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Piano Nerd-Out Time: The Journey of Refurbishing & Regulating a Vintage Piano

In my life I have loved many a piano. But none so much as the vintage Baldwin grand I met and became betrothed to about six years ago. And like shorter term relationships that “prepare” you for a more significant investment, there were many educational pianos along the way before I found her.

There were the pianos I grew up playing; a Baldwin spinet with a squeaky, orange velvet-covered bench, and later, a Krakauer baby grand that my mom inherited after my grandfather passed away. It was the piano my mom and her sister grew up playing, and after being shipped across the country, the movers had to haul the piano–legs removed, kidney-shaped body wrapped in quilted blankets–all the way up the sharp incline of our driveway, an ordeal that took an entire afternoon. Once it was inside I couldn’t stop playing it.

The roommate who came with me to each new apartment, along with my cat.
The roommate who came with me to each new apartment, along with my cat.

Then there was my first piano of my very own, an old grand upright with ornately carved legs, rose vines hand-painted on the interior soundboard, and enough chips in its surface you could see decades of past paint colors. (Honeydew green was the most interesting shade that peeked out; I’ve always wondered what it would feel like to have a melon green piano in the living room with me).

After that, I had a Wurlitzer spinet around for a while, with a sound as loud and metallic as a brass band. (I sold that one to a piano student). Then, I replaced it with an electric piano with settings for historical tunings (interesting and useful for a time because I’m drawn to microtonality, but that board, too, was ultimately also sold to yet another student). Thus I was back to my upright, which was showing its years with each move into every humidity-variable room or basement apartment I asked it to survive in.

In the backdrop of all these temporary fixes, I had other fleeting loves. On the second floor of the piano store where I used to teach lessons, I would take advantage of breaks between students to get away from the studio keyboard and practice on the three rooms of used for sale pianos. It was vintage pianos wall to wall, row after row, like aging maidens waiting to be asked to dance. There were the many Steinway uprights, which almost always had a red SOLD tag on them, and notes about the final work to be completed before they were to be shipped to their new owner. And the regal, crystalline tone of the Chickering grands, or the perfectly even action and balanced sound of the Yamahas.

My studio where I taught piano lessons and practiced and composed, with the Chickering console.
My studio where I taught piano lessons and practiced and composed, with the Chickering console.

These were all out of my price range, so for my home studio piano, I found a black Chickering console with unusually high pedals, which I always had to wear heels to play; it made me feel like Tori Amos. But like my previous spinets and consoles, I needed something better for regular practice and composing.

For a few years I regularly visited every piano shop that I knew of with a good used piano selection. I routinely scoured Craigslist: “Pianos>Used>Any.” And then finally, after a long, desperate, demoralizing search, after only ever seeming to be feel an attraction to pianos that were way to expensive for me, finally, I found her:

A 1912 Baldwin 7′ grand piano. An oldie but goodie. The first few decades of the 20th century was the best era for the Baldwin piano company, with a sound like nothing else I had played; a symphony in a case. The first day I found her, in a shop called the Piano Technology School for the Blind, in Vancouver, Washington, I just sat there, smitten.

Sure, she had some prominent scratches and nicks on her case, including many tiny, weird etchings into the wood above the keys. I imagined a Liberace type with fistfuls of ruby- and emerald-encrusted gold rings, scratching away at the wood on the key cover over the years. But for me, the point wasn’t to have a perfectly smooth, glossy case; it’ was the sound.

I was so mesmerized by the sound, in fact, that I didn’t pause long enough notice the Baldwin’s considerable quirks. She had suffered a hard couple of decades in her century of longevity: partial refurbishings, objects being dropped or slammed on the keys, parts warping, and the general malaise of never being in any one technicians’ care for long enough to get a full refurbishing. But I was swept away by her sound. I sat there on the bench, in a Glenn Gould hunch, face close to the keys, playing one at a time, mesmerized by the gradually, softly decaying overtones.

For a while I was content to get lost in the Baldwin’s endless chambers of resonance and overtones. I wrote all the songs on my first record on her, including “Theory of Survival,” for which I used prepared piano techniques to create sonic layers:

But the Baldwin’s actual playability was another matter. For a while, I couldn’t practice for more than twenty minutes without my arms getting sore. I was also worried about the impact on my technique because the piano had such limited aftertouch and heavy key weight.

Even finding a piano technician who was willing to work on this old gal was a process; in fact, one practically hang up on me when I told her I had a partially-refurbished grand piano on my hands.

“I don’t touch a grand piano that’s had unknown hands working on it,” she said flatly.

Piano action. Grand pianos have between 15,000 and 20,000 moving parts.
Piano action. Grand pianos have between 15,000 and 20,000 moving parts.

Finally, I found master piano technician John Rhodes. He was passionate about pianists having good instruments to play, and keeping the tradition of quality, acoustic pianos alive–he felt so strongly, in fact, that he was willing to donate his time to come by and do an assessment to figure out exactly what was wrong.

He came over to my house and we ate cupcakes and talked about cats and pianos and pianists all afternoon. John said he would take on the project–pro bono, all I would have to pay for was parts–but it would mean the piano would need to be in his shop for a while, and he wouldn’t be able to promise a completion date.

During a nearly year-long field trip away from home, the Baldwin’s action was lovingly, meticulously reworked. John kept extensive records on each stage of the entire process.

Upon returning home the Baldwin was definitely in a much-improved state, but even with all that work, there remained the final leg of the restoration: regulation. I had to wait yet again until it was in the budget, and in the stars, to have it done. Then, on a soggy Portland night in October 2013, after a Piano. Push. Play. event, under the eaves of the smoky outdoor patio at Roadside Attraction on SE 12th St., I met piano technician Alvin Alghrim. After hearing about my piano Alvin said he had to come “meet” it, and after playing it once, he, like most people, fell in love with it too and proclaimed it one of his favorite pianos. He said he wanted to work on it.

Le grande dame of my living room.
Le grande dame of my living room.

Before launching into the project, Alvin did intensive research over the next few months going over John’s extensive notes, absorbing John’s process up to that point, and factoring in how that would influence his approach to the regulation. Once Alvin decided he had everything he needed to figure out how to approach the regulation, and he whipped it together in two afternoons. The result:

I’M IN PIANO HEAVEN. I didn’t realize that one of the bonuses of a regulation job is that it actually improves the sound, too. (As if the old girl’s sound could get any better).

xoxoxoxo
xoxoxoxo

At times I am a little bewildered to have such a special instrument, just sitting there waiting to be played, in my daily life. Lest I forget how lucky I am after this long journey, I am reminded by each pianist who comes over and gets to share in this special little slice of acoustical heaven, as they sit down and play and gaze off into dreamland.

I remember an opera singer friend once told me that every singer has to go through some type of profound illness that prevents them from singing for a while; it’s part of the spiritual journey of opening up your voice. Maybe instrumentalists go through a similar thing, that manifests in our instruments?

At any rate, the journey of getting to know and rework an old instrument yields just as much as the attainment of the improved working instrument itself, as through that process we develop an appreciation for sound, how it works, and come to better understand how we respond to it. The oldie-but-goodie instruments might be a bit work, but they are most definitely worth the trouble.

 

2 comments

  1. barb says:

    Hi Kela…Auntie Barb here. I just stumbled across your blog. What an inspiring tale. Bev, Mom, my friend Adele & I are coming to your concert Wednesday. See you then.

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