“You can get a free piano on NextDoor, you know.” The Wi-Fi was atypically clear that morning, so I could tell Anna wasn’t being sarcastic.
“What?” I couldn’t imagine why Anna would browse the Millennial’s version of Craigslist for a free instrument since she’d studied the piano every bit as seriously as I‘d studied violin.
“Grands, everything.” She must have been adjusting her phone, because for a minute I got a breathtaking closeup of her left hand. “I was actually about to pull the trigger on one before Mom offered me the Kawai.”
Even the Kawai, a relatively new baby grand, had been a significant downgrade from the 6’4” Baldwin that Anna played until my parents moved to California in 2012. High-end Baldwins used to be considered one step below Steinways, and we’d been blessed to find Anna a piano that had been refurbished by a Steinway technician – the perfect compromise for her talent and our budget. But California housing is California housing, and that Baldwin was a good 12” too big to fit in any of our tiny rooms. But downgrade aside, I still couldn’t figure out why Anna had been willing to settle for a free piano before Mom offered to give up the Kawai.
“And there’s really worthwhile stuff on NextDoor?”
“Yeah…just broaden your search to ‘Greater San Jose’ so you start picking up estate sales.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Most kids just want to get rid of their parents’ stuff. I’ve seen Mason & Hamlin, even Baldwin. No Steinway yet, but maybe if it was banged up or something.”
I texted Ivan after Anna and I finished our weekly FaceTime: How do you feel about a free piano? Perhaps I should have been more specific, but I’ve inherited Mom’s penchant for creating suspense. Besides, this really was too complicated to explain over text. We’ve always planned to buy Ivan a “real” piano since he’s been playing on a decrepit keyboard since we got married; still, the best plan we could come up with was to save up enough to buy an upright Steinway from the San Francisco Conservatory when they rotate their practice room pianos. Our old plan would leave Ivan on his keyboard for a few more years, but NextDoor – that could give him a piano in a matter of days.
Although the piano question has always rumbled around the back of our minds, purchasing a two-bedroom condo made it even harder to ignore. “We could even have a piano room one day!” we’d agreed as we surveyed the second bedroom during the final walk-through. After we moved in, the room had felt cavernous with nothing but Ivan’s rickety keyboard at one end and two shelves of sheet music and my four-years-silent violin lurking at the other. My parents’ Kawai was out of the question since Anna deserved first dibs on her own piano once she and Robert had space for it. Plus, moving any sort of grand into a condo probably wasn’t the best way to make friends with our new neighbors.
But regardless of the neighbors, there was no question that Ivan needed a piano at some point in his career. It might seem redundant to say that every musician – professional or not – needs an instrument, but many pianists find themselves in a quandary in that regard. Universities or conservatories boast concert grands that are infinitely better than what many students could ever hope to buy, but the same can’t always be said for the instruments in the practice rooms. And, unlike vocalists or other instrumentalists, many pianists don’t have a way to practice off-campus unless they happen to live near school.
The problem only compounds after graduation when some variant of “starving artist” syndrome haunts most music majors – and many apartment complexes don’t appreciate residents who bang out Rachmaninoff. Hence Ivan’s keyboard for our first five years of marriage.
But none of these factors kept a free piano from sounding like some sort of flimsy scam when Anna brought it up. “Can you actually try them?” I probed.
“Why would I consider something I hadn’t tried?” She looked insulted that I even asked. “It’s a good thing Mom finally offered the Kawai because I was having a hard time narrowing down my top five.”
That’s more like it. I remembered how Miss Larisa, Anna’s and my favorite piano teacher, had complained for weeks after our music school swapped out her decades-old Steinway for a “better one” that had just arrived from a donor. Miss Larisa boasted an also almost implacable taste in instruments, in addition to her PhD from the Moscow Conservatory.
“Why won’t they give me old one back?” She’d lamented. “This one – I can do nothing with it. It’s bright and students play and don’t have to work to get sound. It gives me headache.” Poor Miss Larisa never got her piano back, but I’m fairly sure all the other teachers would have killed for her new one.
I tried not to imagine Anna waltzing into five different estate sales and subjecting their pianos to a similar analysis.
Our choices on NextDoor were much more limited than Anna’s since we were searching for uprights. Weeding out PUO’s (pianos of undecipherable origin) left us with three options: a poorly-photographed Baldwin, a cherrywood Wurlitzer, and a Capen that looked like a set piece from a Victorian film. I’ve already noted the merits of a Baldwin, so our interest in that one goes without saying.
Wurlitzers are typically a giant step down from Baldwins, except that the owner claimed this one was built in 1925. This puts it right in the middle of “The Golden Age” of pianos. If that were true, then the piano might play surprisingly well and would be a lot closer in value to a Baldwin or Mason & Hamlin from the same time period. But this all depended on how well it had been maintained – and if it was indeed from the Golden Age.
The third piano on our list was a Capen from the 1890’s. I’d dismissed the Capen as a PUO since I’d never heard of the name and therefore assumed it couldn’t be a legit piano maker. Nevertheless, Ivan was fascinated by the age and insisted on trying it “just in case.” His curiosity elicited much heated debate, which suggests Miss Larisa had rubbed off on me as well as Anna.
The short version of our conflict-laden weekend was this: The Baldwin would have met both our criteria in a perfect world, but it got voted “off the condo” once we discovered the owner was keeping it in a storage unit. (Pianos can be permanently damaged if they aren’t kept in a climate-controlled room.)
The Wurlitzer was indeed made in 1925 – the current owners even provided papers to prove it – and was in surprisingly good condition. I conceded that it needed a whole lot more than a good tuning to maximize its potential, but it was decently playable as-is. I know this because I insisted on trying it for myself. Perhaps the the owner thought I was crazy for playing half of a decently complex piece with my right hand, but Ivan and I come from very different schools of playing, so I refused to take his word for it. (Miss Larisa strikes again.)
I never retracted my appraisal of the Capen as a PUO, so Ivan trekked out to test it for himself after promising to text a video if he found himself even considering the piano that I’d discovered was manufactured by an Industrial Revolution-era furniture company. He looked appropriately sheepish when he returned.
“You were right.” He sighed. “Well, I actually liked the bass register, but I mean, compared to the Wurlitzer, it was obviously the lesser piano.” Looking back, I hope that he sincerely believed that and wasn’t just placating my refined taste in free pianos.
But however we actually arrived at the decision, Ivan now has a piano for the very first time in his adult life. The Wurlitzer arrived Saturday and our piano room looks pleasantly crowded with the two bookshelves full of our collective sheet music taking up one wall, my violin and bright yellow music stand in an adjacent corner, and the cherrywood Wurlitzer taking up the other, previously-barren wall. As for that rickety old keyboard, it found a new home within four hours thanks to NextDoor.
We plan to let the piano settle for a month, then tune it in April and get an estimate on what it needs in the way of refurbishing. In the meantime, we’ve been doing some soundproofing in the piano room since our condo has all vinyl flooring – great for reverb, but terrible for neighbors. We still haven’t relinquished our Steinway dream, either, although it’s probably several more years down the road.
But that’s getting ahead of myself. Ivan didn’t have any shot at any piano two weeks ago. As usual, God provided more than we’d asked, when we’d least expected.