Neglected Pianos

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Sometimes I hear about neglected pianos, upon which I go on a bit of a rampage. As the owner of a Steinway model K, which I bought brand new from the dealer, an instrument I have always tuned and cared for myself, the idea of a piano sitting in a garage for longer than a couple of days, essentially outdoors and subject to the elements, eventually becoming a storage unit, rankles my sensibilities.

I long ago lost track of the number of times, upon being told by someone: “We have a piano! Of course it hasn’t been tuned in ten years” (or maybe never), responding without hesitation: “You used to have a piano. You now have a Gesinch.” For those who don’t know, which is everyone, because I made the word up myself over thirty years ago, a Gesinch is a pseudo-German word meaning roughly: “A large, clutzy, useless item that gets in your way.” The prototypical example was an enormous recliner I bought in about 1973 to put in our tiny apartment’s living room in Riverdale Bronx, New York, where there was not enough room to fully recline it without dragging it out from the wall (it took two people to move it), upon which the foot end would stick out well past the middle of the room. Buying it was one of my Worst Ideas Ever.

A neglected piano is a Gesinch. It never ceases to amaze me the number of people who acquire pianos, often with the intent of learning how to use them (or for their children to do so), an enthusiasm that dies down in a few weeks as persons soon discover: “Say — this piano playing stuff is a Really Hard Thing!” Upon which the piano becomes an indoor storage unit. A piano must be maintained whether it is played or not, or it quickly falls into a state of disrepair beyond which it can no longer be recovered to full functionality. It’s not sufficient to strip and refinish the surface of an instrument that is old or has been neglected. If the soundboard is cracked (usually because of temperature and humidity changes), the instrument will be beyond restoration to its optimum condition and may be worthless. The odds that a piano stored in a garage for a full year will not have a cracked soundboard are infinitesimal. The piano action — the internal mechanism that starts with the surface of the keys the player presses and ends with the tip of the hammer that strikes the strings — is a complicated mechanical device, with between 80-120 pieces per key, depending on the maker. Think of it as being like an automobile with 88 carburetors. The entire 88-key mechanism slides out as a unit. (I’ve done it several times; it makes my heart go pit-a-pat when I do so.) This mechanism needs periodic maintenance, too, though most people simply neglect their pianos when they are new until entropy causes them to rot and no longer be worthy of anything more than finding some hapless friends or relatives to help load it into a truck so it can be hauled off to a dump. Imagine buying a new car and never once changing the oil or doing any of the standard maintenance tasks to keep it in running condition. It’s an apt comparison, but that’s what people do with pianos.

It’s true that pianos can be “restored”, but only to a certain degree. I’ve played on vintage Steinways at the local dealer’s store and elsewhere — instruments said to be 100 years or more old. The cabinetry on these display instruments is invariably superb, but every one I’ve ever touched frankly feels and sounds crummy. These instruments make fine parlor pianos for those who have the space and want to display a piano in their home more than actually use it, and if continuously maintained, they’re quite adequate instruments for most modestly skilled players, but for the expense involved, anyone who wants a good piano would be better off to get something newer and maybe a little plainer, and be resolved to take proper care of it.

For some persons an electric keyboard of some sort might be a preferable option. The sound is not as good, any more than a CD recording is as good as a live band, and neither is the feel. Their longevity is nowhere near that of a well-maintained good quality piano, but they never go out of tune, and they require little or no maintenance until they just flat out break. By comparison: My Steinway is now 22 years old, in near perfect condition, and should serve me the rest of my natural life. My Korg 76-key electric keyboard is 1988 vintage, does not conform to the most recent MIDI standard, has keys that stick, with their internal mechanism inaccessible by me, has a lousy sound, is close to useless, and needs to be replaced.

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