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Buying a Piano

by Joe Mills

“Take a picture, Daddy.”

I know before I turn around what I’m going to see. As we look for a piano to buy, every time my daughter encounters a white baby grand, she sits, takes a selfie, and says, “Please, this one. Please, please, please.”

We have different criteria. She wants something that looks good. I want something we can afford. I tell her, “You know we don’t have room.” If we did, we would simply take the baby grand a friend wants to give away.

It’s remarkable how many people have pianos they want to get rid of. In fact, at first, when we finally made the decision to get one, we thought this would be how we would do it. We wouldn’t buy a piano; we would simply wait for one to come our way. It seemed reasonable — after all, it’s how I get most of my t-shirts – and I like a plan of action that requires little action on my part.

Soon that plan seems on the verge of succeeding. My step-mother has a player piano, one she has inherited, and when she and my father decide to move and downsize, she asks if we want it. Of course, we do. It has tremendous sentimental value. For years, at Christmas we would gather around it and sing. We loved the rituals of choosing and inserting the music rolls — “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” “Bye Bye Blackbird,” “Jingle Bells.” We would laugh at our ragged, fragmented singing as we tried to read or remember the words, and we would marvel at the weird ghostliness of the keys moving as the motor wheezed along. The piano is cool and beautiful.

When we look into how much it will cost to ship the piano to North Carolina, we are taken aback, but it will be worth it to have a family heirloom. Then we realize how difficult it will be to maintain and keep in tune. Yes, it is cool and beautiful, but it is a player piano rather than a piano to play. It seems similar to having your only car be an antique that doesn’t have any safety features and gets terrible gas mileage. Still, maybe it is worth it. Then we look around our 1920s bungalow. A player piano is a huge piece of furniture. Where would we put it? Where could we put it?

Reluctantly, my wife and I say no, and we begin to reconsider the plan. There are cheap, even free, instruments on eBay and Craig’s list, but since we know nothing about pianos, we don’t know which “free” ones are good deals. We do learn that, unlike a car, if a piano has been kept untouched in a garage or basement for decades, that’s not necessarily a good thing. It needs to be tuned regularly and kept in a stable environment. For peace of mind, we decide to buy one from a reputable dealer.

Except, it turns out shopping for a piano is remarkably similar to shopping for a car. It involves the same stomach-churning anxieties and frustrations. There is the same sense that if there is a price listed it’s not the real price, that sales staff are trying to figure out how much you’ll pay and what you want to hear, and that they have pieces they want to unload. At one piano store, a guy literally says, “What will it take to get you to buy this one today?” He stands next to it, and even as we browse other instruments, he won’t follow us. Instead, he reluctantly shouts requested information across the showroom. At another place, when my wife doesn’t like the cheap, plastic feel of the keys, the manager gets impatient. “You’ll get used to it.” And he warns us, “We won’t have this one here for long, you know.”

Each time a salesperson asks if I have any questions, I admit I really only have one. It’s the same one when I buy anything: “Will this make me happy?” Yet, for some reason, when I ask this, it makes people nervous.

My daughter’s desires aside, we know we need an upright. We also want an acoustic rather than a digital. One salesperson, trumpeting the manifold virtues of digital pianos, insists we’d be making a big mistake to get anything else. A big mistake. He shakes his head at the foolhardiness of those who make such a mistake. I feel in a time loop. We are my parents in the Wurlitzer showroom forty years ago being pressured to buy an organ.

We know nothing, but my wife and I do one smart thing. We ask advice from knowledgeable friends and acquaintances. A person where I teach, who is a professional tuner, recommends an out-of-the-way craftsman who has been refurbishing pianos for fifty years. We find his workshop, in a small town next to an ammo and gun store, and in the cramped front room, there’s an upright Yahama. Danielle sits at it, and we know immediately it’s the one we want. The daughter is disappointed that it isn’t white and she’s put off by what seems to be a cigarette burn on one of the keys. The son is disappointed that it’s not a drum. He bangs on it a bit, and when I tell the guy that I’m apprehensive about having a piano and a 9-year-old boy in the same house, he assures me, “You’d be surprised how durable they are. They can take a beating.” I don’t pursue the pronoun reference.

The man has his sons deliver the piano, and they do so with an efficiency that’s impressive. They have it out of the truck, up the stairs, and through several doorways in less time and with less swearing than it takes me to move a lamp from one room to another. I always appreciate watching people who know what they’re doing (and it’s clear they do when they ignore me and ask Danielle if it’s exactly where it should be).

Because of the layout of our old house and the need to have the piano against an interior wall, there are only a few places we can put it. Wherever it goes, furniture and rooms will need to be re-arranged. As the poet says, “way leads on to way,” and often one decision requires more decisions. Big purchases in particular exert a gravitational pull on our daily lives, altering orbits and routines, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Although it’s not ideal, the dining room seems to be the only possibility for now. We tell ourselves that it will be temporary, until we can prepare another room, get different furniture, have the movers come back. But we know “temporary” sometimes can be twenty years.

It turns out, putting the piano in the dining room means it’s in the center of the house, seen by everyone and passed everyday. The kids start to plunk a few keys as they go by; sometimes they even work out a melody. And the first time Danielle sits at the bench, we make a discovery. The word “piano” may mean soft or quiet, but pianos are loud. As she plays, music flows into every room of the house, and we realize, yes, this will make us happier.


Joseph Mills

Joseph Mills

A professor at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Joseph Mills holds an endowed chair, the Susan Burress Wall Distinguished Professorship in the Humanities. He has published five collections of poetry, including This Miraculous Turning and Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers (2nd edition). Although he has achieved awards and acclaim for his work, no one, not even the most sympathetic and pitying, would praise the way he blunders through “Amazing Grace” or rudimentary piano pieces. Nonetheless, in his middle age, he has decided to learn piano, and he suspects that it has begun to change his life in unanticipated ways.

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