Why Are So Many Pianos Ending Up In The Dump?
Many old pianos are now being dumped, abandoned, neglected, smashed – even burnt. Why is this happening, and should we care?
The advert is up, her husband has spread the word at work, but 12 weeks on and Karen Harper from Baltimore, Maryland just can’t find a taker for her piano – not even free of charge.
“I’ve had no calls – nothing whatsoever,” she says matter-of-factly.
But her husband is starting to lose patience, and has threatened to take the thing apart “bit by bit” if they don’t find a new home for it soon.
The piano in question – an upright Wessel, Nickel & Gross built in 1927 – is in good condition, she says, and still plays well.
Karen bought the piano when her children were young, but now she just needs the space.
“My daughter loves it – if she knew it was going to a good home it would be easier.”
The thought of it being destroyed would devastate her, says Karen. “It’s a hard decision to make over a piano.”
“There are more and more pianos reaching extinction, needing to go to the graveyard”
Unceremoniously upturned in a rubbish tip, and picked away at for pieces, was the sorry end for the Windsor Baby Grand piano at Sandy Spring Friends School, also in Maryland.
A local piano restorer had hoped to take it, says teacher Cathryn Carnevale, but the cost of repair would have been much greater than its value. It would have been for love not money – and when a big tax bill came in, he just couldn’t afford it.
“It’s like a human, it slowly goes downhill in terms of its health,” says John Gist, of Gist Piano Center in Louisville, Kentucky, which sells and restores pianos.
“There are more and more pianos reaching extinction, needing to go to the graveyard.
“I get 10 to 15 calls a day from people saying ‘So how much is my piano worth?'”
But the reality is, says Gist, sentimental value aside, many old pianos are worthless, though a top-name brand like a Steinway will hold its value well.
A woman’s hands at the keyboard of an old piano
Restorers often make the analogy with vintage cars – it is usually cheaper to buy new than rebuild, and keeping an old model going is more a hobby pursuit than a practical one.
A piano has thousands of moving parts, making restoration a very time-consuming, and specialist business. Just polishing a piano can take 70 hours.
… That’s how many there are on a standard piano, and it’s also the name of a non-profit foundation set up by pianist Lara Downes to try to match unwanted pianos with schools.
“There just seems to be a big need,” she says. But the pianos need to be in good condition. “You can’t resurrect every instrument – they do need to be retired.”
“It becomes a money pit,” says Gist, and so often the best advice – and advice he doles out several times a day – is just to get rid of it.
In the UK, it is a similar story.
“You see some dusty old wreck, and you know it’s not going to be tuneable,” says Stephen Willett, who runs SW Piano Movers in London, and has recently branched out his business to include piano disposals.
“I used to try to keep them – I had a shed full of pianos.”
These days – though it’s not something he enjoys doing – he regularly goes to the dump, unloads a ragbag collection of old pianos, and tips them.
Few would have foreseen this sorry scene at the tip in the piano’s heyday at the end of the 1800s and start of the 1900s.
That is the era when piano production went into overdrive, and it is the instruments made then that are now, 100 years on, collectively on their knees.
Camden Town in London was the heart of the piano-making industry in the UK, with around 100 small-scale factories and workshops, employing 6,000 people at its height in 1920. New York was the hub in the US. Between them they churned out a flood of pianos to meet the burgeoning demand.
The piano was hugely popular across northern Europe too, especially in France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany – home of the Bechstein.
“Every home had to have a piano,” says Alastair Laurence, chair of John Broadwood & Sons, the only UK piano maker from the era still in operation.
In the early 19th Century, the piano was the preserve of the upper and middle classes – doctors and lawyers for example – but by the end of the century, pianos were common in the homes of English coal miners, says Laurence, with pianos sold on instalment plans to make them more affordable.
“Looking at the social history of the piano is like putting your eye to a well-cut jewel”: Michael Goldfarb on the BBC’s Piano Tales: A Social History of the Piano
The piano was an important source of home entertainment, as well as being a sign of status, and was often put in the best room in the house, ready to show the neighbours – even attract suitors. A young woman who was good at playing the piano was regarded as better marriage material.
Because pianos were being made in such quantities at the time, the quality was not always the best.
“In the 1920s, they were made for the mass market. They were not made to last, they were made to sell,” says Marcus Roberts of Roberts Pianos in Oxford.
He says, much like a house, a piano needs to be built with good foundations if it is to last.
“When you are making cheap pianos to sell, you are going to cut corners. Those pianos were never put together properly.”
And it is this glut – for want of a better word – of mass-produced pianos that are now finding themselves on the scrap heap.
Also, the piano is just “not as culturally relevant” as it once was says Brian Majeski, editor of The Music Trades magazine.
The number of pianos sold in the US has halved over the last 10 years, according to figures.
“It doesn’t make any sense to me to have wood and metal in the dump – banana peels go in the dump”
US sales of digital pianos, on the other hand, have gone up 50% in the same period.
“They’ve really hit their stride… and found a ready audience,” says Majeski.
Digital pianos were once scoffed at by piano connoisseurs, but the quality has improved a lot, he says. They have the advantage of being reasonably priced, they take up much less space and you can plug in headphones, avoiding disturbing the neighbours.
But there is one market where the piano is booming – China.
Around 300,000 pianos were made in big factories in China last year, as well as a large share of the world’s piano parts for repairs.
The vast majority of these pianos – as many as 250,000 – were for the domestic Chinese market, which has seen piano playing and ownership rocket over the past few years.
“It’s like an atomic explosion and just keeps going and going,” says Julia Kruger, vice-president of the National Guild of Piano Teachers, which works in over 70 countries around the world.
Chinese pianist Lang Lang at a New Year concert in China The success of pianist Lang Lang has added to the appeal of the piano in China
During the Cultural Revolution, the piano was seen as perhaps the most dangerous of all Western instruments, but now many Chinese families are buying a piano for the first time, and see piano playing as a way their child can get ahead.
The standard of the pianos varies, just as it did 100 years ago in the US and UK. Some are much like “peas in a pod”, says Alastair Laurence, though there are some good quality pianos coming out of China, he adds.
But as for the old pianos in the West, “as a culture, we don’t know what to do with them,” says Matt Hirschfelder, a piano restorer in Salem, Oregon, who was recently awarded a grant to look into recycling options for old pianos.
“It doesn’t make any sense to me to have wood and metal in the dump. Banana peels go in the dump,” he says.
On the other hand, it’s not that easy to salvage parts from a piano.
Because of the tension in the strings, it is dangerous to dismantle a piano if you don’t know what you are doing – and a slow task if you do.
Shauna Holiman and Penny Putnam turn old pianos into art. They have made more than 35 pieces – using wood, keys, strings and wippens (the mechanism that joins the key to the hammer). “The insides of pianos are really beautiful,” says Holiman. “Every key is unique,” says Putnam, as is every pedal. “Sometimes the toe has tapped on those brass pedals so many times that it has worn a hole,” she says. “It seems everyone has an old piano they want rid of,” says Putnam. However there is only a limited number of pianos they can take on. They encourage people to save the ivory keys at least.
Loosening the strings, and separating the wood from the metal takes around 10 hours, says Hirschfelder.
If a piano has really been neglected it might have attracted rats or mice, who like to eat the animal glue used to hold it together and nuzzle up to the felt, meaning that hantavirus – a deadly disease spread by rodents – is a danger.
But it is well worth the bother, argues Hirschfelder. The strings for example are made of high grade steel, and are so strong they can be used as cables for airplanes.
The keys are made of ebony and ivory, which he has seen made into jewellery, artwork – even exclusive tiling around swimming pools.
Pianos are often not made of solid wood, but have a thick wood veneer instead, and this is still worth saving and re-using.
Some people make furniture of it, but this is usually done on a small-scale piece by piece basis.
Where Hirschfelder lives wood recycling services are not available, so it is often burned or turned into wood chip to scatter on gardens.
But even recycling doesn’t always seem right to a piano’s owner, who typically associates it with music, the memory of a child or parent, moments of emotional intensity, and the finer things in life.
Even those who take a business-like approach to piano disposal, don’t always feel happy about it.
“I’m not going to tell them I’m going to chop it up and put it in a hopper,” says Blake Cooper at Cooper Piano in Atlanta, Georgia, who regularly throws out pianos which are beyond repair.
“It’s an emotional thing,” says Cooper, whose family has been in the business for four generations.
“The piano is like a form of expression, and all of a sudden, you’re dealing in a strange situation.
“All those pianos had somebody happy at some time. All those pianos did that. They really don’t owe us anything.
“People were happy, even if only for a moment. Did the piano smile?” he asks. “I don’t know – it might have.”