On a 90-degree day in mid-August, Graham Brecke and his assistant, Breanna Michelle, are preparing to move a 600-pound studio piano from street level to the second-floor office of the Billings Youth Orchestra and Chorale.
Standing in his trailer, securing heavy straps over the blanket-wrapped piano, Brecke is already starting to sweat.
“This is history,” he says. “We’ve never done a piano this big before up stairs.”
There is no elevator in the building on the 100 block of North 31st Street. They will have to manhandle the piano up 23 steps and somehow maneuver it around the corner of two landings, one of them rather tight.
It would be a daunting task for any two people, but at first glance the challenges facing this unlikely pair would seem to be overwhelming.
“I think they look scared sometimes,” Michelle said of their clients. “They do.”
That may be understandable. Brecke is a fit 37-year-old, but he has been blind since birth. Michelle, 19, is a petite blond who almost invariably wears flip-flops on the job.
“I always hear about my flip-flops, but I don’t care,” Michelle said.
“It doesn’t really matter what shoes you’re wearing if you drop a piano on your foot,” Brecke said.
His blindness is another matter. People rarely comment on that, but their expressions telegraph their doubts. If they do say something, Brecke takes it in stride.
“I had an older lady tell me once, ‘You can’t do that.’ I said, ‘Actually, I can.’”
Watching the two of them move that 600-pound piano into the youth orchestra office would have made a believer out of anyone.
Before they even begin the move, they slowly walk arm in arm from the trailer to the second-story office. Brecke is counting steps, gauging distances, estimating maneuvering space, mentally reviewing options for dealing with every perceived difficulty.
They have already strapped the piano to a skid board, a 50-pound plank with a carpet remnant for padding. Still in the trailer, Brecke hoists up one end of the piano far enough for Michelle to slip a dolly under the instrument.
Brecke points out that he is lifting “only” 300 pounds at a time, about half the piano’s weight.
“There’s no way I could lift 600 pounds,” he says. “I mean, I work out, but …”
They use the dolly for rolling the piano down a ramp from the trailer, then up the ramp over the curb and into the ground-floor foyer of the orchestra building.
After they position one end of the piano over the first step, the dolly comes out and the real work begins. They are no more wheels, just main strength.
Michelle is on the upside of the piano, hanging on to a heavy rope attached to the skid board. Brecke is down below, his back braced against the end of the piano. At a count of “1, 2, 3!” Michelle lifts the piano just enough to clear the second step and Brecke pushes with all his might until the piano is resting on that step and they can both take a breather.
They repeat this action at seven of the first 10 steps, sometimes needing two tries if Michelle, who is sweating and straining but still smiling, can’t lift the piano high enough to clear a stair. At each step, Brecke pushes with his back, knees bent, his hands clutching the stairwell’s railings for support and leverage.
After the seventh stair, the whole skid board is on the stairs and it is just a matter of pushing and pulling the piano straight to the first landing.
During their pre-move reconnaissance, Brecke thought the first landing, though tight, was big enough to allow them simply to swing the piano around the corner and begin tackling the second flight of stairs. Now, based on what Michelle sees and what Brecke perceives by walking around the piano, they know that’s not the case.
“It’s gonna be tight,” Michelle says.
“I know,” Brecke says. “We’re going to have to try something new.”
They talk it over for a while, both of them still panting. They decide to put the piano on end, then decide against it, trying once to lift one end of the piano, to see if they might just be able to clear the railing and get around the corner.
No such luck. Getting the piano on one end is the only option, and it is not easy. They lift a little at a time then pivot slightly, trying to gain enough clearance to turn the piano on end without hitting a wall. Several times, Michelle is wedged into the corner behind the piano. Her position looks precarious, but she keeps insisting, with a strained smile, that she has plenty of room.
Finally, after four or five strenuous moves, the piano is upright. Now they have room to turn it and lay it down against the bottom step on the second flight of stairs, ready to begin the whole lift-and-push routine all over again.
At least the second landing is large, so large that all they have to do is get the dolly under the piano again and wheel it around to the third and final flight of stairs. But they are both getting tired. On a couple of these last steps, Michelle can’t quite lift the piano high enough to clear a step, which means pausing and trying again.
Down below, Brecke is sweating so profusely that a dark stain slowly blossoms on his blue T-shirt, and the veins are standing out on his neck and face. But there is nothing for it but to keep going. You can’t stop moving a piano in the middle of a flight of stairs.
At last they are done and the pained grimaces have given way to broad smiles of satisfaction.
“That was fun,” Brecke says. “It actually was, now that I can breathe again.”
They still have to move a smaller piano from the orchestra office out to the trailer, but going downstairs with a lighter instrument is relatively simple. Brecke says he’s moved about 400 pianos in his life, all successfully.
“I’ve never had a wreck before. I’ve never had an insurance claim. I intend to keep it that way,” he says.
But there have been some difficult, dangerous moments, as there were on that day in mid-August. Jobs like that take trust.
“You better really know the people you’re working with,” he says.
That’s why, despite his blindness and her flip-flops, Brecke and Michelle get along so well. They trust each other and genuinely enjoy each other’s company. Brecke said he has been friends with Michelle’s family for years.
He moved a few pianos with Michelle’s brother, and he and Michelle have been working together for a year. Besides helping him move the pianos, she drives his truck with the trailer attached from job to job. They have delivered pianos to towns all over the Billings region and northern Wyoming, and recently she drove him to Gillette, Wyo., to tune five pianos in one day.
Tuning pianos was how he got into the moving business.
Brecke was born in West Virginia and moved to Billings in 2005 because he had some friends here. He had previously worked as a Microsoft-certified technician, and when he came here, “I didn’t find any computer work, which was great.”
He said his most recent computer work was in technical support, fielding phone calls from people having trouble with their computers.
“When people’s computers crashed and I was working on that, people were never happy,” he said.
By contrast, people love when he delivers a new piano, or brings an old one into tune or does some refurbishing that makes their piano play better and sound better.
“It’s a great job, you know, because people are happy,” he says.
A job counselor at Montana Vocational Rehabilitation was the one who suggested the career change. Brecke told him what he was after: “What can I do that I can have fun, be good at and make money?”
He asked Brecke if he had ever tuned pianos. Brecke said no, but he’d played guitar all his life and figured he had the ear for it. He trained with a tuner in Sheridan, Wyo., then tuned pianos for All About Pianos from 2006 to 2010.
To expand his skills, he attend the School of Piano Technology for the Blind in Vancouver, Wash., in 2010 and 2011, where he learned how to restore and rebuild pianos, and how to make the sort of repairs and adjustments that keep a piano sounding good and playing with precision.
He started moving pianos when he was working at All About Pianos in 2009, and in 2010 he bought his own trailer.
He still loves his job, about which he has only one complaint: “I wish it was more steady. I love to work.”
And he continues to enjoy it for the reason he first got into it.
“The money is one aspect, but it makes people happy,” he said. “That’s the good thing.”
You can reach Brecke by calling (406) 623-0793.