A few days ago I got an email from a local businessman, Ron Moore.
It was one of those canned releases that businesses and individuals sometimes send out in an effort to get their name in the paper. It said that Moore had recently attended the convention of the piano technicians guild in Chicago.
Good for him.
But then Moore added a little note onto the end of the standard release. Perhaps, he said, this would be a good time to talk about the dangers of buying cheap pianos on the Internet.
I know that buying items on certain websites can be dangerous.
You show up to buy a cellphone or piece of jewelry and you get robbed.
But pianos don’t explode or burst into flames.
So I called Moore, one of only a handful of piano tuners in Fort Wayne and surrounding counties, for a quick lesson in pianos.
Well, Moore said a little sheepishly, dangers might not have been the right word to use. Risks might have been a better term.
But yes, there are risks, and it’s not just from the danger that a piano will slide down the stairs and land on you, or that you’ll buy a piano and discover a whole colony of mice inside – after you’ve gotten it into your house – which does happen.
The holiday season is just around the corner. There are always people looking to unload a piano for cheap, and this is the time of year that people might look at those pianos, decide they would make a good gift and buy them.
I did go to one website and looked at pianos for sale. Most appeared to be in good shape – though how can you tell from a photo on a computer screen – and the sellers wanted several hundred dollars for the instrument.
But there were bargains, pianos for $20, $50, $75, and a few that were even free.
That’s where one runs into risk, Moore said.
Moore told me a little bit of piano history.
Pianos were popular in the early 1900s, and production peaked around 1920, when 300,000 pianos were sold in one year alone.
Today, only 40,000 to 50,000 new pianos are sold in the U.S. each year.
And thousands and thousands of old pianos’ owners are desperately trying to find new homes for those instruments.
The problem is that many of those old instruments are getting to be 100 years old, which is a lot older than the manufacturers built them to last.
That is where problems arise. Parts crack. Boards split, and as a result some of the old pianos aren’t even tunable anymore.
A $75 piano that can’t be tuned is worthless, he said, so buyers who aren’t careful or knowledgeable could find themselves paying someone good money to take a useless hulk off someone’s hands.
Oh, Moore said, it’s possible to take an old piano that is shot and revive it, but that involves a lot of work, a lot of parts and in some cases thousands of dollars. A person can find that a $75 piano that will cost $2,000 to fix isn’t much of a bargain at all.
A piano, to me, has always been a sign that you’re civilized, maybe even a little refined.
So in a way it’s a little sad when a piano turns out to be shot.
But they still have value, Moore said. A piano contains a few pounds of copper, and every piano contains an iron plate. You can recycle that and make a few dollars.
And if you live in the country, you can always have a bonfire with what’s left. Not quite refined, but fun.