Music Producer & Composer

Three Grammys, hundreds of instruments, millions of ideas...

Contact:tomwas@earthlink.net

Monday

The Illustrious Life Story of One Piano

In 1989 a 5' 2" baby grand piano left the Young Chang factory in Korea bound for the United States. America was on the verge of one of the most prosperous eras in its history, and a grand piano in one's living room had been a calling card of wealth, prosperity, and a cultured lifestyle for more than a century.

This particular piano was purchased and delivered to a lavish house in Aspen, Colorado, most likely at the behest of an interior decorator. It was probably played and tuned occasionally, but spent it's early years primarily as a symbol of opulence.

A dozen years later the piano's owners made the fateful decision to remodel the house. The construction company chosen for this task (in true Aspen style) had a crane at their disposal. At a certain point in the proceedings, it was deemed that the piano was in peril and had to be moved for the work to continue.  The legs and lyre (i.e. the pedal assembly) were removed from the undercarriage and the body of the instrument was hoisted into the air for its own safety. Unfortunately, it slipped from its moorings, fell on its lid, and slid down the mountainside crashing into the ravine below with a kablang, kablong, kabloong!

How I wish I was there with a small recording device to witness and document this moment.

Operating from the college town of Boulder (four hours away by car), Bob's Piano Service was one of the few piano tuning/moving concerns in the local Aspen yellow pages. They were summoned to see if they could winch the instrument out of the ravine as it was now deemed to be "trash" (the construction company had insurance which bought a new piano for their clients). They recovered it from its forlorn resting place, and they requested the original legs and pedal assembly to accompany it back to their shop on the eastern slope.

Back in Boulder the piano was re-united with its legs and pedals. Miraculously, since it had fallen on its lid and the important functional parts had been spared, it was in near perfect working order. But Bob had a quandary: almost 90% of all grand pianos went to people who didn't play them, but kept them for aesthetic display only. What was he to do with a piano that looked like it had been through a war zone?

In 2001 my wife and I built an addition to our home to better isolate our working lives from our home life. After the completion of this project, my studio was moved to larger quarters and I decided it was time to acquire a suitable piano for the purpose of recording.

In the golden age of American piano building, generally agreed to be from around 1910 to 1929, there were five piano builders who were all vying to be America's great piano. They were: Steinway, Baldwin, Mason and Hamlin, Knabe, and Chickering. What I wanted to find was a piano from this era made by one of these companies, preferably with the original ivory keys. Both Steinway and Baldwin had survived the Great Depression so their pianos still brought high prices. But Mason and Hamlin, Chickering, and Knabe had all sold out after the economic collapse of 1929, and their quality faltered, tarnishing their reputations in later years.  Since I had only $5,000 to spend I was ill-prepared even to acquire a pre-depression piano made by one of these latter three manufacturers, as they were usually snatched up by piano re-builders who restored and sold them for high prices. I realized I would just have to settle for a newer piano that would make a decent recording instrument.

It was around this time that I called Bob at Bob's Piano Service to inquire if he had any candidates that might fit my budget. When I said "I don't care what it looks like" he said: "have I got the piano for you!" He told me the instruments history and I was intrigued. So I visited his shop and played the piano and we agreed on a price of $1200, which was what he said it would bring in the salvage market. The music desk (where the sheet music sits on top of the piano) was destroyed along with the lid in the piano's precipitous fall. For an extra $300 he found a salvaged replacement, voiced the piano for recording, and delivered it to my studio. I declined a new lid because it's easier to record a piano without one anyway.

Thus began the second phase of the instrument's life. It appeared on dozens of records including Mary Youngblood's Grammy-winning "Dance With the Wind." Between the regulation and voicing work that was done the piano played beautifully, had an exceptional sound for its size, and recorded like a dream.

When the financial crisis of 2008 hit, sadly, many people who had over-extended themselves on their mortgages literally picked up and abandoned their houses and in many cases left behind....grand pianos.
This, along with an economic climate that was undermining the sale of high-end goods, caused a collapse in the market for pianos, especially grand pianos.  It occurred to me then that it might be a good time to find the pre-1929 piano of my dreams.

I began my search and proceeded to spend over a year driving up and down the Colorado front range disassembling, inspecting, and playing pianos from four of the five great manufacturers of that age (Steinways were still out of my price range, and not known to be good for ensemble recording). It proved to be more difficult than I expected because many of the instruments from that era were in rough shape, especially if they had spent any time on the East Coast of the US. But I persevered. Finally in September of 2010 I found a 1929 Knabe baby grand with original ivory keys in remarkable original condition and well within my budget of $3,000.  My wife agreed that it was presentable enough to install in a large room in the main part of the house where I like to record drums and other loud things.  This way I was able to keep both instruments as I still preferred the Young Chang for recording, even though I favored the Knabe for my own playing.

In February of 2013 I was recording a guitar track with a client in my main studio room and we were struggling to find enough space to work. I thought "how nice it would be to have more room to stretch out in here". I looked up at the Young Chang and thought "do I really need two grand pianos?"  So on a Sunday afternoon a few days later I decided to send the Young Chang off to a new home. I sent an e-mail announcement to my friends in the music community and placed an add on Craig's List telling the piano's story and bragging about its recording credits, pricing the piano at a very reasonable $975.

An hour and a half later the phone rings and the eager voice on the other end says "Hello, this is Oliver_______ and we are interested in buying your piano." Oliver told me a bit about himself; he was 14 yrs. old, he practiced at least 15 hours a week, and studied in the music department of a local high school. Then he said "I'm with my parents in the car, could we come to see  it now?" It was dinnertime but they seemed legitimate so I said "why not?" When they arrived it was dark and I showed them into the studio. Oliver sat down at the piano and proceeded to burn through a bit of some fabulous Rachmaninoff piece. His technique was brilliant. He then stops abruptly and says "I love this piano, the action is better than the Steinway!" I looked inquisitively at his parents and they explained that they had only recently moved to Colorado from California to be closer to family. They were not in the area long when fire ravaged their home taking everything they owned-including their Steinway grand piano from the 1930's, a family heirloom.

So Oliver was without a piano to practice on, and it was one thing on a list of many that they were  replacing to rebuild their lives. Oliver's father saw that he was very enthusiastic about the Young Chang and said "we'll take it!" But then Oliver's mom interjected "it's such an eyesore!" and of course I had to agree. I offered to help them locate a lid for the instrument, as well as help them find other local resources to restore it cosmetically, and we struck a deal.

Two years earlier during my search for the Knabe, I visited Ron's Vintage Pianos in Brighton, Colorado.  Ron himself was quite a character, and he had many historic pianos dating to the early 19th century that I had heard about but never seen. It was thrilling. After closing the deal with Oliver's family I called Ron.  He offered to pick up the Young Chang, bring it to his shop, make a new lid, fill all the body gashes with Bondo, re-finish the entire instrument, and deliver it for a very reasonable price.  Oliver's family agreed and we had a plan.

Ron is a short wiry guy in his late 60's who had obviously been a smoker most of his life. He showed up with an assistant to move the piano out of the studio. They removed the legs and lyre from the piano and strapped it upright to a skid to slide it up the four steps and out of the room. Ron literally tied the skid to the midsection of his frail body and pulled from the top while his assistant, Lonnie, pushed from the bottom. They were unsuccessful on the first try and spent about ten minutes catching their breath. Between hacks and coughs Ron says "Lonnie, you better get my tank." Get your tank? What could he be talking about? Lonnie returns with an oxygen tank and Ron puts the tube in his nose and hangs the tank from one shoulder. I thought "oh please, don't let this man die here." When it was time for another go, I joined Ron at the top of the steps to help pull. The second try was successful and we loaded the piano onto a trailer towed by a pick-up and the Young Chang was off to it's new life.

Not only did Ron survive the move but he and Lonnie had the work done and the instrument delivered in less than two weeks. Oliver and family were thrilled, but a few days later I received an e-mail from Oliver's dad that said: "Oliver is feverishly playing the piano, hell bent on mastering Rachmaninoff piano concerto #3. My wife and I have ONE complaint: how to quiet its sound when Oliver POUNDS and POUNDS on it.  Our bedroom is located right above it (and him). ....any ideas?"

In being voiced for recording the felt hammers were treated with an acetone/lacquer solution which hardened them and made the piano very loud and bright, which was no doubt one thing Oliver liked about the it. So the only remedies I could suggest were; close the lid (since it had one now); cover it with a packing blanket or similar; or ask Oliver to use the soft pedal. This last suggestion wouldn't be too popular....

And now in its third incarnation, after its dramatic fall from polite society, the Young Chang is restored to respectability with a brilliant young prodigy at the keyboard.