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A Lovely Piano at the American Cancer Society Discovery Thrift Store in Fresno, CA-Video produced on site

A few years ago, I met Connell York, 84 year old piano tuner at the American Cancer Society Discovery Store on Bullard and West in Fresno, California where pianos are sometimes donated for sale. At the time he was examining the gorgeous 1875 or so, Fritz piano, checking its strings and tuning pins, explaining the Viennese action and how it worked. The piano, in stunning playing condition, wooed many shoppers, who paused to listen to a menu of Chopin pieces that resurrected an era of Romantic music and the timbre of the composer’s own Pleyel. This instrument fascinated me and inspired research about older pianos and their unique histories. It was a journey launched at the Discovery store that continued with enduring piano finding adventures.

Yesterday, I found myself back at the American Cancer Society Thrift store, investigating a recent addition, the “Continental” piano, enjoying its resonance and doing a bit of allied research.

The instrument, with a nice, polished oak finish, was one of the older uprights, but not of imposing size. It measured about 48 inches, making it a “studio” vertical.

The serial number, engraved into the cast iron should have matched its date of manufacture in the Pierce Piano Atlas, but oddly, there were none for this particular piano under the “Continental” listing. Luckily, I found York’s indelible autograph beside his two tuning entries meaning that I could call upon him to consult his personal, hand-written almanacs that detailed every house call he had ever made, with scribbled annotations about each piano he had tuned or repaired.

In no time, York was on the phone, shuffling through his entries, reciting every spec on the owner, his address, phone, and type of piano, age, condition, etc.

After York delivered his mini-lecture on Continental pianos, and the Jesse French Company that actually manufactured them, I had what I needed to make a short video that showcased a lovely piano.

York dated the piano to 1902, but I noticed that the original ivories had been replaced with a completely new set of keys. In good playing order, with notable resonance, the piano was ready for a screening.

This piano needs a loving home, so I am hopeful it will find one.

About the Piano Company:
French, Jesse (which made “Continental” Pianos)

“The Jesse French Piano Company of New Castle, Indiana was a major player in the piano industry during the 19th and 20th Centuries. Established in 1875, his pianos were first built in Nashville, Tennessee under the name of Dorman, French & Smith. In about 1898, the name was changed to Krell-French, with factories in Ohio. Albert Krell left Krell-French in about 1905, and Jesse French continued to build a substantial number of pianos until his death in 1927.

“The Jesse French Piano Company had facilities to produce a substantial number of pianos. They built pianos which were sold under several different brand names including “Jesse French & Sons,” “Ackerman & Lowe”, “Continental Piano Company”, “Frenchetts Piano Company,” “Jefferson Piano Company,” “Krell-French Piano Company,” “Lagonda Piano Company,” and “Browning Piano Company”. In 1955, The P. A. Stark Piano Company bought the Jesse French Piano Company, and built pianos under both the names of “P. A. Stark” and “Jesse French & Sons” until about 1965.”

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A Table Style Piano with Three Leaves–the whole story in lurid detail

Two days following my encounter with the towering no name upright, I was drawn to a Fresno Bee Classified ad, that listed an antique ”Counsel piano” for sale at “$1500 or best offer.” (First thing that popped into my head was Indian pow-wow- tribal “council?”) What on earth was a Counsel? I snatched up my Pierce Piano Atlas for “counsel.” Often regarded as the “Bible of the Piano Business,” this hefty 400 plus page volume referenced over 12,000 names of pianos with serial numbers, dates of manufacture, and a sprinkle of company history. The late Bob Pierce, a dapper gentleman, piano merchant, world traveler and collector of $30,000 in miniature pianos had compiled an Atlas of piano manufacturers in alphabetical order that became a tuner’s indispensable companion. The volume also included glittery photos of Pierce mingling with the rich and famous and posing beside his decorative instruments. One snapshot revealed a French Provincial spinet that Pierce had personally donated to Lucy and Desi Arnaz for their original TV pilot. It could be seen permanently on the set as the show became a fixture, entertaining television audiences for years!

Robert Furst was another rising star in the universe of pianophiles. His Internet “Bluebook of Pianos” had more than a compendium of serial numbers. It had expanded into a huge database that included pianoforte history and folkore. One of its valuable links offered a wealth of information about vintage uprights and their grades. As I sought to acquire the brand name identity of Alice’s old player, this is precisely where I had begun my journey.

A “piano man with almost 60 years of experience” was Furst’s declaration about himself during a phone interview. He had carried a “book in a blue folder” that was the “largest incomplete volume about pianos.” Over time it grew to more serious proportion, drawing the interest of research-seeking musicologists as well as curious-minded piano mavens and consumers. Learning that this elder statesman researcher had fielded at least “50 e-mails a day,” I asked him about the encroachment of digital keyboards that were threatening to make acoustic instruments an artifact of the past. Stubbornly, he asserted that “there would always be pianos.”

Veteran tuner, York didn’t know anything about Furst’s Online “Bluebook” but he most definitely wouldn’t be caught dead without his yearly, up to date Pierce Piano Atlas. At 84 he was not about to become hooked on the Internet. A consummate collector of salvaged ivory tails, bridle straps, knuckles, hammer butts, and bottles of moth battling cloves, he’d been known to stockpile his Pierce paperbacks since 1965 (first copyright). I’d even seen him pluck one out of a tattered black bag, proclaiming proudly, that he’d never tossed one of these editions in the trash. The same applied to his age worn tuning diaries that dated to 1948, the year he had embarked upon his great adventure as country doc to pianos of all shapes and sizes. From living, breathing musical instruments, to firewood and scrap material, he’d seen just about everything and wasn’t about to exchange his lurid on the job experiences to become a passive Internet maven of pianos.

“I seen pianas so bad, I could barely tune ‘em. They was sometimes fallin’ apart, strings and all, but I did what I had to do. Now my grand pappy gave me some a’ the best advice ever given. “Son,” he said, “ya never tell a’ customer that their piana’s ready for the trash! Ya just grab onto them pins with yer tunin’ hammer, do’s your job, collect yer money, and beat it the hell outa there as fast as ya can!”

York had racked up a record breaking 50,000 tuning related house calls during his illustrious career that included rodent and moth eradications.

“Now I been all over the map tunin,’ repairin’ and moth proofin’ at least 700 pianas a’ year since 1948 so I dun came across every type that’s out there, but off the top a’ my head I can’t remember bumpin’ into any “Counsel” piana,” he had said, when I questioned him about this particular brand.

I had a creeping feeling this newly listed “antique” oddity was going to be one of those tonal abominations that would send me scampering out the door, nauseated to the point of passing out. Pianos like these turned up all the time and their owners usually had a false sense of their value. I had encountered one such disaster during my piano finding travels to the quaint Tower District of Fresno. The piano on sale was a tall Chickering upright that was housed in a dark and dreary living room. With scrolled legs and an ornately filigreed rack, it looked like a nice piece of furniture, but with only 4 of its 88 keys sounding, the seller couldn’t justify her $4,000 asking price. (She had been convinced that the name “Chickering,” alone, would bring in the dollars) While the company enjoyed a sterling reputation in the annals of American piano building, its current, unplayable condition made its antique value die on the vine. In addition, it had very sharp ivory key edges that could easily draw blood from an eager player making it a further liability. Manufactured in 1885, according to its serial number, it might have been of interest to the Smithsonian or Great American Instrument collection in South Dakota. Otherwise it should probably be scrapped!

I had encountered still another Chickering advertised for sale on the Internet that turned out to be more ornate than the vertical I had reviewed in the Tower. Dated to 1873, it was a “square model grand,” a predecessor of the more modern horizontal piano, and was housed in an upscale home in north Fresno.

I must admit that it had the most amazing carved legs and filigreed rack I had ever seen, so as a piece of furniture it was breathtaking, but it was a dead in its tracks sound disaster! Not two consecutive notes successfully played and most were “blanks.” According to owner, Camber Dupree, the item was essentially an “impulse buy.” She had plucked it out of Chesterfield’s, an antique seller located on Blackstone Avenue in Fresno, to the tune of $5,000! And it was no surprise to me that the buyer hadn’t once run her fingers over its keyboard before she purchased it! This was a hallmark habit among antique piano buyers. They were primarily fixated with cosmetics and not focused on a piano’s musical value. But they ultimately learned a hard and fast lesson. To turn around and sell the treasure, obtaining the owner’s assessed value would be an insurmountable challenge. Terry Barrett, technician, said it well when he was inspecting Alice’s no-name upright. “An antique piano is just a different animal.”

The morning I’d stumbled upon Camber Dupree’s Chickering listing, I remembered having seen a clone of it on a Smithsonian postcard sent to me by York. I had received it only weeks after we had met at the American Cancer Discovery thrift store. At the time he had offered to scour the inside of my Steinway M, 1917 grand with his old, reliable Filter Queen canister vacuum. He also wanted to sprinkle the key bed with clove powder to ward off moths but I decisively declined. Cedar chips placed in a bag on the cast iron plate were in my mind sufficient. And I definitely didn’t want to risk having my action clogged up with any powdery substances. It was no different when the late Bob Goolsby, piano tuner, wanted to dowse my action with talcum powder.

As for the Chickering, I had already seen a square grand that was comparable in looks to the one housed in the Smithsonian and since I had recalled that the Frederick collection in Ashburnham, Massachusetts housed a vintage Chickering square model, I forwarded “Patricia” a photo of the one for sale in Fresno. As I had hoped, she quickly replied with excitement:

“Shades of my childhood! This is almost a twin to the Chickering square
grand piano my parents had when I was a child; It was the instrument upon which I had learned to
play. In fact this one looks a little earlier than ours, because the one we owned didn’t have the scalloped molding along the lower edge of the case. Otherwise, however, it looks just the same. These pianos have a very light action,
and a sweet, clear, pleasant tone.

“We just bought a Chickering concert grand of 1862, rather by accident!
It had been in the parish house of an old church in Boston, perhaps
since it was new. Two-and-a-half years ago, my husband was asked to
give the church an appraisal of the piano; what its condition was, and
what work, if any, it might need to restore it to good playing order.

“At the end of this past April we received a call from the church saying
the parish house had been sold, and everything, including the piano,
must be out of the house by the following week! We gave them the names
of a couple of other people we thought might be interested, but neither
one wanted it. The church people called us back, asking us please to
take the piano! So for $250 to the church, plus $750 to truck it out
here from Boston, we added the Chickering to our collection.

“And now my husband has restrung the Chickering with the softer wire it needed,
since its modern replacement strings had a whiny, dirty tone. He has
also been voicing the hammers, making the piano sound quite

“All the best, Pat”

After having seen and played the Chickering housed in North Fresno I wrote to the following to Patricia:

“I wish my note to you about the Fresno housed Chickering could be as positive and uplifting as your last communication. But the 1874 antique square grand was a tonal disaster! Nothing about it worked, though it stood regal and awe-inspiring in a living room full of wannabe ‘antiques’. The only other item of interest was a brass tripod surveyor that dated to the construction of the Empire State building.

“The seller was asking $4,000 for the piano but there was no way she was going to get anywhere near it. I really couldn’t help her as I have never recommended a piano to a student or any other individual that did not have a resonant tone and smooth working action. (Do you think the Smithsonian or that museum in South Dakota that houses old instruments might want it?)

“I think the seller will sadly tear the piano apart and salvage its legs and other. She is thinking about making some kind of wall exhibit out of it. Now I’m sure that at one time this Chickering may have sung like a “nightingale” as yours did. But not so in the here and now. Apparently it was an ‘impulse’ buy as the owner admitted, like so many others I’ve heard about in my travels. Very rarely do antique-seekers judge a piano on its musical merit, as you would know. I guess the J. Fritz Sohn Viennese beauty was an exception. The buyer just turned around and donated this magnificent instrument to the American Cancer Society thrift store. Wish I had room at the time to acquire it. But I had to let it go….Please stay in touch.”

Having tirelessly reviewed many loser “antique” instruments like the old Chickering square grand, I was not too optimistic about what I’d discover during a routine inspection of an “antique Counsel” piano as it was named in the Fresno Bee online classifieds.

A preliminary telephone call to the seller produced the following information about it: The piano had no real name other than it was a “Counsel,” and the date of manufacture was a big question mark. This was par for the course, as most sellers listed their pianos with as little information as possible, mostly out of ignorance. They had no market-based grounding in piano parlance, even though so many of them claimed to be Ebay addicts who scoured the web for comparable pianos in order to set a believable asking price. But the “Counsel” identity quickly evaporated when I thought longer on it, and then it hit me like a ton of bricks!

“I think you may have meant that your piano is a console,” I said with certainty to the seller. “Does your instrument stand about 40 or so inches from the ground?” I asked. He left the phone momentarily to measure it.

Consoles were known to be bit larger than spinets. They stood 40 to 43 or so inches in height if measured from the base to the top. “Spinet” size pianos could measure anywhere from 36 to 39 inches and because of their diminutive size would probably have a smaller tonal projection because of their shorter strings and soundboard. Both consoles and spinets were considered to be “vertical pianos” and sometimes the terms were used interchangeably but not accurately.

Sellers often confused their spinets with consoles or the reverse and never got it right, so buyers stumbled upon these pianos with an associated ignorance that they might have considered blissful.

The seller, “Phil,” concurred that his piano was a “console,” because he thought it measured about 41 inches up from the ground.

“Can you go over to your piano, perhaps, and look at the fall board for me and check the company name.”

He answered, unenthusiastically. “Oh okay, I’ll just go and get a flashlight.” After some audible shuffling, he returned with a compelling reply.

“It says A-E-O-L-I-A-N,” as he spelled out the individual letters, stumbling over a few.” I think that’s what I see,” he mumbled.

It was fascinating information! The Aeolian Company was very reputable during the first part of the Twentieth century and had overseen the manufacture of world renowned pianos such as Mason Hamlin, Knabe, Chickering, and Weber. With its factory located in East Rochester, New York, it upheld very high standards of craftsmanship. It also owned a sterling reputation for making player pianos and pianolas, partnering with Steinway & Sons in the installation of a “duo art” player mechanism in some of its grand models.

In later years Aeolian acquired more piano companies that were not as noteworthy as the originals, and manufactured what were called “stencil” pianos that had a decal name of one brand or another on their fall board, but were basically massed produced. Eventually the Aeolian company was taken over by a Steinway executive named Perez and its was factory moved to Tennessee in the 1970’s when quality production ceased. It wasn’t long before the company disappeared losing its former stellar reputation.
A prospective piano buyer plagued by confusion in the morass of new and used pianos had to be made aware that reputable companies were often bought out by others without a guarantee of fine workmanship associated with the original. This was true when Young Chang, a Korean manufacturer bought out Weber and Knabe that were formerly under Aeolian.

The name “AEOLIAN” intrigued me, and not having yet ascertained the serial number, I couldn’t get excited about it.

“Why don’t you give me your address,” I said to the seller. “Are you’re gonna be home this morning?” I asked.

The seller assured me that the family would be home all day “tidying up the place,” so he told me to come by anytime I wished.

I replied that I’d like to get a jump on it, and could run right over. I carefully jotted down his directions as he recited them: “Now you come down the frontage road on Herndon and Fruit, and then make a left, then a right onto Delno, and another on Boston. Just go into the driveway and you’ll run into my condo on the right.”

I took rapid notes, probably leaving out some important travel details, but figured it was so close by that I could pretty much wing it.

I set out at about 11:00 a.m. expecting to arrive in about 10 minutes, but I ran into an unforgettable delay that will resonate for years to come.

With all my rushing around, finding pianos, teaching, trying to complete my sixth CD, my mind wandered, and I did not have the presence of mind to fasten my seat belt. Maybe I was just lazy and didn’t think too seriously about it, which of course was no excuse for my wanton neglect of safety issues.

In any case, I popped into my car, seat belt-less and headed toward the Fig Garden Village Shopping Center to pick up an instant camera to take photos of the Aeolian. Almost immediately I had become aware of a patrol car shadowing me into the parking lot. It was a Sunday morning, the day before Memorial Day, and there was hardly any traffic on the road, so there was no question that this singular vehicle was tailing me for at least a block. And when I heard a weird siren-like toot come out of it, I was panic stricken! What the heck had I done wrong? I knew that I’d followed the proper arrow down one of the lanes, though it was sometimes hard to see which way the arrow was pointing until it was too late.

I tried to ignore the high-pitched blare emanating from the patrol car, but then something told me to turn my head around and see if this cop car was apprehending me and no one else! Oh my gosh, he was waving me over to a parking spot a few hundred feet away! I could feel my heart pounding!

In no time the officer was leering into my untidy-looking car, telling me that I was being cited for not having secured my seat belt. I was sure he would add more charges against me for having a filthy car interior. There were papers, and Subway sandwich wrappers scattered everywhere! I couldn’t readily find my car registration that was buried somewhere in the glove compartment sandwiched among car insurance forms going back 5 or more years. Fortunately, the officer did not seem too concerned about the car registration because he had already acquired my driver’s license and other information.

“Please get out of your car,” he said in an austere voice.

I was feeling so nervous that I had parked my car in a crooked way, and when I opened the door to get out, it tapped ever so gently on the chrome of the neighboring car.

Suddenly two women walking arm and arm approached a Honda Accord parked next to mine, and one who appeared to be the daughter of her elderly mother, scowled at me. Ironically, I wanted the sympathy of perfect strangers, so I had said to them, “Would you believe, I was just hit with a ticket for not wearing my seat belt!”

“Hey lady,” the middle aged woman replied, “you just smacked your car door against mine and left a big dent!”

I was mortified! What had I done now? This was definitely not my lucky day!

“What are you talking about?” I said sheepishly as I feared I was guilty of more crimes–not just failing to fasten my seat belt. What an unlucky turn of events!

“Well just take a look and see,” the younger woman replied.

I bent down as instructed, and squinted my eyes, searching for the dent. But as hard as I looked I couldn’t find evidence of any damage to the vehicle.

Meanwhile the officer sauntered over, in the midst of writing up my citation, and looked methodically at the whole situation offering a suggestion.

“Why don’t you gently open your car door, Miss, and see the contact point it makes.”

I did as he said in the presence of the two apparently related women who kept backing each other up about what I had done to their car.

The cop was watching intently as my door barely touched the horizontal chrome band that showed absolutely no marks on it. But way above the chrome to the upper left, near the car window, there was a scrape, and some peeling paint finish. It wasn’t remotely near the contact point of my car door.

By this time the law enforcement officer brought home the truth loud and clear.

“Now there’s no way on earth this woman had anything to do with that scratch on your car. It’s definitely an old injury!”

To my amazement, one of my accusers persisted. “Well my mother saw it, and I saw it, too. We were moving when the door slammed on it.”

The cop came in for the killing. “Now you don’t tell me you were driving your car when this lady was pulling over. You were coming out of that clothing store, and your car was parked there the whole time!”

The whole situation was incredible! This one woman was telling a sharp cookie law enforcer that his eyes had deceived him and that he had the memory of a rhinoceros!

He didn’t put up with their crap! “Now listen up,” he said sternly. “If you want to haul this lady into court, she’s going to get my officer number on her citation so she can contact me to testify.”

I was relieved that something was going right for me and that I had the backing of the officer. What little luck I encountered on this abysmal Sunday before Memorial Day had to be savored.

Meanwhile the two scamming women hopped back into their car as the younger one mumbled, “well, we just don’t want to deal with this bitch anyway. Not worth our time or energy!”

I lingered until the officer completed his paperwork. He made sure to tell me that this wasn’t a “moving violation” so I shouldn’t worry about having my insurance rates jacked up or having to go to Traffic School. I briefly mentioned that what the ladies were trying to perpetrate was a Civil Code violation that amounted to “false reporting of a crime.” But he replied that until and when they filed charges against me, that a so-called “misdemeanor charge” could not be pursued against them.

I breathed a sigh of relief that I had escaped punishment for something I had not done to the neighboring car and I thanked the patrol man for coming to my defense, but I also had an increased awareness that I should always affix my seat belt each and every time I entered my car.

It was over 90 minutes since I had left my house to head out to see the Aeolian. To add insult to injury, I got lost on my way to the location, took a wrong turn and ended up in an unfamiliar neighborhood. I had almost given up in my attempt to see the piano, because it was growing hotter by the minute, with temperatures approaching 105 degrees. Without an operative air conditioning system, I was uncomfortably drenched in sweat.

I schlepped home at a snail’s pace, checking to see if any cop cars were remotely in the area, and called the seller to explain my delay

He completely understood my whole situation and told me head over to his place any time during the rest of the day.

I took a much needed lunch break, showered and hopped into my car. But this time I took special care to harness my seat belt. With my camera and tape recorder stacked upon each other, I was ready for action.

When I reached the house that was located in a very nice northwest alcove, I found myself inside its living room, staring at one of the oddest but most intriguing pianos I had ever seen.

It looked like a fancy rectangular shaped antique table without a visible keyboard. It was sitting closed, but looking quite regal. In dark, polished walnut, with a trim of metal engraving, it was a beautiful sight to behold, and its legs were very ornate and attractive. The instrument sat beneath an awesome Renaissance painting that heightened the mood and effect. Totally drawn into the atmosphere created by the piano’s design and its ambiance, I approached it to study its structure and embellishment more personally. The owner, “Phil Kim,” shadowed me and pointed out that the cover to the piano was divided into three leaves, and he carefully unfolded them back to expose the full keyboard. It was quite an experience! To see a piano that opened up like a table in sections was so foreign to what I had encountered in all my piano finding travels. All I could say was, “very, very interesting,” as I was holding off judgment until I actually stroked the keys and detailed the action.

Being squarely in the face of the opened piano, I noted the oval “Aeolian” insignia on the fall board that contained the letters Phil had accurately recited to me on the phone. Thinking back on his original Bee listing of an “antique Counsel” piano, I chuckled to myself about it, but decided not to share this amusement with the seller. Instead, I took out my stringy tape measure to see if the instrument was actually “console” size. To my surprise it measured only 35 inches up from its base making it definitely a “spinet.” It’s more diminutive size led me to believe that the piano might produce a dwarfed tone because the strings and soundboard length were inches less than that of a console though on occasion I had encountered some spinets like the “Acrosonic” (made by Baldwin) and Wurlitzer that had a decent “ping” and considerable projection. But I was not holding my breath about this miniaturized Aeolian that had suddenly come into my life.

My next area of curiosity was the serial number. Since I had my Pierce Piano Atlas with me I knew I should able to readily reference the year of manufacture. Finding the numerical information was a piece of cake in this instance—a lot easier than the experience I had with the auctioned Steinway where I had to crawl under the piano with York’s telephoned instructions.

The Aeolian numerics were nicely located on the cast iron plate: “64311” corresponded to “1920” according to the Atlas listing. In the process of combing the plate, I also clearly observed a bronze colored, engraved “AA” emblem This referred to the “Aeolian American Company,” since the “American Piano Company had merged with the Aeolian Piano Company to form the Aeolian American Corporation in 1932. (Pierce Atlas)

Phil stood in the kitchen watching me intently as I detailed the piano. He was fighting off the flu and coughed audibly. He was tall and sinewy with an Asian background. I’d guess that he was in his late forties. With my Sony tape recorder running, I intended to ask him few questions, explaining that I was writing a book called Dream Piano, and was gathering stories on my piano finding trail. He nodded in approval saying it sounded like a “terrific idea.”

“So when did you purchase this exotic looking piano?” I asked him.

“Well, actually my mother bought it as a gift for my son about 7 years ago and I really don’t know where she found it.”

“Was she the original owner?” I inquired.
“Gee, I’m not really sure and I never asked.”
“So where did she obtain the Aeolian? Was it here in Fresno?”
“Probably not,” he answered. “She lives right nearby in Clovis but I doubt she got it there,” he answered.

“It’s interesting that your piano is over 80 years old. Do you mind if I get in touch with your mom to find out more specific information about the piano and its owner history.”

“Oh no, that’s not possible,” he replied assertively. My wife and I can’t let her know that we’re selling it. She’s 70 years old and it would break her heart.”

Just then Phil’s wife entered the alcove by the living room where the Aeolian sat, and introduced herself as “Yolanda.” She was an attractive, Hispanic looking woman who appeared to be about 40 or so. She was petite and attractive, with a doll-like in appearance. Within a short time, I had learned that she married Phil about 10 years before and they had Kara, who was now 6 and prancing around the house, mostly tinkering with an electric keyboard that was conveniently in her room. I could hear the faint bell like sounds emanating from her keyboard in the distance.

Phil had a son from a prior marriage who lived with the couple until he departed for college.

“He used to play the piano,” Yolanda chimed in. “And he was quite talented. He played a bunch of instruments like the guitar, clarinet, and trumpet.”

“That’s fascinating,” I said. “So he does he come home on vacations and play the piano?”

“No, not very much. It’s just been laying here closed up and nobody’s been using it. My husband and I need to clear it out to make room for other things, though we hate to see it go.”

I had noticed that the two of them were thoroughly cleaning up a living room full of ornate furniture that had an interesting window display of “Betty Boop” dolls, an uncanny interest of Yolanda’s. In the course of our conversation she shared her passionate Boop collecting hobby that was manifest all over the house, even in the bathroom where “Betty Boop” memorabilia painted the walls. I took out my camera and got some snapshots with Yolanda shadowing me.

It was ironic that just two days before, “Alice,” seller of the no name upright, had described her very large Barbie doll collection. There had to be some kind of twist of fate at work here—Alice amassing “Barbies,” and Yolanda acquiring “Betty Boops” and they were both Hispanic and about the same age. But Alice had definitely registered an emotional attachment to her nameless cabinet grand size player, but Yolanda and Phil had cut the umbilical cord to their Aeolian and were ready to sell it as soon as a buyer made a decent offer. They had advertised the piano for $1500 or “best offer”

“Well, let me sit down and play this lovely looking piano” I said, wondering why I had allowed this crescendo of suspense, to build, when I could have run my fingers over the keys when its leaves were folded back. Was this unbelievable or what? A table piano with three leaves, the perfect title for my next book chapter.

From the first I laid my fingers upon it, the little piano sang like a nightingale, but more so than what I had experienced with the Knight piano that was even slightly bigger than a conservative console size piano. It had measured 44 inches, almost 9 inches higher than the Aeolian. Yet this diminutive piano had an enormous reservoir of resonance, and its tone swirled as high as the ceiling and back. It was amazing! And there were no warbling sounds, or false notes in any registers. Everything worked! Knowing all these positives I had to restrain my enthusiasm for it, because I knew immediately that I wanted this piano for myself without a thread of doubt, but for a fair and reasonable price! No one but me was going to own it. I had instantly become an over-possessive lover competing for the loved one. This rose far above the simple acquisition of a musical instrument. I had already become emotionally attached to this small beauty that was a rarity among spinet size pianos. The only down side, was that the instrument had a keyboard full of tarnished key tops. They were definitely not ivories because there were no faintly visible or decisive horizontal lines separating the front from the tail, but they appeared and felt very soft and light. While I loved the feel and consistent action, there were a few ingrained chips that might distract a buyer. But not I, in this case, because the cosmetic irregularities had absolutely no impact on the instrument’s performance, but it could still be a bargaining chip in negotiating down a selling price.

Both Yolanda and Phil seemed suddenly taken by the divine tone emanating from their Aeolian as I had played it steadily for nearly an hour, and I had recorded the whole concert for posterity on my Sony portable.

“Gee, I’ve never heard it sound so beautiful,” Phil said. “You’re making me suddenly appreciate it.”

Alice and her husband had shared the same sentiment, though they clearly had more of a gutsy attachment to their old upright before I entered their home.

“Gosh,” Yolanda blurted out,” maybe we shouldn’t be selling it after all, but you know what,” she continued, “there’s just no room for it here.”

It sounded a bit cold and calculating to my ears. Would this woman orphan a child in this way? I was growing accustomed to these scenarios where the owner of a gorgeous sounding instrument might harbor a love/hate relationship with it. “Caroline” certainly registered this with her Knight piano, as did “Jonathon Jones,” attorney, who stored the “piano of his dreams” in a musty, hot garage but kept a less impressive Baldwin in a comfortable, air conditioned living room environment. All this material was grist for a novel or a TV soap script. And I was in the center of the drama, taking an interior look at the private lives of pianos and their colorful owners who were living out a full length soap opera with their pianos. Maybe we needed a new TV addition to the soap roster—“As the Piano Plays,” or “The Last Days of our Pianos,” or “Guiding Light pianos.” I was willing to write a treatment based upon all my lurid experiences in the piano finding universe!

It was about the right time to check the hammer assembly and I did so using my little flashlight. Spectacular! All the parts were clean as a whistle and the hammer felts were hardly grooved indicating the piano had a long playing life ahead of it.

With all that I intimately knew about this piano, I was not about to let it out of my sight as I had done with the J. Fritz Sohn, the beauty I had spotted at the American Cancer Society thrift store. I would never make the same mistake twice! This was clearly my opportunity to put a deposit down on the heaven sent Aeolian to assure its perpetuity in my home.

“Let me make you an offer,” I said decisively to Phil.

I factored in the age of the piano, its condition, and the local market place for something like this and I came up with a figure of $1,100 as my “best offer” on his price-listed $1500 ad.

“I want to be fair to you and myself,” I insisted. “Anyone looking at the key tops would cringe and walk away from your piano. Most buyers are very visual,” I said.

But I admit that it has a great sound, but still I would have to invest a few hundred dollars to completely re-key it, so I think an offer of $1,100 would factor in my assumed expenses to repair it.

Phil didn’t argue with me. He thought that I’d made reasonable case for my bid, and he was willing to take my $50 deposit. I told him that I needed 3 to 5 business days to complete the transaction because the following day was Memorial Day so banks would be closed. I would be electronically wiring funds into my checking account from my IRA Profit Sharing fund. If all went well I figured I could deliver him a money order by mid-week.

Phil folded the leaves down and closed up the Aeolian piano. “We’re going to take very good care of it for you,” he said. Don’t you worry about it.”

I shuffled out the door feeling consumed with delight. It was like I had just given birth to a baby but the best part lay ahead. I eagerly anticipated bringing the new family member home. Such blessings were few and far between so I savored them as much as I could on this day before the big holiday.


My beautiful little spinet with its nightingale voice arrived on a Friday afternoon about two weeks after I first put down my deposit on it. It looked perfectly placed in a room that already housed two Steinways and two Casio keyboards. Still another digital piano from the Casio Corporation in Dover, New Jersey was on its way as a thank you from the company for my unpaid endorsements of the PX110. Executives had caught wind of my record breaking, non-commissioned sales amounting to at least a dozen at the local Guitar Center.

With my Aeolian safely contained in its new home sitting opposite my Steinway studio model, I took photos of it, and e-mailed them around to a few registered piano technicians. One, named “George Corneliussen,” who I had found on the Internet had rebuilt a 1917 Aeolian grand and seemed to know his way around the block. “Cy Shuster” another piano tech, who posted on said he was going to do some research on the piano and get back to me. “Del Fandrich,” a well known American builder of pianos, e-mailed me after he had read my long-winded correspondence and reviewed my photos.

“I doubt your piano was built in the 1920’s because the spinet was a development of the Depression era. The short scales that had been developed for the small grand were converted to make small verticals in an attempt to compete with the rapidly developing radio. Indeed some of the casework on the radios of the time was almost as large as those of the newly developed spinets. The market for the large upright had died with the recession and with changing tastes in home décor. (For more information on the development of the small grand, see the comments of Mark P. Campbell in the book, Piano Tone Building.)

“I really can’t tell you much more about your piano without seeing it and examining it personally. Regards, Del.”

YORK was briskly on the scene, to shine his old, dented lamp on the piano. Since I was understandably very overprotective of my recently acquired treasure, I wouldn’t allow him to take it apart because he was known to man handle more than a few pianos in his time. My Aeolian, like a newborn baby, was getting its first sniff of a new environment, and needed time to adjust.

“Hey, let me get my hands in that there piana, so I kin tell ya more about it,” he said. He seemed like a hungry animal searching for a delectable bone!

YORK and other technicians figured the serial number dating to 1920 was a Pierce Piano Atlas blunder but Robert Furst, of was really the first person to question the dating accuracy.

Furst insisted that “spinets” were not manufactured until 1935 so he discounted any dating of my piano before this time. YORK also concurred, saying that from what he could see, the piano had an “indirect blow” action, a spinet defining characteristic. When I followed up, and consulted on this very subject, it said that the “drop action,” another term for “indirect blow,” was a mechanical process where the “keys did not engage the action directly; rather they pulled upward on rods called ‘stickers’ which in turn pulled upward on levers located below the level of the keyboard, which then engaged the action. The stickers were sufficiently long that the hammer heads (highest part of the action) ended up at roughly the same vertical level as the keyboard.” (footnote-Wikipedia)

I could hardly process mechanical information like this, and when York tried to capsulize it, I still couldn’t get a handle on it. But I was convinced from the preliminary evidence obtained, that my piano was definitely not produced in 1920.

So I was now confronted with still another mystery that rose to the proportion of what pertained to the “player piano without a name.” It seemed like needing to know a piano’s brand identity and date of origin compared to the intensity of an adopted child seeking its birth mother.

Furst had phoned me the day York was beaming his light into the hammer assembly. The Bluebook of Pianos maven said he wasn’t able to download my most recent photos, but based upon how I described the “table top look of the piano,” he conjectured that it could be a “vertigrand” or “vertichord.” His published Internet notes featured a section on the spinet and its history that I quickly referenced: (footnote source: “The Great Depression and the Asian Invasion, 1930-1959)

“The spinet piano,” Furst wrote, “was a culmination of a trend among manufacturers to make pianos smaller and cheaper. It was dainty looking compared to the old bulky upright… and because of its small size, new actions had to be devised.” He also stated that vertichords and vertigrands were offshoots of the spinet, but he didn’t anywhere refer to the “table piano” model that I possessed. From my own additional cyber research I had located “Haddorf” and “Mathushek” pianos that had comparable leaves and the table appearance of those dated to the 1930s.

Furst received still another set of Aeolian photos from me a week later that he successfully downloaded. They revealed more graphic details of the piano, inside and out, and on the basis of his having reviewed these, he updated his opinion. “Your piano is definitely not a vertigrand,” he insisted. “It’s just a spinet from about 1960!” In his third e-mail to me on the subject, he wrote, “here is my final answer: 1960!” Now it’s true he hadn’t the benefit of evaluating the piano in person, but he didn’t think this was an impediment to his current appraisal. He understandably refuted the 1920 Pierce dating, but his own modification came as an enormous shock! If his assessment was accurate, then my Aeolian wouldn’t be an “antique,” and it would be relegated to the status of a garden variety spinet.

Ironically, I had located an Aeolian match to my piano on Ebay and the seller claimed that the piano, with a serial number a few digits away from mine was at least “80 to 100” years old. We had even talked by phone and compared notes. His particular table style instrument was located in Chatsworth, California, but as it turned out, he didn’t have any conclusive information about the dating. He was hoping that I could enlighten him!

I was determined not to let Robert Furst’s opinions impede me from finding out the truth about my piano. Like YORK, I held to the belief that I had a treasure dating many decades before 1960 and would not be sold a bill of goods to the contrary. York hung in there with me, and traipsed over to my place still another time to inspect the piano. He had the determination of a lion as he headed straight for the Aeolian!

“Now, I gotta put my hands into that there piana to find somethin’ out.”

I couldn’t stop him this time because I knew he was going to clearly establish the date of my piano come “hell to high water!”

He stuck his powerful mitts underneath the action without pulling it out. Looking like a gynecologist, he did an internal exam, minus the rubber gloves. It was definitely a sight to behold as this old man, country doc to “pianas” for nearly 60 years, was going to make the defining date diagnostic sooner than later. I just knew it!

“Well,” he said, “I got just what I wanted. Now you listen at me young lady: This here piana dates to about 1936, and I can tell ya that fer sure, ‘cause ‘I had a problem gettin’ my whole hand inta’ the damn action. In them days, they didn’t know how to make it easy on us tuners to pull it out, and that’s a fact!”

YORK dove down to the rug, and nestled himself up against the pedal lyre, enlisting my help to disengage the lower wood panel. It was a bummer. There should have been a hinge attached to undo the part, but it just wasn’t there. York said this was further evidence that the piano was not from 1960. “It can’t be,” he insisted.

I took photos of YORK in his uncompromised position, tightly squeezed under the Aeolian’s keyboard and once he had successfully dislodged the bottom panel, I took some nifty snaps of the exposed section. Wow! The spruce soundboard was shiny and immaculate! Everything else, including the pedal rods were in ace condition. YORK and I marveled over it, but nonetheless, we still had no hands on proof that the piano dated to the 1930’s. I bent down and cocked my head to get a better look. I searched meticulously for clues hidden in the depths of the piano—in its nooks and crannies, but nothing turned up. It was very frustrating!

YORK didn’t need anything more conclusive to make his assertions. He had been around pianos since 1948 and if he said the piano dated to the ’30s, I could probably trust him, but I needed some hard and fast proof to transmit to Furst and others who had gotten into the action. (pun intended).

Just a week later, Terry Barrett, Registered Piano Technician dropped over as scheduled to tune my Aeolian, and though he had severe vision problems and couldn’t drive a car, he was still the best damned tuner in Fresno. Barrett regularly maintained my Steinways, but this was the first he had seen of my Aeolian and it inspired his admiration. After I played a few selections for him, he remarked about the piano’s lovely resonance, projection, and appearance. We both heartily agreed that the spinet played well and looked absolutely gorgeous. When I brought up the dating issue, Terry quickly begged off, saying he had no experience with these kinds of pianos. At 45 years of age he certainly hadn’t YORK’s savvy about vintage era pianos, and he plainly admitted it.

Terry dismantled the fall board (not done when YORK inspected the piano) and exposed the full length of the key wood. Suddenly, I thought I saw some printed letters in the wood on D-1, the first D on the piano from the lowest end. “Hey, Terry, I see something right here, and I need a flashlight, quick!” I could feel my heart racing because I knew I was onto something! Terry had his own little, high intensity, close up light that he shined on the wood so I could get a closer view. Oh my gosh! We were zeroing in on it! The first letters were “APR” and then I squinted hard to see more. Terry pushed the light down lower so I could view the other characters. As luck would have it, I spotted the numbers “1936” and screamed with delight. TERRY! WE GOT IT!! WE FOUND IT! YIPPEE!!!!!

I felt as happy as Alice did when she beamed her flashlight onto her player piano’s cast iron plate and shouted out the serial number. It was like we both landed the prize!!!

“Geeze, Terry,” I said, “let’s get some pictures of this!” I raced anxiously to my kitchen counter to find a working instant camera. A few had bitten the dust from lying around and had no flash function but I managed to salvage one that seemed to work. Still, I had no faith that this cheap device would capture the numerics that were not as deeply ingrained as the letters “APR.” Terry saved the day by taking out his pricey digital, and focused it smack up against the key wood. He took three close-up shots as I aimed his high power light right at the source. He showed me exactly what the photos captured right after he took them so I got to see all the detail! I felt a rush of excitement knowing we had permanent, indisputable evidence that this baby was born in 1936! Mazel Tov! I thought to myself! Let the world receive this little princess!

“Whoa, I gotta have these pics as soon as possible, Terry! Can you e-mail these to me, later today,” I said with fever pitch anticipation.

“Oh, sure, just remind me by phone this evening and I’ll be sure to send them.”

I felt so relieved to know that I had a treasure from the past that sang better than anything the future could provide. Immediately, I dashed off a note to Robert Furst telling him about my discovery and then I phoned YORK a few times, leaving hyper-intensive messages for him. I made sure to congratulate him for his ardent and somewhat awkward efforts to date my piano. “WOW, Mr. YORK, you are a winner, today! The piano dates to 1936. We have pictures of it. Enjoy your celebrity! And please call me back as soon as you get this!”

It was a magnificent day for me and my piano! And without a doubt, a truth finding victory. I could now happily embark upon my journey with the Aeolian and savor every moment of it until death parted us!

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A Day with Two Piano Finalists

A Kawai and Chickering were in a tight race, until one took off and surpassed the other.
My whole Saturday was consumed with evaluating two pianos: a practically brand new “Kawai” 5’1″ grand and a larger, nearly 5’8″ size “Chickering,” 1980.

The Kawai captured my interest because a smaller studio upright of the same brand had been purchased by my adult student, “Fujie” on the day she had journeyed from piano hell to heaven. Once she had laid her hands on Yamaha’s chief rival, it was a fait accomplis.

The only other Kawai I had known up front and personal was the seven footer YORK had crawled under looking for money. Having enlisted me as a diving partner in this senseless expedition, I had my in depth view of a mammoth size piano that yielded absolutely no clue about its resonance or regulation. Only a journey back up to the deck, with a note to note review of 88 keys, produced a verdict. If I had stepped on pebbles, it would have produced the same effect.

So now I realized that Kawai had gone miles to improve its pianos after Fujie had acquired a tonally gorgeous and well regulated instrument that sent me scurrying to check out the bigger model.

A graceful woman with the look of a ballerina greeted me at 9 a.m. in her stately Old Fig Garden residence amidst her feverish housecleaning. She took a breather to sit within yards of her Kawai piano and partake of my house concert that included the works of Bach, Beethoven, Schumann and Chopin. She even relished the intermittent glissandi and chromatic scales at every decibel level imaginable that was part of my in depth assessment. Pleased with this piano’s lovely sonority and meticulous regulation (feel from note to note) I called “Jean,” who was in the midst of a torrid search for her dream grand piano, and suggested she hop down a.s.a.p to try out a “winner.”

My piano-seeking adventurer had already rightfully declined a “Knabe” 1978 grand that was housed in a cedar trim residence, plush in the mountains of Mariposa, where bears and mountain lions lurked and kept the seller’s dogs chained in a protected area. While this particular piano was safely stored within a climate friendly room with indirect sunlight and at no risk for attack, it hadn’t struck a bond with me or Jean that would take it from its safe quarters.

Jean turned out to be a stickler for detail in choosing the right piano. After she ran her fingers over the Kawai, I could tell her enthusiasm dwindled. Perhaps it was because she had checked out a Chickering grand the day before in a pollution hell south of Fresno–a journey purified by the heavenly sounds emanating from an ebony grand with an especially resonant bass. My curiosity peaked after she waxed poetic about it.

Chickerings were historic competitors with Steinway in the first few decades of the 20th century and those manufactured before the factory move from East Rochester, New York to Knoxville, Tennessee, were worth a look. The distinguished “Aeolian” Company had fathered “Mason and Hamlin,” “Chickering,” and “Weber” among other piano luminaries before all these once reputable pianos were bought out by Chinese companies who had enlisted cheap labor to manufacture instruments of lesser quality. (my opinion)

The Chickering located in Riverdale, California, had the old pedigree, and its one and only owner received the piano from her father who worked at Sherman Clay in Los Angeles and hand picked the piano for his grandson. This was a good beginning.

In just 5 minutes of running my fingers over its keys, I understood Jean’s excitement about it. The regal looking piano with its elegant inscription on the fall board, had the best of the old world sound, like sipping seasoned wine as accompaniment–with an irresistible resonance over its full keyboard, interrupted only by a problematic tonal break from the mid range to the bass–but otherwise a dream. Maybe one note needed voicing down, and two others required a minor adjustment, but despite these irregularities, the finish line was in sight, and this piano would be in the winner’s circle. (York had bounced by, giving the instrument his seal of approval)

The Kawai, though a worthy second place contender, was all but forgotten, though it had made a good run and should have rightfully acquired an appreciative owner. I had decided then and there to be its advocate and place it in a good home.

Jean had already contacted the piano movers after having made a sincere commitment to buy the Chickering, and I had to give her enormous credit for choosing the more mature sounding piano of the two. Not for a moment was she distracted by what was newer and under Waranty for the next ten years. Her pearly words of wisdom resonated on the trip from Riverdale back to Fresno, “What difference does any of that make if you don’t really love the piano.”

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Fighting for a Dream Piano (Hopefully it should not come to this)

This writing, true to the last detail is meant to give piano buyers a heads up about how to handle a situation where an Oral Agreement may be breached by a seller.

The following ad was placed at the on line Fresno Bee Classifieds website: Published 07/12/07 00:00:00 PIANO Baldwin Baby Grand cherry, xlnt cond pd over $20k Sacrifice $4,500 ( telephone number listed) ————- View this ad at (link given)

On Friday the 13th, 2007, an ominous day cloaked in superstition, I phoned the owner of a Baldwin “Artist Series” grand about arranging to see and play it. Located about 12 miles from my home, the piano was housed at a horse ranch on Fresno’s northeast periphery. Pulling into a dusty driveway next to a corral of old-looking studs and with 5 barking dogs including a Doberman, surrounding my vehicle, I froze in fear behind my wheel. When the owner, a young looking, bleached blonde, finally emerged from the main house, and padlocked the dogs, I carefully stepped out of my van into a pile of dung. Despite my awkward and inelegant entrance into this rural home, I found the piano to be worth all my trouble. A stunning looking French Provincial grand in cherry wood greeted me that had a golden, glowing tone and an amazing dynamic range. Sinking deeply into the keys, I felt my fingers reach directly into the strings, pulling my very essence out of it.

Responding positively to my playing, the owner engaged me in musical conversation, and said that her brother was a celebrated pianist who performed at a local hot spot in the Bohemian Tower District. Immediately his name rang a bell, since I had once replaced him, doing a one night stand for tips only at the well known, “Daily Planet.” Ironically, I vividly recalled a tip cup sitting atop a Yamaha grand and a blast of hot air engulfing me every time a customer entered.

I had carefully researched the Baldwin medium size, 5′ 8″ inch grand even before I had an opportunity to play it. Having previously acquired its serial number from the seller husband during our initial phone conversation the morning before, I ascertained from thumbing through Larry Fine’s Piano Book, that the Baldwin “Artist series” grands manufactured in the mid- 90’s were definitely worth my time. In 1999, however, a takeover of the company spelled problems I didn’t want to contend with. Meanwhile, the Fresno Piano Store had stocked some mighty decent Baldwins in the 90’s when the company’s new grands were supposedly making a major comeback.

The piano that grabbed my attention in the private party marketplace, was selling for an insanely low bargain price of $4,500! And a rush to move it out the door, was ignited by the owners’ imminent move to Utah. I guess that’s why the seller’s wife quickly accepted my $50 deposit with a promise to bring the balance following a wire transfer of funds from my Franklin Templeton IRA into my checking account. As part of the agreement, I promised her that the money would be available in “one to three” business days. Since a Templeton investment associate gave me a verification number for the transaction that very day, it was was documentation that I had entered into a “good faith” contract with the seller.

Within 24 hours of this verbal agreement forged with a check, I received a disturbing phone call from the piano owner’s husband that my deposit was too “small to hold the piano,” and that another buyer was coming to his place the very next morning (on Sunday) to hand him “cash.” His words had a male chauvinist ring to them as he talked down to me and insinuated that my promise to deliver the money couldn’t be trusted. This was despite the fact that his wife had my business card with contact info, websites, education, etc and the day before, had expressed admiration for my musical activities.

I felt like I was shot in the stomach! My voice nearly died, and I sounded meek and defenseless. I’d been caught off guard with my pants down! After a disturbing conversational exchange, dominated by the piano owner’s boisterous, bullying voice, I decided to phone two lawyers for advice who just happened to be parents of piano students. Both told me in no uncertain terms that the parties had “breached an oral contract.” In light of the situation, they advised me to file a small claims action. (The only exposure I had to the small claims court system was when I learned about “Rebecca McGregor’s” cross- country proceedings in Lawrenceville, Georgia, a circus court of least resort with Mr. York, “piano tuna'” as her sidekick expert witness>)

Now it was Saturday night, July 14th, and I was waging a war against the ticking clock, painfully aware that the buyer was getting closer to claiming ownership of this latest dream piano that was far too tantalizing to leave behind.

At 3 a.m. I gathered my wits and typed out a narrative of events, printed it out and attached a resume. At approximately 4 a.m. I phoned the “ASAP Courier Service” to deliver my materials to the seller first thing that very Sunday morning. I emphasized in my statement of fact, that an oral contract was forged and then violated and that I had every intention of taking the matter to court. The packet was successfully delivered and signed for by the seller husband at 8:55 a.m. on July 15th, with a receipt returned to me that was added to my manila folder labeled “Baldwin grand piano legal case.”

On Monday, July 16th, I raced down to the Small Claims court section of Fresno County after I had drafted a 5-page, single spaced Declaration with 4 Exhibit attachments, labeled “A through D” and I filled out even more pro forma papers in the clerk’s area. I conjectured that the County sheriff’s process service would be best because of the wild dogs surrounding any trespassing car entering through the dust filled driveway. (throw in a few pompous ass chickens sauntering across the property)

In the process of drawing up my court papers, I had serendipitously encountered a legal research based website that defined an “ORAL CONTRACT” and used the sale of a piano as an example. What a perfect opportunity to copy paste sections or paragraphs about Contract law and intersperse each part with the facts of my case. It was a pro se plaintiff’s dream opportunity to set the record straight cloaked in perfect judicial language. (See attached pleadings).

I must have lingered on the 2nd floor of Superior Court for at least 2 eternally long hours because the clerks ambled around like snails and spent at least an hour stapling another litigant’s papers right before my eyes. I wanted to reach over and grab one of them by the neck and do the stapling for her, because I had to be back home to teach a piano student in 45 minutes.

It was worth all the trouble and inconvenience. Once the case was filed and fees paid, I had the goods in my hands, and a court date set for “September 6 at 8:45 in Dept 3.” The challenge would be to successfully effect service on the parties because they had planned an imminent move to Utah. For all I knew the piano probably had already slipped out of my hands the day before, but just the same, I plodded on, knowing the law was on my side!

Fortunately, I experienced a growing and heart-warming swell of cyber and telephone support from many friends, one of whom was “Fujie,” my steadfast adult piano student (“Samick, York, Tofujie and Me”). She stood by me like a rock solid pillar. Owning a Real Estate Broker’s license, she located invaluable information about the sellers. As it turned out, the seller wife was a broker for a prominent Realtor company, who, of all people, should have known the meaning of an “Oral Contract.” Meanwhile, Fujie strategically obtained the parcel number on the sellers’ property that was apparently still in escrow. Bantering about all that had happened over a short period of time, we both considered the possibility of attaching a lien to the home if the court awarded me a favorable judgment. In any case, I was ready to roll, and felt my growing empowerment.

The events of the next 24 hours were the most sweeping and dramatic. I had some “plants” call the husband owner and ask if the piano was still for sale. As it played out, he had variations on the same theme in his replies. He declared to one inquirer that he had decided “not to sell it,” and when York phoned with a disguised voice, the piano owner said he was going to take “piano lessons.” When “Rebecca McGregor” called using an alias, and proposed to give him $5000 for the piano, ($500 above the asking price), he admitted that he had been offered “$6500” by another buyer but that he had still decided not to sell the piano. He even said that some woman had placed a deposit on the piano, and if he changed his mind, he would contact her. The very erratic plot thickened and was worthy of a “Sixty Minutes” segment!

It had slowly but surely become obvious that the sellers were probably wooed by GREED–enough to break the law. But I also surmised that they’d surreptitiously sold the piano to the buyer who offered them “$6500,” ostensibly in cash. I thought immediately about how Jimmy Hoffa had been secretly wiped out without witnesses to the crime. Perhaps the sellers might erase me with a silencer if I dared to trespass onto their property with the payment balance. I was caught between a rock and a hard place, imagining horses let loose to stampede me, and unhealthy looking chickens relentlessly pecking away at me, leaving indelible scars!

On Tuesday, July 17th, at midnight, just 15 or so hours after my court papers were filed down at Superior Court, I discovered that my funds had been successfully wired into my checking account a day earlier than expected, and I could therefore now back up a money order for the balance on the piano. Right then and there, I stormed into action, and copy/pasted the information from my On line account onto a Word document, printed it out and faxed it to the seller, at her place of business. In this communication, she would ascertain that I had the funds I promised to deliver. I also faxed her a copy of the title page of the small claims lawsuit and two additional segments from my Declaration, with lettered exhibits. (All of my e mails to the owner’s registered e-address had been returned, so faxing them to her place of business was definitely the best way to communicate) In a separate fax, I indicated that I would only withdraw the lawsuit for Breach of Contract with damages, if the Baldwin piano came into my immediate possession following payment. I wanted a guarantee that the dogs would be safely contained when I entered the property and that I would get a written receipt with a statement of transfer into my ownership. (I put the seller’s “APN,” property parcel number next to her address)

Meanwhile the wife owner was mum.. not getting back to me.. ignoring me and my faxes completely. But despite her registered apathy, and once I had the cash successfully deposited into my account, I braced myself and aggressively went in for the killing. With the seller’s cell phone number in hand, (that she had given me on July 13th), I dialed it on early Tuesday morning, July 17th, and pressed the “record” button to completely capture the next soap opera segment.

On my first two phone attempts, I heard an automated voice say that the party was “not available.” With no way of leaving a message, I experienced my instant ex-communication from the seller’s life, (she happened to be Mormon) but continued to carry on. A few moments later, in the nick of time, the phone rang, and I anxiously picked it up. It was the seller wife, who started SCREAMING so loudly that I could hardly hear myself think. But before things had escalated to a point where we were both shouting each other down, I heard the seller say that I was “stalking her,” and that she was in “Utah.” When the hysteria died down, she ordered me to “take the piano,” and “arrange for the movers.” Uncannily, I had already contacted the movers on the very day I placed the deposit since the owner had urged me to do so.

The rest went fairly smoothly. The seller husband was soon on the phone with me insisting he would only accept “cash,” instead of the “money order” I had promised to deliver, but would give me a written receipt for it. Fortunately, Fujie agreed to accompany me to the ranch after we stopped off at “Naked Fish” for a Japanese banquet. While she deftly used chopsticks, I fumbled with them, bemoaning the fact that I hadn’t the coordination she had enviously demonstrated. After a hearty and delectable lunch, we both had renewed energy and determination to make the last lap of the journey.

At 2:30 sharp, Tuesday July 17, 2007, the two of us arrived at the horse and chicken farm and shook hands with the seller husband, whose arrogant voice was now a stern monotone. In a business-like way, he counted out the bills I handed him as I plunged into the piano once again. Fujie, the roving photographer, who looked like a mafia operative in her dark shades, captured it all on digital. Before we left, I reminded myself to take the piano bench with me since York had specifically recommended it. When I thought about the idea, it made practical and strategic sense.

On Wednesday, July 18, 2007, just a day following the Baldwin purchase, I received my incredible new musical treasure and played it for a solid hour. As promised, Fujie stopped by to take even more photos, and York popped in unexpectedly with a bag filled with two nectarines, one onion, and a green pepper. Both visitors were drooling over the piano and couldn’t stop praising it. Since I learned it was York’s birthday, I let him keep the twenty dollars he found in a pouch beneath the piano because he deserved compensation for tightening up the Baldwin pedal rods, and filling in some little holes that needed putty. But maybe he should have returned the cash to the sellers just in case they decided to file a counter-suit against me. But I wondered whether the seller had planted the money? Fuji saw York wink when he flashed the twenty dollar bill as he lay beneath the piano inspecting it, and who knows, the senior tuner, with his deft hands, could have performed a Houdini like stunt while surfing under the instrument. He had an impish look on his face.

Whatever the case, the story had a happy ending and the Baldwin dream piano, the prize, in the aftermath of a passionately waged war, landed gracefully among 4 pianos and two digital keyboards.

Readers may share my court pleadings as follows. Since the lawsuit had been dropped I omitted the Defendants’ names. But there was no stipulation made orally or in writing that the story and events surrounding the Baldwin could not be written about.

Plaintiff, Shirley Kirsten resides at__________________ Fresno , California , Telephone: ________________
Defendants, ________ reside at__________ Tel: ________ Alternate Phone for______ Realtor:______
Note that Plaintiff has attached 4 Exhibits for the Court to Review that are referenced within her Declaration:
These are true and correct copies of said documents:

Plaintiff’s Declaration and:
Exhibits–True and Correct copies of:

“A” July 12, 2007 posted Fresno Bee On line Ad pertaining to the sale of a Baldwin “baby grand” piano with advertised price of “$4500” and telephone contact number, _____ that belongs to ______, Sellers, ______ Fresno, CA ________.

“B” Transaction history from Franklin Templeton Mutual Funds on line account as it pertains to Plaintiff Shirley Kirsten’s July 13, 2007 processed withdrawal of $5500 to be electronically wired from Franklin Templeton Mutual Funds to Washington Mutual Bank, Shaw and Fruit, Fresno, California to purchase a Baldwin “baby grand” piano advertised in the Fresno Bee, July 12, 2007 by ________. This is a true and correct copy of information ascertained at by Buyer with reference to her Mutual Funds account. ____, seller was informed that this transaction would be made on July 13, 2007 when she, Seller, entered into an oral contract with Buyer that related to the sale of her Baldwin “baby grand piano,” for the amount of $4500, and accepted a deposit check of $50 from Buyer, Shirley Kirsten as an advance on the balance with a promise that the balance on the piano, would be delivered in person by Shirley Kirsten with a Money Order, latest, Wednesday, July 18, 2007.

“C” Statement of facts written by Buyer, Shirley Kirsten and delivered to____ by ASAP COURIER Service on Sunday, July 15, 2007, 8:55 a.m., that also included Plaintiff’s Resume, CD, Various music programs, Franklin Templeton upper portion of statement with verification number for $5500 withdrawal processed on July 13, 2007 by Plaintiff, Shirley Kirsten.

“D” ASAP Courier Service Receipt, dated, Sunday, July15, 2007 with seller,_____ signature

“A contract intends to formalize an agreement between two or more parties, in relation to a particular subject.” I, Shirley Kirsten, Plaintiff and Buyer, formalized an agreement with ______Defendant and Seller, on Friday, July 13, 2007 at her residence, __________ regarding the purchase a Baldwin grand piano, serial number “323760.” The Sellers, ____ had advertised the sale of a Baldwin “baby grand piano” for the price of $4500, in the Fresno Bee on July 12, 2007. (See Attached Exhibit “A”- Fresno Bee on line ad for this Baldwin piano—a true and correct copy is provided)

The Elements of a Contract
Typically, in order to be enforceable, a contract must involve the following elements:
A “Meeting of the Minds” (Mutual Consent)
The parties to the contract have a mutual understanding of what the contract covers. For example, in a contract for the sale of a “mustang”, the buyer thinks he will obtain a car and the seller believes he is contracting to sell a horse, there is no meeting of the minds and the contract will likely be held unenforceable.
There was a meeting of the minds between the Buyer, Shirley Kirsten, and the Seller, __________, that a Baldwin grand piano, model R226, serial number 323760 (manufactured in 1995) was up for sale. In good faith the Buyer, Shirley Kirsten placed a deposit check in the amount of $50.00 in the hands of Seller, _____ on Friday, July 13, 2007, as an advance on the balance of $4500 that was to be paid in full, by latest, Wednesday, July 18, 2007. Buyer, Shirley Kirsten informed the Seller,______ that she was going to immediately expedite the wiring of electronic funds from her Franklin Templeton Profit Sharing Fund into her personal checking account at Washington Mutual Bank on Shaw and Fruit Avenue. Because said funds take “one to three business days” to process, Buyer, Shirley Kirsten informed Seller, ______ that she should expect to receive a money order in the amount of $4500 minus the $50 deposit by Wednesday, July 18, 2007. SEE EXHIBIT “B,” that is a true and correct copy of the withdrawal transaction from Franklin Templeton made by Plaintiff, Shirley Kirsten expedited on July 13, 2007 for $5500. The verification number on this transaction is: “0719477984.” On Friday, July 13, 2007, the Seller was given full disclosure of the Buyer’s intention to purchase the piano, and Seller did not make further demands or requirements of the Buyer, Shirley Kirsten. Additionally, Buyer, made good on her promise to extract funds from her Franklin Templeton Fund, and contacted the fund in the late morning of July 13th, 2007, and put through the transaction with a verification number given to her, as “0719477984.” The Buyer, Shirley Kirsten, was told by an investment associate that the transaction would be commenced at the close of the Stock Market that very day, July 13, 2007, but it would take “one to three” business days for the local bank to channel electronically wired funds into Buyer’s checking account. Buyer, Shirley Kirsten also gave Seller, ____ her business card that contained her specific residential and e mail address and telephone contact information. Seller gave Buyer an additional business phone that traces to ____ Realty in Clovis , CA. TEL:______

Offer and Acceptance

The contract involves an offer (or more than one offer) to another party, who accepts the offer. For example, in a contract for the sale of a piano, the seller may offer the piano to the buyer for $1,000.00. The buyer’s acceptance of that offer is a necessary part of creating a binding contract for the sale of the piano.
The seller,_____ offered the sale of the piano to the Buyer, Shirley Kristen for $4500 which the buyer accepted.
Mutual Consideration (The mutual exchange of something of value)
In order to be valid, the parties to a contract must exchange something of value. In the case of the sale of a piano, the buyer receives something of value in the form of the piano, and the seller receives money.
This consideration was met. The Baldwin grand piano was to be sold to the buyer for the sum of $4500.
While the validity of consideration may be subject to attack on the basis that it is illusory (e.g., one party receives only what the other party was already obligated to provide), or that there is a failure of consideration (e.g., the consideration received by one party is essentially worthless), these defenses will not let a party to a contract escape the consequences of bad negotiation. For example, if a seller enters into a contract to sell a piano for $100, and later gets an offer from somebody else for $1,000, the seller can’t revoke the contract on the basis that the piano was worth a lot more than he bargained to receive.
The seller’s husband, _____, breached a contract with the Buyer, Shirley Kirsten, when he phoned her on the evening of Saturday, July 14, 2007, at approximately 7:30 p.m. a day after an Oral Contract on the piano, was forged between the Buyer, Shirley Kirsten and Seller, ____ and reinforced by a check deposit in the amount of $50, and said that another party had offered “cash” for the piano and would be bringing the money in full, to the Buyer the following day, on Sunday, July 15, 2007. Seller, _____ told Buyer, Shirley Kirsten, that her $50 was “too small a deposit to hold the piano.” Seller, in response offered to immediately bring a “higher deposit,” but seller did not accept the offer. Seller, ____ kept telling Buyer, Shirley Kirsten that he was going to take the “cash” of another buyer and not consider future dealings with Shirley Kirsten on the matter of the Baldwin piano, unless the separate buyer defaulted on bringing cash to the seller on Sunday, July 15, 2007. In that case, Seller said, “he would call” the Buyer. The Court should be informed that the ad placed by the Seller in the Fresno Bee (July 12, 2007) had no mention of immediate cash delivery as a requirement for purchase of the piano. Seller breached contract as soon as he disclosed to the Buyer that he would take payment for the Baldwin piano from another buyer and not honor a pre-existing Oral Contract that also attached a deposit from the Buyer. After Buyer received the phone call from the Seller invalidating the Oral Contract, she left a follow-up phone message for the seller, indicating she would file a “small claims” action against the seller (s) for Breach of Contract. On the next day, Sunday, July 15, 2007, the Buyer, Shirley Kirsten sent by ASAP Courier Service, a statement of facts in the case, that also included the top portion of a Franklin Templeton statement with the verification number related to a $5500 withdrawal transaction along with her resume, CD, and various concert programs. Attached as Exhibit “C” are true and correct copies of the statement of facts in the case and Plaintiff’s resume that were successfully delivered to the Sellers on Sunday, July 15, 2007. Attached as Exhibit “D” is a true and correct copy of the receipt for Delivery of the statement of facts with _________, signature, as he signed for the packet on Sunday, July 15, 2007 at 8:55 a.m.
Performance or Delivery
In order to be enforceable, the action contemplated by the contract must be completed. For example, if the purchaser of a piano pays the $1,000 purchase price, he can enforce the contract to require the delivery of the piano. However, unless the contract provides that delivery will occur before payment, the buyer may not be able to enforce the contract if he does not “perform” by paying the $1,000. Similarly, again depending upon the contract terms, the seller may not be able to enforce the contract without first delivering the piano.
In a typical “breach of contract” action, the party alleging the breach will recite that it performed all of its duties under the contract, whereas the other party failed to perform its duties or obligations.
Buyer, Shirley Kirsten had every intention of purchasing the advertised Baldwin Piano for the demanded price of $4500. Buyer put through the transaction to electronically wire appropriate money from her Franklin Templeton Fund into her personal checking account on July 13th, 2007, in a timely and conscientious way, as promised to the seller, and planned to deliver a Money Order in the amount of $4500 to the SELLER by latest, Wednesday, July 18th, 2007. In exchange for her payment of $4500, Buyer, Shirley Kirsten, fully expected to take possession of the Baldwin grand piano, model R226, serial number 323760 on that day.
Additionally, the following elements may factor into the enforceability of any contract:

Good Faith
It is implicit within all contracts that the parties are acting in good faith. For example, if the seller of a “mustang” knows that the buyer thinks he is purchasing a car, but secretly intends to sell the buyer a horse, the seller is not acting in good faith and the contract will not be enforceable.
Buyer, Shirley Kirsten entered into a “good faith” contract with Seller,____that the merchandise to be sold was indeed a Baldwin Grand piano, “Model R226,” serial number “323760.” Buyer has learned through Discovery that Seller, ____ is a licensed realtor and should have known the meaning of an oral contract with an advanced deposit of $50 attached, so she has no reason to plead ignorance, even though ignorance is not a remedy or defense in this case.

No Violation of Public Policy
In order to be enforceable, a contract cannot violate “public policy.” For example, if the subject matter of a contract is illegal, you cannot enforce the contract. A contract for the sale of illegal drugs, for example, violates public policy and is not enforceable.
Buyer maintains that there was nothing illegal about the seller’s intent to sell the piano or the subject of the transaction.
DAMAGES sought by Plaintiff, Shirley Kirsten: Plaintiff is asking for rightful possession of the Baldwin piano, serial number “323760” upon her delivery of a money order in the amount of $4,450 to the seller by latest, Wednesday, July 18, 2007 as promised. If Seller cannot produce said piano, Buyer wants return of her $50 deposit plus damages of $4450 for loss of opportunity to own the piano.

I swear under penalty of perjury under the Laws of the State of California and under the Constitution and Laws of the United States that the aforementioned is true and correct.
Signed: Shirley Kirsten, Dated, July 16, 2007


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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

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Recording on a SLEEPER Dream Piano

On a whim, I had decided to make an hour long trip to Visalia about 50 miles south of Fresno to sniff out the stock over at the “Piano Gallery.” (This was before it went out of business)

A medium size establishment in an upscale shopping mall, it was owned by “Ginnadiy Merkerin,” a Russian immigrant in this thirties who’d left his position as a dealer associate at “Fresno Piano” to start his own business.

The “Petrof” grands and uprights, his bread and butter lines at this new store, had been sleepers in a marketplace that heavily promoted the Asian staples, “Yamaha” and “Kawai,” and the “Nordiska” 7 foot grand, a hot entry from Mainland China had obtained sterling reviews in Larry Fine’s, hot-selling, Piano Book: Buying and Owning a New or Used Piano. The more elite pianos such as Steinway were sold at dealerships that had established relationships with the Astoria, Queens Factory. The positive ties forged between the owner of Fresno Piano and Steinway, New York, for example, had led to the successful factory purchase of the William Saroyan Theater’s dream Steinway concert grand piano that was meticulously maintained and housed in a specially designed, climate controlled room. Its acquisition and follow-up care reflected an increased support for the arts by a circle of Fresno donors who represented the city’s hard rock business community.

Still the Fresno recording environment had remained unfriendly to serious performing musicians who wanted to program the Classical music repertoire and make cd albums. There was no studio that housed a real acoustic piano.

The day I sauntered into Visalia’s Piano Gallery, I encountered row upon row of tight fitting Petrof uprights and grands. Prancing down narrow aisles, testing piano after piano, I couldn’t get excited about any of them because none could be singled out for tonal beauty or individual personality.

In the distance, at the back of the store, sitting atop a wooden riser, I noticed an imposing grand piano that conspicuously bore the name “Nordiska” on its side, and since I had spotted Fine’s review of this exact model in his most recent “supplement,” I was drawn to it out of curiosity.

Fine had written that the “Nordiska 7 foot grand model had an especially good sound and touch, the best yet Chinese-made piano.”

Nordiska’s distributor, “Geneva International,” Illinois, provided an overview of the instrument’s antecedents in its glossy brochure that I snatched from a table beside the imposing grand. One particular paragraph jumped out at me.

“In 1988, when Europe was in the midst of a deep recession the Swedish Nordiska manufacturer ceased operations. The Dongbei Piano Company located in China, was looking to produce a superior Chinese piano and proceeded to acquire the scale designs, machinery and virtually everything else from the Nordiska Company.”

As I read further, I realized the bond that had been forged between the Chinese and Swedish piano manufacturers just might have produced an out of the ordinary instrument but the true test of quality would be revealed in the playing.

Sitting before me was a notably European sounding piano of high quality. As I ran my fingers over its keys, the instrument shimmered in all octaves and provided a broad range of dynamics. I could feel an instant connection to the soundboard, as my fingers drew out an unlimited reservoir of resonance. Yet despite this piano’s tonal beauty and impeccable regulation from note to note, it was relatively unknown to the public. Like the Kawai, it lacked the high profile, aggressive marketing that was associated with its chief competitor, “Yamaha.”

While the older Yamaha grands in the “C” series had an appealing brightness, most, in my experience, would inevitably turn stringy over time. Where Steinways seemed to ripen over years with continued playing, Yamahas would for the most part, not age gracefully. This bore out with a brand new Yamaha grand piano purchased by one of my adult students at Fresno Piano who paid nearly $20,000 for a handsome looking, medium size instrument that had a dry, lackluster sound. And while it had passed through a full period of initiation, being played for at least two years, it hadn’t matured into a piano with a “voice” and personality. Yet, in an alcove nearby, a trade-in Acrosonic (Baldwin made console) from the late 60’s played circles around it.

The Nordiska, sitting upon a throne in the Visalia Piano Gallery, elevated it above the more mundane pianos on the floor. The instrument had made such an indelible impression through its playing performance, that I entertained the idea of asking to borrow it for a Fresno recording session. Having no spare funds to underwrite its rental and transport, I hoped that Ginnadiy would donate it to me, and maybe, in the process, we could give the piano a good dose of needed exposure.

The Name Nordiska and its association

I thought back on my piano finding travels and how I had become aware that a form of commercial racism permeated the sales universe. The Nordiska name belying its Chinese manufacturer had come across as a “European” piano, but no one seemed to know much about its workmanship. Those who had knowledge of its Continental heritage, would still point to its underlying Chinese identity and readily dismiss it as just one of those new pianos pumped out of the Mainland. When Yamahas first arrived, anything “made in Japan” was similarly frowned upon, until perceptions changed in the course of years.


Ginnadiy was surprisingly receptive to my request to obtain the Nordiska to make a CD.
“You just name the day, and I’ll have it delivered to you, free of charge,” he said.

I was shocked by his generous offer because only months before I had approached the authorized Steinway dealer in Fresno, and had asked to loan the house piano, a 7 foot concert grand, only to be told that I had to foot the complete bill of $1,500, rental and shipment included. For a starving musician like me whose rent and utilities easily exceeded this sum, my dream of recording on a worthy piano had evaporated.


A shiny, ebony Nordiska grand arrived at the “Peter Wolf Sound Studio” within weeks of my having found it among a sea of average pianos. It was the rose draped centerpiece of a classy, towering space in downtown Fresno that had an awesome, climate controlled environment. While Nashville, Tennessee was the hub of Country Western music recording, the Wolf Studio seemed like a Sony Classical equivalent with its imposing, vaulted ceilings and advanced technology. The engineering board, vast and complex, made in Holland had been snatched up by Peter during one of his escapades around the state. He had placed a pair of bronzed antique Western statues on its rim and had a few surreal paintings sprinkled around his quarters.

An eccentric addition to Fresno, the 37 year old sound engineer, recommended to me by a music teacher friend, poured his heart and soul into each and every one of his recording projects. Clearly as a gesture of generosity, he had offered to donate his studio time and personal services on behalf of the current Nordiska project because he hoped that he might get to keep the towering piano. Uncannily, he had encountered the same Nordiska 7 foot model O grand at the NAMM show (National Association of Music Merchants) in Anaheim weeks earlier, and admitted to me that he had fantasies of miking it up for a recording session. Such a dream would soon be fulfilled.

I had programmed album selections easily recognized by music lovers and the general public. “Fur Elise” and the “Moonlight Sonata” stood out as works that would appeal to listeners who might enjoy a classics sampler that encompassed diverse periods of musical composition. This disk would not have lengthy sonata movements. The longest composition would be “Chopin’s Nocturne in B flat minor,” a doleful “night piece,” with a passionately turbulent mid section, followed by a quiet return to the opening theme. This was a work I had lived with since age 13 when I had first embarked upon my advanced piano studies with “Lillian Freundlich” in New York City. A teacher with extraordinary teaching and performance gifts, she sealed had my love affair with the piano.

The elegant Nordiska grand dominated the main room of the Wolf Sound Studio and was undergoing a last minute check by one of Ginnadiy’s tuners.

Suddenly, I noticed a problem with the piano. The soft pedal audibly squeaked when depressed and had to be promptly fixed or I wouldn’t be able to make the triple ppps (softs) in the Chopin Nocturne or in the muted sections of the Beethoven “Moonlight” Sonata. Because I took great pride in creating a broad palette of colors in my performances, I would definitely need the sotto voce or mute pedal for “La Fille Aux Cheveux de Lin,” a dreamy, French Impressionist work by Claude Debussy.

The knotty situation evoked memories of my 1922 Sohmer upright that had intermittent squeaks in its sustain pedal that drove me up the walls. The only comparably unpleasant sound was the shriek of chalk on a blackboard!

“Myron Buchbaum,” the relentless, nerdy tuner of my Sohmer piano that sat in a small room in the company of my very musical parakeet whose chirps or cackles affirmed or denounced my piano playing, made more than one emergency call to our Marble Hill projects apartment to address the problem. Not once but several times, the pudgy fellow would fail to find the squeak as he was uncomfortably scrunched into a narrow space beneath the piano with his ear to the floor. Every time I heard the pedal squeak, Buchbaum didn’t. Then when he finally acknowledged it, he dispensed part of a can of oil into the pedal joints to correct the problem. No sooner had he fixed everything and headed out the door, that I heard the squeak again and raced down the hallway to catch him before he disappeared into the elevator. Each time I grabbed Buchbaum in the nick of time, begging him once and for all to annihilate the squeak, it turned out to be a prolonged, frustrating, and fruitless pursuit. In the last analysis, I had to painfully accept a sporadically squeaky sustain pedal.

The Visalia Gallery piano tuner, likewise, couldn’t get a grip on the Nordiska pedal problem. He had tried everything—dis-assembling the action and tweaking the dampers. He even inserted WD-40 directly into the pedal area but to no avail. In the meantime, I was getting a bit testy about the whole thing, wondering why Ginaddiy had failed to properly detail the piano before it was sent over to the recording studio. If York were here he’d certainly know how to fix it, but today he was off in Tranquility, moth proofing a piano.

I took a few deep breaths to calm myself down, and decided that the squeaks were not worth a further drain of my energies. I’d make do, and play the Nordiska without using the soft pedal. If I increased my overall sound projection, I’d be able to scale down my dynamic levels when needed.

Time was short. Peter couldn’t donate more than a complete afternoon and evening to the project and the next day following the session, the piano had to be returned to Visalia though there was always a chance it could remain a bit longer. Perhaps by some miracle, the musical treasure would become a permanent addition to Wolf Sound notching up Fresno’s recording environment and making it a hub for fine classical recording artists far and wide. A nice fantasy.

Peter had proposed a plan for the recording session that was a bit unorthodox.
Upon his recommendation, he would retire to the lounge, turn on the power, and leave me to my own devices in my area in front of the sound engineer’s glass window.

It worked. I was a free spirit left alone to play a heaven sent piano with no distracting hand signals, or prompts from the engineer. I inhabited a fancy free space that was filled with a divine sonority emanating from a grand piano that would be immortalized on disk with Wolf Sound’s imprint!

The session ended by midnight when I had no more adrenalin to pump out, yet I experienced an overwhelming, though pleasurable exhaustion.

Peter had meanwhile returned to his station behind the glass, winked at me, and began to shut down power in the space. The lights out, we parted, and I headed into the darkness to my dilapidated Dodge Caravan van bursting with delight that I had recorded on a dream piano. It would remain one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life!