The best way to move a piano is to hire it done.
But let me tell you about the worst way.
When my home church in Cando was given a new piano, the old one was up for grabs.
There are a lot of things you don’t want to do in the winter in North Dakota, and homebrew piano moving is one of them.
Mind you, if you’re looking for a piano, you don’t have to look far. Just a quick perusal on the local BisMan Online site brings awareness of the mass exodus of pianos from households everywhere. Where once we built homes around the idea of a piano being a must-have, with piano windows where the music-maker would sit, we now can’t get rid of things fast enough.
I don’t know why.
Either fewer people are taking piano lessons as kids, something that was almost a requirement and one of the few things mom insisted all of her children do, or we’re preferring electronic versions of everything because they are more portable and we don’t think of life without electricity. Perhaps the rise in apartment living has fed the phenomenon; who wants a piano in a fourth-floor walk-up apartment?
If I’d wanted a piano—including some very nice ones—all I had to do was throw a dart in the air and go where it landed here in town. Someone had a piano that was “free but you have to come and get it.”
Almost a four hours’ drive seemed better, though. Why do things easy?
The reason? All of those lovely upright and spinet pianos people are dying to have me come and take don’t have the history my church piano does. I was the church pianist for just shy of a decade, and I’ve tickled its not-ivories a lot. It wasn’t a fancy piano, it wasn’t a top-end piano. But it was a good workhorse piano, and since we practically lived at that church growing up, it had been part of my life for decades.
So several weeks ago my friend and I arranged to go up and get the piano.
Except that was the weekend of -26 degrees and wind and ice with -50 wind chill when everyone was commiserating about Iowa because of a caucus and forgot winter happens elsewhere, so I asked for a raincheck. This weekend, with its lovely temperatures in the 30s and 40s, no wind and all sun, was ideal.
It was fun to be back at my home church for the service again. Only in North Dakota, when the temperatures are in the upper 30s and the pastor hands around the microphone for praise reports, do you have people praising God for slightly-above-freezing.
Anyway, my recommendation for you, when it comes to moving a piano, is the same one the guy at Uhaul suggested: hire that done.
The 5’ X 8’ at Uhaul trailer will work, but when there’s only one on the lot with a ramp, and your reservation is followed with a “we can’t guarantee that when you get here to pick up your trailer the one with the ramp will actually be here,” you get a little aggressive at the Uhaul counter at pickup time.
Lord, forgive us.
By the way, Uhaul, I’m sorry for your loss. Your gentle ride vans ride maybe just a little too gentle. People don’t even know they’re still moving.
No, I didn’t do that.
Someone else was having a bad day, and I immediately recognized the qualities of that day because that’s what we like to call a “Neidlinger project” in my family.
Yet I had high hopes for the piano moving project because we’d wisely avoided the arctic weekend in favor of a mild one with clear roads and no precipitation or wind. We’d managed to get the trailer with the ramp, added in furniture blankets, and bought extra ratchet straps.
Too bad about the new gravel on the roads back home, gravel taken out of satan’s diamond mines or some pit just at the edge of Mordor, with “gravel” that had sharp edges that could make the ancient arrowheads weep in envy.
The joys of driving to church pulling a trailer to get a piano to then drive a few hundred miles and puncture your tire are joys best kept to self. While thankful that it happened so that the tire didn’t deflate until we got to the Cenex in Cando, it was still not the day I’d envisioned. On the bright side, all of my worries about how we’d get the piano in the trailer and tied down well enough to keep from tipping were superseded by a fear we’d have a blowout and no more spare and stuck with a piano up on this tundra.
“They died of exposure to cold, but had a lovely sing-along before doing so,” the papers would read.
To get that piano moved from the church into the trailer and fastened down meant I used up every favor I’d banked over all my years at that church. Free pianos and do-it-yourself moving is very expensive; I recommend banking up favors now.
“You’ve used up all your favors,” Ross joked as he helped get the piano in the trailer.
“Yes, I’m cashing them all in right now,” I admitted.
When I told a friend I was moving a piano, she gamely said to let her know if she and her husband could help.
“You can give us a call if you need extra help,” she texted.
“Thank you but I think the top abuse of a friendship is literally asking them to come and help move a piano.”
The piano was soon in the trailer and strapped down, but it felt unsteady. After everyone had left but Ross, the piano agreed with my gut and tipped in the trailer. I thought I would save the day by bracing against it with my bum knee.
It was kind of nice having our worst fears realized (well, second worst, as visions of a spare tire blowout was topping the list) before we’d started the drive. Would the piano tip? Indeed it would.
With some re-jiggering and several stupid moves that worked against the ratchet straps before we put our college educations to use and worked with the laws of physics instead of scratching our heads wondering why up wouldn’t go up, the piano was re-situated and firmly strapped to the trailer wall. There was plenty of room for the bench and the mocking flat tire.
The three stops for checking the tire and peeking in the back of the trailer to see if it was still an upright piano were in Harvey and Steele, about equidistant to break up the drive back to Bismarck in thirds.
Things looked good at Harvey, in no small part, I’ve no doubt, to my constantly checking the speedometer and making sure my friend kept it around 60.
“Do you want to stop at Steele?”
“If you don’t think we need to, that’s fine,” I said, wanting to stop at Steele to check things out. “But if we have a blowout on the highway between Steele and Bismarck it’s all yours.”
We stopped at Steele.
We’d hired some young fellows to help us get the piano into the house, but a miscommunication and sad lack of available friends under the age of 60 made it clear we were on our own.
Backing up the driveway as close to the garage as we could get, making sure no neighbor was out to witness what could go very badly, we managed to get the piano onto the furniture dolly, down the ramp, and into the garage near where my car was leaking coolant.1
It was the two steps into the house that proved tricky, but after doing the math and realizing we had one good back and two good knees between the two of us, we went ahead and tried several things that didn’t work and one that did.
After we got it in the house, I proudly let my friend know by sending a text and stating that we did it on our own. Her wisdom showed through in her response.
“That’s wonderful! Were there any injuries?”
Happily, no. We did get the heating pads out for a few hours after, just as a pre-emptive strike because that’s wisdom when you’re older.
After an hour or two of dusting, wiping off what looked to be coffee stains, using some furniture polish, and then using pieces of raw walnut to rub into the scratches and gouges, the piano looked very nice.
It was a lot of work for a piano, but worth it.
Readers who have been following my blog since the early days have read many stories about this piano and its exploits during my stint as church pianist. Fly away music, surprise spontaneous “let the Spirit move” song selections—you name it. In a Pentecostal church, you just never know anything but one thing: it’s always battle conditions at the piano.
The time I lost the music and had to make something up. The frequent yet always-terrifying moments when the pastor would let people choose hymns on the fly and they inevitably had six flats and two time signatures and I’d never heard of them before.2 The light that would periodically fall off the piano onto my hands. The clarinetist who played an E-flat clarinet but didn’t bother to transpose and just blasted away in my ear playing all kinds of notes that didn’t fit while I tried to keep my composure and salvation in front of God and the congregation. The time Michael blew up the lightbulb in the overhead projector as church started and we all pulled out our hymnals and mine kept falling off of the piano.
“The piano is an instrument of humbling,” I blogged after one particularly adventurous Sunday in 2006.
I even wrote a poem about Sunday, back in December 2007, in which the piano makes an appearance.
Michael roared in with a coffee, liquid brown
Setting it on the edge of the church piano
Sitting down, looking through the collection of music
Pick some hymns! Pick some choruses!
Like a fountain it splashed, tumbling across the ivory and down.
The parents enjoyed McDonalds salads, lettuce in dressing immersed
A kind of clean, kind of quiet noon
Following the drive from church
We had errands to run! Groceries needed!
Then mom walked into the men's bathroom and quickly left, clutching her purse.
The deposit box waited for mom's envelope at the bank
We pulled up in the hulking vehicle
Driver dad rolled down the window at the night deposit receptacle
I exited the vehicle, walked around, and threw the cashola in with a clank.
What’s interesting is that I think I finally cleaned that spilled coffee off of the piano at long last, 17 years later, and things have come full circle. And yes, the lamp in the photo below is the one that attacked me several times in front of the church during key moments of congregational spiritual formation.
It’s good to have you home, piano.
I’ll get that fixed eventually, but it’s winter and I’m not worried about it right now. 30-year-old vehicles are fun!
As teenagers, we would purposefully pick hymns no one had heard of or sung before, and always with at least 5 flats, just to be jerks. There was one time, when I was the piano player, that the kids picked page 506. We all turned there to find “O, Canada” staring back at us. Our hymnal had everything in it.