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Australia Darwin's pre-WWII pianos play their own swan song as they become rare

01:01  20 september  2020
01:01  20 september  2020 Source:   abc.net.au

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The distinct eras of Darwin pianos are pre - WWII , post-WWII and post-Cyclone Tracy. And quality improved over time. "I don't think pianos are ever going to die But Darwin is not the only place where old pianos are rare . "There are 10 pianos a week in every capital city getting chopped up," he said.

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Old upright pianos in Australia are facing a tipping point.

It's most likely that those built more than 100 years ago have reached their use-by date because of what some piano tuners see as a design-fault of the time.

So pre-1920s pianos are getting rarer, and because many are considered untunable, people are throwing them out.

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One person who knows about the issue is Darwin's fly-in fly-out piano tuner, Martin Tucker.

He is past the halfway mark in his annual whistle-stop visit from Hobart to tune more than 100 pianos back-to-back.

Distinct eras of Darwin pianos

Mr Tucker said about 10 per cent of the pianos he tuned in Darwin were pre-World War II — and that amount was decreasing annually.

"Somehow these old ones are quite special because they've been up here so long and survived cyclones," he said.

"Cyclone Tracy wiped out all the old pianos. The roofs got blown off buildings."

He has already spotted a few untunable pianos kicked to the kerb ahead of the annual council pre-cyclone season clean-up.

By comparison, he said about 40 to 50 per cent of Hobart pianos were of this vintage.

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The distinct eras of Darwin pianos are pre-WWII, post-WWII and post-Cyclone Tracy.

And quality improved over time.

"I don't think pianos are ever going to die out," he said.

"There's a growing number of new pianos coming in, mostly being bought by Asian migrants."

Are old pianos going extinct?

But Darwin is not the only place where old pianos are rare.

"There are 10 pianos a week in every capital city getting chopped up," he said.

"In the Hobart tip shop, at least three pianos are lined up and there's a grand piano there now."

Asked if pre-war pianos were facing extinction, Mr Tucker said: "Yes and no. Probably extinction as a working instrument."

So why are they no good?

"The pianos made before 1920 had design faults in them," he said.

"They were still trying to make an iron frame that holds its pitch — a bit like old cars.

"Sometimes I get [clients] to play it to me over the phone, and if it sounds bad or if it sounds like the frame is cracked, I can't tune it.

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"You can fix them, but the cost of fixing them isn't worth it."

"Unless it's a Steinway it's not worth fixing."

Fortunate Sohn

But one exception to the rule is the son of Darwin alderman Simon Niblock.

His Stuttgart-built 1910 Lipp and Sohn was approaching its centenary at his time of birth.

The deal was brokered by Mr Turner — who knew the instrument after years of tuning it.

The old piano has still been getting its legs stretched — literally.

It was pushed by hand 1.2km from its former home to the Niblock's house.

"Martin said, 'Just push it up the street', and I said 'really?'," Mr Niblock said.

"I thought he was joking.

"I said, What about going up the hills?', and he replied, 'It's actually going down the hills is the problem.

"He was playing the piano as we walked.

"It's amazing to think that it's made its way out to Australia on a ship and made its way to Darwin.

"It plays really nicely, and it's got a bit of character and some history."

A carpenter can blame his tools

Mr Tucker declines to tune pianos if they can't hold a tune, for the sake of his reputation.

While he still earns his money whether the piano is old or new, he said old pianos were not doing anyone any favours in Darwin.

"We've got a lot of pianos but very few people who go on past grade 2," he said.

"It's an artistic hobby, but you've to spend money on it.

"There's very few teachers.

"There's very few people playing in a band in Darwin. And only very few accompanists.

"There are very few people who take pianos to the next level and that's because there's not very many good pianos around."

Pianos for ever

His partner, Natalia Laska, has been filming a documentary about pianos and their owners by following Mr Tucker's work around Australia.

"For me, it is a way of capturing pieces of pianos culture in Australia," she said.

"The most amazing thing is they exist here in the Top End.

"The 'wet and the dry' is the best place for players, but not for pianos."

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