The Ongoing Saga of My Baldwin Piano

I love everything about my Baldwin, from the brass hardware to the little scratches on the fallboard from previous owners’ fingernails.

If you have followed my blog at all over the past few years, you know that a) I own a magnificent 1912 Baldwin piano that I chanced upon for fairly cheap and shepherded into loving restoration by one of the Pacific Northwest’s top piano technicians, and b) when I moved to New York, I no longer had room for my beloved, and I had to figure out a place to house her indefinitely.

Now that I live in Los Angeles, again I find myself in a situation where I have a big grand piano and I don’t know what to do with it. I am putting the word out, through this post and conversations with friends and with piano people, that it is time to find a new situation for me and my piano.

In my rather desperate post from August 2016, “Other People’s Pianos,” written during a transient period, I maintained my practice on friends’ pianos, and cried to my counselor about how not having my piano was like having my musical/emotional safety blanket ripped away from me (I’m a Cancer). Looking back over the post, I realized that I also decreed exactly what would end up happening there in my writing: “I’m hoping to find a school, venue, church, or private residence where a piano would be welcome, and where I could also come practice. A mutually-beneficial piano-sharing scenario. Better that than having it wrapped in blankets and going unused in a warehouse.”

And that is PRECISELY what happened. I put feelers out with my musician friends in New York, and one of them very promptly connected me with a church that needed a piano for their music program. They just happened to be in Sheepshead Bay, only a few miles south of my apartment Brooklyn.

For the brief time I lived in New York, it was a lovely piano-sharing arrangement. I would hop on the Q train and ride down to Sheepshead Bay, and walk through the (extraordinarily) long blocks until I got to the church, where I had specific hours for practice. On dry days, I could just hop on my bike and ride all the way down Avenue R. I recorded some songs for The Dreamer & The Dream at the church, and the church has benefited greatly from having a nice piano for their services and music concerts.

But then I was seized by a wild impulse to abruptly move to Los Angeles. I had realized that, after spending most of my life in Puddletown, and then living in New York, I had lost my patience for crappy weather. I wanted to live in a big city again, and so, the natural math of my various requirements of place suddenly became obvious: Big City + Needs to be a Music Town = Los Angeles. Also, having my parents a tad closer (they’re both still on the West Coast) made much more sense than going south to somewhere like Nashville or Austin. (Although recently I’ve been hearing Denver has a great music scene, and dry sunny weather, and maybe a tad less traffic…)

So, I cast my fate to the wind and landed in a fantastic little bungalow apartment in Mid City L.A. I love it, and I have a nice little music studio set up in the dining room (which is, as far as I am concerned, the best use for formal dining rooms).

But now my piano is all the way on the other side of the country.

One of my first side jobs when I landed in L.A. was working for a piano store, where I tried all the possible avenues available for trying to figure out how to bring my grand piano back from New York. In fact, while working at the piano store, I happened upon a donated piano that is a distant cousin of my Baldwin grand, a mid-60’s Acrosonic. For a free piano that hadn’t been tuned in forty years, it ain’t so bad, and it satisfied the need for having an acoustic piano in my space. However, I play it far less than I used to play my Baldwin; once you drive a Mercedes, it’s hard to go back to a Hyundai.

I have determined that, if I could get it out here, there is room for the Baldwin here at my place. (Being that I am a person who has moved grand pianos so, so many times, I am in possession of a piano cutout, which is a large piece of butcher paper with renderings of various piano sizes, drawn to scale, that you can arrange amongst your furniture for assessment. Based on my calculations with this tool, I could technically fit my piano in my current place provided I am okay with blocking access to the kitchen when the piano bench is out. I think, all things considered, that I’m okay with that.)

And so, considering that a piano’s purpose in life is to be loved, maintained, and played, I am temporarily okay with things as they are but also constantly brainstorming in the back of my mind trying to figure this situation out. Considering that it worked the last time I made this declaration through my blog, I figured I should again put the word and the feelers out for a new piano situation: The ideal scenario is a music studio, either a recording or teaching studio, where a grand piano of this style and sound is appreciated (no, adored) and where I have a similar timeshare arrangement where the house gets to use the piano for their purposes and I get to come in and use it for mine. This place is close enough to Mid City Los Angeles that it does not lower my quality of life by increasing my time in traffic too significantly, so I can get to play it fairly regularly (and I could even BIKE there!) This piano timeshare is be a mutually beneficial arrangement for everyone involved.

OR: I drum up the $2,000 or so needed to move the Baldwin back across the country and relocate her here to my place in Mid City, where I will selfishly keep her acoustic charms all to myself.

Here’s to manifesting what we need through speaking it and putting it into the Universe. That’s how this magical piano first came to me–by searching desperately for the right sound until I had pretty much given up, deflated and certain all beautiful pianos would be hopelessly and forever beyond my price reach, when my then-boyfriend happened across an ad for the Baldwin, which was patiently awaiting discovery at a small town piano shop that I never would have gone to in person.

Patience and trust, y’all. Patience and trust.

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 shed on Salmon Street where I taught piano lessons and practiced and composed. The keys on the right are 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.