Last year I was asked to assess a little baby grand, belonging to a customer whom I hadn’t seen for over 10 years, to determine its value for potential sale. Knowing already that it was an older instrument that I could buy for a song and having another customer who was looking for an inexpensive upgrade for their crumbling ancient upright, I happily agreed to have a look.
I kicked myself afterward for neglecting to take photos of this piano. I can only guess that the oversight resulted from my shear amazement at the condition of this unfortunate instrument.
The piano was in a house that the woman’s daughter had been renting in Studio City. The daughter had moved out of town and Mom was left with the task of finding it a new home. When I met her there she and another woman, a friend of her daughters, were in the process of clearing the trash and remnants left behind after the move.
She showed me into the living room so I could begin my inspection. What I found when I raised the lid was so shocking that I almost didn’t believe what I was looking at.
All of the plate bolts had been backed out several inches!
I was instantly afraid for my safety and backed away from the instrument. I called both women to the room and began to explain the severity of the situation; without the bolts holding the plate to the frame, the enormous combined string tension should have made the plate pop right out of the piano. It was being held in place only by the bolts in the pin block (which were still secured). I asked them if they knew who had done this and why.
The younger woman volunteered that she had been in the house at the time and witnessed the process. During a party someone had dropped their keys into the piano and, unable to fish them out, they concluded that the only remedy was to lift or remove the plate (the cast iron ‘harp’). The daughter proceeded to back out the plate screws (a few of which were missing by the time of my inspection) but the plate refused to move and, eventually, their quest was abandoned (presumably the keys are still inside). When I explained how dangerous this was the younger woman’s face turned ashen and she said that she had been standing in front of the piano, drinking a glass of wine, during the procedure. In my opinion, they were all lucky to have survived.
The mother was still adamant about selling the piano and insisted that it was still playable. She asked me to test the action – so I attempted to open the fall board. Unfortunately, the unsecured plate had tilted forward pushing the pin block down into the frame far enough to block the ‘Boston’ style fall board from opening. So, I pulled out my screwdriver and went to remove the cheek blocks so as to extract the fall board and gain access to the action. To my amazement, I found that the legs had been repositioned forward (how?) and were covering the cheek block screws making it impossible to remove the action without removing the legs. Apparently, whoever they had move the piano into the house had no idea how to reassemble it (Please hire a professional piano mover)!
Undaunted by all of this, Mom continued to inquire as to her options for selling the piano. Attempting to let her down gently I informed her that, due to the aforementioned mishandling and modifications, the piano would have to be completely rebuilt and, in its current condition was worthless (except perhaps as lawn art) and therefore unsalable. To make matters worse, since it was a cheap piano to begin with and would be of little value even if it were in good condition, the cost of rebuilding would be more than she could get for it afterward. She then asked me if I would take it off her hands. I politely declined her offer and took my leave.
It wasn’t until after I had returned home (a forty five minute drive in heavy traffic through Sepulveda pass) that I realized I had forgotten to take photos – a missed opportunity that I will probably always regret.
Is there a moral to this story? You bet! Keep your freaking hands out of the piano. You aren’t doing yourself any favors or saving money by trying to fix something that you don’t understand. Call someone who knows what they’re doing and ask for help.