Harvey Chronicles: The Yard Sale Piano
This service call happened many years ago, a guess would be around 1976. While the story is old, variations have been repeated quite often, and the implications are still viable today.
A prospective client called, wanting their new-to-them piano tuned. We agreed on a time and date for the service call.
On arrival, I was led into the living room by the excited, grin-faced young couple, who then stood by a beautiful little grand piano. They then took turns telling me the story about how they came to acquire the piano.
As I glanced at the piano and gently touched the beautiful finish, they said that while out driving on a weekend, they happened upon the piano at a yard sale. I began to feel uneasy by their putting the words ‘piano’ and ‘yard sale’ in the same sentence.
Me: “Wow, you were lucky to find a piano this nice looking at a yard sale.”
Client: “Oh no, the piano didn’t look at all like this then. It was a wreck! The finish was worn through to the wood in most places. There were pieces missing, and it had holes, gouges and dents all over”. It was so ugly, we didn’t even consider bringing it home. Instead we contacted a refinisher and arranged for the piano to be moved to his shop. It’s been there for months, and although we thought the piano was a good deal, it cost a lot to have all this work done. We almost didn’t have enough money in reserve to have you come and tune it. It was just delivered a few days ago.”
Until now, the piano had remain closed; top, fallboard, everything. My feelings went from uneasy to queasy. That feeling only worsened as I opened the piano and removed the music rack.
Practically anything that can happen mechanically to a piano had happened to this one…
- There were more strings missing than were present
- The plate, soundboard and bridges looked as if they had been in a war zone
- Most of the keys didn’t do anything except lay in their most downward position. It was later determined that this was because the keys were either split (broken), or that related assemblies (wippens) that normally provide the necessary weight to keep them in their normal position were also missing or broken
- The hammers (what there were of them) had string-cuts all the way to the core moulding
- The entire damper assembly was a technician’s nightmare
- Any signs of who manufactured the piano were either never there (plate), or were now gone (fallboard, other obscure locations)
All these observations happened without requiring so much as a screwdriver for a closer inspection. Internally, it appeared more like a vandalized piano than a used one. But this train wreck of an instrument sure was a pretty piece of furniture!
These folks had put the proverbial cart before the horse. They wanted a grand so much that they purchased on impulse without getting an opinion from a piano technician or anyone else. Worse, it appeared there was no other shopping done, such as visiting a piano store to compare used piano quality and prices with their ‘project’ piano.
They assumed that the case damage could be corrected. Indeed it had been, by an unnamed artisan, but at a significant cost. I suppose they thought any other corrections could be done by the tuner, in the home, and dare I think … for the cost of a tuning? Why would the primary function of being a musical instrument carry less significance than the coincidental secondary function, being a piece of furniture?
I found myself in a quandary. They had paid a reasonable price for the piano, had it been of a certain make, size, age and condition. None of these criteria were present. They therefore had overpaid from the start, and were now seriously upside-down on the purchase due to the work already done versus the current real value of the instrument. Had I been able to snap my fingers and have the remaining, serious work magically performed for whatever dollar outlay (certainly thousands), they would have a fully restored piano, but one of unknown name and origin, with a sound that would likely be no better than the original new piano was capable of producing, and would then have a current resale value of little more than other unknown grands at the time. No way the costs could be justified or even amortized through use.
Or, they could have bought a brand new piano, with a recognized name, a bench, a warranty, delivery, and otherwise ready to play. All for the same or quite likely less money.
While thinking about how I could best tell them the bad news, I bought some time by asking whether they knew anything about the piano’s background.
“Oh yes. The man at the yard sale bought it from a nightclub. It had been there for years. It was played almost nightly, until the piano player refused to play it any more, and convinced the club owner to buy a new one. The man we bought from got it from the club with the intention of making a hobby of trying to fix it up. He said he just never got around to it, so decided to sell.”
Now armed with how the piano really came to be in such awful shape, I began to tell them about the significant and expensive areas that needed, not repair, but total restoration — with some dead-reckoning thrown in, since there were not enough original components for good replacement samples, or even a brand name for comparison specifications and scaling.
After a long pause, the lady asked, “Well, can you at least tune it?”.
I didn’t see that one coming!
After carefully explaining that tuning would: a) require the keys to work; b) hammers had to be present to strike the strings, and c) strings have to be present to receive the hammer blows and therefore give me something to tune, I think they finally understood.
This was a potential don’t shoot the messenger case. Instead, I left them disappointed but finally understanding what they had, and with a not-so-bright outlook of having anything but a beautiful piece of furniture that was shaped like a grand piano.
I confess that this was my first incident of this type and severity. I left that day feeling bad for that young couple. In the intervening years, I still think back to this experience, and it still saddens me.
Having multiple experiences quite similar to this in the years since has not helped matters. I still get the sickly feeling, but still suppress my feelings while I attempt an explanation to the client.