How Did You Like the Piano?

As we were leaving one of the “outreach” concerts the chorus does at area nursing homes and assisted living centers, one of the men asked me how I liked the piano. I understand why he asked this. At these concerts I am often playing on an inexpensive portable keyboard (with weighted keys, to be fair.) But this facility had a baby grand, and he assumed I was excited about it. On one hand, I was. Playing on a baby grand usually is preferable to playing on a electric keyboard. But, nonetheless, I struggled to answer his question. I ultimately said, “it was fine.”

Yes, just fine. Was it more in tune than a digital instrument? No. Did it feel better? Sort of. The action was a little fast and loud. The sound was tinny. (It’s debatable whether the sound was better than a keyboard.) The bench was more comfortable than the usual folding chair or high stool. The pedals stayed in place, and I didn’t have to use my feet to fish for a pedal that was sliding away on the floor. Overall, it was fine.

How did I like the piano? I really didn’t. That’s the truth. I usually don’t like any of the pianos I play upon. It’s just that I have no choice. When I play a so-so piano, I often say “I’ve played worse.” And I have. I’ve played pianos with broken pedals and pianos where 5 of the white keys in the middle two octaves of the piano (the section played most frequently) are not working. I’ve played digital pianos with broken speakers. I’ve played horribly out of tune pianos. I’ve played uprights with subpar action, and my fingers were moving faster than the keys could respond.  All these were actual performance settings. No, they weren’t concert hall settings. They might have been churches, schools, nursing homes, or some other community center. But it was a performance, nonetheless.

I don’t even really like my own piano. It is what I could afford. It is a rebuilt pre-1930s (not exactly sure of the year) Vose piano that was given to me. In many ways, it is wonderful. Given its age and the fact that the soundboard is cracked and repaired, it sounds amazing. But there is a limit to what it can do, and it’s not ideal for many things I want to do, like record. It will never sound like a concert grand, even if I put the money into some more technical repair and adjustment. The truth is that when I have the money to put aside for such projects, it would be better for me to buy a better piano.

Even if I have a beautiful piano at home, though, it will not solve the problem that everywhere I go I have to contend with an instrument that just doesn’t sound or work great and is something I would never *choose* to use. I simply don’t have a choice. I have had a handful of opportunities to play on a Steinway concert grand, and I loved those. I also have the chance to play every fall and spring on a good Yamaha grand at the chorus concerts. Normally, I am at the mercy of playing what is put before me.

I understand that people with large instruments like harps, double bass, tubas, and various percussion have difficulty transporting their instruments. At least they get to. If I were to take my favorite piano with me, it would cost almost a thousand dollars or more, depending on the distance, and several hours preparing the piano for a move, loading it into a suitable moving truck and setting up and tuning it once it has arrived at its destination. According to Charles Rosen, in his book, Piano Notes, concert pianists visit a piano showroom in the city where they will perform and pick out a piano to use on stage. That piano is brought to the concert hall and adjusted to their liking. The pianist will have a few days to practice on that piano to get used to it.

I have no such luck in my work in community music. I get what I get, and I have almost no time to adjust. I’d like all my string-playing readers to imagine being handed an instrument that has a slipping tuning peg or being forced to perform with a new-to-you bow that maybe doesn’t tighten correctly. Or, for my woodwind and brass playing readers, a new-to-you mouthpiece that you must try out for the first time five minutes before a performance. How about a sticky key or valve, or a funky out-of-tune note in an unusual place? Or, for my percussion playing friends, being forced to play with the wrong mallets or a broken stick. This isn’t like playing a student model instrument. This is like playing something that has been stashed away in the attic for the last thirty years.

Being introduced to a piano in a new location goes something like this: “Here is the piano. It’s a ‘little’ out of tune, but it plays. Well, all except the F# key. But you’re playing in Db you said, right? No sharps in that – you should be fine.”

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