Searching for THE One

I have a dilemma. I need a second baby grand piano.

That might sound extravagant. Who needs two? Well, the situation is a bit complicated. Several years ago, I was gifted a rebuilt Vose piano. Since I didn’t have room in my house at the time for that piano, I put it at my church. Everyone there knows it is my piano, and now that one kid has moved out and I have room in my house for it, I could simply take it home. However, I know the church is better off with the baby grand than the digital we used to use. And, honestly, I would rather play on a baby grand every Sunday.

This brings me to my dilemma. Do I want to bring that piano home, or is it time to buy a better piano? The Vose is great, but it is over one hundred years old, and it has some cracks in the soundboard (the largest had been repaired.) Even though the overall sound is good, the lower end of the piano sounds quite rumbly. It is not good enough to use in recording. The action is decent, but again, it is old and since Vose is out of business it would be hard to find replacement parts when something breaks. I’d love to have something newer.

I’ve needed a baby grand at home since I was thirteen or fourteen. At that time, I began complaining about the Baldwin upright my parents had. After the piano tuner came several times, he discerned that my complaints were related to the fact that the piano was an upright. Though my parent’s had a good-quality upright, the sound and action are just not comparable to a grand piano.

A baby grand piano at home, for me, is not a want. It is a need. It is a need I’ve lived without for a few decades.

When I was in college, I played the pianos at school. After I got married, we lived in a tiny apartment. Then, I was content playing my digital because a baby grand simply would not fit. After the kids came, I knew we needed to put the money towards their needs. As much as I needed a baby grand, braces and music lessons for my kids took priority. Besides, at that time I wasn’t playing professionally. I could get by.

I’ve used the baby grand at the church for several years, but when COVID hit, I realized that arrangement was no longer working. When I was giving in-person lessons, I would get to the church early or stay late, scheduling my practice time along with lessons, sometimes bringing dinner with me and practicing between my last lesson and when I had to leave for rehearsal. When my students stopped in-person lessons, I didn’t get over to the church mid-week for any reason, and it wasn’t easy to plan for practicing.

Composing and piano practicing are extremely different activities. I need a lot of time and space to compose, to clear the air and allow my creative juices to flow. I spent most of my of time composing, which I can do at home. Piano practicing, however, does not require much forethought for me. I can sit down and practice for five minutes at a time sporadically throughout the day and make progress.

The problem is that I can’t take advantage of those “dead” moments of the day when the piano is down the road rather than down the hall. When I was waiting for dinner to finish in the oven, I would end up reading a book or going online instead of going to the piano. If I had my piano at home, I could have practiced then. But I couldn’t leave and practice at the church because dinner was in the oven.

I need a piano at home. I’ve begun looking again.

The budget is limited. I could wait a year and save up ALL my income for a piano, foregoing even necessary work that needs to be done on the house and buy myself a really good piano. Or, I can search for a used piano.

Searching for a good, used piano is a lot of work. There are a lot of pianos listed for sale; most of them are brands I do not recognize. Sometimes I can tell right away from pictures that they are not worth looking at: the keys are uneven or broken or visibly fallen. Or, the seller gives me answers to my questions that signal an automatic “no”: they don’t know when the piano was last tuned, some keys are “stuck” or “off” or “dead”, it has not been regularly played, or “it needs work.” One person wanted $2,000 for such a piano.

Sometimes, the initial answers lead to the next step: going to try out the piano. I like to bring my husband with me because he will crawl under the piano and shine a flashlight up so I can see if there are any tiny cracks in the soundboard. But, in general, this is all a show. I can usually tell if the piano is worth further consideration by playing just one note.

How do I politely tell someone in one second that I don’t want their piano?

I don’t. My husband dutifully crawls under there, shines the flashlight at the soundboard and looks at the pedal mechanisms as I press on them. I dramatically play a chromatic scale up the keyboard and a few block chords. Then I hope that five minutes is enough time to make it look like I gave the piano a good inspection before I, politely as possible, say I’m not interested.

“Is there anything wrong with it?” This question is invariably asked.

How to answer? I can’t say all that is wrong with it. The piano is not worth fixing. I won’t say to a stranger that they just need to burn it and take the metal to a scrapyard (if the scrapyard will take it.)

Last week, I looked at a somewhat decent piano, an older Yamaha. It had a great sound. The soundboard was speaking back to me, resonating with aliveness, responsive like we were in conversation, as it should be with a good friend. I spent a good bit of time with that piano. But it only had two pedals. The three-pedaled piano is “new” after all, not becoming standard until the 20th century. A lot of older piano repertoire does not need the third pedal, but I am composer of new music, so I really want a third pedal. Also, the piano had some sticky keys and some seriously out-of-tune notes. I couldn’t calculate how much repairs would run. That, and the lack of the third pedal made me hesitate.

I have come across pianos being sold by other musicians. I am always hopeful those pianos will be better specimens. Often, they are not. One thing that separates these pianos from the others is that all the keys and the sustain pedal work. That’s it. Otherwise, it’s the same sad soundboard and twinge-y tone. I’ve realized that many non-pianist musicians do not hear pianos the same way I do. Pianists who have good pianos keep them! And they’ve probably already made arrangements for where the piano will go after they die.

So, I’m on the hunt. Slowly but surely, I’m saving up and searching for THE one, the piano that will last me the rest of my life. I hope to look at one more locally, but after that I will head to some actual piano shops out of state and more than double what I will be willing to pay.

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A professional recording of my piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, is now available. It can be found here.

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