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Me and Pianos

I've mentioned before how pianos, being kind of big and heavy and hard to move from place to place–that if I'd foreseen I would evolve to be a pianist, and how often I'd have to play a P.S.O. (Piano-Shaped Object), or the miles I'd have to schlep various also-if-not-quite-as heavy keyboards and amps, I might have at least been able to make a balanced, informed decision. But the decision was made for me; partly due, ironically, to that same fact: because they are so hard to move from place to place, a lot of pianos stay put, even when their former owners move.

My parents weren’t musicians. There were only a couple dozen records in the house and no instruments until the year I turned seven, when my father won a two-year diplomatic posting and we moved to London. The posh row house the US Embassy put us in boasted a baby grand in the parlor. (Thank you, American taxpayers!) My investigative noodling then led to piano lessons (thank you, Mom and Dad!) with wonderful Dennis Knight, musician at the Royal Opera House for 26 years, who lived right around the corner. And the rest is history (I say, pompously).

Dennis Knight, my first piano teacher (Royal Opera House)

Dennis got me started with the John Thompson series, "Teaching Little Fingers to Play," starting with that three-finger opus that goes: up (CDE); down (EDC); then finishing with the tricky, melodic, multi-directional phrase: (DEC). But the piéce de resistance was the follow-up, with the same pattern, only moved to A as the starting note, which then miraculously becomes minor–the theoretical mysteries of which were major!

No one teaches from this book any more.

I cried before my lesson every week–but only because I practiced so little. I hated the thought that I might disappoint him. When we returned to the States, changed forever, to the ruburbs of Virginia, I still took lessons, from one or two indifferent teachers, one of whom, when disappointed (or maybe just depressed from unrelated causes?), would get up, walk over to the window of her studio, and sigh while I struggled resentfully. But I can’t remember there being a piano in our house! A sign of how little I practiced? Where was it? What did it look like? I asked my older brother if he remembers, and he doesn’t, either. It really is a mystery to me now. Anyway, when I was 11 or 12, I quit.

Which was around when we moved to Washington, DC. At one For Sale By Owner showing, an old baby grand Behning twinkled in the corner of the homeowner's parlor. The elderly woman turned out to be the widow of a composer, and when she saw my eyes light up, she invited me to play. Reluctantly I sat down. It was instant mad crush: a beautiful, expressive instrument. I continued to play, soaking up its tone, while my parents toured the house, which was in the end the house they bought. Moved by seeing her late husband’s piano appreciated again, she included it in the sale at no charge. For me. And I started lessons again, with the wonderfully nuanced teacher Gerda Klay, a Hungarian who had been family friends with Bela Bartok. She was so supportive; she made me feel that I had something; and I studied with her until I was 15. And there ended my formal classical training, I'm afraid.

3022 44th Pl., NW, DC. in 1978. My room was the attic. (drawing by me)

From then on–my last two years of high school in Vermont, a year in California, and then college, I played more mandolin than piano, and pianos when and where I could find them. I got work accompanying dance classes during college (usually an improvisational mix of simultaneous piano and percussion), and played the good Steinway in the dance studio after hours. After graduation, when I moved to Brooklyn, there followed a long hiatus without, which is almost impossible to imagine now. I didn't even have a keyboard! I was mostly playing guitar and bass–sensible, portable instruments. I don't even remember pining for a piano.

But when my wife and I bought our home after moving to New Hampshire, I was in luck again: a solid old upright came with the house, a monument over-painted in Bandaid beige, which fortunately held its tune very well, as I couldn't afford regular tunings then. At some point we... sold it? I forget... and piano-sat a Wurlitzer console for a friend while she worked overseas; and bandmate KZ stored her huge–talk about monuments!–upright grand on our porch for a year when she moved away; and so on. But while none of the several pianos that passed through the house qualified as P.S.O.s, neither were any of them worth writing home to mom about.

Easy to say when you have a Steinway in your studio! OK; some ten years ago, by which time my son Caleb was also getting serious about piano, a friend who was getting divorced offered to sell me her late mother’s 1940s Steinway S. Knowing it would be played and loved by Caleb and me and that it would remain close by was some consolation for losing it. I bought it for $7000; took out a loan, which also covered new hammers and a little expert voicing work, and entered, with gratitude, a higher plane of pianohood. At 5’1” it may be the smallest of the Steinway grands, but it is still kind of big and heavy and hard to move from place to place, so while we are overseas, it stays, wrapped in quilts, in the house in New Hampshire. It needs some more work at some point, but I miss it. That action. I have a good setup with electronic keyboards here in Germany, and it’s more practical. of course, for apartment living–I can keep the volume down as needed; but…

The 1940s Steinway S in my New Hampshire studio.

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