Piano Purgatory: The Donated Piano
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
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?