Packed

The packers finished today, and I watched the piano go.

We sold the piano to a CSU music professor, a clarinetist. His wife plays piano, and they want to teach their children. So it goes to a good home, and the kids will grow up never appreciating what an unusual experience they’ve had, learning on a grand piano. It’s best that way — children, in my opinion, should never be burdened with the obligation of gratitude for things they don’t understand.

I learned on a little spinet — a horrid little piece of noisy furniture. My parents bought it for us kids, and we dutifully practiced (though usually under duress), and even developed some skill. But the so-called “action” — the mechanism, and the feel — of a spinet is totally different from that of a grand, for a top-end spinet, and ours was not top-end. It was almost impossible to tease any nuance out of that box. It was literally a forte-piano — a loud-quiet. Like a Volkswagen bug, it had only two speeds: on or off. If you weren’t ciphering half the notes, you were banging on it.

Not that I fault my parents. They bought us a piano, and on my Dad’s salary, that was a Big Deal. A spinet was what they could afford, and it was the only thing that would fit in the house. Grateful though I am, however, it was a nasty little instrument.

When I got to high school, I would sometimes sneak into the auditorium during lunch and play their 8′ Steinway Concert Grand. In those days, our high school had the newest and best auditorium in town; the local symphony would rehearse in the orchestra rehearsal room in the evenings, and would perform in the high school auditorium. Why I never got kicked out, I’ll never know, though perhaps no one ever heard me: it was a typical high school, and during lunch break, it would take an air-raid siren to cut through the general din. Of course, I was also very active in the school music program, and I actually played in the civic symphony, so maybe they thought my presence was legitimate.

In college, I got to use the pianos in the practice rooms. It was a new music building, and the pianos were new baby grands — Yamahas, if I remember correctly. Yamaha was just becoming known as a piano manufacturer, and their instruments were bold, bright, and wonderfully responsive. And relatively cheap, for the quality, which is why they ended up in practice rooms.

I started looking for a piano of my own in 1983, shortly after taking my first job, and it was amazing some of the crap people wanted to pawn off for an exorbitant price. Most buyers were, of course, looking for furniture, so things like the condition of the finish and (gag) color were of utmost importance to them. I only cared about the touch, and the sound.

I fell in love with an Ibach at Pianos Unlimited in Denver, but the $10,000 price tag — remember, these are 1983 dollars, and I was making only $27,000 a year with a new family — was entirely out of reach. I’d never heard of the brand: it’s one of the oldest piano manufacturers in the world, dating back to 1794. Beethoven could very well have performed on an Ibach at some point in his career. This piano was a little weak in the high register, but the bass was round and full and smooth as chocolate with wine; it had the most magical sound and feel I’ve ever experienced. I could tell that the salesman wanted to let me have it, but he couldn’t lower the price, and I couldn’t meet it. So I would come back from time to time to see if it was still there and play it a little, and he’d look at me sadly and listen. They never had any rush business that late in the day. I imagine the salesman, also, had too many buyers looking for a piece of furniture at furniture warehouse prices; the Ibach was always there. Like any first love, I’ve sometimes wondered where that piano ended up, and hope it found a good home.

I kept driving around town, answering newspaper ads — remember, this was before the Internet — and finally answered the ad of a little old woman who needed to get rid of her piano because she was moving. I seem to recall she had been a piano teacher, and she was very reluctant to part with the instrument, a 5-1/2′ Wurlitzer baby grand manufactured in 1926. She made me play for her before she would agree to sell it. Apparently, I passed muster — she sold it to me for $2000, more like $10,000 in devalued modern dollars. We had to take out a loan to buy it, and the bank was reluctant, since the only collateral we could put up was the piano itself, which was the last thing they wanted to repossess should we fail to make payments — but in the end, they relented.

We moved it into the basement of our home in Westminster, the haunted room. The first notes of the third movement of my Piano Concerto in f-minor popped out of my fingers there, and I worked out the rest of the concerto on that keyboard.

Over the years, I pounded out Rachmaninoff’s C#-minor Prelude when I was angry, Chopin Preludes and Nocturnes when I was pensive or sad, a little Schubert or Beethoven or Mozart when I was feeling happy. I took insincere flying leaps at a number of piano concerti, fell on my face, and moved on to simpler things. I wooed women with song, and then celebrated their departure with more song. I annoyed and charmed the neighbors by turns, though I was (mostly) religious about shutting down by 10:00 at night.

That piano was a fine little instrument, with plenty of subtlety in the action. It could use a little refurbishing — new felts on the hammers, new friction pads for the posts. But it plays very nicely.

Yes, I’m terribly sad to see it go.

But I don’t play any more. Playing piano is a physical skill, and when you don’t play, you lose the edge. You can bring it back — but like trying to lose weight and give yourself a set of six-pack abdominals after being a middle-aged schlub, it’s very hard work and requires dedication, not wishful thinking.

I’d rather be writing new music.

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