A letter from the Piano Doctor (a pseudonym) to my mom:
I have examined your piano closely and evaluated its condition. The tuning pins are very loose and the bridge is completely separated. The action is worn and the strings are rusty and I am afraid that the piano cannot be put in tune without major rebuilding.
After careful consideration and deliberation, I regret that I must advise you not to invest in repairing the piano. The repairs needed would be around $9,000. There is just not sufficient value in the instrument to justify it. There are no halfway measures in this instance, such as reconditioning. The water damage and mold as well as the serious cracks in the bridge and soundboard make it impossible to just repair the piano without rebuilding.
If you have questions, feel free to call, or if you wish to discontinue the storage contract, to discuss your options.
I await your instructions.
Oh, Piano Doctor. You come highly recommended, and I’m sure you’re quite good at what you do. But I’ve gotta tell you: You’ve got it all wrong.
In 1914, my great grandmother Clara paid some $1,000 for this piano. She wasn’t a rich woman, so she had to sell her riding mare–her only means of transportation–to afford it. By today’s standards, that would translate to somewhere in the neighborhood of $20,000.
Years later, when Clara had a family, this same piano survived a house fire. Her husband and sons were able to put out the flames before they lost everything, but in those first few terrifying moments, Clara–a petite little 105-pound woman–pushed the piano all the way out to the safety of the porch BY HERSELF. She could’ve grabbed any number of family treasures, but she chose that piano.
Amazingly, she did all this even though she was never a pianist. You see, Piano Doctor, Clara understood that some of us are the vehicles of music, and some of us are its guardians. Every musical family needs both.
Clara’s sons–my grandfather Frank and his three brothers–never took formal lessons, but they taught themselves and eventually played at barn dances. Frank played piano, Chet played fiddle, and Wayne played guitar. For Ben’s part, he danced with the girls. Smart man, that Ben.
My mom was just a kid when my grandfather inherited the piano. An involuntary smile spreads across her face now when she remembers the joy it brought him. His weathered, untrained farmer’s fingers slammed into the front of the cabinet again and again. Over time, little bits of bare wood showed above the keys where he’d dug in with his fingernails.
I never met my grandfather; he was killed in car accident six years before I was born. But I’ve seen pictures of his handsome, black Irish face smiling down at the keys, his music undoing the toll of all those hours in the fields. And I’ve heard stories about his character. He believed: When someone does you wrong, kill them with kindness. “It hurts them a lot more than it hurts you,” he said. On the day of his funeral, the line of mourners went all the way out the door and around the block.
I took piano lessons for ten years, from second grade all the way through high school. Unfortunately, I relied on my ear so much that I never quite got the hang of sight reading–guess that’s the Grandpa Frank in me. For the first few years, Mom made me take those lessons, but from then on it was my choice, my solace. My mother’s gift to me.
Recently, my aunt Peg, the piano’s most recent guardian, kindly agreed to pass it down to me. My mom had it shipped all the way from Illinois to your Western Pennsylvania studio for a workup, Piano Doctor–its last stop on its way here. You dissected it, found it in a terrible state, and plainly told us the piano’s grim prognosis in your letter.
We about cried.
I thought of your words the other day as the big men with the truck delivered the piano to our door. “Not sufficient value in the instrument,” you said.
This particular instrument has traveled 600 miles, 94 years, and four generations to be here. Despite your assessment, expert as it may be, I assure you the piano is not worse for the wear.
You see, Piano Doctor, those crescent-moon-shaped dents from my grandfather’s fingers are STILL THERE.
Even if I’m never able to afford the major surgery that the piano requires; even if restoring it ourselves proves too mammoth a DIY project, given the workload we’ve already taken on with this house; even if our treasured family heirloom has to stay like this for decades, woefully out of tune and barely hanging on….
Oh, mark my words, Doc. Someday, we WILL play the piano again.