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Quiet please... "We can make your piano sing!"

September 28, 2007|By RICHARD BELISLE

The works of the old Wurlitzer baby grand that greets visitors in the front office are long gone, but the unmistakable shape of its polished walnut serves as an unusual, albeit useful, desk. It tells visitors at first glance that they're in the right place.

As if the simulated piano keyboard that hovers above the front door of Wally McClure's Piano Shop hadn't already told them.

"A guy gave it (the Wurlitzer) to me, says McClure, 56, of his brainstorm to convert an empty piano shell into a working office desk.

There are other hints that the building at 816 Pope Ave. in Hagerstown houses a piano sales and repair shop, a business McClure has been in for nearly three decades. Near the desk is an upright, burled English walnut piano, resplendent with swing-out brass candelabras. The gold-leafed name on the instrument's front panel reads Robert Strather, a London manufacturer.

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Competent as he is in resurrecting old instruments (several antique models are in various stages of restoration in the back room), McClure says the Strather, because parts for it can no longer be bought or reproduced, is relegated to permanent existence as a static display.

A standout among the older pianos in the repair room is an early 19th century Broadwood grand, an instrument favored by such composer greats as Chopin, Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven.

The instruments are still being made today by John Broadwood & Sons Ltd. in London. According to the company's Web site, Broadwood is the oldest piano maker in the world.

Compared to a modern piano the workings in McClure's Broadwood are ancient, especially in the setup of its tuning pins, he says.

Tuning pins are screw-like devices with holes at the top. The piano's wires are threaded through the holes and the pins are tightened into the sound board to create the pitch of each string.

"It's an obsolete technology. These old pins can't hold the tension anymore," McClure says. "I'll have to remove all the pins, drill out the holes and replace them with modern pins with finer threads. I also have to replace the wires."

McClure believes his Broadwood, with its handsome rosewood finish and harpsichord-like sound, was built between 1822 and 1840.

An even greater challenge than replacing the Broadwood's tuning pins will be figuring out how to reset the four sturdy legs that hold up an 1850s heavy square piano owned by a young Annandale, Va., woman. She brought the instrument, a family heirloom, to McClure's shop to have it restored for posterity.

The legs are screwed into the base of the instrument with threaded wooden dowels. Some of the dowels are broken off in the legs and the base will have to be drilled out while leaving enough wood for new threads.

"I'm not worried about the mechanics. I can repair an awful lot of things in this piano," he says. "I'll make it play again, but those legs are a real challenge."

He says he's not worried because his expertise lies in the restoration of very old pianos.

An 1895 Baltimore-made Stieff upright sits in another corner of the shop. He restored and sold it to the owner of a Victorian home in Southern Maryland.

Next to the Stieff is a Mller reed organ that he restored and plans to keep around in honor of its local history.

A 1919 Steinway grand also in for repairs is owned by a family with a limited budget. Among its problems is its moth-damaged felt.

"I'll make it play really nice again, but there's more to do on it then their budget allows," he says.

In addition to restorations, McClure tunes pianos in homes, churches - anywhere he's needed.

Not all tuners can play piano, he says. McClure has been playing since he was 5. His specialty is classical, and he has accompanied the Hagerstown Choral Arts group and substitutes at area churches on piano and pipe organ. He also plays for special events and weddings.

"As an advanced pianist I can usually tell right way what kind of problems an instrument has."

His business card boasts, "... we can make your piano sing."

McClure's line of new pianos carry the name Hallet, Davis & Co., a long-time American maker. A side room holds his inventory of used pianos, from grands to uprights.

He also moves pianos, a sideline that morphed into Around Town Movers, a moving company that McClure started and ran for 17 years until he closed it in 2005.

"I wanted to free up more time to become active in the community musically," he says.

Sideline interests are not new to McClure. He's also dabbled in local politics. In 1997 he was elected to a four-year term on the Hagerstown City Council. He followed that with two unsuccessful bids for a seat on the Washington County Commissioners in 2003 and 2006.

Richard Belisle is a freelance writer and former Herald-Mail reporter. He lives in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

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