Peter D. Kramer
The Ron’s Trucking truck took just 10 minutes to lumber the 2 miles from Normandy Road to Curran Court in Yonkers, but its cargo’s journey has a long story to tell.
It’s a story of patience and perseverance, of precision and improvisation, of listening closely and trying not to hear. It involves late-night practice, a patient-but-weary mom, steep stone steps, a side-hustling lawyer, a powerful crystal and an 80-year-old woman who swears she’s not the life of the party.
Here in Yonkers this summer, a simple question led to an remarkable act of generosity, one that unfolded 16 times over: Somebody asked for a piano, and someone had one to give.
We followed one of those donated pianos — from donor to movers to tuner to its new home in senior housing — and listened to the stories it told along the way.
This is the story of a piano changing hands.
Awash in uprights
Could we have our piano back?
Residents at Curran Court senior citizen housing — part of the sprawling Municipal Housing Authority of the City of Yonkers — this spring told Wilson Kimball, the agency’s new president and CEO, that their old piano, removed during renovations two years ago, had been thrown away.
As they emerged from the pandemic, they looked forward to gathering again in their community room. They missed the music.
Word got to Mayor Mike Spano, who took to Facebook: Did anyone have a piano to donate?
They did. And how.
Calls came from Jersey and Connecticut, Manhattan and Yonkers. Soon, the housing authority was awash in offered uprights, player pianos and more, enough to spread the wealth to the Yonkers Public Schools, which is now the owner of several new instruments, including a baby grand.
At the turn of the 20th century, a piano in the home was a sign of American arrival, permanence. Pianos — heavy, hard to move — are meant to stay in one place, which was comforting to the newly arrived wave of immigrants.
Brian Majeski, editor of Music Trades Magazine, a 131-year-old music-industry publication and research firm, says the market for acoustic pianos hit its peak in the mid-1920s, when 300,000 pianos were sold, driven by the popularity of the player piano.
Radio took a bite out of piano purchases, the Depression took another bite, then World War II took yet another. Sales rebounded by single digits a year, to a peak of 280,000 new pianos sold in 1978, he says.
In recent years, the industry has seen just 30,000 new pianos sold, Majeski says. The market for used pianos is four times that.
Today, nests emptied of piano-playing kids have turned the once-treasured family instruments into inert pieces of furniture. They become resting places for framed photos and magnets for dust, slipping silently out of tune as life goes on around them.
That’s not the fate of the 16 pianos donated this summer — including one particular piano in a Yonkers home’s bay window, its bench full of long neglected sheet music and recital programs.
Time to move
The midday sun beats down on Bryant Smith and Rudy Feliz as they climb the five stone steps from the sidewalk on Normandy Road, stride up the stone walk, then climb another five stone steps to Carolann and Michael Petnuch’s green front door.
Piano movers notice steps.
They pay attention to them on the way up and — unless they can find an easier way out — they will have to take them slowly, one at a time, on the way down, clutching 450 pounds of musical instrument between them.
It’s 88 degrees and will only get hotter for the two men from Ron’s Trucking, whose motto is: “We do when they don’t.”
Bryant, 58, and Rudy, 28, are here to move a piece of family furniture that was once essential to the Petnuch’s eldest child and only son, Mike.
They ring the doorbell.
First night, late night
Memories are fuzzy when it comes to this piano in the bay window next to the Petnuch’s dining room, a Charles R. Walter Queen Anne Cherry console upright, Model 1520.
Mike and his mom remembered it arriving in 1996, when Mike was in sixth grade, but the serial number — and a call to the manufacturer’s Indiana headquarters — show it was built by hand, over a period of five months, in early 2001 and shipped to Yonkers that June.
Whenever it arrived, it changed things for Mike. No more second-hand Craigslist piano that wouldn’t stay tuned. No Casio digital keyboard or the two-octave keyboard his grandmother had gifted him.
A real piano, just like the ones he had been playing for 45 minutes a week at Belle School of Music, where teachers had seen a talent and nurtured it in group lessons, then private lessons, then as a soloist.
The piano was an investment in their son, and a gamble. He had tired of baseball and soccer and gymnastics, but they had a feeling the piano was different.
On that arrival day, Mike played. And played. And played.
For hours that day, into that night, into the early hours of the next morning, his fingers flew. He can’t be sure, this many years later, but chances are he played light and lilting sonatinas by Mozart or Clementi.
A pianist needs to grow up in a patient household, and Mike Petnuch had a patient house. But even light and lilting sonatinas have their time and place. Carolann came down the stairs to remind Mike, then a rising senior at Iona Prep, that he did not live alone and that 1 a.m. is not a musical hour on Normandy Road.
Hearing her son play scales again at age 36 — minutes before the piano leaves her home — takes the mother of four back to what she endured for her son, at the nimble hands of her son.
“Definitely brings back memories,” she says. “All night long.”
Mike now leads a technology team for a hedge fund, and lives with his husband not far from his folks. He recently bought a baby grand of his own, a Yamaha. His sister, Lauren, didn’t have room for his old piano, landing it on the donation list.
Visits to his parents’ house will be different the next time, Mike says.
“I can’t even guesstimate the amount of hours that I probably put into this keyboard,” he says, “and it won’t be here anymore.”
Because nature abhors a vacuum, Carolann is already making plans for the piano-less space: A beautiful couch in the bay window, with a view of the fireplace, will create a reading room where there was a piano room where there had been a playroom for her twins, Nicolette and Alexis, now 24.
Bryant Smith has been moving Yonkers off and on for 20 years now; his partner this day, Rudy Feliz, has been on the job for three.
The powerfully built men don’t always work together, but they laugh easily and communicate with a nod or a simple “Go.” Ron’s Trucking has a dozen trucks crisscrossing the Hudson Valley, each with a two-man crew.
They do moveouts, cleanouts, runs to the dump and, yes, they move dozens of pianos a year, some from one home to a new one, some on the way to a landfill. Bryant hates to see them go to waste, when they could go to a nursing home or a pre-school.
He remembers one landfill-bound instrument was too big for the stairs. They had to break it up.
“It took us about three hours to break it up – that’s how well made it was,” Bryant says. “Three hours.”
The secret to moving a piano, he sums up in one word: strength.
This upright is a two-mover move. Grand pianos require six, Bryant explains. They work quickly — under the watchful gaze of the Petnuch’s Shih Tzu, Olaf —swaddling the piano in blue moving blankets taped down and then cocooned in cellophane shrink wrap.
But first they look for the easiest way out, one without steps is best. The back entrance to the Petnuch’s is perfect.
The men are dripping wet with perspiration. They wear bright blue Gorilla Grip gloves as they lift the 450-pound piano onto a small, padded dolly and make their way to the back door and the 18-foot truck Bryant has eased into the driveway.
But the door is a quarter-inch too narrow.
Bryant thinks fast: “Gotta take the door.”
But the door’s moulding is notched around the hinges and he thinks again. His shoulders sag slightly: “Gotta go out the front.”
Soon, they are hefting 450 pounds of piano down the first set of five steep stone steps: Bryant below, Rudy above, straddling the piano as they take one step at a time. Then the second set of steep steps to the sidewalk, one step at a time, glistening in the summer heat. Bryant perches a cloth on his head to mop up the sweat.
Bryant sends Rudy back for the dolly and pulls the truck out of the driveway, pausing while a neighbor pulls his Maserati out of the truck’s wide-swinging path.
Bryant below, Rudy above, they line the dolly’s wheels on the truck’s ramp and coax the Saraned pianoforte up. Make that halfway up. When it stops, the men pause for a moment before Bryant looks down and their bodies tense in unison.
Rudy grips and leans back with all his might as Bryant pushes with everything he’s got and the piano is soon in the shade of the truck. They wheel it forward and cinch it to the front of the box, centered against the back of the cab, balanced. Carolann brings Cokes and cups of ice.
Soon the Petnuch piano is on the move.
When the big truck pulls up in front of Building 1 in the Curran Court complex, a gaggle of senior ladies chats in the shade, taking it all in.
“A piano? Who asked for a piano?” one lady chirps.
The men wheel it in to the sun room, cut away the cellophane and tape and free up the piano, which now looks less like a shrink-wrapped pork chop and more like a musical instrument. They wheel it gingerly into place and Rudy, who has been holding out, plays the first nine notes of Beethoven’s “Fur Elise.”
When you call Ron’s Trucking and are put on hold, a Mozart piano sonata plays.
Owner Ron Williams says they might move 50 pianos a year, for a fee based on the size of the piano and the length of the ride, $300 and up. But he’s cut the fee in half for Yonkers Housing pianos this summer.
“Yonkers housing is doing a good thing,” he says.
And good things get discounts.
Walking back to the truck, Bryant said he’s happy to see a piano put to use.
“When they started doing this, I was glad for it,” he says. “I know somewhere, some school or daycare center can play with them. Even if they’re out of tune.”
Tension and art
Scott Spivak’s day job is standing beside Bronx defendants who cannot afford a lawyer, but here he is, in the sun room at Curran Court Building 1, with the top of the piano open, working his way up and down the yesterday-it-was-a-Petnuch piano.
Before Yonkers Housing agreed to take 16 of the 30 pianos that were offered for donation, Spivak was dispatched to see if the instruments were sound. Some had broken parts or corroded strings or strings that were already broken.
He remembers the piano from Normandy Road. It was the only Charles Walter piano he saw, from the family-owned Indiana company that is one of the only American piano makers left. He likes what he hears after just a short tuning session.
“It’s in very good shape,” he says.
The Dobbs Ferry native, 42, now lives in Riverdale. He has an NYU music degree in jazz piano and was a full-time tuner until he switched careers, went to law school and became a public defender for the Legal Aid Society eight years ago.
A couple of years back, he decided to return, on the side, to tuning pianos, a skill he learned from well-regarded piano restorer Kalman Detrich, who was director of the Museum of the American Piano in New York City until 2005 and had a workshop in Irvington where he taught tuners. Detrich died in 2008.
Tuners Neil Kusherman and Arlan Harris were also mentors. It was Kusherman who tuned the Baldwin piano Spivak’s father played Gershwin preludes on.
Spivak says pianos fall out of tune because of changes in the humidity, as the wooden structure expands and contracts, changing the tension of the strings. Playing typically should not put a piano out of tune, he says.
To watch Spivak in action is to get a piano anatomy lesson.
In the treble range of the piano, the higher notes, there are three strings for every key. The lower keys have two thicker, copper-wound strings. The lowest keys have a single heavy string.
In the treble section, all three strings must be tuned to each other, but Spivak can only listen to two strings at a time. After tuning all the middle strings, he makes his way up and down the keyboard, key by key. He slides a rubber mute — a slip of rubber at the end of a wire — behind the left string to keep it from sounding as he adjusts the right string. He then reverses the procedure until all three strings sound identical.
He holds the tuning hammer — a specialized wrench that looks like a long, wooden bar tap — on a tuning pin and turns it ever so slightly, until he hears what he wants to hear. He bows his head to focus on what he’s hearing, or not hearing, when the pressed key sends a felt mallet against the strings.
His teachers and his experience have taught him patience, not to be daunted by a sea of 88 keys and all those pins, to take them one at a time and work his way along the keyboard. There’s theory involved that he won’t go into, but it’s second nature to him, after all these years.
Having adjusted the pins, he sits to play. Single notes, chords.
One of the hammers is rubbing against its neighbor. He pulls a flashlight and a long screwdriver from his large black bag. Before long, the offending hammer is centered once again.
He still has a backlog of a dozen gifted pianos to tune in the coming months. He typically charges $175 for a tuning, but has given the housing authority a lower rate.
His odyssey, making house calls and then a second round of housing and school visits, has led him to a conclusion.
“The pianos that I signed off on for this program were, in my mind, perfectly fine, good musical instruments that just needed to be tuned,” he says. “There must be thousands more like that, nearby: Perfectly fine, good instruments are lying dormant, ready to played or adopted.”
His work done here, Spivak sits and plays a little, with effortless style. He’s a technician in service to art, and he’s got the art down, as well.
‘No sense tinkling’
Susan Striplin (pronounced Suzanne) moved to Curran Court 17 years ago and was one of those residents asking that simple question about the return of a piano.
She lives in a nearby building, but is visiting Building 1 to see its latest arrival, the Petnuch piano, the 16th and final piano delivered by Ron’s Trucking as part of the summer’s spree.
Susan grew up in a musical household on Boston Road in the Bronx. Her mother, Doris Imogene Striplin, played popular songs on the piano (“Over the Rainbow,” a favorite) and her father, Joseph Harold Striplin, was a tenor who sang along.
The family’s piano, she recalls, was a tall Cable & Sons upright in ornately carved mahogany, with a blue mirror in it.
“It was a beautiful piano,” she says, lingering over the word “beautiful,” as if her right foot were pressing a piano’s sustain pedal.
For three years, from age 7 to 10, there were classical music lessons for Susan and her sister (named Doris, like their mother), in a Bronx church, under the stern Professor Mells. The professor was all about the notes and not so much about the theory, the language of music, which Striplin says she largely taught herself.
Having learned that language long ago, she continues to speak it. Seventy years after her last lesson with the professor, Susan is still playing, on a piano in her home.
Her fingers, the same ones Professor Mells rapped to correct poor play, have arthritis now, but she plays the piano to keep them flexible. When she plays, she tucks a 4-inch clear crystal behind the music book.
“My energy field,” she says.
The mahogany piano came to her when her mother died in 1967. But, being young and moving around, Susan had to put it in storage, where it was lost in a fire.
“I have learned not to attach myself to material objects,” she says. “I said, ‘Well, it’s gone. Mommy’s gone. But Mommy taught me how to play piano, gave me the impetus, sent me to school to learn. And I can always buy another piano.”
Striplin knows that pianos change hands all the time. The $300 reconditioned piano she plays in her home was once owned by someone else, just like the Petnuch piano here in the sun room in Building 1.
As someone trained to play classical music, popular songs don’t come naturally to her.
“If you ask me to play ‘Happy Birthday,’ it’s going to take me a while to figure out how to play it,” she says. “I’m not the life of the party. Don’t call on me if you want music.”
But she sits to play a popular song, nonetheless, on a pillow that puts her at just the right height, to play Johnny Mercer’s “Autumn Leaves.”
She plays a bit haltingly, but with determination, eyes on the sheet music, her fingers wavering slightly. She is unaccustomed to an audience. When she finishes playing, there’s satisfaction on her face. Job done.
“It’s so relaxing when I play at home, but I have to be conscious of the neighbors, because I play loud,” she says. “No sense in tinkling.”
Peter D. Kramer is a 33-year staffer. Reach him at [email protected] or on Twitter at @PeterKramer. Read his latest stories. Please follow the link on the page below and become a backer of this kind of coverage. It only works with you as a subscriber.