WASHINGTON - Taking a shortcut through an alley on Capitol Hill last month, Amy Moore was both amused and crestfallen to come across an old upright piano pushed up against a brick wall with the sign "Free Piano."
"I know it's super-duper expensive to move a piano," says Moore, executive director of the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. "What immediately went through my mind were visual images of how this piano might have been used. Maybe a family once sat around it or a kid took lessons on it? Why was it discarded? Pianos bring people together, they are part of celebrations. It kind of made me sad to see it out there in the alley."
The piano, once the pride of many American living rooms, seems out of tune with a growing number of households. People who own old uprights, especially the oak and walnut ones, often have the same problem as those with homes full of traditional brown furniture: When you need to get it out of your house, you can't sell it or even give it away.
Although this will make music lovers cringe, the reality is that some pianos have become disposable. There are lots of them around, some not in great shape. Although memories of an instrument may spark joy, sometimes circumstances dictate that a piano be let go. Downsizing boomers often don't have room for them; millennials can't (or won't) squeeze them into urban quarters; teens often learn to play on electric keyboards.
"They often just won't fit," says Libby Kinkead, one of the owners of Potomac Concierge, which offers downsizing and moving services. Sometimes "people have to choose between their couch and their piano."
Their sheer weight - 500 to 1,200 pounds - makes them difficult and costly to move: Fees can start at $200 for uprights and $300 for baby grands, plus extra for stairs and distance. Then there are tuning costs. But anyone looking for a piano is in luck: Plenty are available free if you pay for the move. The downside: Many more old pianos end up in landfills, some after being chopped up so they'll fit in a truck.
It can be painful to see a precious family instrument relegated to a dump when all other efforts to rehome it have failed. Mark Rubin, who owns 12 franchises of 1-800-GOT-JUNK, says his employees have seen customers in tears as their pianos are hauled away. "Pianos are something very hard to get rid of. They hold a lot of memories."
There are many reasons there is an excess of pianos. A century ago, they were a must in a fashionable home, but New York design historian Emily Eerdmans says they are no longer status symbols. "Pianos started in the place of honor in the living room, and gradually they moved to the family room," she says. "Today people don't gather around a piano, they gather around a screen."
Fewer people are buying pianos. In 2018, 30,516 new pianos were shipped to retailers in the United States, down 3.2 percent from 2017, according to Industry Census of Music Trades, a magazine that covers music products. The postwar peak for the piano industry was 1978, when 282,000 units were shipped, according to Brian Majeski, editor of Music Trades. "A piano was part musical instrument and part aspirational item. You can trace this back to Jane Austen novels," Majeski says. "Now it's just a musical instrument. The people who buy it are the people who play, and this is a smaller set of the population."
Nick Margaritas owns two Piano Man stores in Maryland and has endured the ups and downs of the business for 45 years. He's in the midst of a store-closing sale in College Park. In addition to used pianos, he offers moving services. Margaritas has a roll-off dumpster for depositing what's know in the business as "removals."
"It's not a glamorous part of the piano industry," Margaritas says. "A dozen pianos can fit in one."
There are various ways to de-accession a piano. None are easy. Many an owner has envisioned a loving second home for their prized instrument - or at least a hefty sales price. Most will find neither.
Ebonized pianos by Steinway, Yamaha and Kawai are models that sell best at Weschler's Auctioneers and Appraisers in suburban Rockville, Maryland, says Vice President Mark Weschler. When clearing out estates, Weschler often advises clients that old dark wood pianos are not worth auctioning and are best donated. If in bad condition, a removal service is suggested.
Many churches, schools and senior centers already have as many as they need. Goodwill stores in the Washington area don't accept them, a spokesman said. At Levine Music, a center for music instruction and education with 300 Steinway pianos on five local campuses, a piano might be accepted for donation if it's in good condition and passes an assessment by a Levine piano technician. Steinways will be put to use in teaching studios; other uprights or spinets might go to the school's piano loaner program, according to Stan Spracker, Levine's president.
But in many cases, the instruments end up in places like Margaritas's trash bin. "First they call to try and sell you the piano," he says. "That doesn't work. They ask if they can give you the piano. When that doesn't work, you have to quote them the basic $295 moving fee for an upright plus $4 per stair step." Finally, they agree to have you pick it up, "if they don't hang up on you or tell you they would rather burn the piano than have you remove it," he says.
The glut of free pianos is a blessing for some.
Last December, Washington artist Carolina Mayorga needed a pink piano for her interactive installation at Art Museum of the Americas. A Craigslist search for "free piano" turned up one in suburban Maryland. It was pink. "It was crazy, but it was exactly the piano I needed," she says. "I just had to pay for the movers." She transferred it to a storage space and then to the museum. Total moving tab: $708. Her installation is now going to be shown at the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
Karen Yoho of Greenbelt, Maryland, has had many pianos pass through her life. Communications director for the Salvation Army National Capital and Virginia Division, Yoho played piano as a child and acquired her first piano through Freecycle in 2008. She paid $100 to move it, hoping that she might take it up again and that her 6-year-old daughter Mary Alyce might show an interest. Neither happened, so in 2012, when Yoho saw a "piano wanted" posting on Freecycle, she gave it away. In 2015, her neighbor was offering a piano free to a good home, so Yoho and the neighbor split the $150 moving charge to roll it down the sidewalk. "I was hoping this piano would become a member of the family," she says. But a year later, it was getting no love, so she gave it away.
But in 2018, Mary Alyce joined a high school theater program and desperately wants to learn piano. Yoho found one on Craigslist and paid $185 to move it. "My daughter started taking lessons and it just clicked. She plays every morning and every evening," Yoho says. "It's wonderful."
Some pianos don't come and go so easily. Margo Prator reluctantly scheduled a pickup last month with 1-800-GOT-JUNK to remove the cherry upright her parents bought in the 1950s. But she canceled. "I just wasn't ready," she says. She had offered it to a school, posted it on an internet mailing list and tried to get her brother to put it in his beach house.
"It makes me sad they will take it to the dump," Prator says, "not only because it's a piece of history, but it's a musical instrument." She has to get it out of her house by next month; a family credenza is arriving to fill that spot in the living room.
"The closer we get to July, I realize that I'm going to have to pick up the phone and call them again to take it away," Prator says. "I can't believe nobody wants this free piano. Do you want a piano?"