Seth was 15 when he decided he needed a real piano.
“Not something you find on free-cycle, Mom,” he told me.
Seth had been 12 when we left my uncle’s upright Gulbranson in California in 2010 because, well, because it’s ridiculous to haul a piano across the country to Washington D.C.
I thought I would be able to pick up a used piano cheap.
We wrestled the first one we found on free-cycle, a spinet, onto our truck. Although it was tuned twice in a few months by the nerdiest guy I’ve ever met (and I’ve met some humdingers,) it never sounded like a real piano. It plinked and plunked. But all the keys worked.
Seth’s teacher, who is a real world-class classical and jazz pianist named Burnett, said we really should buy the $29,000 beauty in his living room; It was a good deal.
I told him my price range.
He suggested getting a Casio Privia. So $700 and a few mounting racks drilled into Seth’s bedroom wall later, Seth was sounding a lot better. We watched with delight as two other free-cyclers hauled away the spinet.
Seth complained the keys were not properly resistant. He talked about tone, chord changes, clarity and resonance.
As an unemployed journalist and a student, I knew we couldn’t afford much. But Seth’s music — he now played tenor sax, drums, string bass and flute — was enchanting. He’d debuted at the Kennedy Center. He was first chair in band. I was willing to make an effort.
I did keep an eye on free-cycle for a couple months but just for the record, we found Seth’s baby on Craig’s List.
The ad had been run repeatedly with ever dropping prices until it was “free, you haul.”
We drove to a burg in Maryland north of D.C., a McMansion, the kind where the developers tore down all the trees, built gargantuan box-shaped homes with multiple-car garages then planted little trees, failed to water them so they died…you get the picture.
Seth had just turned 15. He had just rocketed from 5’8” to 6’1” in about a year. He was just getting a dusting of acne. His fingers could span an octave and one. But some things are still very difficult at 15.
We pulled into the landing strip that was the driveway.
“Mom, if it’s a really sucky piano how am I gonna say ‘we don’t want your piano?’”
Some things are difficult at any age.
We came up with a code:
If Seth used the word “Mozart” in a sentence, it meant he wanted the piano.
If Seth used the word “Bartok” in a sentence, it meant he did not want the piano. Seth is not a big fan of Bartok.
I would take it from there.
Why no one wanted the piano was immediately clear.
Its pedals were broken off from the base, which was in turn broken off from the piano, the bench didn’t match the piano and the cushion on the bench looked disgusting. Many ivories were missing.
Seth whizzed his fingers up and down the keyboard, playing every note.
“I could play Mozart on this,” Seth said, proceeding to do just that.
The lid was dis-attached in two parts, the music stand didn’t stand up and it needed tuning badly. The exterior wood was dented and dinged.
“The tone is excellent,” Seth said.
I talked to the McMansion owner, who had been working on his Porsche nearby. He had told his nephew, who had inherited it from his grandmother, that he needed to get it outta this garage. Last year.
I guess with three Porsches and two Harleys, the four-car garage was getting crowded.
The man, speaking through serious acne scars, was tough, polite, insistent.
It was Seth’s if I could get it out of here by 5:30 p.m.
“I’ll try to find someone to move it,” I said, returning to my Prius, (we had sold our truck.)
I called piano movers, many piano movers. Their prices ranged from $250 (two weeks out) to $565 plus mileage (Wednesday at the earliest.) Most were closed Saturdays but my call was very important to them.
I gave up and out of courtesy, called the Porsche guy back with the bad news.
“It’s not looking good,” I said.
“Five-thirty,” he said.
The deadline came and went.
In the subsequent days I visited a showroom with lots of shiny pianos. We listened to a baby grand just outside of Leesburg, the only one less than $3,000 we could find that guaranteed all the keys played; we checked out a nice $2,500 Yamaha in Georgetown that was only missing one key.
None, according to Seth, had the tone of the freebie in the Maryland McMansion, not even the expensive ones in the showroom.
One of the piano movers called me back—the one whose ad showed his truck at the white house, delivering the biggest piano I’d ever seen. This was the guy Burnett had recommended. “Oh we get people trying to get rid of them all the time,” the man said, I’ll look through my warehouse and give you a call.
I never heard back.
A week later a friendly voice called saying he could move the piano for $250.
Yes, he was willing to do it the day before Thanksgiving.
I called the McMansion in Maryland.
Yes, he still had it and he agreed to be there for a one-hour window Wednesday.
Three beautiful specimens of humanity, muscles rippling in the slanting sunlight, moved the piano in through our side door, tapped the parts together with a rubber mallet, showed me their gapped-toothed smiles. One of them touched the keys lightly ‘just to see if everything works,’ creating a sound that showed me just how hard musicians have to work to make a living.
The tuner spent nearly five hours on it, reporting that the threads were good, it hadn’t been played or tuned, possibly, ever. The piano was a baby grand built in 1921 in New York by the man who invented the double-action key stroke. He had won big awards at the world’s fair in Paris at the turn of the century.
The missing ivory? You should really replace them to match—with real ivory.
Yeah, right. No elephants were dying for my child’s musical career.
I discovered with the help of a 40x loupe that the thickness of the ivory was precisely the thickness of a credit card.
I used my scissors and a nail file to create replacements, which I installed with rubber cement.
I bought some spackle, some shiny black paint, a whole lot of brass screws.
Seth, who just turned 16 and is stretching to 6’ 2” and an octave plus two, practices now without my asking.
“It’s so nice to have a real piano,” he says.