Lucky the Wonder Piano

By Carl Radford, RPT

(Reprinted with permission from the October, 2016 Partial Post, official newsletter of the North Shore Chapter of the Piano Technicians Guild.)


It’s funny how things work out sometimes, so that you just know they were meant to be. Most of the time it seems like you have to struggle against life’s cosmic forces for every inch, and every decision bears the mass of a thousand worlds, but sometimes, seemingly without effort - it all just happens, and you know it was right. The stars smile on you from above, all the planets orbit in perfect harmony, and the gravitational pull of their alignment floats you effortlessly towards your destination.

And so it was when I met Lucky the Wonder Piano.

I was headed in my car to a routine tuning appointment on a beautiful, sunny, fall day, when I got a call from Walt, who had been a music director at a church where I regularly tuned the pianos. I hadn’t heard from Walt in a while, because he had recently accepted a new position at a different church. Why he was calling, I wondered?

“Hey, Carl. I thought you might be interested in knowing about a Steinway grand that just became available at the church.”

He told me about a beloved eighty-seven year old monsignor, who had recently passed away. Apparently, he was quite the showman, and often entertained for church functions, so much so, that he was known as “The Catholic Liberace”. The piano was in his apartment and they weren’t quite sure what to do with it now.

“Maybe you’d want to come by and take a look…?”

His timing couldn’t have been better. It was a transitional period in my life. I had just undergone a difficult breakup, and had moved into a friend’s spare bedroom while I was looking for another home.

Nevertheless, I was feeling optimistic, because after months of looking I had finally found a place, the most prominent feature of which was an eighteen foot vaulted ceiling in the living room, which echoed nicely when I clapped my hands and listened for the resonance of the room for a future piano. Once I heard that, I knew that this was a place I could finally call my new home. I was very happy with the Schimmel upright I had at the time, but putting an upright in the new living room just wouldn’t have seemed right visually, and what better place for a grand piano than somewhere with high ceilings and great acoustics?

My whole life up to that point, I had always had various clunkers and vertical pianos of some sort or other to practice on, but dreamed that some day, some way, I would be able to own a grand. So, I took a deep breath, looked up to the sky and said to the universe, “Om, Universe, if there was ever a time and a place for a grand piano to come into my life it’s here and now.”

The first time I met Lucky, it was another warm and sunny afternoon, and the trees on the church grounds just beginning to shed their first leaves and crackle underfoot. I was expecting my friend Walt to meet me and show me the piano, but instead, I was met by a no-nonsense lady, who matter-of-factly escorted me through the priory and into the monsignor’s apartment.

In contrast to the sunny day outside, the apartment inside was drab and very lived-in, with faded green shag carpeting, worn smooth furniture and dishes set out in the kitchen that somehow seemed too ordinary.

In the middle of the apartment, and seemingly out of place with rest of everything else, stood a recently refinished, mahogany Steinway grand, with nickel pedals and hinges, which I have always thought was more lustrous than the brass that was later used after the depression. It was in far better condition than I was expecting from a piano that had been built in the 1920’s. It was clear that it had meant a lot to someone, and they had taken special care of it.

The lady left me to inspect the piano, but before she did she sternly told me that some of the monsignor’s family would also be looking at the piano while I was there.

My heart sank. As I began to inspect the piano, some of the family and other church members were milling about while eyeing me and the piano from a distance, and I knew that my chances of ever being able to offer any kind of reasonable bid for such a nice looking instrument, even under normal circumstances, let alone given my current financial situation of just having purchased a home, were going to be slim to none.

As I looked over the piano, it was apparent that indeed the finish was very nice, but the inside had never been rebuilt, and would need to have everything restored from soundboard to pinblock to hammers. Clearly, it would need special attention, and all I had to offer was what I could get for my Schimmel, which wasn’t anything close to what this piano was worth. And on top of it all there would be the cost of rebuilding it. I wasn’t sure if I should even bother to try and make an offer.

It was right then that Lucky and I bonded. We looked at each other like a puppy in a shelter that wants to be rescued and given a new home, and the human who really wants to rescue him, but doesn’t realize that he needs to be rescued himself.

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I suppose, if you’re not a piano person, that may sound a bit melodramatic. Some people, who have never had any kind of personal relationship with a piano, often don’t realize, or can’t understand the importance, of what a personal object such as a piano can mean to people, especially people who are pianists. Every piano is an individual with it’s own sound, touch and character. Just like the people who own and play them. They are more than just objects or possessions.

For example, at our home when I practiced as a kid, I always knew my mom was listening, because occasionally, I would play a wrong note, and she would always feel the need to let me know about it from the kitchen.

“That wasn’t the right note…”

Of course, I was already painfully aware that I had played a wrong note, and every time I would roll my eyes, because she felt the need to point out the obvious, and yet at the same time, I never said anything, probably because I knew she was there, and she was listening.

And every time a dinner guests came over, my dad would always proudly suggest that I play something for them. Naturally, although inside I was always hoping that they would ask me to play, I would never just immediately run over to the piano. No, I had to be begged and cajoled and pleaded with at least several times before I would drag myself, on hands and knees, underwater, in chains, over to the instrument and force myself to brilliantly play a sonata or nocturne or whatever I might have just memorized, followed, of course, by the rousing applause and grateful adulation of the dinner guests.

One of my customers once told me that the piano is the “soul of the home”. While that was probably more the case in times gone by, nevertheless in many homes it still has its ring of truth today. If Mom or Dad played the piano a lot it often reminds the kids of happy memories in their youth about their parents. It should be no surprise that quite often after a death in the family, during the settlement of the estate, the largest tussles are over the piano. Or if the children grew up playing the piano themselves, it can remind them of family gatherings and Christmas sing-alongs, or time just spent at home practicing. These are the things we remember, that can make the house a home and a piano the soul of it.

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After I left the monsignor’s apartment, I was disheartened and disappointed. I knew I would never be able to afford such a piano, especially vying against family members and parishioners.

Nevertheless I carried on with my day, which included a late afternoon stop at my realtor, Terry’s office, to sign some papers. After signing the documents, I told her all about the how nice the piano was, the monsignor, and the other people there, and then I lamented about the whole situation.

“It’s such a nice piano,” I said, “but I’m sure I’ll get outbid by someone.”

Terry listened intently. She had a heart of gold, and at some point during our many house-hunting excursions, she had decided to take me under her wing and adopt me like a second mother.

“You know what some people do who really love a particular house, but can’t afford it and know they’ll get outbid?” she asked.

“Sometimes they’ll write the owner a letter and tell them, ‘we really love your house and would like to offer you what it’s really worth, but this is the best we can do, and we hope you’ll consider it anyway.’ And you know what? Sometimes the owners accept their bid, even though it’s lower, because they want the house to go to someone who will really appreciate, and take care of it.”

And that’s exactly what I did. Although I had no expectations of this idea even being remotely successful, what did I have to lose by trying? So, I wrote a letter to the family. I told them that I really liked the piano, and thought it was a very special instrument, and that the monsignor had taken good care of it, and that clearly it had meant a lot to him. I also told them my background as a pianist, performer and piano technician, and that I too would take special care of it just as he did. I gave them my offer and told them it wasn’t nearly enough, but it was the best I could do.

And then I sent the letter. And nothing happened, and no response. Nothing. Zilch. Nada. I figured I had been outbid, someone else had bought the piano, and so I completely wrote it off as a lost cause and forgot all about it, and life went on.

Then, months later, out of the blue, and when I least expecting it, I got a call. It was from the executor of the estate, who was also an attorney and nephew of the monsignor.

“The family was very touched by your letter,” he said, “and we want to offer you the piano…” There was silence for a moment while we each waited for the other to say something.

I was so stunned, that I didn’t know what to say. He said the word “offer”. Did that mean he wanted to make a counteroffer? I waited a moment, but there was no counteroffer. They were accepting the offer I had made, and he was just waiting for my reply. I thanked him profusely and told him I’d be sending them the money as soon as possible.

I was in disbelief. This was such a surprise, that I had no solid plans for how to come up with the money to pay for it, and yet I knew in my heart without a doubt that it would happen, and that was meant to be.

It also meant I would have to find a buyer for my Schimmel as quickly as possible. There was a piano teacher and her husband I knew, who had expressed some interest years before in purchasing a new Schimmel, but new ones were a bit expensive for them, so the first thing I did was call was call them and tell them my piano was available if they wanted it. They told me immediately that they were very interested, came over and played it, and within a day it was sold for the same price that I would need for the Steinway.

It was about this time that Lucky the Wonder Piano got his name. I couldn’t ignore the significance of what had just happened. Somehow, at the perfect time, I was able to find the piano of my dreams, and effortlessly sell my other piano for the same price. Not only that, but Lucky was built in 1927, the same year as the building I was just moving into. Up to that point I had always preferred more modern décor, but between the piano, and some of my grandmother’s furniture from the same period, following me into the vintage building, I realized I shouldn’t fight it, but rather to accept and acknowledge the harmony of what was being given. You can call it luck or you can call it the wonder of the universe. I call it both. And I’ve been thankful for it ever since.

I decided to send Lucky to Richard Anderson for rebuilding first before putting him into the new home, as it would at least save the cost of several moves, which was particularly important, seeing as I lived up on the third floor.

This meant that I would be pianoless for a short period of about six months, but I could find other places to practice in the meantime. Even so, I still needed to find some other kind of outlet, so I used the time to learn how to play the recorder and picked up drawing in painting again, which I used to enjoy as a child, but stopped abruptly after learning to play the piano.

I had referred Richard to several of my clients over the years for other rebuilding jobs, and I was always impressed with his work, so he seemed like the natural choice for Lucky. While I replaced the hammers and reconditioned and regulated the action, he did the rest.

When he was finally done, after what seemed like forever, he called me to come over to his shop, way out in farm country, to inspect his work. He had done an amazing job. The piano was now beautiful inside and out, and I wasn’t prepared for it. I momentarily misted up, but Richard said nothing and just looked down at his feet. He knew he knew he’d done a good job too, and more than that, he knew what pianos mean to piano people.

That was almost twenty years ago, and that puppy I bonded with is full-grown now, and we’ve been best buddies ever since.

You’d think that after tuning pianos all day long, the last thing anyone would want to do would be to sit down and play a piano, but when I get home, Lucky is always waiting for me my by the door and wants to play. Fortunately, he loves Chopin and Brahms and Rachmaninoff and Jazz just as much as I do. He’s very well tempered, and he’ll play fetch all day long with the themes from the fugues of Bach and the rondos of Mozart. I just throw out a theme and he just keeps bringing it back over and over again in different keys, until we just can’t go on anymore.

Of my clients who own shelter dogs, I’ve always noticed that the dogs tend to be more attentive to their owners, and always seem to be grateful to have been rescued.

In this case, I’m pretty sure it was the human who got rescued.