Nicole Wilhelm photo
Keys to success
The Ward Piano Company near Canton, N.C., has been a family-owned operation since 1944. Kelly Ward-Smith, seated at far left, runs much of the day-to-day operations along with her brother Alden Ward (far right). Guy Ward, center, helped found the company and sold pianos with his father after serving in World War II.
You can lose a lot of friends trying to move a piano.
Alden Ward knows. He’s been through his share of harrowing experiences moving these awkwardly heavy musical machines.
Once when he was called out to the Biltmore House in Asheville, N.C., to move an extremely valuable Steinway Grand from one room to another, one of the legs holding up the piano fell over suddenly. The whole back end could have instantly tilted and crashed, but Ward caught the two-and-a-half-foot-long leg just in time. Apparently, it had been put on backwards but had somehow held up the piano for 15 years.
“God was watching over us,” Ward said, still heaving a sigh just thinking about what might have been. “I lost about 10 years off my life that day. Needless to say, the leg is on there right now.”
Moving pianos is one part of the family-owned business that has kept Ward Piano Company going since 1944 and earned the Wards the reputation as the go-to for piano owners in the region. Alden’s grandfather, L.J. Ward, started selling pianos from a small store in downtown Canton, N.C.
L.J. teamed up with his son, Guy, after the younger Ward was discharged from the U.S. Army in 1946. They would purchase pianos from New York or Philadelphia and then sell them in various towns and cities along the East Coast. Father and son would pack up a load of pianos in the back of a truck and one might ask the other, “Which way do you want to go today?”
It was a simpler time back then. Business came from door-to-door sales, so the two would pick a town or state and head off in that direction in search of new customers or dealers.
“The first sale was always the hardest,” Guy said.
After the business moved to a few different locations in downtown Canton, it relocated to its present-day site along Smoky Park Highway (U.S. 19/23) just outside of town. Eventually, the company went from a wholesale business to refurbishing and refinishing pianos. By the 1950s, the fashion at the time was to cut off the tops of uprights pianos, so the company got plenty of remodeling orders. Piano pick-ups, sales and deliveries stretched from Calgary, Canada, to the Carolinas, down into Florida and all over the Southeast. These trips included all sorts of odd locales, transporting pianos over dirt roads and highways, across swinging bridges, up elevators, and even once by sled.
Today, the company is equipped to make all sorts of repairs and modifications to any kind of piano, from the smallest known as spinets to slightly taller consoles and uprights to the largest of the concert grands.
Guy Ward is still involved with the family business, though Alden and his sister Kelly Ward-Smith now manage most of the daily operations. Alden started working with the company when he was 16 years old—nearly 30 years ago, while Kelly has been working there full-time since 1979. Alden’s 16-year-old son, Ethan, has worked for the company, and his other son, 12-year-old Jared, is showing some interest in carrying on the family tradition. That would mean four generations of Wards over seven decades.
It’s hard to fathom how many people have been touched by this one company, how many musical dreams have been fulfilled by the ivory keys that were handled and made new by more than half a century of craftsmanship.
On a typical visit to the shop, one might encounter six to 12 pianos under repair at the same time. Back in the peak years of the business in the 1960s, about 30 employees were working in two shifts to rebuild pianos. Today, the company employs seven.
A basic rebuilding job takes about two weeks. Repairs can include tightening tuning pins, polishing screws, or replacing a soundboard or pinblock.
In one of the shop’s main buildings, a handful of technicians hunker around several workshop tables, tinkering with piano parts. With the walls of hanging tools and the steady sounds of drilling and hammering, the room feels like an auto repair garage.
“I compare pianos to cars all the time,” Alden says.
After “popping the hood” of a grand piano, you might find a whole host of problems that need fixing. Tuning pins loosen. Boards deteriorate. Strings break. If the main plate on a piano goes, it’s as if the engine of a car needs replacing, so it’s better off to get a new piano, Alden explains. There are 18-20 tons of pressure on most piano plates, so maintaining that tension can mean the difference between a finely tuned piano and discarded piece of junk.
Tightening the tension on a piano or relaxing it can be like tuning a guitar. It takes an acute ear to notice what’s missing. For decades, the Ward Piano Company hired blind men as tuners. They learned their craft at a trade school in Morganton and were valuable mainstays for the business. Alden would drive a blind tuner out to a particular home, where the tuner would open up a piano and diagnose the problem, ping-ping-pinging the “A” note in the middle of a piano and working his way up the scale. It’s a very slow, meticulous process and one that is anything but pleasing to the ear— at least until the tuner, often an accomplished player, gives the piano a final run through to test its sound.
These days Ward recommends C.W. Stewart to customers. Stewart lives near Cashiers, N.C., and has been tuning pianos across the region for decades. A year ago, Ward moved a young woman’s piano from her childhood home in Cullowhee, N.C., to her new home with her husband in Canton. Stewart had been tuning the piano since it was purchased in 1988 and had always particularly liked it. The woman was pleasantly surprised when Ward informed her that Stewart would be their choice to tune it again in its new home.
One of the most common problems with a piano is lost motion, when a key sticks or, more specifically, when the key and hammer don’t move at the same time. It’s comes from normal wear and tear of a piano.
One of the warehouse rooms at Ward Piano is full of dozens of old pianos, some destined for the junk heap, others yet to be raided for parts. Even though a worn-out piano is mostly wood that can be recycled, disassembling the tuning pins, screws and strings from the wood before hauling it all off to the dump can easily take five hours, according to Kelly Ward-Smith. If time is tight, the old pianos have to wait to be disassembled.
People are giving away uprights aplenty these days. Gone are the days of the family piano as a standard in living rooms. It used to be that when the Wards sold a piano in a given town, a next-door neighbor would want one and then another neighbor and another, until the company had a series of clients from the same neighborhood.
Today’s customers tend to be senior citizens who want to refurbish a family heirloom or churches in need of piano repairs or wealthy clients looking to decorate their mansion in the mountains.
“We see a lot of nice homes,” Kelly says.
The Wards are also repairing some of those same pianos they sold decades ago. They’ve learned to evolve as a business as the piano industry has changed, but it can be hard looking into the future, as pianos become more of a rarity in people’s homes.
The technology of electronic keyboards didn’t affect the piano business nearly as much as video games and computers, Alden says. Parents today just aren’t signing up their children for piano playing lessons like they did 30 and 40 years ago.
Ward Piano Company has weathered its share of calamities, recessions, and a set of floods in 2004 that came on the heels of back-to-back hurricanes nearly wiped out their entire warehouse and showroom. Employees carried out about 70 pianos—the best of their inventory—but when they returned, the floors were covered in mud and muck after two feet of floodwaters swamped the workshops, storage building, and showroom. About 30 pianos left behind were ruined.
The business has built a reputation for quality and maintained strong relationships with its dealers and customers. On his travels through the South, Guy often found a way to mix business with pleasure. After driving down to Albany, Ga., to deliver a piano, he would stay an extra day or so to go fishing.
Running a family-owned business has its advantages, the Wards will tell you. You get to make your own hours and every piano is different, so there’s always a new challenge.
“As long as we’ve been doing this, we’ve still been learning things,” Alden says.
On the flip side, you don’t always get to leave work when you want to and some calls come at the oddest hours.
About 15 years ago, a customer from Maggie Valley, N.C., came by with a peculiar order. She bought a piano for each of her three children for Christmas. Each was given a map and a set of directions to come to Ward Piano Company, each one not knowing the others were headed to the same destination. When the children arrived on Christmas day, they found their very own piano with a red bow on each piano.
It was a family reunion full of ebony and ivory.
When Lorna Hawley and her husband were planning to move to western North Carolina from Florida several years ago, they put many of their possessions into storage. Those possessions included a baby grand piano that Lorna had dreamed of having for years.
Then tragedy struck. The massive floods from two hurricanes that plowed into western North Carolina in September 2004 also hit the storage building where Hawley kept her prize baby grand.
She called up Ward Piano Company, and they came to check it out. Unfortunately, the water damage was so bad, even the best refurbishing wouldn’t prolong its life.
“They had such compassion,” Hawley said. “They had tears in their eyes. I had tears in my eyes. My baby grand was my baby.”
Fortunately, her insurance policy covered the loss of musical instruments, and as luck would have it, the Ward Piano Company had saved a baby grand in their showroom from the floods, and it was for sale.
But there was one aesthetic touch Lorna hoped to find in her new piano. She wondered if the Wards could reattach the legs from her old piano to the newer model? Sometimes the legs don’t fit. All they could do was try.
“It was a perfect match,” Hawley declared.
The legs were attached and refinished to match the stain of the new piano. The Wards also provided a matching bench. The money from the insurance company was exactly the same dollar amount as the cost of the new piano and its refinishing.
By June of the following year, Lorna and her husband moved into their new home in Forest City, N.C. When the piano came, she sat down and played and played and played.
“My piano is a very good friend,” Hawley said.
Another happy customer.
“They’ve just been incredible to work with,” Hawley said. “They really care about the people they deal with. They treated me like family.”
And when it came time to select a piano for her church in Rutherfordton, she immediately recommended Ward Piano. Soon after, West Point Baptist Church became yet another satisfied customer.
As Ward Piano Company continues to sell, refurbish and move pianos throughout the South, this family-owned business draws on a time-honored practice that recognizes pianos and their owners as part of one, big extended family.