Saturday, April 10, 2010

How to Buy a Used Piano

In 1992 I published an article on how to buy a used piano. It was actually co-written with former piano tuner and friend Ed Beaver, appearing in the January issue of Parenting magazine. I learned a lot about the freelance writing occupation through that experience. But first, a little background.

When I was about eight (1960) the Coopers, a neighbor in Maple Heights, moved to a different part of town. I believe I was asked if I would like to take piano lessons and upon displaying a suitable level of enthusiasm for the idea my parents bought the Coopers' piano for five dollars, plus whatever it cost for the movers to roll it down to our basement three houses away.

I took lessons for almost three years and have played ever since. It was a wonderful investment that paid dividends. So when my wife and I moved to Duluth in 1986 that fall my dad bought me another used piano for my birthday. We found it at a garage sale and this one was twenty dollars. Plus a $125 fee for the piano movers. Later, when we moved to the country, that piano cost $185 to move, plus tuning and new replacement ivories for some of the keys. At this point that twenty dollar piano had cost over five hundred green ones.

It's a big old upright, one of those former player pianos without the works, and we painted it forest green. It sat in our living room from 1993 to 2006 when we were offered yet another upright piano (for free) and after my arm was twisted we paid to have it moved to the living room, and the first upright moved to the garage.

All this is to say that I have some experience with used pianos. One evening, possibly over the grill, I was talking with Ed B. about the piano business and he shared some of his knowledge with me regarding pianos. I was impressed at how practical the information was that he shared, and I suggested we do an article together for a magazine like Parents. He was game and I proceeded to write a strong query letter.

In the query I probably explained how a piano is not only a nice piece of furniture, it's a wonderful way to bring music into the home and the hearts of your children. I also noted that if you do not make a good purchase, you can have a 900-pound lemon in your living room that is not very easy to dispose of. Since a piano has more than 7500 parts, it really helps to know what you're doing when you buy. Our article would give useful, practical advice on this matter.

So in January 1990 I sent queries to every magazine listed in Writer's Digest that might be interested in such and piece. And we waited.

In November we received a reply. Parenting magazine wrote to say they were interested in seeing an article called How to Select a Piano for Your Children. We had pitched a feature of 1200 to 1800 words, but they wanted a 500 word condensed version for their Care & Feeding section. Whatever. It would be due December 14, 1990. No problem. This was a national publication and seemed a nice feather in the cap when it appeared in print. We signed the contract, agreeing we would be paid 25% if they did not like the piece in the end. Hmmm. $50. Better than nothing.

The query promised a four week turnaround and we delivered. Then we waited again. In January the editor we were working with replied. She wanted us to revise the piece, incorporating information about the Piano Technician's Guild and another professional source. Alas, we were getting close. It wasn't an outright rejection. We quickly made the suggested modifications and posted the finished piece one more time. And we waited.

Weeks, then months, went by. At the time I had a system for keeping track of queries out, rejections, submissions and all the details you're taught in writer's magazines to do if you're a serious freelancer. Every now and then I would notice that the article was still "out" but I had been trained to be patient. You're not supposed to call editors or pester them, we're told.

Finally, in September the news came. Our article was accepted and would appear in the January issue of Parenting. The check for $200 was split between us, so we each received $100... not a lot of bread for a two year stint getting a piece published in a national magazine, fifty dollars a year each. And in January 1992 we received our complimentary copies with the story, "Pianos: A Sound Investment," on page 208.

Trust me, there really is a need for writers, but don't believe all the hype you read in those writer mags about how easy it is to live your dream life as a freelancer. Most of the people you're competing with aren't needing the income, so the market is glutted with people (like Ed and I were) willing to work for a pittance.

The byline was nice, though.

In the meantime, if you were reading this in the hopes of finding help buying a used piano, here's one link that I found with a simple Google search with a few tips. I'm sure you'll find more.

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