Thursday, December 07, 2006

Piano Magnifico

I can't play the piano.

Don't be fooled by the photo; I couldn't do any more than tinker then, and I can't play now -- which is why you don't see me in this picture of the piano that I took yesterday.

But I love this piano and I've never known life without it. I know its underside with the familiarity that a child knows the walls of a favorite treehouse or an adult knows each mole and freckle of a long-term lover.

I remember the multitude of occasions when I'd find my favorite recording of Mozart's 40th Symphony (the one in the plain blue album jacket), place the record on the turntable, and very carefully place the feather-light phonograph arm on the darkest outside rim of the record, listening for the predictable scritch-scritch-scritch that preceded the music. I'd then grab the album cover and scurry to my retreat under the piano before the last scritch cued the beginning of the music. I'd then flip onto my belly, lift my feet into the air as if I expected them to touch the bottom of the piano, dig my elbows into the scratchy red wool carpet and stare at the light blue album jacket -- which had no pictures and very little writing on it -- while the strings' initial compelling melody would beckon me to a beach on an increasingly stormy afternoon, far away from my livingroom and far away from my beloved piano. My three brothers rarely bothered me when I'd retreat under the piano to listen to my favorite classical music -- it surely wasn't worth it -- and my parents left me alone, appreciative of the fact that I was appreciating "their" music.

Even as I lay under the piano listening to "mature" music as a girl, I'd remember earlier in my childhood when I'd hear Mom playing the piano just before bedtime and I'd scurry down the steps in my feet-jammies (which made music of their own on the wooden steps --swish-swish-swish), then rush into the livingroom and duck under the piano, from where I'd watch Mom's feet dance on the pedals, softly on the left one -- which was her right pedal, of course -- then suddenly on the right one (her left), barely ever touching the middle pedal at all (why?).

As I got older, I emerged from under the piano and spent more time at the piano, standing behind Mom as we'd play piano and flute duets. We'd go slowly, neither of us expert musicians, stopping to study a particular passage or to adjust our tuning (surely that's why we didn't sound right?!). Eventually we found two or three pieces which we knew well enough to play almost all the way through, sounding halfway decent and only stopping once or twice to "regroup" again.

Eventually, as I grew older and became preoccupied with important things like boys and football games, I regarded the piano as just furniture. The memories of my kinship with the piano never faded, but I went away, to return only for a short Christmas carol once every few years.

Until recently.

Earlier this year, two years after Mom's death, Dad decided that the piano should be passed on and asked us kids if anyone wanted it. To move it 300 miles southward or 500 miles northward to any of our homes would be an ordeal at best, and all of us said no, we couldn't take it. Even my cousins decided that trying to move and fit the piano into their homes would probably be more work than they were ready for. After we all turned down the piano, Dad told us that he'd be selling it. At first, that was OK with me. I had my memories of the piano; I didn't need the monstrosity itself! But every time I thought about our family without that piano, I was overtaken by a quiet sadness.

No -- it didn't feel right to let the piano go!

So in June, piano movers were hired to move the piano from Dad's home in Southern Oregon to our house in Seattle. Ordeal is right! I believe that moving the piano up the steps and into our livingroom committed us to living here forever! But it's here now, and it's home... too late for my kids to play under it, but anxiously awaiting grandchildren's curious ears and hearts.

Now if I could only learn to play...

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3 comments:

Lilly said...

It's a beautiful piano. And sounds like it's a childhood friend. I know just what you mean about knowing its underside and about listening to the scritch of a record before the music starts. It's wonderful that you and your mom played on this piano together. I think you made the right choice to move it to your present home.

I always wanted to play the piano as a child but my mom had let the family piano go when she moved to my childhood home. I regret that. A few years ago I finally bought a little Baldwin spinet, presumably so that my then 7 year old could start lessons, but he very definitely didn't want to play so I took lessons for about half a year. Now I play it every day and I'm getting a bit better. I really enjoy it. Perhaps you could start taking lessons again....?

vailian said...

I remember vividly the day the piano arrived, we had been anticipating it for months...my father was teaching at a little college in Chadron, in the panhandle of Nebraska, and and buying it was an immense financial sacrifice for a young man with a job that paid a pittance and a rapidly growing family (there would be 6 children in the end). It was the first time that I realized how much of a committment music was, when he said, “This instrument didn’t cost much less than the house”, and I thought about the house— a big old thirties house with wrap-around porch and a big upstairs, a full basement and huge yard— how could this be? A bit of mahagony furniture with 88 keys and a bunch of steel wire strings could cost as much as a house??
Maybe it was the first Steinway in Chadron. Probably was. At first we were not allowed to touch it, but then gradually were given permission to play it gently... we all had music lessons, and my mother played piano as well; the instrument was in use for hours and hours every day.
It followed us to all our domiciles, first California and then North Dakota, we accepted it, took it for granted but none of us forgot how important it was to the family history. When my parents divorced, my dad didn’t have the heart to take the piano with him, he had other priorities and was by that time seriously ill (he had lung cancer and died at 62... why couldn’t they have banned smoking earlier?). After he died, there was not much of an estate, but there was a weekend house on Maple Lake and the Steinway.My brothers and sisters agreed that I could take the piano, because I was the only professional musician; I traded it for my share of the lake house and the car. But by this time I was already living permanently in Europe, so I had to have it shipped to Germany. Luckily I found a mover who found an ingenious way to box it up so in the end I paid less to have it shipped from North Dakota to my apartment on the 5th floor in Cologne (no elevator!!) than it would have cost to have it shipped across town here.
I am not a pianist,but I do sit down occasionally and play. And I find I am still learning! I would never dare play in public (although I have been known to whip out “Girl from Ipanema” on the odd drunken occasion).

Dixie said...

Oh thank goodness you didn't let that piano go! I know it must have been a real hassle but losing such a precious part of your childhood would be worse.

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