Air Date: 05/18/2010
By Jenifer Jones
When he was about 13 years old, Steve Misener got his hands on an old player piano and restored it to working condition. Misener is still collecting pianos, and some are on display at the Blue Cloud Abbey near Marvin.
Steve Misener has just pressed a button that causes an 1890 upright Kimball piano to spring to life. The upper front board has been removed so I can see the tiny hammers pounding at strings to create an upbeat melody. Nobody is at the keys, and Misener won’t tell me how he got the piano to play like this. He simply says it’s magic.
It’s just one of the 30 pieces on display in the Keeping Time exhibit. Misener has left his other 45 pianos at home. The pianos usually stay in storage inside his piano tuning and repair shop in Stockholm, which he’s owned for nearly thirty years.
“I discovered the ratio of pianos to piano tuners, and it was 5,000 to one. So I go, there’s 5,000 pianos with my name on them,” Misener says.
That ratio means Misener travels far and wide to tune pianos which helps him find new pieces for his collection. He buys some of them, but many people give him pianos they no longer want.
“They kind of have a sense that it’s going to what I hope is a good home, and that it’s going to get used in some way yet,” Misener says. “Some of them actually said, ‘Get this thing out of here. If you don’t come and get it it’s going to the dump.’ Well, I’ll come get it.”
That’s not to say acquiring a piano isn’t a lot of work sometimes. Take, for instance, an Aolian Orchestrelle player organ from 1907. Misener bought the gargantuan, ornately carved instrument out of the Masonic Lodge in Redfield. It had been up in the organ loft.
“There were five of us,” Misener says. “It took us three hours to get this thing dismantled and down the three flights of steps to the street. On my last trip up for parts I counted steps. It was 52 steps. They all said, ‘oh that was a lot of work bringing it down.’ I said, ‘well it was, but somebody pushed it up those steps 100 years ago.’ I don’t know how they did that.”
Thinking about the previous owners of the instruments, like the people who might have pushed that organ up the steps all those years ago is one of the things Misener enjoys most about his collection. Misener owns two John Broadwood grand pianos. Thanks to a historical society and the internet, he’s been able to find out quite a bit about their previous owners. His 1852 model was rented for a year by Lindsay Sloper, a rising star concert pianist. Sloper’s piano teacher was a personal friend and biographer of Beethoven.
“I love the keys on this one,” Misener says. “They’re worn. Somebody has just played this thing and played it. You know, the ivory is worn down, so that’s a good sign this piano got used.”
Misener’s 1877 Broadwood was given to the family of Henry Joachim to use for a year at company expense. Henry’s brother was a man by the name of Joseph Joachim, one of the premier violinists of the 19th century.
Joseph came to London to visit his brother every year. This particular year, Joseph was working with Johannes Brahms on Brahms’s Violin Concerto. Brahms was scheduled to come to London to receive an honorary degree at Oxford.
“I think the John Broadwood company got wind of this and thought ‘we will bring a piano for you to use for a little while.’ They were seeking the endorsement from Johannes Brahms for their pianos,” Misener says. “And Johannes Brahms was scheduled to come. He chickened out at the last minute and did not come. He was afraid of getting sea sick on the voyage. Johannes Brahms came this close to playing this piano.”
Misener says the pianos don’t just have a personal story, but they also say something about our culture as a whole at various points in time. Take for example the oldest piano in the exhibit, a Christopher Gainer square grand from 1790. The notes are much softer than the other pianos.
That’s because pianos at this time weren’t played in concert halls, but in parlors of the wealthy instead.
Churchgoers in the early part of the 20th century might have heard music from an Estey reed organ. Misener says country churches wouldn’t have had electricity in 1920, when this model was made. That’s why it is man powered. A choir boy would’ve cranked a handle on the side while the organist played.
Then there’s the Baldwin player piano from 1914. Before CD players or IPods, families had fewer options to bring music into their homes. That’s why Misener says the family that had a player piano would’ve been the envy of the neighborhood.
“All of that stuff that just brings together our cultural history, our history as a community, what our values were as people at that time,” Misener says. “All of that stuff plays into this. You know, how did we perceive music, and how did we enjoy our lives.”
Misener says he hopes people who come to the exhibit take a look at his passion for pianos, music, and history, and are inspired to embrace their passions as well. He says he hopes people will find something they love to do and immerse themselves in it just as he has.