely inhale without a threat to my respiratory system’s well being, especially during summer months when the city was at its worst as pesticide residues swarmed into the Valley.

When I entered the residence on East Palisades Drive, I was greeted by a man with a swarthy complexion, who spoke eloquently with an exotic accent. After a preliminary introduction, I quickly learned that he was named “Victor Thasiah,” (rhymes with “Isaiah”) and came originally from Malaysia. A volunteer, unpaid, fill-in or temporary Minister to a number of Evangelical Christian churches in and around Fresno, he had even been a pastor at the Swedish Baptist Church in Kingsburg that had planted the very established Northwest Church in Fresno that bordered the last rental complex I had occupied.

Before I got too immersed in a record- breaking long conversation with him, I headed straight for his lovely looking piano that sat in his living room with its cathedral ceiling and tiled floors. It was the most ideal acoustical setting imaginable! Next to placing a piano in the shower, an owner couldn’t have elicited a better reverberating environment. (This is not meant to suggest that any instrument should be housed near a source of water since MOISTURE was one of the three big enemies of pianos!) But thinking about bodies of water and pianos, brought to the surface a recollection I had of a Hamburg Steinway grand that was contained in a trendy Redwood City designer house and sat beside a waterfall with a cliff hanging backdrop! The piano was ironically DRY and lifeless to the touch!

Putting aside distracting thoughts of pianos tortured in unhealthy environments, I sat down to play a very attractively encased light walnut Wurlitzer spinet that was favorably situated. From the start, as I ran my fingers over its immaculate looking keys, I knew that this instrument was a winner! There was no question about its amazing resonance and consistent feel! It even played better than the magnificent Knight piano because it lacked the glassy upper treble of the British instrument and hadn’t any awkward-looking black keys. The Wurlitzer tone being warm, sonorous and inviting, induced Victor to sing impromptu over my rendition of Bach’s doleful “Prelude in C” from the Well Tempered Clavier. He had quickly realized that it contained the harmonic backdrop for Schubert’s religioso “Ave Maria,” but to be fair, he had the benefit of my having begun to sing it. With a dazzling bass baritone voice, he joined me for several measures until his voice petered out in the middle where the harmonies became more complex to follow.

As things “played out” I was beginning to learn more about Victor who was obviously a very musical individual, and in “concert” with his professional ministering, had a soulful singing voice. Such an introductory bio engaged my interest.

“So tell me about the piano and why you bought it?” I asked
“Well, I used to have another Wurlitzer of the same size that sat in my library.” He pointed to an adjacent room with an impressive looking desk and many book shelves, but there was no sign of a piano.
“And this instrument came with my wife,” he added, “when we were married 22 years ago. But I now realize that the first piano didn’t have the sonorous, big tone this one has.” He had apparently bought this second Wurlitzer a few weeks ago, and now wanted to sell it. I couldn’t make head or tail of his intentions, so perhaps I needed to break out Freud’s treatise on the first five years of life and its impact on a person’s decision-making in adulthood. This was adding up to an unfolding psychodrama.
“So where is your wife’s piano?” I asked
“Well, just a few days ago I shipped it out to my son who lives with his wife and kids in Ojai. He’s an ordained minister who did Karl Barth studies at Oxford.”
“My, you have a lot to be proud of,” I said. “So is it possible that you purchased another Wurlitzer to replace the one you just sent away?” I thought about emotional loss and how individuals needed to fill an empty void in their lives.
“You might say that,” he said, “but I guess a good buying opportunity presented, and since the piano had a nice ring to it and looked so lovely, I acquired it in the barter arrangement I had mentioned.”

Was he currently speculating in pianos? Buying them for cheap and then selling them at a significant mark-up? None of this added up because he lived in a lavish home and was apparently enjoying a good life. Did he really need the money? Would he cast out a gorgeous looking and sounding piano for a couple of bucks? He said that he had fallen in love with the “ping” sound of this Wurlitzer, and he listened intently as I described the swirl of its vibrations and the naturally long decay of its notes. Was this enough of a good review to make him love and treasure his new acquisition, the spiritual man that he seemed to be at first meeting?

“As I told you by phone this morning,” I said, “there’s a Valley driven asking price for these used pianos of the spinet and console variety. So realistically, you might top out at getting $700 for your lovely instrument. But why on earth would you want to sell this musical treasure in the first place?”

Oops! I did it again. I put my foot in my mouth and made a huge faux pas! Why on earth would I have trekked all the way out to this God forsaken part of Fresno in the stifling heat, to question an individual about his decision to put his piano on the market? Was I a jerk or what?

I knew too many good things about Wurlitzer spinet and console pianos of the older vintage not just from my personal hands on experience, but from what I had read on Robert Furst’s “Bluebook of Pianos” website.(I was willing to forgive him for having miss-dated my Aeolian) As I fumbled through the site’s “Archives,” I found the following pertinent entry:

“In 1935, Wurlitzer had introduced the tradition-breaking spinette proving that a piano only thirty-nine inches high could replace the bulky instruments traditionally produced. Upon the design of this piano was based all modern piano production. Through science, research, and ingenuity, Wurlitzer had developed such exclusive features as Tone crafted Hammers, Pentagonal Sound Board, Augmented Sound Board, etc. to provide a greater volume of rich, resonant tone. A unique achievement in finishes was ‘Wurl-on,’ highly resistant to heat, cold, dryness, and moisture as well as to mars, scratches, and abrasions. It provided an attractive as well as durable and long-lasting finish.”

Larry Fine’s Piano Book clarified that Wurlitzer had ultimately been taken over by Baldwin which had ties to Asian manufacturers, suggesting that the brand name was bought out. Fine asserted that “those crafted in the mid-70’s and 80’s had for the most part, trouble free actions but poor tone.”

Another fascinating bit of information was that in 1985, “Wurlitzer” purchased the Chickering name and the assets of Aeolian Pianos’ Memphis, Tennessee factory when that company went out of business. And for a time, Wurlitzer sold under its own name, verticals and grands made by “Young Chang,” a Korean manufacturer. Fine insisted that during the period of Baldwin ownership, from 1988 to 1990, the Wurlitzer pianos suffered with “inconsistency” and needed considerable “work by dealers to set them straight.” With all that I had read about Wurlitzer and shared with Victor, I maintained that those made by the company in the 60’s, well before its Baldwin/Young Chang takeover, seemed in large part, to own an especially luscious tone. But I always emphasized that I needed to judge pianos on an individual basis.

Victor seemed to have an instant change of heart when I asked him why he wanted to sell his piano. At that point I pressed the record button on my SONY portable and let this man play out his whole story in my Freudian analytical presence. (Readers should be informed that Mr. Thasiah approved release of this interview for publication)

Author: Does your son have the old Wurlitzer yet?
Victor: No, it’s on its way.
Author: Boy, if he only knew what you have here.
Victor: Well, in fact my wife doesn’t even know that I got this other piano. (She was away on a family trip)
Author: Just wait till she hears it. So tell me where did you get the first one?
Victor: My wife came with it.
Author: So it was her dowry, and was it the same vintage as this one?
Victor: Well, she’d had it for thirty years. (This would date the piano to 1977—not necessarily a good year for Wurlitzers)
Author: Did you realize when you owned it that it had a “muffled” sound like you’ve mentioned, or didn’t you think much about it?
Victor: I knew it was “muffled” when I tapped on it, but now with this other one here, I realize that this piano has a much better sound, especially now that you’ve played it for me.
Author: So were you enlightened that the same company could produce a better piano?
Victor: Yes, I think so.
Author: What about the appearance, was it similar?
Victor: The other one was a darker color.
Author: Looks like walnut to me.
Victor: I like this lighter color.
Author: You know Wurlitzer made lovely cabinets—that was another feature of their fine workmanship. So when you first learned of this piano through your Sanger friend, you went out and looked at it—played it?
Victor: I just looked at it and it appeared very much like the other one, only with a lighter color.
Author: Would you say that you were feeling sad that you had sent your old piano away to your son and it may have left a void in your life?
Victor: Yes, perhaps.
Author: Now who gave the original Wurlitzer the most playing?
Victor: None of us played, really.
Author: Is that your son in the picture playing a clarinet. (I pointed to a framed picture above the Wurlitzer)
Victor: Yes, and he got his Divinity Degree from Princeton and then went to Oxford on a Theological scholarship.
Author: Oh my goodness, smart kid! So what does he do now?
Victor: He’s 35 and is an ordained minister in Ojai.
Author: What a great place to live! Beautiful climate! Great air!
So did he request that the piano be sent to him?
Victor: No, we thought we’d give it to the grandchildren.
Author: You had mentioned that he was married.
Victor: Yes, and his wife also graduated Princeton and is an ordained Minister. They have two daughters. (He led me to a living room area where he had family pictures on the wall)
Author: So did your sons ever play the first Wurlitzer piano? Or did they take piano lessons?
Victor: They did when they were young.
Author: Who did they study with?
Victor: “Ann Piran Mamigonian.” My older son tried piano; he tried clarinet, saxophone, so he and his brother were both musically inclined but not very serious about their instrumental studies.
Author: So was the old Wurlitzer piano kept here in this house all those years?
Victor: We have only been here for three years. This is our retirement home.
Author: Oh, so when your children grew up, your piano was in the other home?
Victor: Yes it was.
Author: So would you say that your association with the piano had to do with it having been a steady family companion, rather than a living, breathing musical instrument?
Victor: Well you see, I have lots of friends, and I’m a vocalist, and my wife is also a vocalist. (She sings in the “Sweet Adolines” chorus that performs the barber shop repertoire) We have friends that come over and want to gather around the piano.
Author: So it’s not that you want to show off a piece of furniture. Having a piano seems to be part of your culture.
Victor: Yes, we have always wanted our children to be educated in good quality music and literature and things like that.
Author: So your older son went to Princeton. Where did the younger one go?
Victor: He went to Pepperdine. He’s a church leader, and by profession, he’s a creative director of computer graphics. He and his wife have two children.
(He showed me pictures of his grandchildren posted on the refrigerator)
Author: Is your wife from this country?
Victor: She’s from the US, but my children are from a first marriage.
My former wife is ethnic Chinese, from Malaysia.
Author: So when did you marry your second wife?
Victor: 22 years ago.
Author: I get the picture. You’re a cultured man—you’re a minister—where do currently serve as pastor?
Victor: I was really a Fresno Deputy City Manager by profession.
Author: Then you have a Degree in City Planning?
Victor: I have a Master’s Degree in Metal Technology.
Author: Where did you obtain that degree?
Victor: From Fresno State.
Author: Interesting. What brought you to Fresno in the first place?
Victor: A Secondary Fulbright Commission scholarship.
Author: See this is very compelling. You don’t find many people in Fresno with your credentials.
Author: Now to change the subject a bit. What do you think of the Fresno cultural scene?
Victor: Well it’s not very good because we are overwhelmed by a focus on Ag-Business to the detriment of the arts.
Author: What about the politics of air pollution control and construction gone wild. We have eternal strip malls and a devil may care attitude about the environment.
Victor: Well, policies at the city administrative level often have to do with the growth of jobs so environmental issues and concerns are often put on the back burner.
Author: To shift to another the subject once again, I see that there is a small 23 page book you have authored that is sitting in your library where your old piano used to be.
Victor: Yes, it’s a parable. On the left side you read about a boy blowing bubbles and to the right I have provided biblical interpretation.

I thumbed through its pages and found one with a series of floating note bubbles.
It said:
“As I continued
to peer at the growing beauty of the bubbles
I saw some sluggish and shaky
and avoiding them
I saw a few floating at ease
with musical charm.”

Victor had planned to have me play a concert on his “new” Wurlitzer in a few weeks–the one he had wanted to sell for a substantial profit. He had rethought his intention to put it on the market after I had convinced him that his piano was worth keeping. And just maybe the “Ave Maria” resounding through the living room had influenced him.

In any event, this Wurlitzer, once on the meat rack of used pianos, would thankfully never leave its home.

From Victor Thasia: 1/16/11
Shirley, You have never been forgotten. The piano is still here and friends still
grace our home and accompany me as I sing. Do not be surprised if one day you will be playing here as a guest before my granddaughter Eden (9) who is taking
piano lessons in Chicago. As it is my dream, you will be playing before a small intimate audience in our home.. that dream has never been dismissed – still very much alive and will be done at the right time.
Victor Thasiah