Since I moved to New York, I’ve had poor luck with pianos. I started off with an electric keyboard – the Yamaha DGX-505, which was an OK stop-gap until I bought a real piano. The Yamaha stayed with me for three years and two apartments: my first, beautiful Harlem apartment with the roommates from Hell, and my second apartment in Astoria where I lived for two years.
I was never a real fan of the Yamaha because the weighting of the keys was just slightly wrong. Not like the dinky Casios of old, where everything felt plastic and cheap, but just off enough to make playing it slightly unpleasant. And who wants to play the Copland Piano Variations when you can’t do the harmonics at the beginning? At a certain point, it became an expensive, electric coffee-table.
When I moved back to Harlem in 2007, I had just left the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, where my studio had two gorgeous baby grands: a dark brown Knabe, and a black Chickering. The Knabe was slightly darker in tone, and the Chickering was amazingly bright and beautiful. While I was there, talk began circulating about the Chickering being sold to make room for a new baby grand. On a little walk from the residence to the studios with Suny, the Executive Director, I said, only barely joking, “If you sell it, you call me first!”
Two months later, Suny called to say that the Chickering was for sale, and at a real steal of a price. They could keep it until September, but then they needed the room for the new Yamaha. I said I’d take it.
Now, my studio apartment may be roomy as studios go, but ain’t no way a baby grand piano’s gonna fit in there! But I didn’t particularly care. I wanted that piano, and I would get that piano!
My friend Jeff Algera had been renting an upright piano from one of the piano dealers in the NY/NJ area, and had room in his living room for a baby grand, so we struck a deal – he would get the baby grand to hold onto, and in the meantime he’d rent me an upright. Perfect! So, I dished out the $3,000 necessary to buy the piano and move it from central VA to NJ.
In preparation for the new upright that I’d be getting for my apartment, I sold the Yamaha keyboard to a young colleague who had just moved into Queens. I’d spend a few weeks sans keyboard, but would get better within a week or two.
Or so I thought.
Long story short, they wouldn’t let Jeff sign the lease for the piano since it was going to me, and they wouldn’t rent to me because my credit’s….special. So, no piano for me!
Jeff and I revised our agreement accordingly, and I set out looking for another piano. From September 2007 to January 2008, I was pianoless – less than piano. Finally, I found a piano listed on Craigslist that looked nice, was priced very reasonably, and was in Manhattan. I checked it out, and liked it – the tone was nice, it looked good, and it was a piano. It was out of tune, but that happens – the owner never really played it, so it was bound to go out of tune.
So, I paid for it, paid to move it, and within a few days, got a tuner in to get it into shape. As the tuner, one I’d worked with several times before with pianos used for the Tobenski-Algera Concerts, worked with it, he turned to me and said, “Check this out.” He held the tuning wrench it place, played a note, then gently slid the wrench off the pin and played the note again – this time, it played a different pitch! “Normally, I’d just replace that pin, but there are a lot of them like this. The wood is really dry, and the pin block won’t hold the pins in place. There’s really nothing I can do about it.” He finished tuning the piano as best he could, apologized again for not being able to keep it in tune, and that was that.
I had bought a dud piano.
I thought that maybe it would be alright, and only slip a little, so I started to play very lightly. Within seconds, a number of the keys were at least a whole tone off, or playing multi-phonics. And I was nearly in tears. I had bought a dud piano.
So, I despaired. I had spent $750 to buy, move, and tune the piano. And it didn’t work. So, now I was down nearly $4,000 on pianos that either I couldn’t fit into my apartment, or didn’t work. I just don’t have that kind of money to throw away! I’m a composer, for Bob’s sake!
So, I told me woes to a couple of friends. My friend Chet mentioned that one of his old pianos back in the ’70s had had a similar affliction, but that he’d doped the pin block, and the piano was good for another 30 years, at which point it was still good, but he’d just upgraded to a brand-new one. So, I started researching pin block dope and other treatments. Chet, in the meantime, talked to his regular piano tuner, who recommended a CA treatment – cyanoacrylate glue. Superglue. Treat the pins with ultra-thin superglue, the wood will expand, and the pins will stay in place. Pin block dope ruins the block, apparently, and the treatment only works once. Regardless, it’s a last-ditch effort anyway, so there’s little harm in it. The CA treatment is apparently infinitely less harmful to the instrument.
So, this afternoon, a year and three months after first buying this piano (during which time it served as a large, expensive, and oddly-shaped coffee-table), my friend Danny came over and helped me lay the piano on its back and pull off some of the front bits. Then I donned a face mask, vinyl gloves, and a plastic bulb with a hypodermic needle on the end filled with ultra-thin superglue, and went to town. Most of the pins soaked up three applications of the glue before pooling a little, which I understand is the point at which one considers that pin to be “done”. Now, I’m airing out the apartment and letting the glue dry. I’ll let it rest on its back all weekend, then Danny will come back and help me stand it up. I’ll get a tuner in next week, and keep my fingers, toes, eyes, and anything else I can manage crossed!
I really don’t want to buy another piano!
Thank you for sharing your recent experience. Unfortunately (for you), this is a good example of why it is generally recommended to pay a technician to check out a piano before you close the deal.
On the subject of pin block treatments, I used them more than once in my 25+ years as a tuner-technician, with varying results depending mainly on the condition of the block when I started. The treatment I used could be used more than once. Unfortunately I don’t remember the brand name (have been out of biz since 2002. I have not heard of this superglue treatment. Please do a follow-up post and let us know how it comes out. Best of luck-