Sunday, February 10, 2008

Etude on a 97-Year Old Piano

Well. I have spent the weekend up to my eyeballs in Internet research on the acquisition, care, and feeding of used pianos.

On Friday, I also had a productive talk with a piano tuner of my acquaintance.

Amazing the information there is out there. There's a whole world of piano terms and facts and advice I never knew existed a week ago; my head is stuffed quite full of it all and a lot of it has come in through the eyeholes and fallen right back out again.

But I retained enough to make a nice checklist of things to look at when I went to evaluate the old Lester piano again, the one a village church in my presbytery is trying to give away.

This evening, I was met at the church by the wife of the elder who's been my contact on this. Once we found the found the correct key and got in out of the dark and the bitter wind, we went downstairs to the drywall dust-covered, lumber-crammed, once-and-future pastor's office and encountered the Beast.

First objects of study:

  • Verify that the number her husband sent me via email last evening is the serial number and not something else. Check! (Looked it up online last night and learned this piano probably dates from 1910 or 1911.)

  • Verify no water damage from last summer's fire or from high humidity. Check! Some dings and scrapes, as you'd expect from a piano used in the Sunday School department, but no lifted veneer whatsoever. And no mold or red rust. Hurrah!

  • Verify which key it is that's missing the top part of the hammer. It's the F7, not the G7. The C8 is missing most of its hammer assembly. But as the tuner told me the other day, "You can do without those notes."

Then on to the musical bit! My conductress obliged by playing the keys while I took notes and checked off items.

  • Verify that no keys stick. Check! Though a couple are a little irregular to the touch, depending on the angle your finger hits them. Feels kind of like a brake pedal that goes down a bit before it begins to engage. (Note to me: Find out what this means.)

  • Verify no buzzing. Well, sorta check. One key, the D#5, buzzes a little when you release it. But not all the time.

  • Verify no ring-over on any one key or keys (assuming sustain pedal isn't on). Check! None whatsoever.

  • Verify no deviations or restarts in pitch-- like you're starting over again back down the scale. Check! This would have been a deal-breaker-- the tuner told me it's a sign the cast iron harp/plate is broken and the piano is toast. This one is not.

  • Verify no whaa-whaa-whaa beats on any note. Check! None.

  • Verify no loudness variations from note to note. Check!

  • Verify it never sounds like one key is playing two notes at a time (indicative of slipped tuning pins). Check!

  • Verify no weird or odd noises. Check! Barring the little buzz from the D#5 key, that is.

  • Verify no dead tones. Check!

  • Verify no rattles (a sign of broken wires-- or lost pencils). Check!

  • Verify no hammers hit the wires more than once per keystroke. Check!

  • Verify that the pinblock has not separated more than 1/4" from the back frame. Check! In fact, it's nice and tight with no separation at all.
  • Verify that the interesting lever to the right of the treble keys controls the practice mute. Yes, but the mute bar itself is missing. But the control works, which is promising. At least, my neighbors might think so!
And finally, play it a bit to see how it sounds overall. I spoke to the church organist about the piano last night; she didn't think it'd been tuned in fifteen years. It wasn't because the piano was bad, it was just that the kids turned up their noses at singing. And she gave up trying to make them.

So it's surprising how decent it still sounds. Me, I play around on pianos more than I play them. (If I take this one, I'll have to learn properly.) But I can pick out a melody by ear, and this old upright gave it back to me as a coherent, recognisable thing.

And I have to say that the tenor range especially has a full, rich, tone. The bass bottoms out rather, and the treble sounds like, well, like it needs tuned. But I think the potential is definitely there. According to the organist, it can never again be brought up to A440 concert pitch. But in the judgement of this rank amateur, it most likely can be made to agree well with itself. And since I'm not afflicted with perfect pitch, that's enough for me.

So tomorrow I start calling piano movers for bids. Good news-- turns out there's no stairs to speak of to get it out of the church basement. One step at the back door to keep out the water, then it's straight out to grade. Another loud hurrah!


Sandy said...

Read about the 68 car pile-up in PA and am glad to see you weren't a part of that! I was hoping it wasn't anywhere near you (but sad that 68 cars bit the dust).

Jennifer said...

Yeah! Since there are no steps to speak of (just one you could lay a ramp over)... you might be able to move it yourself, too!

Kate H. said...

Sandy, what pile-up? I'd better turn on the radio! Hope it was only cars, not people.

Jennifer, right, Yea! no steps to worry about at the church. But there's 5 at my place (see my blog profile photo). And I'd have to hire a U-Haul and straps and buy tons of pizza anyway, so the pros are the way to go.

Still haven't finally decided whether to take it. Sent a link to this entry to a piano tech in New Jersey from whom I purchased a $3 used piano buying guide off eBay. He wrote back and predicted all sorts of dire things, advising me not to get it, even for free. I've sent his letter, etc., on to my local tuner for his opinion.

So we'll see.