Piano Tuning Story – Marla

So, I get a call from Marla from Tottenham, W Footscray; she and her boyfriend got an old piano for $175 from the opp shop and some friends helped them get it home. Marla says it looks really good but it sounds pretty bad and no one knows when it was last tuned. She’d like to know how much it would cost to tune it. I ask if it’s an upright piano and what brand it is. She says it’s an upright and it’s some German name she can’t remember, but it’s really beautiful – her boyfriend thinks it might be worth something. A bit of an antique. “Oh, and several keys are stuck down and the sustain pedal doesn’t work; they need fixing. Also, something was rattling inside when the guys were putting it in the ute” she says.
I can feel the thought bubble bobbing above my head. In it are clear signs of anxiety (mostly for Marla) and a few naughty words. I don’t say the naughty words though the anxiety might be detectable when I say… “it maayy be tuneable…but ‘til I see it I really can’t be sure.”
I mean I feel for Marla, I’m a bit of a bargain hunter myself; I don’t like to turn people away and like to help where I can though, you know, there’s a sinking feeling going on here for me. I remember my first car; as the song says, ‘…it turned over once but never went far…’. Hmm.
I tell Marla my next availability is Thursday at 9am. “Would that suit? Have you got a budget?”
She says they don’t want to spend too much and is there another day available? Her boyfriend’s a musician and doesn’t get up Thursdays until after lunch. We make a date for Friday, a week later, at 9:30am. So, we’ll see.

On Friday, I drive to Tottenham, W Footscray, to see the piano Marla and Elliot got from the opp shop for $175. Marla had said it looked really good but sounded pretty bad and nobody knew when it was last tuned.
The house is a California bungalow with flaky paint and tall spindly fruit trees in need of a prune. Inside, stepping over Eggy the pug and around the amps and guitar cases in the front hall, Marla takes me into the bedroom. Elliot has just vacated the bed for the shower; clothes, a ukulele and stacks of books cover the floor. The piano is across from the bed and it’s gorgeous. Absolutely. It has a beautiful, ornate walnut burl case that, along with the shiny, fold out brass candlestick holders, has been lovingly cared for and polished through all of its 100+ years. However, it’s the inside that I’m here to see.
Marla and I cross to the piano, remove the mix-tapes from the top, lift the lid and take the front board off so I can study the action inside. There’s evidence of moth eggs, the hammers have been nibbled and the backchecks are higglety-pigglety like bad teeth. Moving in close I look carefully at the tuning pins. “You need to see these Marla.” I’m pointing out fine cracks around the tuning pins; cracks on their journey sideways from one pin to the next. I put the tuning hammer on a couple of pins to try them out; ’whooiiinnnng’ as the string tightens and the pitch goes up…and ‘whiiioonnnng’ as the pitch drops again like a slide-whistle.
I deliver the sad news and I can see Marla’s upset as anyone would be when told their piano is untunable. By the time they get to this age, these gorgeous, great grandmother heritage pianos can have splits along the wood grain of the pin block. The tuning pins in those areas will struggle to hold pitch or not at all. Marla asks if it’s fixable; I say I know of someone who might take on the job but it would be about $3000 not including anything else that might need doing.
There’s been a long silence; “I’m sorry” I say. “What?” Elliot has appeared beside us, freshly washed and smelling of wet hair and shampoo. He’s looking at us. Eggy snuffles and Marla bends to pick him up. “It’s stuffed…he says it can’t be tuned” explains Marla. More silence. “Why did we even think…”
There are photos of fabulously re-purposed pianos on my phone; I show them to Marla and Eggy, “With a little work, I reckon it would make a really nice bar?”