©2010 by Orin Hargraves
all rights reserved
When I was five years old, Lamb Chop and Wing Ding came to visit me in a dream. I didn’t know what to make of Wing Ding: his appearances on TV were less frequent than the other puppets, and he could be wild and unpredictable, even a little scary sometimes. Lamb Chop, on the other hand, was an objecct of unconditional love, and to be in the same room with him (I did always assume he was a boy, like me), rather than a merely doting spectator of the flickering TV image, was — well, until that night — something I had never dreamed of.
Lamb Chop and Wing Ding came to my house to have a party, just for me: there was no sign of parents, brothers, or other guests, not even the puppetmaster Shari Lewis. Along with Lamb Chop and Wing Ding there came a large and ornate piano. Like the puppets, the piano simply appeared, taking advantage of the dream logic that overlooked tiresome logistical details. After all, it was party time.
The piano was as special and unique as the occasion. It was not an upright, because the strings were horizontal, but it wasn’t really a grand either: it didn’t have the long part or the curvy part. It was just its own shape. All of the panels on it that you would expect to be made of wood were made from a special material: like blend of mother-of-pearl and that crinkly pattern formica that was popular in table tops of the late 1950s. The beauty of it was striking, and of a piece with everything else in the dream that was special and for one time only.
Lamb Chop, Wing Ding and I all played the piano and sang songs together. They were new and delightful songs that I had never heard before, but we all knew them. We were all natural virtuosi at both singing and playing, and so on we played and sang, every moment more enchanted with each other and with our special celebration. At the end of the dream when the puppets said good-bye and left, the piano remained with me, as their gift.
Of the four pianos that have become significant others in my life, this was the one that I spent the least time with — it was just that one night — but in its way, that piano was the most important of them all: it was the first one and the most perfect one; it instilled the motive that made all the worldly pianos possible. Up until that night I had known of pianos only as any five-year-old might, living in a household that wasn’t particularly musical: I had seen pianos on television, in books, and in people’s homes. My grandmother, who lived up in the mountains, owned a hotel. It had two pianos in it, as well as a resident piano player, Chester. Of course I had heard Chester play, and I had played on those pianos as any child might. After the dream, however, I did not want to play on the piano; I wanted to play the piano.
* * *
The following year, when I was six, my parents divorced — way ahead of the demographic trend, as it was only 1960. My mother and two brothers and I moved from suburban Denver to Creede, Colorado: the town where my grandmother lived and ran her hotel. Mamaw was actually my father’s mother, not my mother’s, but Creede was the town where my mother had grown up, where my parents had met, and where they had married.
It would have been very easy for my dream, and the wish it inspired, to get lost in the upheaval of this period. But thanks to Mamaw, it didn’t. Shortly after we settled into a small rented house in Creede, a piano appeared in it. It was a full upright, a Kimball, which at that time was probably thirty or forty years old. I don’t know where it came from, and it wasn’t part of my curiosity to ask. I knew that Mamaw was connected — in a town of 300 people, she was probably the next biggest employer after the silver mines — and she always seemed capable of getting just about anything a person needed. With a little digging around, Mamaw also found a woman in town who could give lessons — I think she was the wife of one of the schoolteachers — and I was soon on my way to fulfilling the wish inspired by my dream.
It was a small disappointment to relinquish the effortless keyboard virtuosity I had experienced with the puppets for the realities of learning to play the piano, but only a small one: a year had passed since my dream, and the excitement of having my own piano far outweighed any disappointment in not being able to do very much with it. The first lesson in the beginner’s book is still imprinted in my mind, as it probably is in the minds of many who began their playing in that era. The song consisted of alternating your thumbs on middle C in 4/4 time to the words
Left – right – left – right up and down! Left – right – left – right do not pound!
As with any newly acquired skill, progress is exponential at the beginning, and before very long I was using all five fingers on both hands, learning about sharps and flats and key signatures, and trying to internalize the mnemonics for quick and failproof identification of the notes on the staves. I didn’t see it at the time, but the process of mastering musical notation is the beginning of a relationship that lasts your whole life: the system of staves, notes, rests, and other marks that symbolically reduces Western music to a code appropriates a place in your brain, from which, like language, it does not depart. And like written language, it invites you to examine it whenever you see it, to read it and see what it’s about.
The other life-long relationship you begin in learning to play a piano is a relationship to pianos generally. It is a gradual intimacy: at first, you just notice that there is a piano when you see one. Over time you get to a place where the presence of a piano demands that you acknowledge it respectfully, like a dignified and genteel person whom you find unexpectedly in a room: if you don’t address it directly, you want to at least inquire as to its provenance and welfare. Unlike smaller instruments that travel discreetly with their players and belong to them in a very particular way, pianos mostly do not travel, and are difficult to conceal.
And like that dignified and genteel person, pianos generally do not speak unbidden, but they respond well to direct address. I have always felt that their presence invites you to play them, just as the leafy canopy of trees — they also are not at liberty to travel — silently invites you to partake of the shade. So, a little like trees, a little like people. It is fitting that pianos are that way: it takes quite a lot of both trees and people to make them. And like trees and people, most pianos just pass through your life, but with a few of them you form lasting relationships.
* * *
The old Kimball, as is the way of any decent piano that is regularly played, slowly became my first piano friend. It wasn’t a piano that would have suited everybody, and I don’t remember anyone else who played it at our house saying anything complimentary about it; but for me, it was a good companion. I became aware early on that it was not a very loud piano: there was little you could do to make it really ring out, even with the damper down. But I was a modest player, and actually grateful that the piano didn’t have a big sound: it was never my intention to get anyone’s attention while I was playing.
Besides my teacher’s piano — a nondescript upright of which I have no significant memory — two other pianos became an irregular part of my early playing life. These were, of course, the two pianos in the Creede Hotel. These pianos did not have to invite me to play them; it was usually a duty call. Whenever Mamaw could rope in an audience for me — usually a small group of unsuspecting guests in the hotel, or patrons of the hotel restaurant — I gave a command performance. The piano in the dining room of the hotel was the one I was usually required to play, and it responded adequately to my modest attempts. It was also an upright in a beautifully polished cherry case. It was louder than the Kimball and harsher in tone. It did not stay long in my life, and I do not remember its name.
The piano in the hotel bar was of a different kind: a big square piano. It took up the whole south wall of the barroom, and it never moved from this spot: Mamaw had had to have the floor underneath it reinforced to support the weight. It was a Decker Brothers piano, made in New York before the turn of the 20th century. It had been in Creede for as long as anyone could remember, and there was no record of its long journey West. There is a good chance it had arrived in Creede along with the rush of humanity that came after 1892, when Creede was a silver boom town, but no one seems to know for sure. You discover, after a while, that this is another thing pianos share with people: they turn up in unexpected places. There can be an air of mystery about their origins and journeys. Sometimes you learn a little bit by poking, and sometimes you don’t.
The square piano was out of my league and it remains today the most intimidating instrument I have ever known. Part of this was its location: you could never play it intimately or privately, because it was in a barroom, where someone was always listening. It was usually someone with a drink in their hand, and — I imagined — with expectations of amusement far beyond anything I could deliver.
The other far more intimidating thing about the square piano was that I couldn’t make music come out of it. Each key seemed to respond unpredictably and inconsistently, as if in accordance with the piano’s own whim. I was sure that some keys didn’t respond at all — it was as if you had to hit them in a particular way that I couldn’t master — and I never managed to bridge the disconnect between the music I bid my fingers to perform and what that piano responded with. But I couldn’t write off the piano entirely: Chester, the live-in piano player, could make that piano rock. As soon as he sat down on the bench his fingers found their places on the keys and then flew over all of them, without printed music and without his even looking down, while he effortlessly knocked out his own improvised arrangements of Down Yonder, The Darktown Strutters’ Ball, and any number of other standards. That piano and Chester were a match, and observing them was a lesson to me about people and pianos, and the way they get to know each other.
* * *
When the local piano teacher moved away, there was some question of whether I should continue with lessons. It had been evident from the get-go that I wasn’t any sort of prodigy, and after three or so years, someone taking a dispassionate view might well conclude that I had no particular talent at the keyboard. But I continued to practice and enjoy playing. Mamaw, in a small leap of faith, took the momentous step of enrolling me with a proper piano teacher: Ruth Marie Colville, who lived in Del Norte, 35 miles away. The logistics, which might have seemed formidable, were quickly resolved: my fortnightly lessons, on a Saturday, were set to coincide with Mamaw’s shopping trips to Monte Vista, 15 miles further down the road. She dropped me off in Del Norte with enough money for the lesson and lunch in a greasy spoon afterwards, then picked me up on Main Street on the way back home to Creede in her grocery-laden Ford Galaxy.
As Lamb Chop and Wing Ding had magically introduced me to the piano, Mrs. Colville introduced me to the music for it — in a way that, from this vantage 40 years later, I view as equally magical. I marvel now that a teacher of her stature lived and worked in a one-stoplight, mountain desert town of 1,000 people. But like pianos, people turn up in odd places, and are sometimes not at all of a piece with their surroundings. Ruth Marie also had made a long journey West. Its details, happily, are not so obscure as those of the Decker Brothers piano: they're recorded in her biography, which I read many years later. The daughter of the founder of the Bethlehem Conservatory of Music, she was lured by the romance and adventure of the West and came to Del Norte as a schoolteacher in the late 1920s. She soon met and married a rancher, and became a somewhat reluctant farm wife. Her father downsized his establishment during the depression and shipped her a piano; thus was born a tradition of top-drawer piano teaching that continued in Del Norte for the next 30 years. I was lucky enough to get in on the tail end of it.
In no time at all under Mrs. Colville's direction I happily left behind the John Schaum piano course and silly made-up songs like “Hannah from Montana” and “The Sphinx” for music written by famous dead people. Marking this transition was the acquisition of my first two volumes from the Schirmer’s Library of Musical Classics. Their covers, in pale yellow with green san-serif writing enclosed by a leaf border, draw my eyes today as readily as printed music itself; they remain an icon of everything that is beautiful and magical in performing music.
The two Schirmer books I was deemed ready to penetrate were the Sonatina Album, and Hanon: The Virtuoso Pianist in Sixty Exercises. Both of these titles were thrilling to me. The Sonatina album suggested that I was now well on my way to the sonata, a known musical form that was actually recorded on records. The title of the Hanon volume holds out bright promise for any young pianist: once you reach number sixty, you'll issue a huge sigh of satisfaction and relief, because then of course you will be able to prop up any musical score on the piano and play it through the first time so that it actually sounds like what the composer intended.
Already then in her 60s, Mrs. Colville was getting close to retirement. Towards the end of my three years of lessons with her she arranged a farewell recital of her students. It is memorable for me in many ways: as my first and only recital, as the apex of my performance career, and as my only date with a concert grand piano. That this occurred at age 12 is not a source of regret or embarrassment to me.
My recital piece was the first movement of the Kuhlau Sonatina Op. 55 No. 1. On the Saturday of my practice lesson on the grand, in situ in the Del Norte High School gymnasium, someone came to the gym on a piece of business with Mrs. Colville, just as I was getting ready to play the Kuhlau. “You go ahead and play,” she said, “and I’ll be listening.” I was slightly put out, feeling that I needed her presence and coaching for critical last-minute guidance. This feeling, however, quickly gave way to the rather exciting idea that I was playing in the background, and that even though no one was consciously and willfully listening to me, the music I was making might travel into them and make a memorable impression. Mrs. Colville wandered off with her visitor and I ripped into the sonatina. For the first and only time in my life I played it perfectly, even the multioctave, meandering 16th-note runs.
“You played that better than you ever have before,” she said when she came back. “If you can play it like that in the recital you’ll do very well.” In the event, I didn't: trembling hands muffed a couple of notes.
* * *
Soon after this my mother remarried and we moved to Monte Vista. The Kimball came with us but by this time I was beginning to lose interest in playing. It would be romantic to think that, having experienced the subtlety and power of a grand piano, I could no longer be content with my humble upright. This had nothing to do with it. The demands of puberty and of adjusting to a new environment and a new parent pushed my interest in music far into the background. Mrs. Colville was retiring, and no longer accessible. I soon fell out of the habit of practicing all together.
A period of desultory and intermittent playing began: the Kimball and I were clearly on the skids. This decline in intimacy continued for longer than would have been acceptable in a relationship between two people, but neither the Kimball nor I had anywhere to go. It gathered dust, and I gathered habits that precluded my taking any interest in playing music. Then when I was 15, I went to live in the household of my father outside of Chicago. It meant good-bye to the Kimball, which by now was a formality only: we were not even on speaking terms. This began the first, and the longer of the two periods in my life without a piano friend.
To say that I completely abandoned the piano for the next 15 or so years wouldn't quite be the truth, but not far off it. There were dalliances and flirtations, but none of them quite developed into a relationship. I even shared a home with two spinets during this period, but these were cheap affairs: neither of them impressed me as the sort to settle down with. In fact they were both like annoying step-siblings whom circumstances compel you to spend time with: you avoid them when you can, and later you find that you don’t remember very much about them except the irritating parts. Spinet One was in my father and stepmother’s home. It was furniture: something that justified its need to be dusted periodically by providing a support for knick-knacks. It was out of tune and no one played it. My stepmother got it into her head at one point that my young half-brother Kenneth should learn to play the piano and that I should teach him. She had the spinet tuned. I tried to convince her that even though I played a little, I wasn’t qualified to teach, and anyway, Kenneth was not even interested in learning. The lessons never began, and the matter became another item on the bonepile of contentions that divided my stepmother and me.
In college I took an elective introduction to music. It really was called Music 101. The professor, composer and pianist Easley Blackwood, was joyless and unpersonable, but this did not disguise his love of, and deep respect for, classical music. Since he was a pianist he introduced us to the subject through his instrument: the class consisted of a detailed study of the progression of piano sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.
Predictably and happily, this rekindled my fondness for the piano. It started with visits to the library, where I regularly made a beeline to the music department and requested Paul Badura-Skoda’s recording of the Waldstein sonata: I listened to it repeatedly, blaring at top volume through headphones, until I really could put off studying no longer. Soon I began visiting the practice rooms at the university which, in those days, were not places to inspire: they were in a basement that housed small uprights in small windowless rooms hardly big enough to accommodate the poorly maintained pianos. This proved so unsatisfactory that I decided to rent a piano — from Lyon-Healy, the Chicago firm that was still in the business of making and selling them in those days. This became Spinet Two, and it was duly delivered to my third-floor, shared student apartment. But alas, my fantasy about reviving an interest in the piano did not agree with my student schedule or budget, and the Lyon-Healy proved to be a discordant and disappointing contraption. It went back to the store after a couple of months.
A nomadic period began. I finished college and moved to Boston, where I lived in tiny apartments for three years that barely accommodated the essentials of life. I joined the Peace Corps and went to Morocco, where for another three years I probably only saw one piano, at the residence of the US ambassador. When there on rare occasions, I was much more interested in the food than the trappings. I returned to Chicago without really settling there, having tasted the expatriate life and developed a taste for it. Finally, I washed up in London in the 1980s, and this proved a more lasting abode. I had a good job; I bought a flat that began to feel like home; and before very long, I started hankering for a piano again.
* * *
Writing in 1911, in his still unsurpassed Pianos and Their Makers, Alfred Dolge opined that
In spite of its present, so much improved form and character, the upright will never be the piano for the artist, because of its incapacity to give any satisfaction to the artistic temperament, either as to tone or facility of execution.
If there is any truth to his assertion — and it should be noted that he made it without knowing that the golden age of the upright in America was about to begin — I can take comfort in the fact that I have been spared the artistic temperament, for I never wanted anything other than an upright. I have never lived in or even aspired to a dwelling that could accommodate anything bigger. So when I began piano shopping in London, I had nothing other than an upright in mind. My flat was a one-bedroom, and spacious by London standards, but no piano larger than an upright could have found a home in it without pushing out something related to eating or sleeping.
I spent some time looking at new and very shiny Asian pianos — this is what was available in new upright pianos at the time. They were compact and sturdy, rather like fit young people. And like fit, young people, after a while you didn’t really enjoy being around them. They seemed to lack any features of developed character: behind the dazzle of the surface attraction, there was an insipidness. So I began to look in shops and advertisements for a used piano. The corny adjective "pre-loved" had probably not yet been coined then, but I suppose this is what I really wanted: a piano that had been cared for, been in a relationship, was looking for a new life partner.
One day in Marylebone High Street I stopped into a music shop and saw an ad on the notice board with a photo attached: Piano for Sale. It was a full upright, ebony-finished with ornate brass candelabra attached to the front. The photograph wasn’t large but there was enough detail to see that this was a fairly elaborate piano that deserved a closer look. I noted the telephone number and arranged to see the piano a few days later, at a very respectable address in South Kensington.
The piano was in the enormous and well-appointed Georgian terraced house of some Belgian diplomats. The resident matriarch informed me, in a charming French accent and while we were actually in the room with the piano, that they were returning to Belgium and would not be taking the piano with them. How sad for it, I thought, to be dismissed so insensitively.
The piano richly rewarded the closer inspection: the beautifully wrought gilt candelabra were held aloft by laughing cherubim with pointy little breasts; every inch of the woodwork on the piano was richly carved, turned, or appliquéd. It was the closest thing to an art piano I had ever seen outside of pictures in books and I marveled that the ad in the music shop could have been up more than a day without someone snapping up this gem.
The piano’s name was Ur. Hainaut à Morlanwelz. This was a name I had never seen on a piano, and have never seen again since. The brand, if it can be called that, has proven completely elusive, if not illusive. Morlanwelz is a town in the province of Hainaut in Belgium. An encyclopedia entry notes that it is the center of the coal-mines district and has extensive foundries and ironworks. It sounds like a place that would need pianos, but wouldn’t have them.
In any case, it was love at first sight for the black piano, and after plunking around on it briefly and making a very amateur inspection, I said I would take it for the asking price, £450. I found piano movers in humble Hackney, my neighborhood, who agreed to bring the piano across London for £50, and a few days later it was delivered. It was on this day that I discovered the first of its injuries. The side of the piano I had not seen — the left side panel that had faced the wall in the diplomatic Belgians’ house — was fatally marred. The ebony veneer had been stripped away in chunks, as if by a chainsaw, revealing the much paler wood beneath, in a most unsightly pattern. Nothing would cure it short of a complete restoration. I was dismayed, but I wasn’t going to send the piano back across London. I found a place in my flat where the piano could be situated as the Belgians had done it, with its unsightly scar against a wall, and there it found its home.
When I found a tuner a week or so later, I was alerted to a second flaw, which an astute piano buyer would no doubt have descried at the outset: the soundboard was cracked. Because of this, the tuner wasn’t comfortable bringing the piano up to concert pitch. He tuned it close to where it presently was — half a step flat, but internally consistent.
At this point a serious musician — one with an artistic temperament, perhaps — would be throwing up his hands, but for me, none of this mattered. The piano had the most beautiful full and ringing tone I had ever heard: pressing each key — and they all worked — was like striking an exotic temple bell. That the piano had suffered and had battle scars to prove it only endeared it to me further: it seemed a miracle that it could still play so beautifully. I dug my music out of boxes from which it had not been unpacked for 15 years and set to work again.
In the euphoria that resulted from this new love, I even ventured briefly into lessons again. An acquaintance of my neighbor Frances was a university music student and it was mooted, in a conversation with her, that he would be willing to take on a pupil. I scheduled a lesson — which turned out to be a unique experience in every way. My would-be teacher was a nervous 21-year-old who played flawlessly himself but had no knack whatever for imparting his gift. He stopped me in my tracks after about five bars of everything I played and told me what was wrong with the way I did it. At the end of the lesson I felt like throttling him, and so deemed it better not to schedule a follow-up.
Much more beneficial was a book that Frances gave to me for Christmas a short time later: Playing the Piano for Pleasure, by Charles Cook. The title says it all, and the book shows you how to do it. For me the book was a bridge — back to everything that was fruitful in my now long-ago lessons with Mrs. Colville. I took up Hanon again, and developed the habit of “setting fractures” — that is, playing repeatedly the short and difficult passages in music in order to make them as easy as the rest of the piece. Good results followed; I found that my fingers still remembered much, and could learn more. So the decorated piano and I settled down for a few happy years together, and I made halting but significant progress in Hanon, and into the shallow end of the bottomless classical piano repertory.
Samuel Johnson opined that "when a man is tired of London he is tired of life." I was still finding life amusing enough, but after seven years, city life had finally lost its charm for me. An opportunity arose to return the states and take up residence as the caretaker at a Buddhist meditation center in rural Maryland. I jumped. The problem of sorting through seven years’ desiderata of London living proved easy enough when I made a firm decision: nothing that wouldn’t fit in a box would leave the UK. Of course it meant good-bye to the cherubic piano. My music went back into boxes, the piano was sold, and I came back home.
* * *
I’ll fast-forward again, but this time only ten years, through what was my second, and I sincerely hope, my last pianoless period. The years at the meditation center — six in all — were in many ways the best of my life and allowed me to grow in spirit in a way that wouldn’t have been possible if I had lived in a more worldly way. In many practical respects I left the world for that period, but I was never completely unaware of it, and eventually it pulled me back. I bought a house; established my livelihood again; acquired a car, furniture, a circle of friends, a computer, credit cards, the whole nine yards. Eventually the time came last year when it felt right to get music back into my life again in a form more rewarding than CDs. I joined a choir and set to work finding another piano to love.
In this interval the world had changed: the Internet was here. I now had the opportunity to scour cyberspace for the perfect piano, and ask advice of total strangers whom I would never meet about the wisdom of buying this one or that one. I learned about Larry Fine’s The Piano Book and read it cover-to-cover, discovering in the process that it was the indispensable education for a piano buyer. I revisited the new piano market. The Asian pianos seemed to have become even cheesier than they had been in London in the 1980s, with plastic replacing wood wherever possible. The new American pianos seemed to me rather like American cars: without distinction, and made for people who bought them out of some vague patriotism. And I was still not in the market for anything grander than an upright, so I returned to the tried and true: the vast stock of full uprights that date from the heyday of American piano manufacture. It is staggering but true: there were probably in excess if ten million pianos manufactured in the United States between 1910 and 1940 and of these, the large majority were uprights. A fraction remain, but even a small fraction of ten million is a lot of keyboards.
On average, my local free paper has one new ad per week for a used piano. These are the piano personals: placed by owners or inheritors of pianos who realize, often after years of neglect, that no one in the house has a relationship with their piano and so they wonder if they might get a few bucks for it. After looking at a some of these pianos I concluded that they were all rather forlorn; they were mostly part of the walking wounded, pianos who had fared so badly in their last relationship that they really couldn’t get into another one without a lot of therapy. I was looking for a piano that I could get it on with now. So I acquainted myself with the local craftspeople whose life is to restore old pianos. Happily, such folks — who are often by nature on the eccentric side — can be found wherever pianos languish.
I settled eventually on the shop of a Ms. Fuhrmann in Hanover, PA. It was nearby; she had a good reputation, having learned the craft from her father who was also in the trade; and her shop on any given day had an eclectic selection of the pianos she was working on. I visited her on several occasions and began to make a nuisance of myself. The pianos were never quite right, or when they were, the money wasn’t quite ready. At one point she had a gorgeous Chickering upright that I had my heart set on, but when I called to make particular inquiries about it days later, it was gone. Perhaps a man with more dignity would have realized he had worn out his welcome and looked elsewhere, but Ms. Fuhrmann always seemed ready to indulge me, and then suddenly the juxtaposition of events became irresistible: I had the money in hand for a piano and she was getting ready to move. Though her new place was only 15 miles away, she was eager to clear her inventory, rather than move it at great expense to her new home.
On my penultimate visit, I wasn’t encouraged. She had four pianos left: a pitiable spinet that didn’t even have a full-size keyboard; a console Everett of relatively recent vintage and unimpressive resonance; a tiny Francis Bacon baby grand, of a size that everyone seemed to agree was suitable for furniture but not for pianos; and an old, full-upright Chas. Stieff that had been a player but had long since had its mechanics removed.
In fact the Stieff had been in Ms. Fuhrmann’s shop the first time I visited it many months before. It sat back in a corner, like the neglected dark piano that sits in the back of every VFW or bingo hall across America, dusty, unplayed, and unappreciated. I had looked at it briefly the first time I visited the shop, when she seemed to call particular attention to it, but I could judge only by its cover: a dark, completely crazed finish, interrupted only by bumps, nicks, cigarette burns, and scratches. The piano had hardly registered on my awareness. I felt towards it rather as Mr. Winterbourne felt at the end towards Daisy Miller: this was a piano “whom a gentleman need no longer be at pains to respect.”
But rather than walk out of the shop yet again with nothing but expressions of vague good will, I played around a little on the Stieff. It had a big, rich sound, from the bass all the way to the highest treble: the soundbox was deeper than any I had ever seen in an upright (to accommodate the now removed player mechanism) and it was a tall piano to begin with, nearly 60 inches. The soundboard was completely intact. The case was solid mahogany, which was obvious once I looked inside, though you would never have guessed from the sad condition of the finish. I began to think that a crush might be forming. But I wasn’t ready to commit yet; I left Ms. Fuhrmann (yet again) with vagaries, and I went to do my homework.
I posted enquiries to rec.music.makers.piano; I looked at other Stieffs for sale all over the Internet. I learned in Dolge’s book that they were made in Baltimore, by an enterprising German immigrant who had toured Europe in search of trade secrets before opening his factory. I surmised that Ms. Fuhrmann’s Stieff, Number 38229, had probably not traveled very far during its life — only an hour separates Baltimore from Hanover. This serial number was enough for me to determine, after some enquiries, that it was made in 1919, when American upright manufacture was in its glory. The consensus among my cybercolleauges was that this august 75-year-old, if it had been cared for, was an excellent piano at a good price.
I bit the bullet, and gave Ms. Fuhrmann the go-ahead to do what she wanted to do, and what I had now concluded that the piano deserved: to be completely stripped and refinished. This nearly doubled the cost, but it would have been too heartbreaking to bring home a piano that didn’t have a chance to put on its best appearance. I had already had the experience of living with a piano that was required to keep its face to the wall. And I wanted to think that this time I was playing for keeps: this time, I was ready for that lifetime commitment to a piano, and so I wanted the bride to look her best. If that required a makeover, so be it.
Two weeks later the piano was delivered. “You got a big one,” the movers noted, as they maneuvered the giant into the dining room with grunts and groans. I was nearly gasping: it was unbelievable that the sad-looking dark box at the back of Ms. Fuhrmann’s shop had been transformed into this ravishing beauty. The rich red grain of the wood completely lit up the room and the brass of the pedals and hinges shone like gold. The simple but classic detailing of the case, which the ruined finish had completely obscured before, was now evident everywhere. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
* * *
So now my music is out of its boxes again, and I have set to work. I’ve discovered the vast trove of free, public-domain sheet music of the masters on the Internet, and now I am learning to play pieces that people have actually made recordings of; that feels like progress. I have reenlisted with Hanon, and his promise of virtuosity after completion of the 60 exercises. I am not discouraged that now, more than 40 years after my first piano lesson, I am only about halfway through the 60. I had forgotten the schoolmarm that lurks within the Hanon book, introducing some of the exercises with prim admonitions like “We repeat, that the fingers should be lifted high, and with precision, until this entire volume is mastered.” and “To obtain the good results which we promise those who study this work, it is indispensable to play daily, at least once, the exercises already learned.” But I don’t mind this sort of thing now. The burden of dull repetition to a 12-year old or even a 30-year old is actually a comfort to a 50-year old who has had some opportunity to experience the rewards of patience and perseverance.
* * *
Today in the US, 100,000 new pianos are sold every year — that’s about one piano for every 3,000 people, or let’s say, one piano for every small town. Well over half of these pianos are imported; the others are manufactured by the remaining nine American makers of pianos. In the heyday of American piano manufacture, early in the 20th century — and when the population was one-third of what it is now — 300 US piano manufacturers turned out half a million pianos a year, or about one piano for every 200 people: in other words, a new piano in every neighborhood, every year.
It is a little sad that this noble art of piano-making — and playing — has fallen on such hard times. Now the objects that we surround ourselves with for amusement are likely to be bristling with printed circuits, light-emitting diodes, and semiconductor gateways, and have a useful life of a few years. I feel a distant kinship, and a huge amount of respect, for the workers in that factory in Baltimore who, 75 years ago, assembled this majestic instrument of 5,000 moving parts consisting only of metal, ivory, leather, felt, and a dozen kinds of wood. I imagine that they would be justly proud to know that the fruit of their labor has made it into a new century looking not much the worse for wear. I hope that I will have the privilege of taking care of it for the rest of my days, after which there is every reason to believe that the Stieff will still have a useful life in another relationship.
As with old flames, you are often curious about what happened to old pianos. Sometimes you keep up with them, and sometimes you don’t. My mother and stepfather sold the Kimball shortly after I left and sent me the money; they are no longer friendly with the people who bought it from them, and so its fate is unknown. The Decker Bros. square piano that entertained decades of tourists in the Creede Hotel bar is now in the Creede Museum, unplayed and unplayable. Chester lived at the hotel until he died in the late 1960s; a portrait of him sits on top of the piano in the museum, and the burn marks from his cigarettes on the piano case are still everywhere apparent.
I sold the exotic Belgian upright to a woman in London who wanted it for her handicapped son. He was a not very happy young many who had braces on his legs that would never be removed. They came to my flat to check out the piano — which I had moved to reveal the full extent of the unsightly scar: I didn’t want anyone else to experience dismay on their honeymoon with it. The young man sat down to play it, and for a few minutes, in which he played far more beautifully, instinctively, skillfully, and sensitively than I ever will, he became a different young man than the one who had walked in: happy, confident, and accomplished. I accepted what they offered for the piano, and didn't see it or them again. I hope that it still brings its owner as much pleasure as it did on that day.
As for the first piano: I expect it is sitting quietly in a corner of the vast storehouse of discarded dream props we all carry with us. I would be so happy for it to make another appearance. I no longer recall its exact shape, and the songs I shared with Lamb Chop and Wing Ding are far less recoverable now than they were even after I awoke from them. Yet somehow, the inspirational power of that piano is as strong today as it was on that morning, forty some years ago, and when I sit down at the Stieff in my dining room, in its mahoganic splendor, I can sometimes recapture a sense of the magic that that early encounter alerted me to: if you close down the thinking part of my brain, you can use your fingers to produce unaccountably beautiful sounds, in real time and for this moment only, out of a big box of hammers and tempered strings.
I have often wondered why Lamb Chop and Wing Ding, of all creatures, crawled out of their box for that one night in the mid 20th century to introduce me to an instrument that their box was already well on the way to eclipsing as a form of domestic consolation. But I will always be grateful to them that they did.