My family piano

There’s not a lot in common between eggs and pianos. Except for the one in my lounge room. If the hens on my Nanna’s farm in the early 1900’s hadn’t been so productive there’d have been no eggs to sell, no money saved and logically, no piano.

In my mind I can hear my grandmother, Nora Farrall playing the piano and singing hymns for Sunday Services and gatherings in the front room of her home. I believe was often joined by her husband, Harold, in private and maybe public, recitals with family and friends. It is the early 1900’s in the the central West Australian wheat belt and it was a popular thing to do – getting together for a Sunday afternoon, or an evening around the piano as a form of entertainment.

The piano (right-hand image, far right corner) in its first home, ‘Greenacres’, my grandparent’s home, in the central wheatbelt.

Where did our piano come from?

My grandmother most likely purchased the piano in the late 1920’s or early 1930’s. It is a Beale standard piano, not full height, suited to sitting rooms. Beale Pianos was founded by Octavius Charles Beale in Annandale, NSW in 1893 and established a reputation in making quality pianos in Australia. Beale rose to become the largest piano manufacturer in the British Empire, producing around 95,000 pianos from 1893 to 1975. I believe the company still operates today.

Beale undertook making all parts of the piano. The piano in our family has a clear identity stamp on the wooden cabinet, a manufacturing number clearly visible on the frame as well as the distinctive Beale Tuning System stamp. Typically, Beale pianos were overstrung which I understand to be an asset along with high quality playing mechanisms. I know the hammers and the felts are in great condition. However, when my piano was tuned recently, the felt on the hammers had never been filed. So the strings have left their imprint for perpetuity! It does mean the felt is harder, rather than as soft as it should be, but there’s little can be done.

As far as I know, nothing has ever needed replacing. A quick peak inside reveals its solid iron frames. Over the years this made it a mover’s nightmare in weight, (just ask my husband and his mates!) but no doubt has helped it survive its original journey from its place of manufacture in Sydney, to Perth. It subsequently would most likely have travelled by rail and then some means of early transport – a truck I’d assume, to my grandparent’s  home on their family farm, known as Greenacres, six miles out of Ardath, around 180 miles from Perth.

The original Beale Piano Tuning System was designed specifically for the Australian climate

Of particular note is the unique the Beale Tuning system that Beale patented which was designed to withstand the dry, hot conditions in Australia. Its original keys are fully intact and the piano maintains good pitch despite its infrequent tunings. At one point, I imagine piano tuners were not easily come by in the wheat belt. I was told by one tuner that it had dropped a semitone. According to more recent advice, this is unlikely. It is very nearly the correct megahertz. Apparently some pianos were tuned to a lesser frequency, than the regulatory 440/445 (I can’t remember which it is!) and mine is one of them. So infrequent re-tuning over the years has it where it should be, a testimony to the quality of the piano.

A downside to the metal frame though, which apparently proved unsuccessful on the whole, was the pins sitting in metal made it harder for the tuner to make adjustments. While mine is okay; it is possibly one of the last made this way, Beale did not continue to make steel framed pianos. If the pins got stuck, apparently the screws holding the pins need to be loosened from behind the frame which means removing the back of the piano. All very complex. And something that’s never needed to be done.

Extreme heat and dry summers in the wheat belt took its toll on the French polished wood, adding an aged, crackled character to its finish. According to Leaver and Son, pianos of this vintage are worth anywhere from $500-$5000 depending on condition. In my opinion, our piano is worth much more than its dollar value, being the holder of treasured family memories.

A peak inside the piano.

Moving around

Over the years the piano survived several moves: From its home in Ardath it  may have accompanied my grandparent’s to their retirement home in Bruce Rock. My aunt probably acquired the piano when my grandparents moved to Albany. I recall being asked to play while the family recorded a Christmas get together to send to my nanna and Pop. I also recall my aunt getting the piano tuned and how the tuner was amazed and grateful for the cool drink she offered him on a hot summer’s day. Apparently such courtesy was no always extended. It’s strange how small things stay in our mind.

Possibly when my aunt and unlce moved to Albany, the piano was given to to my mother. That meant it ended up in the lounge room on my parent’s farm, Kenberdale, located just within the boundary of the Narembeen shire.

I learnt to play the piano at the local Catholic Convent where the Nuns tapped my fingers into playing order with their long sticks and plied me with books about being a good Catholic girl. I never told my mother about either, but I was certain to practice my pianoforte exam pieces religiously.

While I was in senior high school, whihc meant boarding away from home, the piano stood like a silent testament to its earlier days. I know my mother seldom played. I have no recollection of her at the keyboard.

When I married and settled into my first home in Perth’s hills, the piano moved in with us. I’d play occasionally and I I paid for lessons for my two daughters.  They continued ad hoc lessons as we moved several times in the city.

For a brief stint between the 2008 and 2010, the piano resided with one of my daughters while I lived in London. I missed it when we came home, so it moved back in with us, and I played randomly once more.

It is utterly bizarre that over the many moves between homes over a period of more than fifty years, it was only on the last move that removalists almost dropped it! Thankfully, little damage occurred apart from an external scrape or two to the outside and although it annoys me, it is now part of the piano’s character.

My piano currently has a place in my home in my second Perth hills’ home where I occasionally give private tuition to family beginners. It will remain in the family, and make subsequent moves when I am ready to hand it on.

Now thirteen years older than she is here, me eldest granddaughter is mostly self-taught with a little help along the way with traditional teaching methods.

Learning to play

In the sitting room at Greenacres where my grandmother played and gave recitals she also taught her daughter, Dorothy, my aunt to play. Dorothy, taught her sister, my mother. My mother has no recollection of being taught by anyone outside the home, but she recalls a music teacher in her school days who taught from the Ardath Hall. So my mother might have also learnt from her. When the piano came into my parent’s household, as I’ve said I never heard my mother play.

One of my mother’s favourites. She’d ask me to play this one while I practiced. The sheet music is so fragile now that the brown paper glued around the edge is falling away and the internal pages easily tear! I still play it though.

Learning to play the piano was a skill I acquired rather than a natural talent. To me, learning to read music was like learning maths. All equations and timing and counting! Once learnt it stays. Well, it has done so for me anyway. I was sent to the local Catholic Convent where my piano playing skills were accompanied by raps across the knuckles with a short stick – sharp reminders to avoid errors in playing! Lessons in moral conduct were also thrust upon me to redeem my soul. Little booklets, I can visualize one of them now, about how to be a good Catholic girl were forced on me to take home and read. I kept them hidden in my thin, brown music case away from my parents. I knew they would disapprove, being staunch Protestants. It’s part of an amusing background now.

In the process of learning to play, the metrical beat of my metronome tick-tocked beats as though I had donned the costume of Tick-Tock in Return to Oz. The unforgiving regularity of keeping time is a tough one for me so I play for my own pleasure and if I miss a beat because I’m out of practice, it is of little consequence!

Nearly 4 years old, my second granddaughter is teaching Big Teddy to play the piano.

When I began studies in senior high school I entertained the cooks in the dining hall of my Merredin boarding house but once in the city, studying at university and teachers college, it became all too hard to keep up playing. Many years later, though, both daughters learned to play the piano and I taught the rudiments of music to my eldest granddaughter. Curiously, I find that with so many different methodologies today, it is barely necessary to have a teacher when the internet can serve the same purpose!

Magic does happen! I passed all my Pianoforte and theory exams with good grades. I practiced an hour or so every day – scales and set pieces and the occasional non-compulsory piece. It was more than a subject to learn. It made my heart sing. It still does.

An ear for music

The only thing I ever truly wished for while tinkling the keys was an ear that naturally heard sounds and matched pitch! It forever eludes me, though I know what sounds right and how to create music from a composition. It’s always a delight to hear those who are blessed with running their fingers up and down a keyboard creating music as though it were the gods themselves showing off!

Keeping in tune

In 2019 I met a wonderful piano tuner. He amazed me with his knowledge of the piano and I learned that he’d done the equivalent of what would be an apprenticeship in building pianos when he was a young lad in Germany. With such insight, and over many years of tuning pianos by ear, he returned my piano to full tone. I wrote a Facebook post about it here.

It fascinated me to learn and appreciate the difference between tuning by ear and by using a machine. the end result bears testimony to the first approach, a dying art and skill. there’s very few pianos tuners who tune by ear, and even fewer who tune concert hall pianos here and overseas. My humble piano received royal treatment.

Benefits of playing an instrument

Playing an instrument is a delight in the way it brings me right into the moment. It’s a great way to focus and centre self. I have stacks of sheets of music piled high, usually on top of the piano and overflowing from my great grandmother’s piano stool that came from Oldham in England. She brought it with her when she migrated with her family, including her daughter, my grandmother-to-be, in 1910. Not naturally musical, I’m  delighted to have had the opportunity to learn an instrument and know my grandmother’s piano will remain in the family for the next generation and beyond. It is part of our family heritage.

My great grandmother’s piano stool overflows with old sheet music.

Acknowledgements:  Beale History ; Leaver and Son

Susan is a writer based in Perth's Darling Range, Western Australia. Her love for writing began as a child and is a life-long passion. Susan is also passionate about reading and attributes much of her learning to the wonderful world of literature. She enjoys photography and art and loves to write the occasional poem. She is often found indulging in a good cup of coffee and gazing over the hills from her backyard.

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