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Out of tune: Long Islanders scramble to give away pianos

Richard Smith, owner of The Piano Exchange in Glen Cove, is an avid collector of pianos and some people will pay him to take their pianos away. Smith talks about the decline in piano ownership. (Credit: Newsday / David Trotman-Wilkins)

Nesconset resident Jeannie Watson assumed when she decided to give away her 60-year-old Spinet piano that it would be snapped up by a budding musician. After all, it was only slightly out of tune and a serviceable instrument made of walnut that would be a fun home addition. As an added attraction, the top could be folded over to become a table when not in use. She put up pictures online and waited for calls. A year and a half passed.

“Nothing,” says Watson, 60.

Watson’s experience was surprising to her, but not to those in the field. Pianos, it seems, are not in tune with today’s times.

“It’s a shock for people,” says Frank Davis, owner of an East Islip piano store often contacted by those who want to sell or give away their pianos. Although he tries to find them homes, many end up in the dump. “The owners are frustrated and sad. It’s hard to accept that something once revered is no longer considered to have any value.”

Richard Rejino, executive director for the National Piano Foundation, a Dallas-based nonprofit that aims to cultivate an appreciation of the instrument, calls the decline in the popularity of acoustic pianos a “sea change.”

“There was a time when pianos were in every household,” he says.

Owning a piano was indeed once a middle-class must-have. For families in the 1900s, it was a way to bring favorite hits or classical tunes into the parlor. The slide started with the spread of the phonograph and then the radio and accelerated during the Depression, when many manufacturers went out of business. Another hit came with the introduction of small and cheap digital pianos.

“There’s a million pianos floating around the market now,” says Sonny Stancarone, a Port Jefferson-based entrepreneur who specializes in restoring and selling art case pianos directly as well as on the internet. “And every year it gets worse.”

Generally, a moderately used quality piano can be played for 40 to 80 years, says Sonny Stancarone, and if replaced with new parts can last another lifetime. People become excited reading about gratis pianos before tallying up the cost of transporting them home and having them tuned, says Stancarone. Relocating a piano can run from $200 to $700 depending on its type, while tuning can cost $100 to $500 (ideally, pianos should be tuned twice a year because the wood expands and contracts during seasonal changes), he says. Giveaway pianos can be “rust buckets” that have languished in homes for decades, he warns.

Fraternities have been known to hold piano smashes as fundraisers where participants pay $1 to whack a dilapidated instrument with a bat and $2 to use a sledgehammer. Some have been repurposed into liquor cabinets, office desks, wall shelves and artwork. This summer in Portland, Oregon, an organization promoting the instrument placed 11 donated and colorfully painted pianos in city parks to encourage people to play.

Kelly Madden Collins says she wasn’t optimistic about finding a home for the  Shaw piano she was given by a friend three years ago. She brought it home hoping her twin sons, Matthew and Jack, now 8, might take up playing. They did, so she added her grandmother’s piano a year later to give each boy his own instrument. Then, neighbors called to say their baby grand was hers for the taking. It was too many pianos. The Shaw had to go.

The Massapequa Park woman noted the multitude of online listings for free pianos when she advertised it, but hoped at least someone would respond. “I thought if I didn’t have to pay someone to haul it out to the curb that would be great,” says Collins, a Verizon project manager.

Weeks passed, but no one called. When movers showed up to bring over the baby grand from the neighbors, they hoisted the Shaw to the street. Two days later, town trash workers took it away.

Fortunate endings for discarded pianos are few and far between, but they do happen.

The Spinet she tried to give away is still in her home, but Watson, who learned to play from her piano teacher mother, did have one donation success. Her mother had given her a baby grand after she moved to a retirement home. Watson, an administrator for a plastic surgery practice and training program, called a piano company and was told it probably was a valuable antique.

“In the same breath, the guy said, ‘But just try to find someone to take it,” she says.

She did — a family in Centerport who paid for the cost of the move so their young daughter could play.

“They’re happy,” she says, “and I’m happy, too.”

After a two-year effort to donate her rosewood and cherry piano, Mary Ann Alfieri finally contacted Frank Davis to take it away. He tuned it, took it to a thrift store and it was immediately purchased — a relief to the East Islip woman.

“I just couldn’t take an ax to it,” she says.

When the Southampton Arts Center was looking for a piano, a board member knew a couple in the community looking to donate their concert-level Steinway grand. They gave it to the center and got a tax write-off.  This summer, the piano was used to launch a theater and opera series.

“It was well timed,” says executive director Tom Dunn.

Rick Smith, owner of the Piano Exchange in Glen Cove, is another piano professional who has noticed the decline in the instrument's popularity. Quality instruments can be a joy forever, says Smith, who has more 600 pianos in his showroom.

“I have pianos here that are 200 years old and they play perfectly,” he says.

Their appreciation in society may have waned, but Rejino of the National Piano Foundation, says he doesn’t believe pianos will vanish. “Sales may dwindle, but I don’t see them completely going away because they are so important to our musical heritage,” he says.

Collins’ twins now have a bit of a competition going, says their mother. Jack laid claim to the new baby grand and told his brother, Matt, to keep his mitts off it, she says.

“Who knows,” Collins says, “maybe I’ve got the next Billy Joel in my basement.”

What to do with your piano (besides trashing it)

Getting rid of a piano can be a heavy lift. On a positive note, donating a piano to a nonprofit can be a tax deduction. Pianos vary widely in value, however, and those applying for a deduction for an instrument worth more than $5,000 must meet certain Internal Revenue Service rules, including possibly an appraisal. Here are some tips (warning: owners may end up paying to have it delivered to the recipient):

  • Try local churches, theater groups and schools, although many are overstocked already.
  • Thrift stores normally are not big enough to handle a piano, but there are exceptions.
  • Online outlets such as Craigslist, eBay, the Freecycle Network and Facebook Marketplace regularly feature pianos for sale and as giveaways.
  • Some local music stores, veterans organizations and private teaching studios take pianos.
  • National organizations such as the Beethoven Society and Piano Adoption.com will accept pianos with certain age and condition restrictions.
  • Manhattan-based Society of Unique Artists takes a limited number of quality instruments and resells them for fundraising.
  • Pianos for Education, a public charity based in Atlanta, accepts pianos after a review process and redistributes them to institutions such as colleges upon request.
  • Some music companies take pianos on consignment, such as Rich Smith’s Piano Exchange in Glen Cove. Again, but there are standards to be met.
  • Sonny Stancarone of Sonny's Online Piano Store in Port Jefferson (631-475-8046) and Frank Davis of Long Island Pianos in East Islip (516-458-3848) help people find places for their unwanted pianos on request with varying degrees of success.

    — JAMES KINDALL

How to dispose of a piano, by town

If you live in the Town of Oyster Bay, you can leave a piano at the curb with your trash, says town spokeswoman Marta Kane. In the towns of Huntington and Babylon and in the City of Long Beach, residents must call ahead for a piano to be hauled away, say communications officers for the towns.

The sound board must be removed from a piano before it is discarded in the Town of Hempstead, where a special pickup can be arranged by calling the sanitation department, says town spokesman Michael Fricchione. Alternatively, residents may drop off a piano at the Homeowner's Disposal Area in Merrick, he adds.

In Islip, the town requires the piano's harp to be removed and the piano's frame cut in half, says Jenny Gonzalez, an account clerk in the town's Department of Environmental Control. Because the harp is metal, it has to be put out with the recycling while the halves of frame may be left curbside on the last garbage collection day of the week, she says. In Glen Cove, the frame must be broken into 4-foot sections and put out with the regular garbage while the metal pieces must be put out on "Metal Day" on Wednesdays, says Liz Mestres, senior account clerk with the city's Department of Public Works. In Smithtown, residents can take a piano to the town Municipal Services Facility (charge is $6 for up to 100 pounds and then 6 cents per pound over 101 pounds) or have a carter pick it up if it is broken down based on the requirements for brush pickup (wood branches no bigger than 6 feet in length and piled no higher than 5 feet), according to Mike Engelmann, town solid waste coordinator. Any lead must be removed from a piano before workers from the Town of Riverhead will take it away, says Patrick Derenze, legislative assistant to the supervisor. The rest of the piano must be taken apart so that crews can lift it and then put out with the regular trash, he adds.

A piano can be put out for bulk collection in North Hempstead Town, unless it is a grand piano, which a private disposal company would have to take away, says town spokeswoman Carole Trottere. In the Town of Brookhaven, pianos are considered "unacceptable curbside items," says town spokesman Jack Krieger. Instead, pianos may be brought to the town landfill for a fee, according to the town. In Shelter Island, residents have two options: Bring the piano to the recycling center for a fee or hire the one private carter on the island to take it away, says Brian Sherman, town public works commissioner.

Southampton residents can haul a piano by truck to the North Sea Transfer Station, where the truck will be weighed before the instrument is brought to the bulk waste area for disposal and then weighed again after the piano is disposed of, says Christine Fetten, town director of Municipal Works. Under the town's fees, it would cost $36 to dispose of a 400-pound piano, she says. Similar rules apply in the Town of Southold, where the piano will be crushed down by front-end wheel loaders at the town transfer station in Cutchogue and brought to the Brookhaven landfill, says James Bunchuck, town solid waste coordinator. The cost is 6 cents per pound, he adds. In the Town of East Hampton, residents with a recycling center permit can bring a piano to the recycling center for disposal, where it will be weighed and a disposal fee charged, says Joanne Pilgrim, executive assistant to the town supervisor.

Disposal rules also vary in incorporated villages, so residents in those communities must call for information.

Valerie Kellogg

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