The Biography of a Piano


Pianos, like people, have biographies. If you need any convincing, check out The Piano Lesson by my favorite playwright August Wilson. It’s the story of an heirloom piano which some members of the family want to sell and use the cash to buy land, while others are determined to keep it to preserve their history and legacy. The piano had previously been owned by the man who enslaved their ancestors. He had instructed one of his slaves to carve into the piano the likenesses of the slaves he had sold to enable the purchase of the piano. Ghosts and murders galore embellish the powerful metaphor around which the story revolves.

Our piano’s history is hardly as dramatic as Wilson’s, but it’s interesting nonetheless. We came late into its life, first as foster parents of a sort and later as adopters. When we rented an 18th century farmhouse in New Hampshire, it was with the understanding that the owners would one day return to retire into it. The husband was a pastor and had been assigned to another pulpit in a town several hours away. Because they viewed their departure from the house as temporary, they left behind several items. One of them was a stunning early American highboy which was a valuable and unique enough piece to attract the attention of photographers from a well-known antiques magazine.

The other temporary orphan was a Baldwin grand piano which graced our living room for the nine years we lived in that magical house. Truth to tell, my wife, the pianist in the family, didn’t play it as often as it deserved, but it stood as a monument to the role music could play in a family in any century.

In our ninth and final year in that house on Sand Hill Road, we had a visit from the husband of the owning couple. He announced that, rather than retiring to the house, he and his wife had decided to divorce and ultimately sell the house. He even offered to sell the house to us for a price at least 1/10th of its current value, but the number still seemed astronomical to a family living on a single teacher’s salary, so we declined.

However, there was another, more manageable deal on offer. He was planning to move to a small apartment in the East Village in New York City which was far too small to accommodate a grand piano. Would we be interested in buying it for $1300? Unschooled as we were in the value of this formidable instrument, it seemed like an offer too good to refuse. When it was time for us to leave New Hampshire, this now permanent member of our family joined us on the journey to Houston where the house that awaited us also had a living room large enough to accommodate it. For thirteen years it struggled in the city’s hot, humid environment which melted the glue that held together a home-made dulcimer that hung on the wall above it, but somehow, like its owners, it survived.

Our move to Chicago brought us and the piano to yet another living room large enough for it to dominate the landscape.The movers were able to wrestle it into a freight elevator barely able to contain it for the journey up sixteen stories. There it was visited regularly and lovingly by Jordan, our gifted and entertaining piano tuner, until one day he delivered the bad news that it could no longer be tuned because the sounding board was cracked, perhaps a casualty of those years in the Houston steam bath. Jordan referred us to John, a piano restorer he respected as someone who could give our piano a new life.

When John made a house call, he checked the piano’s serial number; he was able to determine that it was built in 1938, a period when Baldwin and Steinway were producing instruments of high quality. If we did nothing, the piano was worthless; if he restored it, it would be worth a considerable amount. The figure he quoted for the work was almost enough to buy a new car, but we decided it was a sound (no pun intended) investment. The work involved a six-month separation because not only was there major surgery to its guts, but the piano also needed refinishing to correct the battering it had taken over three-quarters of a century, so we needed to factor that into the length of the separation.

John invited us to visit his workshop while he worked on our piano, but we never managed to fit it into our schedule. When he delivered this almost unrecognizably stunning instrument, he repeated his invitation.

Recently, our friends Arne and Karen called to ask if we could recommend a piano tuner. Of course, Jordan got the call. When he visited their piano which, unlike ours, has a long family history, he discovered a variety of problemsand recommended that they contact John. A suspicious reader might detect a clever scam these two men were operating, but I can assure you they’re both men of integrity, so this was a complete coincidence.

The good news is that John extended the same invitation to Arne and Karen that he had made to us and they, in turn invited us to join them for that long-delayed visit to his workshop.

John lives in a pleasant, wooded area of Gurnee, a north suburb of Chicago. His house is well-shielded from a nearby Six Flags Park. His workshop building sits near the head of his driveway, a tribute to how central John’s work is to how he lives his life. And there, center-stage, was Arne and Karen’s piano. The cover was off, so we could see the magnificent workings of their beautiful Steinway, all 13,000 working parts which had been lovingly repaired, restrung and refinished. Who in the world ever conceived of such a devilishly complex mechanism?

John has been doing this incredibly exacting work since he was 19 and reports that he has never tired of it. He tells us he used to do as many as 30 pianos a year but has slowed to about four now. He is proud of having matched the original ivories to the jumblein a box of 10,000 pieces he keeps on his shelf. It’s illegal to import new ivory so all keys on newer pianos are plastic.

You might expect someone in John’s line of solitary work to be turned inward. On the contrary, he is gregarious, full of stories about work he has done for some piano greats like Leonard Bernstein, Glenn Gould and Vladimir Horowitz, always on call for work at Orchestra Hall, home of the Chicago Symphony. I don’t know what else was on his schedule that day, but he gave us a precious hour of conversation that ranged from the specifics of this repair job to his encounters with greatness.

I love listening to and watching people who love their work. It doesn’t matter if they’re piano restorers, waitresses or my beloved former auto mechanic Bill Shaw who approached his repairs with the diagnostic skills of a brain surgeon. John acknowledges that he is a dying breed in his own field because new pianos are made in ways that will not make restoration feasible mechanically or economically. I fear that, in general, the options for doing work lovingly and to a high standard are narrowing. If so, more of us will live lives alienated from our work or engage in work remote from the core of who we are. John is a lucky man, and we are fortunate to have the chance to bear witness to his magnificent craft.

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Marv Hoffman

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