It has been said that each of us, if put into the wrong situation, would commit horrible atrocities that we would never consider under normal circumstances. I have long argued against this proposition, but am now living proof that it is true. Because I am about to commit one such horrible crime. And I have no choice. I have to kill a piano.
There, I have said it. Or at least committed it to, well, my screen. Yes, I have to kill a piano. It doesn’t get easier to say the second time. I have to kill a piano.
Nearly three years ago I wrote about the dilemma faced by my sister and me in our need to get our mother’s piano out of her home and into some other location. I am delighted to report that the story had a happy ending. With the help of a mutual friend, a lovely young couple adopted our mother’s piano in order to fill out their living room and to be prepared for the day when their young children are ready for lessons. Wonder of wonders, the green finish on Mom’s piano worked with their decorating, so it was a win-win.
At that time I alluded to the fact that I had a piano of my own that I preferred. I still do. The Sebastian Sommer Piano Company was one of many piano manufacturers in New York City at the end of the nineteenth century, and was known to turn out high quality instruments. Our piano was made sometime before 1896, which appears to be when their factory burned down.
These two scans of the December 26, 1896 front page of the New York Journal don’t really bring anything to this story but they are some cool history that add to this piano’s story.
This particular piano somehow found its way into a New York boarding house and eventually to the mother of some friends, who brought it to Indiana. She eventually bought a new piano and gave the old upright to her daughter, who kept it in their living room.
When our friend’s mother passed away, she took her Mom’s modern piano and needed to get the old one out of the house. It was offered to us for free if we would move it.
One of our kids had expressed interest in lessons, so a free piano seemed like a great idea. But first, I wanted to get it inspected. There is nothing worse than a free piano you pay to move into your own house, only to find that it is usable only as a massive conversation piece. One that makes clear to all that you are a Class-A sucker and a loser in a real-life game of Hot Potato.
To my surprise the expert I hired pronounced the piano to be sound (sorry) and playable as a musical instrument. We hired some professionals to move it and soon had our very own piano. This was in, perhaps, 2002 or so.
We got the old girl tuned and two of our kids took lessons on it. I even tried to scrape some of the rust off of my own keyboard skills. In going through my mother’s things I found my old piano book, so how hard could it be?
I started at the beginning and re-learned all of those little songs I had learned as a ten year old. And in the process, I learned a valuable lesson. Any keyboard skills I have are pretty much restricted to my computer. Learning a piece of music was a less lethal form of the trench warfare that defined the first world war.
One. Measure. At. A. Time. I could read the music and my fingers could hit the right notes (most of the time) but I could not really do both at once. So through pure repetition I could get to a place where I would half-read a half-memorized tune and could then play it fairly respectably. Until I got tired of hearing it, and then the same process would play out with another.
I had a few of Mom’s old music books, one of which may have been her mother’s. It contained the kinds of old chestnuts that millions of people played on pianos just like this when men like Grover Cleveland or Calvin Coolidge were in the White House.
The old upright (a miniature upright, actually) had a beautiful full sound that Mom’s more modern spinet piano could never match. It was no nine foot concert grand, but its five foot tall sound board provided the kind of tone that seemed so right playing classics like A Bicycle Built For Two or Take Me Out To The Ballgame.
Well, fast forward to the very end of 2018. It has to go because we have other plans for the room that it occupies. But there is a problem: Nobody wants it. One friend expressed interest a few years ago, but he lost his transportation, and I didn’t push because the piano got surrounded by boxes of things stacked up for staging during the process of emptying our mother’s house.
Frankly, I always imagined that as I got older I would find time to sit down at the old keyboard and try to break through my sight-reading wall. I could become the guy who would be in demand at parties and maybe even get command of some beloved jazz standards. A little Fats Waller-style stride piano would sound great on these old ivories with my left hand bringing out its robust lower register.
But back to reality. I have not sat down at that keyboard even once in the last three years. It is time to acknowledge that my gifts lie elsewhere.
I am a realist and have read more than a little on the topic. This piano, while still playable, seems to have reached the outer limits of its lifespan. It is the rare piano that remains vital beyond a century, at which time it requires a complete (and very expensive) refurbishment. And while this one has not yet reached that point, it does not have beauty going for it either. Its varnish is scraped in some places and rough and dull in others. Attractive furniture it is not.
I read a story of a company in New York that makes disposal of old pianos a large part of its business. Week in and week out the owners adopt old strays like this. Some provide useful parts, and rarely one is found that is worth a restoration. But mostly they get hauled off to the dump every week. The owner reported that they make the most awful sound when they land after being thrown from the truck.
And now I am going to be one of those people. Is this what it is like sending a dog to the pound, knowing that it will probably be killed? I have never had to put down a faithful old dog, but now I know what it feels like. This piano did everything we ever asked of it. It accompanied our kids as they learned something about music and was always ready to provide musical companionship whenever someone who could play sat down before it. But not for long.
It has been suggested to me that I could save money by renting a dumpster and dismantling it myself. But I just can’t bring myself to do it. Within the next week I am going to pay some men to come to my house and help our old piano into their truck. And from there . . . . The man from the piano company tells me that he will try to find a home for it. I suppose it is possible. Or maybe he is just trying to make me feel better.
I will admit it – I am a sentimental old fool. I am mostly Irish, so I suppose my sentimentality comes naturally. I know that a piano is just a collection of wood, wire, cast iron and a teensy bit of ivory. But my eyes are welling just a bit as I think about how this stately old piano that has lived so long has become irrelevant and valueless in our modern world. I am going to have to kill it. And even though I know that it must be done, I am not OK with this at all.
Forgive me, dear old piano. I have failed you.