Old Pianos

When I was a lad, I wanted a piano more than anything I could think of. Well, I wanted globes of all the planets, but they only made Earth and Moon circa 1970. Instead of a piano, my parents got me a three-octave electric organ with push buttons for chords. I taught myself how to read treble clef and pondered the basic theory of chord construction in the dissonance of pushing the C button with my left hand and playing black keys with my right.

I picked up an upright for my office in my first church position. I still remember with great laughter the assistance of two friends and a truck. We had a late-night trip into a very shady Chicago neighborhood to fetch it. Then no rope to secure it in the back. The pastor was still working late–11:30pm–when we got back to the parish center. He was a cleanliness fanatic and asked if we couldn’t lift the instrument into my office and save getting the carpet soiled.

Shortly after we moved into our first house, my wife procured a piano for me. Honestly, I didn’t play it much. The grand at church was so much nicer. And the piano tuner we hired to service and tune the home piano said our elderly instrument wouldn’t bear being tuned up to 440. He pitched it a whole tone flat, so at least my wife’s clarinet could play the flute parts and we were close.

When we moved from Kansas City in 2008, we were very fortunate to find a taker for our upright. We were heading to a smaller house and the home piano wasn’t really getting played much at all. Admittedly very sad.

I noticed this BBC piece on old pianos, and the sad feeling returned. John Gist, of Louisville, Kentucky:

It’s like a human, it slowly goes downhill in terms of its health.

There are more and more pianos reaching extinction, needing to go to the graveyard. I get 10 to 15 calls a day from people saying ‘So how much is my piano worth?’

Sentimental value, yes. Otherwise, probably nothing.

In the early 19th Century, the piano was the preserve of the upper and middle classes – doctors and lawyers for example – but by the end of the century, pianos were common in the homes of English coal miners, says Laurence, with pianos sold on instalment plans to make them more affordable.

The piano was an important source of home entertainment, as well as being a sign of status, and was often put in the best room in the house, ready to show the neighbours – even attract suitors. A young woman who was good at playing the piano was regarded as better marriage material.

Because pianos were being made in such quantities at the time, the quality was not always the best.

“In the 1920s, they were made for the mass market. They were not made to last, they were made to sell,” says Marcus Roberts of Roberts Pianos in Oxford.

Today we are entertained individually by the computer, and perhaps socially by the tv screen. Digital piano sales are on the uptick.

Maybe I feel a little less guilty about my old pianos. I haven’t yet tipped one into a dump. And it is true that these instruments do get old and nothing lasts forever. Any stories about old pianos?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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