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A Player Piano Without a Name

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was silent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Terry and I were fumbling with the first letter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Terry chuckled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I ran my fingers through a shimmering arpeggio.

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

I interpolated a sprightly 4 octave-scale.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark seemed to agree.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about mice and rats?”

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

“How often do you see them?”

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

“And what you do?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a perfect finale.

***

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

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

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

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

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

“So how is Alice taking it?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

“So who did the moving?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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