My New York Obsession

The Magical Piano Tuner Who Made Our Apartment Sing

The battered, old Lagonda didn’t see much action. Getting it in tune would not be easy. That’s when Ilya showed up.

Photo by Sayaka Ueno

Fifteen years ago, when my husband and I first toured our apartment in Brooklyn’s Windsor Terrace neighborhood, he facetiously told the super, “We’ll take it, as long as you leave the piano.”

He was mostly joking. The apartment, after all, was giant—the largest we’d entered in all of New York City, apart from a surreal dinner party in Hillary Clinton’s cousin’s Upper East Side penthouse in the summer of 2000. (I’m still not sure how we got there, and also not sure how we hit the NYC rental lottery jackpot with our pad.)

The apartment was also cheap by New York standards. Of course we’d take it! Really, there was no need to throw in the piano to persuade us.

Fifteen years ago, my husband facetiously told the super, “We’ll take it, as long as you leave the piano.” / Photo by Sayaka Ueno

Turns out, the piano was pretty cheap, too, and our soon-to-be super was happy to leave it rather than move it down six flights of stairs. Despite the instrument’s medium size—I believe it’s a Lagonda upright, though the name has partially worn offno expert of physics or master of Tetris could ever squeeze it into our elevator.

Babies are hard. I never even got the bassinet. And I definitely didn’t take any piano lessons.

Back then, I had lofty plans to throw myself into piano lessons. Pregnant at the time, I dreamed of playing the famous Brahms Lullaby (Op. 49 No.4 Wiegenlied, this admitted poser just discovered after a quick Google search), while my baby sailed into sleep in her white wicker bassinet.

Babies are hard. I never even got the bassinet. And I definitely didn’t take any piano lessons. Time moved forward and the piano didn’t move at all. Eventually our cat, Simon Le Bon Chat, became by far the most prolific player in the apartment. 

Three years after we moved in, at the writer Myla Goldberg’s house for a playdate (she also had a toddler at the time), I experienced another kind of piano regret. Myla had a piano, too, but hers didn’t look like it had been left behind by a weary superintendent. It was, I noticed when Myla winced slightly as I put my sweater on top of it, immaculate. She took great care of her instrument, while mine sat at home under a menagerie of candlesticks, picture frames, glass grapes, taxidermied birds (well, one bird, Nigel—purchased on Castle Hill in Budapest in 1994), vintage microphones, and…you get the idea, with no one so much as pecking out “Chopsticks.”

That status changed a little over the years, with our kids taking a few lessons here and there. Shamefully, the piano-top clutter barely shifted, but eventually we got a regular pianist on the scene to bring it to life.

A friend took great care of her instrument, while mine sat at home under a menagerie of candlesticks, picture frames, glass grapes, taxidermied birds, and vintage microphones. / Photo by Sayaka Ueno

One night a couple of years ago at the Greenwich Village piano bar Marie’s Crisis, my husband recognized Brian, the brother of a friend, among the others “gathered around a pianist and group-singing show tunes.” The three of us hit it off for many reasons, but partly because Brian knows his Broadway musicals better than anyone I’ve ever met. And he can play them all on the piano. He can play anything on the piano, provided he has the sheet music.

Friends have futzed around on the piano, extracting rusty, off-tune versions of “Deck the Halls” or “Let It Snow,” but now we had a real pianist.

As keepers of the one of the biggest apartments in our friend syndicate, we host an annual (often rowdy) holiday party. Over the years, friends have futzed around on the piano at the party, extracting rusty, off-tune versions of “Deck the Halls” or “Let It Snow,” but now we had a real pianist. After nearly two decades, we realized it was time to get the piano tuned.

Enter Ilya.

When we asked around for a tuner, friends and neighbors repeatedly urged us to go with their “Russian.” Apparently there are a lot of Russian piano tuners in New York City. Ours is now Ilya.

In appearance, Ilya bears more than a passing resemblance to Vincent Price (an objectively great thing as far as I’m concerned), and his voice is similarly resonant.

I’m not sure if Ilya walked up the six flights of stairs to our apartment deliberately or if he just didn’t realize we had an elevator, but there he was at our door one morning, panting softly. The first thing I realized (aside from his Price-like visage) was how tall he is: He stood maybe 6 feet 2, wearing a suit and tie, holding a worn but somehow hallow-looking satchel filled, presumably, with tuning tools.

I have to admit that I was on guard because the only other piano tuner we’d ever brought in found a nickel in the treble strings, flipped it to my husband, and said: “See this coin? It’s worth more than the piano.” (And, no, it was not a rare buffalo head nickel.) So I stood ready to defend the old Lagonda to this very tall man no matter what.

In his bottomless voice and equally deep accent, Ilya told me, “It does have some problem, but it’s a nice piano. It’s very nice.”   

Take that, coin flipper! 

After staring at the piano for what seemed like a weirdly long time, he asked me if I could turn down the radio. I’d put on WQXR prior to the appointment in an attempt to make a cultured impression, but Ilya needed to concentrate. Sully, our one-eyed Shih Tzu, and I arranged ourselves on the couch and tried to look busy while Ilya got down to business. Really, though, all I wanted to do was watch this master at work.

After arranging himself on the world’s ugliest piano stool, which my husband once purchased in an attempt to cultivate a family of pianists, Ilya began to play. / Photo by Sayaka Ueno

After arranging himself on the world’s ugliest piano stool, which my husband once purchased in an attempt to cultivate a family of pianists, Ilya’s first move was to play Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor,” which you probably know from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and a million other spooky films (and nonspooky ones like Disney’s Fantasia). Talk about an opening number! Good move, beautiful Russian man.

I imagined Ilya practicing his Bach as a child in 1950s St. Petersburg, transforming his family’s Khrushchyovka into a gothic dreamland.

I imagined Ilya practicing his Bach as a child in 1950s St. Petersburg, transforming his family’s Khrushchyovka into a gothic dreamland, just as he was doing to my apartment in gentrified Brooklyn. To my ears, the piano sounded exquisite, and I didn’t really know why it needed to be tuned. In truth, I was the only one of my parents’ 13 children who wasn’t given piano lessons growing up. I always assumed this was because I was the 12th in line and the resources had run dry when my turn came around, but looking back, maybe my parents just knew I had no ear. (I mean, I did have a piano worth less than 5 cents for much of my adult life and didn’t seem to mind.)

When he finished with the Bach, impulsively (and embarrassingly), I called out, “More!” If Ilya was annoyed, he was too kind to show it. Next he played a piece he told me was called “Ballade Pour Adeline.” Although it brought no gothic storm clouds like the Bach, it was beautiful, soothing enough to put a baby to sleep in a white wicker bassinet. 

After the encore I let Ilya get to work. The whole thing was over in under half an hour and cost less than two dozen doughnuts at Doughnut Plant. Next December, when Ilya comes back to tune us up again, I’ll be ready with requests.

Eventually, our cat, Simon Le Bon Chat, became by far the most prolific player in the house. / Photo by Sayaka Ueno

Catherine Crawford works as the communications director for GrowNYC.  She also teaches grammar and writing at NYU’s School of Professional Studies. Crawford edited the collection If You Really Want to Hear About It: Writers on J.D. Salinger and His Work and is the author of the book French Twist: An American Mom’s Experiment in Parisian Parenting.