Thursday, April 15, 2010

My Piano Odyssey

Briefly, I had a piano in my home.  It was a 4'6" Kimball baby grand that had belonged to my mother.  When my parents moved to Charlotte and downsized to a smaller home, my mother realized with dismay on move-in day that it was physically impossible to fit her formal living room furniture and piano into the small room she had designated for them in her new home, so the piano came to my house and was placed in a small sunroom just off of my family room.

My oldest son was about 4 at that time, and early attempts at piano lessons for him were disastrous for a number of reasons: immaturity, as-yet-undiagnosed and untreated ADHD, and a poor fit with the piano teacher.  So the piano stood in my sunroom mostly unused for a few years.  I went in there and visited it from time to time, playing my repertoire (I can play "Heart and Soul" and the first half of the theme from "Ice Castles," and I can pick out melodies with my right hand.  Woo hoo!  I used to be able to play parts of "Against All Odds," but alas, no more...).  In 2007 we moved less than a mile away from our previous home in order to get more living space, but the new home didn't really have a good place to put a baby grand piano that wasn't getting played, so the piano went back to my mother's house (she sensibly decided to get rid of her living room sofa to make room for it).  Here's my mom's piano, back in her own living room sans sofa:

My mother sewed those draperies and painted the stenciled design on the walls herself, by the way -- didn't she do a great job? 

Okay, so flash forward a couple of years.  Both of my sons started taking piano lessons last fall with a fabulous, amazing teacher who has unbelievable patience, is an incredibly talented musician, and loves my sons to pieces.  Thank you, God, for sending her!  But now I have two little boys who have to be reminded 15 times to brush their teeth and put on clean underwear every day, but who race over to the dinky little plastic keyboard every stinking morning as soon as they finish their breakfast and fight over whose turn it is to practice.  This is not just a fad; it has been a daily occurrence for eight months.  It's partly because they both really like music and have some natural ability, partly because music education is really important to me and my husband and we are supporting and encouraging them, but mostly it's because Saint Glenda of Piano Lessons has been writing them custom arrangements of music from Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Indiana Jones.  Here's my little one, playing Star Wars on the nasty plastic keyboard, in full Yoda costume:

The nasty plastic keyboard in this photo is actually the predecessor to the even nastier plastic keyboard currently in my home.  This one cost $40 brand-new on eBay, and I'm lucky that it lasted as long as it did.  When it began randomly switching instrument voices while they were playing (Yoda was in tears), my resourceful husband got a great deal on a nicer Yamaha keyboard at a pawn shop, but unfortunately it reeks like an ash tray and I can't stand to get within three feet of it...  But I digress.

So beginning around Thanksgiving of last year, I began researching and shopping for pianos.  Right off the bat, I decided I liked Steinway art case grand pianos, but after several weeks in a row of not winning Powerball I abandoned that scheme as impractical.  Which is a shame, because this would have looked AMAZING in my living room:

This is a one-of-a-kind Steinway reproduction of the 1889 Alma-Tadema art case piano that sold at auction for a record $1.2 million at Christie's in 1997.  The reproduction, currently available for sale from Steinway, is a steal at only $675,000.  In case your pockets are deeper than mine, you can find more information about this gorgeous piano here.  Who knew pianos could even BE that expensive?!  Even a smaller, garden variety Steinway grand piano is way out of my budget, priced around $50-70K for a new one or $30-50K for a used one in good condition.

I did a lot of research over the past few months and learned an awful lot about piano guts and how they work, the care and feeding of pianos, and what NOT to buy.  For anyone embarking on a piano quest of their own, I strongly recommend Larry Fine's Piano Book: Buying and Owning a New or Used Piano.  From that book, I learned that school piano sales are like furniture "going out of business" sales, primarily a sales gimmick to get buyers in and hoodwink them into thinking that they are getting fantastic deals when they may actually be paying more than the usual dealer price.  I also learned to avoid spinet pianos (poor sound quality on such short strings) and that "antique" upright pianos aren't worth the cost of restoration unless they are Steinways.  A local piano technician has a great buyer-beware article about the hidden costs and heartaches that come with "free" and low-priced used uprights that you can read here.  (Scroll down past the pianos they have for sale; the article is way down at the bottom).  So we didn't go that route, either.  Instead, I scoured eBay and Craig's List for months, looking for a private seller wanting to find a good home for their well-loved, well-maintained Kawai or Yamaha piano.  Okay, I admit it -- I continued to harbor hopes that I would find some fool selling his grandmother's Steinway who had no idea what it was worth.  No dice!  I thought for sure I would be able to capitalize on the misfortunes of someone in foreclosure who couldn't take their piano with them and needed to cash out, but I just didn't find any opportunities like that.  What I did find was a ton of 50-60 year old spinet pianos for sale, lots of "free" or nearly-free 150-year-old upright pianos that I had also been warned to stay away from, and a whole slew of weird-looking Steinway SQUARE grand pianos from the late 19th century that, sadly, were a failed experiment in piano design and, according to Mr. Fine, are not suitable for anyone who wants to actually play the piano.  I just have to show you one, though:
Looks pretty interesting, doesn't it?  This one is currently for sale on eBay, and there are about five others just like it for sale on Charlotte Craig's List right now, too.  Unfortunately, despite sellers' claims to the contrary, they are NOT rare and valuable, they typically require an enormous investment in repairs and rebuilding using a hodgepodge of antique and modern parts that don't quite fit -- assuming you can even find a technician willing to work on one of these beasts -- and even after all of that, this type of piano still will never be able to perform up to modern standards.  Buyer beware!

Somewhere in the midst of all of this research and piano lust, I had the foresight to obtain a grand piano template from a local piano dealer.  This is just a huge piece of heavy paper with the outline of several sizes of grand pianos drawn on it in different colors.  For those of you who sew, it looks just like a commercial multisize garment pattern.  When I laid the grand piano template out on my living room floor, I was confronted with the unpleasant reality that a grand piano STILL is not going to fit in that room, not unless I get rid of the coffee table and the sofa, like my mother did to fit her piano.  The difference is that no one ever sat in my mother's sofa, but my husband's enormous flat screen TV is in my living room and he likes to sprawl on the sofa to watch larger-than-life movies and basketball games.  I reluctantly determined that replacing his sofa with a grand piano would not have been a healthy choice for my marriage.  Uprights may not be as exciting to look at as grand pianos, but Larry Fine's book says that a full-size, 52" upright piano can sound just as good if not better than a grand piano smaller than 6'.  Somewhere along the way, had I forgotten this quest was supposed to be all about music?

Meanwhile, as I desperately tried to locate the magical piano that existed at the intersection of my hopes, dreams, and budget, my sons tormented me with the obnoxious built-in tunes and sound effects on that demonical keyboard.  The song "Jingle Bells" has been ruined for me forever, and why on earth would anyone need crowing rooster sound effects on a keyboard?  If you're getting sick of reading about this piano hunt already, that's how I was feeling about it myself up until a few days ago when I finally made a decision and ended this whole thing (hopefully once and for all).  I purchased a completely rebuilt and refinished 1984 Kawai US-50 from Rick Jones Pianos in Baltimore, sight unseen.  It has new strings, new pins, new keytops, and a brand new finish, and I got it for a fraction of the cost of a new 52" upright Kawai.  The dealer's web site is great -- their inventory is extensive and they give detailed information of every piano they sell with high-resolution photos inside and out, as well as a video clip of each piano actually being played so you can compare the sound, almost like being there in the showroom in person.  There is no sales tax for out of state customers, their professional delivery is reasonably priced, and get this -- I am getting a 10 year warranty on my used piano, which is better than I would get on a brand new one.  You can see pictures of it here, or at least you will be able to see them until the dealer takes them off his web site.  The piano is supposed to be delivered the week of April 25th-29th, so I'll post some photos once it gets here.  Maybe I'll even get adventurous and teach myself to play the second half of "Ice Castles!"

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