PIANO PURGATORY:
THE DONATED PIANO

SALLY PHILLIPS


PIANO TECHNICIANS will tell you that the worst pianos they are asked to service are usually found in houses of worship or other institutions that accept pianos as donations. How do such institutions become populated with so many inappropriate instruments?

Pianos make their way into the purgatory of institutional use in several ways:

The pastor gets a call from a member of the congregation who wants to donate to the church Aunt Matilda's prized 1952 spinet piano. Neither the donor — most likely, Aunt Matilda's heir — nor the pastor knows anything about pianos, their condition, or value, and the donor is unaware that, 20 years ago, the piano technician told Aunt Matilda that the piano was untunable due to major structural and mechanical defects. Stuck in the limbo between being too compromised to use and having been donated by too prominent a member to be given the last rites, the piano sinks lower and lower in the church's graces, from choir room to nursery and, finally, into the basement, where it marks the entrance to the boiler room. All the while, the music director is hoping that the relic will somehow be forgotten so that the church can buy a new, functional instrument.

Or: A member of the congregation or other institution wants to buy and donate an inexpensive new 4' 11" grand. The music director is horrified by the suggestion; unlike the 7' professional grand he or she had in mind, a 4' 11" piano, being built for light home use, is not designed to be a performance-quality instrument. Facing a fate worse than Aunt Matilda's spinet, the director must find a way to turn down a shiny, new, but very modestly built piano that can't be serviced to professional levels, has a disappointing tone, and demonstrates its shortcomings even before the brass plate engraved with the donor's name has begun to tarnish.

How does the savvy administrator avoid having to accept such gifts? How does she or he turn down offers of nearly useless instruments, and instead get the professional equipment the school or church really needs?

Develop a Plan

old uprignt piano First, identify your institution's piano-related needs, goals, and budget. Without a plan, you're a sitting duck for well-intended but useless donations that, due to poor condition or inappropriate construction or both, eventually become nuisances. Convene a committee — be sure to include the music director — to answer these questions:

  • Who will play the piano, and what is its purpose? Will it be used only to accompany the children's choir in a church where the organ is the main instrument, or will it be the primary instrument? Other than the accompaniment of singers, what type of repertoire do you envision? In addition to services, will it be used as a tool for outreach, drawing interest from local piano teachers for recitals and concerts? If so, the piano needs to hold up under heavy use, and perform well enough to attract the better musicians. Will it be used in recordings?
  • Where will the piano go? In how large a space will the instrument be used? Will it go into a large sanctuary or auditorium, or will it spend most of its time in a choral or band rehearsal space? Will the space have limited heat and air-conditioning during the week, when no services are held? Will the piano be moved around a lot?
  • What is your budget, not only for a new piano, but also to maintain it at a professional level?

With the answers to these questions, develop a wish list of target instruments for every space that needs a piano, so that you're prepared for those calls from would-be donors.

Establishing a Target Instrument

The music director and committee members will need to make sure that the pianos being considered are actually of professional quality and size. Entry-level and many mid-range consumer-grade pianos are designed to appeal to the home market, but won't meet the needs of institutions. Small (under 5' 6") grands, regardless of quality, are unsuitable for use in sanctuaries, concert halls, and auditoriums. The most common misconception about small grands is that if you have sound amplification, then size doesn't matter. But these pianos are usually designed for home use and do not hold up well in institutional venues. Their strings will start to break, they can't be tuned and serviced to exacting professional standards, and their case parts and hardware won't stand up to heavy use or frequent moving.

Pianos designed for professional institutional use are more expensive because their sound quality is closely tied to the acoustically favorable woods of which they're made, and to the sophistication of their design and construction. Prices rise with each step up in size and/or quality, as manufacturers include more expensive materials, better design, and more attention to detail. This results in the performance quality and durability needed in institutional settings.

If you consult piano technicians and/or teachers about what sort of piano is appropriate, make sure that they are specific about which models they recommend. Many manufacturers make a large number of models; some are home pianos and others are professional, and the price differences can be huge. And if you're buying a new piano, be sure that the dealer's salespeople know what demands will be placed on the instrument.

Large Sanctuary or Auditorium Pianos

If the piano is to be used as a solo instrument or to accompany vocalists in a large space, I recommend nothing smaller than a 6' grand of Intermediate or Performance Grade. (For definitions of these terms, see "A Map of the Market for New Pianos," elsewhere in Piano Buyer.) If you also expect it to serve for professional piano recitals, recording, or chamber music, you'll need a grand of 7' to 9'. If you choose a vertical piano for your main performance space, you'll need an upright at least 50" tall for adequate projection of sound to the rear of the hall. But be aware that the choice of a vertical eliminates the use of the space for serious piano recitals or chamber music. Institutions that have a great acoustic environment and a professional piano have become well known as recording venues. If this describes your hall, you might consider what needs your community has in this regard; your building could generate some income from its use as a recording space.

Choir Rooms and Rehearsal Spaces

A grand of 5' 6" to 6' is appropriate for these smaller spaces and less critical uses. In the smallest spaces, a large professional upright will do. In general, a grand is more desirable than a vertical because of the better musical control a grand action provides. In addition, unlike with an upright, the pianist can see over the lid of a grand while accompanying a choral group. However, a better-quality vertical 46" or taller can be musically superior to many grands under 5' 6".

Examples of Suitable Models

  • School Studio Verticals 45" to 47": These durable pianos are sold to schools as practice-room instruments. They usually have an angled upper panel with a wide music rack capable of holding many music books, hymnals, or heavy scores. Their cabinets are functional and simple in styling, with toe blocks and large casters for safe, easy moving. Prices for new ones range from $6,000 to $26,000. Use: Practice room, small choir room, Sunday-school room, teaching, very small chapel, accompaniment.
  • Professional Verticals 48" to 49": Instruments this size, built for professional use, have larger soundboards, longer strings, and heavier hammers. They are louder and project better. Prices of new ones range from $8,000 to $30,000. Use: Choir room, small sanctuary, accompaniment.
  • Large Verticals 50" and taller: These are usually examples of the high end of each maker's vertical-piano line, and can sometimes sound like a grand piano of the same brand. They have much better projection and, usually, such features as a larger music rack and longer keys, as well as better-quality sound-producing materials. Prices of new ones start in the $10,000–15,000 range, but elite models can easily reach $50,000 or more. Such pianos are expensive, but can be a better choice than a very small grand when space limitations are severe.
  • Grands 5' 6" to 6' 4": These mid-size grands have similar actions to their larger counterparts, though sometimes with shorter keys. This, their smaller soundboards, and shorter strings make them too small for professional solo work in large spaces, but fine for rehearsal, accompaniment, smaller spaces, and other less- or mid-critical uses. New performance-quality grands start at around $25,000 and go up to $85,000.
  • Semi-Concert Grands 6' 5" to 7' 11": These pianos are usually built for heavy professional use. I especially recommend the larger Japanese, American, and European models. These will do in a smaller hall for solo and chamber music, as well as for more routine accompaniment work. New ones start at around $40,000 and go up to well over $100,000 for the highest quality.
  • Concert Grands 8' to 9' (or longer): In large halls, the concert grand is the gold standard. If your institution plans to host professional piano recitals, chamber music, or orchestra concerts, a larger piano is a must. New concert grands start at about $100,000.

New Pianos: Setting Goals and Budget

Create a realistic budget for a new purchase by identifying several models that fit your needs and noting their prices. You'll need time to raise the money, so when you ask for bids, be sure to give the dealer a timetable for your purchase so that price increases can be taken into account.

Establish a budget just prior to announcing the need for a new instrument, so that offers of less expensive, inappropriate pianos can be turned into gifts toward the goal instrument. This will avoid a situation in which, for example, someone gives $10,000 toward a grand for the sanctuary, and that amount then becomes the budget. If someone offers less than the full amount, be sure to inform the donor of the full budget for the instrument, to give the donor the opportunity to make a donation covering the entire amount. Most donors simply have no idea how much a professional piano costs. It always amazes me that a congregation won't blink at spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to restore a pipe organ, but will be horrified that a new piano can cost over $50,000.

Avoid allowing one donor to make the decisions regarding the purchase of a new piano, especially if that person has no musical background. The steep learning curve in choosing a piano is made much more difficult when the donor doesn't play. That said, in my experience, when a church committee visits a piano store to hear a selection of pianos, even though some members may express ignorance, they can readily hear the difference when pianos of varying quality are played for them.

Make sure that you make an appointment to see the pianos. Piano dealers cannot be expected to always have every instrument in tune. Given advance notice, most dealers will put their best foot forward by preparing for your consideration several of the most likely candidates.

Used Pianos: Myths and Reality

Other than in the first year or two, when some pianos may slightly improve as they stabilize and their actions get played in, pianos really do not get better with age. A piano's life is a long, downhill slope toward a complete rebuilding job, assuming the piano is worth it (and very few verticals are worth rebuilding), and sale or disposal if it's not. The myth that older pianos are automatically better is an idea that does not hold up under scrutiny. Some older pianos were built well, and some were not. Some new pianos are cheaply built, and some are better than pianos have ever been. Real strides in piano manufacturing have been made in the last 20 years, making the continued reverence for older instruments insupportable.

Be aware that when the donor, who probably has no technical knowledge of pianos, says that the piano needs only tuning, he or she may not understand that pianos of a certain age and compromised condition can no longer be tuned. The tuning pins may be too loose, or the strings may be too old, rusty, or fatigued. The cost of new strings, pinblock, and soundboard can easily run into five figures.

The same goes for the action — the mechanism that connects the keys to the hammers that strike the strings. There are thousands of parts in a piano action, and they may be worn out, moth-eaten, damaged by rodents, or have a history of moisture damage. The hammers may have sustained irreparable wear, making improvement in tone impossible unless the hammers are replaced. Some obscure older brands may have actions that are more expensive to repair because of the time-consuming difficulty of finding and fitting replacement parts. What may seem a simple complaint, such as "a few sticking keys," could be simple to fix or very costly. The complete replacement of an action can run into thousands of dollars.

An older piano that has structural or mechanical problems, or hasn't been tuned in many years, has hidden liabilities in the costs of moving, tuning, and repairs that may easily total more than the piano is worth. If, before accepting a piano as a donation, you get a repair estimate and compare it to the cost and life expectancy of a new piano of similar quality, you'll often find that the new instrument is the better buy.

Rebuilding a Donated Piano

Rebuilding a piano takes months, and a rebuild of a performance-grade instrument will usually cost 20% to 50% of the cost of a new one. However, because the labor to rebuild is about the same regardless of the quality of the instrument, the cost of rebuilding a lesser-quality piano may exceed the cost of buying a new one. With few exceptions, premium grands such as those by Steinway, Mason & Hamlin, and Baldwin can be rebuilt with the certainty that rebuilding will be cost effective. But remember that a gift of a valuable old grand comes with the cost of rebuilding it. Just because it says Steinway on the fallboard doesn't mean that it's immune from wear, or that the technician can instantly bring it back to life. Strings on all brands of piano eventually need costly replacement. In most cases, any piano more than 20 years old is due for restringing for top professional use, and that makes most instruments of lesser quality a poor investment for anything beyond minor repairs. Also, don't fall into the trap of accepting an old Steinway or Mason & Hamlin grand that is too small for your performance space. If you've designated a 7' piano for the space, a 5' 1" will not do, no matter how prestigious the brand. This is where having a plan already in place can protect you.

The Tactful Turndown

Frequently, the offer of a donated piano follows a stressful life experience, such as a death. Often the donor is trying to preserve something that was very important in the life of the original owner, and lacks an objective view of the instrument's value. Tact plays a big role in gracefully turning down an offer of an unusable instrument. Suggesting that a piano technician be hired to take a look at it will often eliminate the need for a detailed explanation. If the technician is informed of the level of quality you're looking for, he or she might be able to disqualify a potential problem instrument. Asking if any family members might better appreciate having the piano also sometimes works. As a last resort, you might point to several instruments already in the possession of your organization that are sitting idle, and profusely thank the prospective donor for thinking of your organization while mentioning that you're accepting monetary donations toward the purchase of a suitable professional-quality piano.

If you're the donor, you don't want to put the institution in a situation where your donated piano doesn't work properly and actually costs the institution money, or prevents it from obtaining the instrument it needs for its programs. If your piano is not a good fit for the institution but you would still like to be of help, consider selling your piano privately and donating the proceeds to the institution, to be used toward the purchase of a new instrument. (See the sidebar, "Donating, Converting, or Recycling Your Piano," for other ideas about what to do with a piano rejected by an institution.)

Guidelines for the Donation of Used Pianos

Having a written policy in place regarding the acceptance of donated items, and requiring that the items be appraised and that they meet certain stated guidelines, can be very helpful. Here are a few guidelines specific to the donation of used pianos:

  • No spinets or consoles. Vertical pianos 36" to 43" tall were built for home use only, and won't have the durability and sound needed for a performance space. Spinets and consoles usually have freestanding front legs unsupported by toe blocks; these won't hold up well if the piano is frequently moved.
  • No grands smaller than 5' 6". As mentioned earlier, most grands smaller than this are not made to survive the hard life of an institutional piano, and they lack the longer bass strings and the projection needed to produce enough sound to fill a large space. Attempts to get a big sound from a small piano inevitably result in broken strings and damage to the pedal system.
  • No pianos over 20 years old, except premium brands such as Steinway and Mason & Hamlin. This will eliminate offers of old uprights.
  • No Chinese, Indonesian, or Korean pianos made before 2000. Today, most of these brands are well made, but anything made before 2000 could have problems that may be expensive to service. In addition, most of the older Chinese, Indonesian, and Korean pianos were built primarily as consumer-grade instruments for the home market.
  • No Japanese pianos not made for the American market. Most Japanese pianos made for North America are seasoned to minimize the damage caused by extreme dryness. Unless rebuilt, Japanese pianos made for other parts of the world (so-called gray-market pianos) may be slightly more susceptible to this kind of damage. This is not usually a problem for pianos in the home, where the owner can take measures to control the climate near the piano, but churches and schools are not usually known for exacting standards of temperature and humidity control. Anyway, most gray-market pianos are more than 20 years old. See the discussion of gray-market pianos in the Piano Buyer article, "Buying a Used or Restored Piano."
  • No piano that doesn't have a clean bill of health from a reliable technician. Despite a venerable brand name, any piano may have been in a fire, a flood, a wet basement, or been damaged by mice, spillage, or abuse.
  • Valuable old premium-quality grands need to come with an estimate of needed repairs and, preferably, a donation for rebuilding. It's all well and good to say that your organization has a Steinway, but not if it can't be used and you can't afford to repair it.
LAST RITES
I get a phone call from someone selling an old no-name upright in "decent" condition but that "hasn't been played or tuned for many years." I explain that there simply is no market for this kind of piano, and recommend junking it. The seller wants me to come out and examine the piano anyway, as he's convinced of its value. I agree to come out and evaluate it for $100. When I get there I confirm that, although the cabinet is ornate, the instrument is junk, and that the cost of repair would exceed by far the cost of a new piano.

About three weeks later, I get a call from another person, who says she's just bought a really nice used piano, paid $300 to have it delivered, and now needs it tuned. We schedule the tuning, and when my technician gets there, he finds that the piano can't be tuned — the tuning pins are loose and the piano is unrepairable. When he describes the piano to me, I realize it's the same one I "condemned" a few weeks ago!

About a month later, I get a call from the music director of a small church half a mile from our store. One of their parishioners has donated a beautiful antique piano, and they need it tuned and some "minor" repairs made. You can guess what we found when we got there!!! The move cost them $275.

When I explain that the piano is junk, the music director tells me it's no problem — they'll have the pastor offer to sell it after the Sunday sermon, for the same $275, "on a first-come, first-served basis."

I bite my tongue and just say that I'm sorry I'm not able to give them better news.

You'd think a church would know when to administer "last rites," ‘cause that's what this piano needed!

  — Steve Cohen, Jasons Music Center, Pasadena, Maryland

Having the Piano Appraised

If the donor claims a value for tax purposes of more than $5,000 for a donated piano, he or she will need an independent written appraisal by a qualified appraiser in order to establish that value. Before doing anything, the donor should contact her or his CPA; the IRS rules regarding appraisals have recently become more restrictive.

If you are the donor and have no idea of the piano's value, you'll need to get an initial appraisal or opinion of value. If you ask dealers to buy it and they show no interest, that's a pretty good indication of its value. Don't be surprised if, despite your sentimental attachment to it, what you thought was a valuable antique turns out to have no market value at all. You will, of course, have to pay to have a technician evaluate the instrument.

The donor should also get local estimates of the cost of moving, so that the recipient organization doesn't have to bear this expense. Make sure that the movers are bonded and insured.

Disposal of Unwanted Instruments

Pastors tell me that getting rid of a donated piano is nearly impossible until the original donor is out of the picture, and agree that turning down an unsuitable instrument is easier than trying to replace it once it has been accepted. One pastor told me that, in 45 years, he had never seen a piano disposed of by a church. Nonetheless, I occasionally see a church trying to sell an old piano, under the impression that someone can use it. I usually discourage people from buying a piano from a church; such instruments have usually seen their maximum useful life, and consumers who choose this option usually don't have the money to put them in decent playing condition, even when that's possible. Also, I caution parents not to saddle a young student with a barely functioning piano because it is so discouraging to the student's progress.

I recommend that church administrators not resort to just pushing unusable pianos aside, but seriously consider disposing of them; it's harder to budget for new instruments as long as the old ones still haunt the premises. Piano dealers and movers I've called have mentioned disposal options that range from $150 to $350, depending on the logistics, the difficulty of the move, and the size of the piano. Disposal is best left to professionals; even though in this case a careless move to the dump will do no harm to the piano, keep in mind the safety of the workers and the potential damage to the facilities. (If the piano is inappropriate for the institution, but not yet ready for the dump, see the sidebar for other ideas of what to do with it.)

I also advise churches and other institutions to keep a file on every piano in their possession. This file should include any invoices for service and comments left by technicians. This trail of evidence becomes very useful to the administrator, who can pull out years' worth of invoices for perusal by committee members and note the problems of individual instruments. Following a change in administration, it will also save countless hours for new staff members, who won't have to begin the process of evaluation all over again.


Over the past 35 years, piano technician Sally Phillips has worked in virtually every aspect of the piano industry — service, retail, wholesale, and manufacturing. In her role as a concert-piano technician, she has tuned and prepared pianos for concert and recording work in such venues as Town Hall, Alice Tully Hall, and the Kennedy Center, and for such orchestras as the Cincinnati Symphony, the BBC Concert Orchestra, and the Vienna Philharmonic. At present, Phillips lives in Kentucky and works throughout the southeastern U.S. She can be contacted at [email protected].

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