‘You look like you could lift a piano’
July 22, 2010
The Aspen Music Festival did not hire me for my musical talents. The comptroller, Glen Dougherty, watched me in a wrestling match and concluded that I looked like I could lift a piano, a necessary prerequisite for making stage changes during performances.
As one of the tent managers for the Bayer tent, I moved 1,350-pound grand pianos up and down the four levels of the stage several times a day. Doing so took only two of us, each lifting one of the three legs at a time, with no muscle power to spare. By the end of the season we were in Olympic shape and danced with the grands in choreographic style.
Moving pianos in and out of houses and apartments around town was not always performed as aesthetically. Each summer, moving trucks arrived with brand new pianos that had been generously loaned from Baldwin Piano. Uprights and baby grands were delivered to the campus practice rooms and to town faculty residences. Teams of three were used for most of those deliveries: one to drive the truck, open doors and clear the path, and two to manhandle the piano. More than two people on an upright presented more of an encumbrance than advantage. We rolled the pianos on dollies, lifted them over doorsills, and meandered through hallways and quickly around furniture. Deliveries were fast and smooth, most of the time.
Ensconcing a piano in a house or condo for the summer became complicated when a piano was destined for a second floor, a popular plan for Aspen condos. Stairways demanded more muscle, and if the path was narrow and turned, as was often the situation, ingenuity was required. Stairways rarely provided space for more than one person below the piano and one above. The one on the bottom did the heavy lifting while the one on top shouted encouragement and steered the edges away from gouging the walls.
One time we encountered a staircase too small for maneuvering the piano. After several aborted attempts we almost gave up. Eventually the sound of a loader moving dirt outside gave us an idea. We talked the driver into lifting the piano from the ground to the second floor balcony, where we rolled it over the railing, and lowered it onto the deck.
My most memorable piano move involved delivering a concert grand to the Wheeler. The interior stairway was not available. The only alternative was to move it three floors up using the exterior metal fire escape, a playground of my childhood. I had previously delivered music stands, chairs, harps and percussion equipment to the Wheeler, but never anything as heavy as a concert grand.
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The fire escape was bolted into the brick wall on the west side of the Wheeler, completely lacking in ground support, held aloft only by triangular braces along that wall. The anchor bolts were working loose; however, you could prevent the frame from shaking with each step by ascending s-l-o-w-l-y.
Moving the piano upward was simply a matter of applying muscles and there were enough of us to accomplish the task, although the steel stairway was too narrow to position many “pallbearers” at the piano’s sides. The challenge was mental. As we added the combined weight of a half-dozen-or-so buffed piano movers to the weight of the piano, it seemed we had far exceeded the load limit of the fire escape. Most likely, we would not know of a structural failure until we pushed and pulled the instrument half-way to the top. The thought of the fire escape peeling off the Wheeler’s wall while ejecting the festival’s favorite piano and several of us to the ground below was a living nightmare.
The mission was accomplished, but I remember every nerve-rattling, bouncing step of that delivery.