For the past 45 years, Vincent Izzo’s life has been all about pianos: restoring, selling, teaching and playing professionally.
After graduating from Queens College with a degree in music education, he taught music for eight years in Queens public high schools, then started working independently as a teacher and restorer.
He started teaching piano privately in 1970, and opened Vincent Izzo’s Piano Gallery at 249-74 Jericho Tpke. in Bellerose Village at the same time. He opened a second location at 43 Covert Ave. in Stewart Manor.
“I always loved piano, playing piano and teaching piano,” Izzo said. “Once I got into it, I learned everything about the piano business, voicing, regulating and restoring.”
Izzo, 66, started learning the technical end of the instrument from a piano tuner he met 48 years ago, trading music lessons for tuning lessons at the time, and carved a unique business niche. His piano galleries are stocked full of Baldwin uprights, Steinway grands and other instruments of the many New York City piano makers that stopped making them years ago.
He also played concerts as a classical pianist and private parties, performing popular tunes from the great American songbook. The classical gigs are rare now, although he recently accompanied dancers in a recital at Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art.
A member of the Piano Technicians Guild, Izzo is a master craftsman who’s spent most of his life transforming pianos from broken wrecks back into beautiful instruments, with little thought to cost. “I put tons of money into them. It’s very different when you love what you do. It’s very emotional,” he said.
One of his recent projects was the restoration of a 110-year-old Steinway grand.
His work has included piano restorations for the Great Neck School District and Forest Hills High School.
His goal is to see just how good a restoration job he could do and, he said, “the best part is when people can’t recognize the piano.”
Often, he said, restorations were prompted by sentimental memories in households where no one any longer played piano.
On his website (www.izzospianogallery.com), Izzo articulates his interest in selling restored pianos, noting that “older pianos were hand-built to last” by master craftsmen who used materials of greater quality than those in contemporary mass-produced instruments.
But the restorations and sales have slowed in recent years, as the music business has fundamentally changed.
In the prime years of his business, he would typically pick up one student for every three pianos he would tune, teaching 44 private piano students in the peak of that part of his business.
He has tuned pianos in Brooklyn, Queens and Suffolk, and received referrals that took him upstate and out of state as well.
“I’ve tuned pianos everywhere,” Izzo said. “As time goes by, there’s less and less demand. It’s pretty much finished. I never thought I’d see this day.”
These days, he has no students and he said electronic pianos have largely supplanted uprights and grand pianos.
“The demand is just not there anymore. The values aren’t there anymore, learning in a traditional way. They want everything to be quick,” Izzo said.
Beyond the shift in piano technology, Izzo said he thinks a diminished focus on music education in public schools underlies the shift away from traditional pianos in households. He said most people don’t appreciate the Broadway tunes and standards that constitute the American Songbook.
“It’s our claim to fame in the rest of the world, but not here,” he said.
It was a firm grounding in classical and American popular music that fueled Izzo’s devotion to the piano. His mother played piano, guitar, accordion and mandolin, while his father player violin. A Bayside resident, he grew up in Queens with nine brothers and sisters who were all interested in music and acting, and frequently performed together.
Izzo and his siblings formed a theater group 30 years ago that performed The Fantasticks and other shows in local churches and schools. “We used to do some serious stuff together,” he said.
One of his sisters, Cynthia Hazel, is a professional singer who currently performs with three other siblings, brothers Tony and Dominic and sister Gloria, as a Doo Wop group in New Jersey venues.
And although his business may not be thriving, Izzo’s focus on his life’s work is not diminished.
“I just love it. I can’t help it. I have a completely compulsive feeling about pianos,” he said.