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The co-owner of Doctor Piano hasn’t been able to see since he was a child – but when Nova Scotians need a heavy instrument moved, he can picture the best path to do it

Doctor Piano's co-owner Gary Trenholm, right, helps move a piano into a client's house in Timberlea, N.S.Photography and video by Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Gary Trenholm, knees slightly bent, braces himself under the weight of more than 225 kilograms of wood and cast iron before taking a confident step back off a paved walkway and onto a garden bed on a steeply sloped hill. Blind since childhood, Mr. Trenholm couldn’t physically see the hill, but he could visualize it, as well as the upright piano he was gripping, and the truck it would be loaded onto. Importantly, he trusted his colleagues who were assisting – they told him how many more steps he had to take before he was at the stairs, or they’d place a hand on his back to signal their position.

Mr. Trenholm, the co-owner of Doctor Piano, a Halifax company that sells, tunes, repairs and moves pianos, is never worried about his own safety – it’s all about the piano and the home it’s being moved out of or into.

And it’s what’s made his company the most in-demand piano mover in Atlantic Canada. If you own a piano in Nova Scotia, the odds are high that Mr. Trenholm has laid hands on it at some point.

Two-thirds of their jobs are the ones no one else wants to take on because of their difficulty: an organ that needs to be moved down from an attic, a baby grand moving from a condo onto the second floor of a house, an upright whose only option for exiting a building is through a window.

If they ding up someone’s wall during a move, they owe them money. But if they scrape up their knuckles on exposed brick while carrying that piano out of the house? “The skin on our hands will grow back,” Mr. Trenholm says.

He prides himself on never having settled an insurance claim in almost half a century in business.

“Take good care of it, it’s the first thing my husband and I bought,” Mary Jane Ross, the piano’s original owner, called out to Mr. Trenholm when he and his crew arrived 20 minutes earlier.

It’s the fourth (or is it fifth?) time Mr. Trenholm’s company has been trusted with the Yamaha’s transport. First between several North Sydney, N.S. homes Ms. Ross and her husband lived in, then to Halifax in 2015, when the piano was passed along to their son, Doug Ross. Now it was travelling just a few minutes away from the house Mr. Ross sold to the new one he’d just purchased.

Mr. Trenholm moves around the piano with an ease and familiarity, as though it’s his own. He knows the dimensions of this Yamaha U1J upright, purchased in 1979, because he’s handled hundreds like it before. He knows its centre of gravity, exactly how to drape the dress (the protective cover that is slipped over the piano when it’s being moved), where to secure the straps over it, how many inches to lift it to get it onto a dolly.

“He’s the most observant blind man you’ll ever see,” quips Craig Smith, who has been holding the other end of the Yamaha on this move.

Mr. Trenholm, whose company has been operating since 1977, prides himself in having never settled an insurance claim in a business fraught with risk to movers and pianos alike.

In 1959, when Mr. Trenholm was 5, he suffered the injury Ralphie’s mother warned about in A Christmas Story: While he and his brother were playing with BB guns, he got shot in the eye. The injury was treated quickly and he regained his sight, but then a few months later, this time playing with bows and arrows, that same eye was pierced again. He didn’t tell his parents right away, the eye was infected, and he ended up losing his vision completely – he wears two prosthetics with blue irises.

While attending the Halifax School for the Blind, Mr. Trenholm took a piano-tuning elective on a whim just to get out of taking French class. He was a natural – decades of research support the idea that those who are born blind or develop blindness at a young age compensate for that loss with their other senses, particularly their sense of hearing.

As a general arts student in university, he continued with piano tuning on the side. He had a knack for repairing them, too, and with a friend launched a business where they fixed up pianos and sold them out of the basement of a downtown Halifax hotel. Their enterprise was so popular they decided to open a storefront and started selling new pianos as well.

But since Doctor Piano opened in 1977, the acoustic piano market has steadily shrunk. For much of the 20th century, pianos were a fixture in middle-class homes, considered an investment that would last generations, and there were several companies producing them in North America. But over time, consumer tastes have changed: Many now prefer keyboards or digital pianos, which are cheaper, lighter and easier to move. Mr. Trenholm doesn’t romanticize acoustics in the way some clients do – he is far happier selling an affordable keyboard to a customer rather than a lemon of a used piano. Dollarwise, 60 per cent of their business is in acoustic pianos and 40 per cent is digital, but in terms of units, it’s the inverse.

Too many think of acoustic pianos like they do antique furniture – that if they were made with quality materials and with fine workmanship, they’ll last forever. But Mr. Trenholm, after a career of tuning and repairing thousands of pianos, knows that they’re more like cars and they break down over time. The best years of their lives are the first 40, Mr. Trenholm says.

Sales of old pianos are often prompted by life’s major events: divorces, deaths, a move to a long-term care home. Sellers of the old hulking wooden upright pianos often start off as optimists, listing their pianos for a few hundred or even thousand dollars on Facebook Marketplace. Days pass. Then weeks. The ad is updated: “Free piano, needs a new home.” Of course, free doesn’t account for the hundreds the new owners will need to spend on hiring a mover and tuner. At the end of the line, the reality-checked sellers call Doctor Piano and pay them about $250 to haul the piano away.

Mr. Trenholm and employee Craig Smith push a 700-pound Dominion piano into its final resting place, a Halifax trash bin.

At pickup, the owners will often be emotional about it, offering the biography of the piano, as though it were a beloved family member. “Grandma had it. They worked their bones off. Granddad got it for grandma and broke his back bringing it over the Berlin Wall,” Mr. Trenholm said. “People are more attached to their pianos than almost anything else you can think of.”

Like a parent who tells their child that their ailing dog is being sent to live on a farm, Mr. Trenholm sometimes offers these clients a merciful white lie. Even though their 100-year-old piano is permanently out of tune and has suffered the damaging effects of being in a room with inadequate humidity, he will offer to take it back to his shop and say he’ll do his best to find it a new home.

Instead, he and his crew will usually haul the piano off to the Otter Lake Landfill, a short drive west of the Halifax peninsula. At that point, Mr. Trenholm doesn’t perceive of it as a piano, but simply as wood and metal, which makes it easy to push off the back of the truck into a dumpster – a ritual performed on 60 to 100 pianos a year.

But the fiercely loved pianos are saved, like the 42-year-old Yamaha U1J Mr. Trenholm was moving in early December.

It was played by all four members of the Ross family, and Ms. Ross taught lessons on it for years. After receiving an inheritance, the couple decided to give the Yamaha to their son and upgrade to a grand piano. They made an overnight trip to Halifax to see what Mr. Trenholm had in his shop, but after a salesperson had shown them a range of pianos, they were undecided. That night, at their hotel, Mr. Trenholm called to close the deal but with a very down-to-earth approach.

“I think he’s someone who understood the value of the piano to us beyond its economic value,” said Peter Ross. “I just had a very warm feeling about Gary. Maybe I’m romanticizing a bit, but maybe there’s something about the loss of vision that just makes the aural world so much more important.”

Mr. Trenholm plays a grand piano at Doctor Piano's Halifax showroom.

Mr. Trenholm won’t be making deals like that for much longer. The Doctor Piano building was sold recently and the business is moving to a new location. Mr. Trenholm sees the next year, as he approaches his 70s and acoustic pianos continue to fall out of favour, as the time to “evaporate away” from the company.

The uncertainty of what life will look like away from pianos is “probably the greatest fear I have in the whole world,” he says, but he imagines he’ll stick around in some capacity for a while – if for no other reason than to pass on the knowledge and expertise he’s gained in the last half-century.

Back at the younger Mr. Ross’s house, the piano is on the driveway. Mr. Trenholm, Mr. Smith and Wayne Briand, the third man on the job, have carried the heavy Yamaha through a narrow hallway, down a tricky set of front steps, and along a not-quite-wide-enough path.

Mr. Trenholm, grinning cockily, declares that the move was a “two” on a scale of one to 10 in terms of difficulty.

“Pfft, that’s a five,” says Mr. Smith.

“Or six!” pipes up Mr. Briand.

After this long in the business, it takes a lot to impress or intimidate Mr. Trenholm.

As the men stand on the platform at the back of the truck with the piano, which is hydraulically lifted up, Mr. Trenholm is lost in thought for a moment and then smiles impishly. “Okay, it was a three.”

Watch Gary Trenholm at work

'You can be a wonderful mover without seeing at all,' Gary Trenholm says. Watch to see how he's been moving pianos since the 1970s.

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