Free Pianos

As a piano technician, over the last 30 years I have witnessed a trend in shopping for pianos.  Parents of young children want to expose them to the piano.  They are always trying to expand their child’s horizons by putting every opportunity possible in front of them.  This always proves to be a very expensive undertaking.

Often, by the time the quest for a piano begins, (usually between age 3 and 6), the parents are on a tight budget.  The usual thought process is,  “I don’t know if my child will remain dedicated to lessons or practice, or ever learn to play at all.  So, I want to find the least expensive option available to me.”

This is a reasonable approach.  However, it is important to understand that, when it comes to pianos, “free” is not always a good deal.  If a piano doesn’t perform at an acceptable level, it can be a huge obstacle to anyone learning to play.  The notes must all function mechanically, the regulation (“touch”) should be reasonably consistent, and the tuning should be “close” at the very least!  Anything short of that, and your child will have so many difficulties with the piano that their ability to learn will be greatly impaired.  Imagine trying to learn to drive in a piece-of-junk car that barely runs, with bad steering, bad brakes, worn out transmission, and so on.

In the early 20th century, the piano was incredibly popular, existing in almost any home that could afford to have one.  Consequently, there are an enormous number of pianos from this era still around.  Most pianos built at that time have life spans on major components of about 75 years, at best.  Unfortunately, most of these pianos were built about 100 years ago.

The most popular pianos were the vertical pianos, or “uprights”.  Today, these pianos almost always will require major rebuilding, costing thousands of dollars, to be usable at a minimum level.  For one of these pianos to reach the performance level it had as a new piano (though often much better than today’s new pianos), the restoration costs could exceed $10,000.00!  In today’s market, we have found, a fully restored upright piano seldom will bring more than $3,000.00.

The exceptions to the rule are grand pianos (not “upright grands” or “square grands”).  From baby grands to concert grands, once restored, the marketable value of the grand piano usually exceeds the cost of restoration.

So, let’s get back to our bargain-hunting, yet child-nurturing parents.  I often get the call “I’m so excited!  Someone is giving us a piano!  It’s a big and heavy upright and doesn’t look that good, but, hey, it’s FREE!”

Their first requirement from me is to move the piano to their home ($250.00).  After my much-repeated, skeptical explanation, (“If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is…”), I reluctantly move the piano.  (I often object to the point that my potential customer seems to act insulted and sometimes, even angry.  At that point, I just shut up and do as they request.)

The next question I always hear is “What is the least I can spend to get those broken notes working and make it sound better?”  I’m usually forced to start the path to depression and disappointment by saying something like “First we have to repair those rollers and the loose toe brace, so the piano doesn’t tip over and kill someone ($200.00).  Then I can repair the broken notes and try to get it in tune ($300.00).

If you are keeping tabs, you’ll notice that this “free” piano has now cost $750.00.

Sometimes I never hear from these people again.  Seldom is the case that the $750.00 investment has resulted in their child continuing the pursuit of the piano and is using this instrument.  More likely, they did not stick with the pursuit largely due to the limitation and difficulty of use of a sub-standard piano.  I fear, that in a lot of cases, the $750.00 paid to me (for which I’ve worked very hard) is resented because the piano never performed to inflated expectations.

Another common scenario is,  I receive a call a few months later to come tune and repair the piano again.  I am asked, “Why won’t it hold tuning?” Because it needs new strings and pin block and soundboard repairs ($3,000.00).  The action also needs to be rebuilt, as well (another $2,000.00).  When I extend this reply, I can usually see the situation start to sink in, and, though I’ve always tried to inform people that the upright is not worth the investment to repair, it is at this point that I usually see the frustration and heartbreak in the eyes of my customer.

The old upright, often scratched and scarred, now sits unusable in their home:  the literal “800-pound gorilla in the room”. So they are forced to get rid of it.  They often first try to run a small ad in the classifieds ($100.00), offering the piano “cheap”.  At that point, they usually realize how they were able to get the piano for FREE.  They then try to donate the piano.  However, almost no one takes them anymore.  Both of the previously mentioned options unfortunately start this heartbreaking process over for the next “victim” of this piano.  Often, after months of trying to “unload” the piano, I receive the call asking “What can YOU do to get rid of this piano?”  I can only offer the popular service we provide of moving the piano out ($250.00) and delivering it to the landfill (they charge $50.00).

If you are still keeping tabs, this FREE piano has cost the bargain hunter $1,150.00 and they have nothing to show for it, except the four distinct dents in their floor where the behemoth once sat.

Even though working on pianos is how I make my modest living, I am pleading with anyone who will take the time to listen:  PLEASE do not pay me the $1,150.00!  Many other options are available to you that can accomplish your desires at much less expense.    Please take a few minutes, before you acquire ANY piano, and read the information at  A Guide To Piano Shopping

Also, if you find yourself in possession of a large, old, upright piano that “needs work”, please don’t give it away to anyone to whom it has no sentimental value.  Please just bite the bullet and put the piano out of its misery by taking it to your local recycle center with 3 or 4 strong guys using a truck or a trailer.  Please go to “Piano Moving & Moving Suggestions” before attempting this, or hire a professional to dispose of it.

I’ve seen how emotional it can be to see the old family piano tossed in the trash, but for the sake of the next loving, nurturing parent out there, let’s bring this all-too-common nightmare scenario to an end!

Rick Conder

Charlotte Piano Tuning & Moving