A reflection on a special object from my past.
|We found the piano at a garage sale on Iris Lane. A series of tennis shoes, arranged by size, sat on its lid, which was burnished brown and gouged with scratches. A limited edition Barbie Beach Bungalow House perched on the accompanying stool, whose lever was permanently stuck, preventing adjustment. As my mother negotiated the price with its owner, I played Goldilocks with my sister, taking turns to sit on beach chairs, lawn chairs, a sunken sofa and a coffee table whose wooden legs culminated in elephant trunks.
Purchase secured, we went home and rearranged the living room, shifting armchairs from one wall to the next, moving the television set into one corner and the china cabinet into the other. The artificial areca palm was banished to the basement, where it languished with the Matisse poster and the encyclopedia set. The empty space created a wormhole, where faint crayon marks from my younger sister’s art experiment could still be seen on the flowered wallpaper. When we moved the piano into the space, it acquired a gravitational force of its own, drawing in visitors, human or otherwise. My mother’s friends commented on how quaint, how antique, it seemed. My friends wanted to push back the sliding lid, which was marked with graffiti from its past life – a stray sharpie mark, a fling with acrylic paint, and several unexplainable dents – and demonstrate a song that they knew, “Chopsticks” or “Heart and Soul” or perhaps a rendition of “Hot Cross Buns.” My visiting uncle’s cocker spaniel loved the piano and marked it as her own, twice on each leg.
It was a 1956 upright Kawai. It was 47 inches tall. Lifting the lid revealed a marvelous world of rusted strings, felt-covered hammers and quivering pegs. A peeling sticker on the underside of the lid announced that the piano’s exterior was made of Styran musi-plastic (patent pending), which limited swelling and minimized humidity, extending the life of your beloved instrument past the ten years warranty for generations to come. The keys were smooth as glass, except for a chipped white key on A7.
My first piano lesson was on that piano, where I plinked out middle C and traversed the keyboard from there. Other piano teachers, other piano lessons, took place elsewhere: on foreign baby grands, on Bechsteins and Steinways in recital halls and school talent shows. But the real work – and the real love – took place on my Kawai. It was on that piano that I mastered “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and its variations, where I struggled through the Suzuki Method, which advocated rote memorization and repetition, and the Alfred Method, where I went through the “Music for Little Mozarts” course, learning “Nick Nack Paddy Wack” and other five-finger trivialities.
My upright piano had a sound that was, according to one teacher, “too sharp," and to another, “too dull.” My piano taught me the standard children’s repertoire: Bach’s Minuets, Schumann’s “The Jolly Farmer,” a truncated “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s famous symphony. I marched through Shubert’s “Military March,” Wagner’s “Wedding March,” Mozart’s “Turkish March.” Its unmodulated keys taught me patience as I struggled through triads, scales, arpeggios, alternating fifths, secondary sevenths and ionic modes. I learned to keep rhythm and to hate the beat. I broke eight metronomes, three on purpose. And I fell in love with my piano, despite its middling sound and the D3 which was constantly off-key.
As the years passed, the ungentle fingers of children and years of collected dust on the strings took their slow, unceasing toll. The highest notes fell permanently flat, and soon ceased to make any sound at all, save for a muffled whisper if the key were leveraged just the right way. Our friendly neighborhood piano tuner, an Italian gentleman with a pouchy stomach and a handlebar mustache, began to refuse appointments, claiming that the instrument was now beyond repair. My mother began to scan the SALE section of the local newspaper for an upgrade, perhaps something from the last decade or so. This time we would get a decent instrument, one that would nurture my growing talent on the keys. But my heart had already been stolen by the slowly disintegrating musical box in our living room, and I couldn’t see myself giving it up without a fight.
My mother, sensing an impending battle, decided to pursue action instead of asking permission. When I came home from school on a humid Tuesday afternoon in June, my Kawai was gone, taken away in a coup d’état orchestrated by my mother, with an assist from the Italian piano tuner. In its place was an impeccably clean baby grand Baldwin, glossy black and with a limited lifetime warranty. To make room for the girth of the new piano, the living room china cabinet had joined its unused brethren in basement penury. My Kawai had been sent away, and this monstrosity had taken its place.
I threatened, I pleaded, I kicked, I wept. But what was done, was done. There was no getting my piano back from the jaws of the junk yard, and I either would give up the piano altogether or learn to get along with the baby grand Baldwin. For a few long weeks I sulked, refusing to practice, spontaneously bursting into tears at the sound of music, and avoiding the hulking presence in my living room like the plague. In the end, it was my little sister who brought me back to music. My mother signed her up for piano lessons, perhaps in an attempt to coax me back to playing. It worked. Watching her begin with the staccato rhythms of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” once again rekindled my desire to play.
That was over ten years ago. Our baby grand Baldwin has aged beautifully over the years, proving the fidelity of the Tennessee piano makers’ warranty promise. The Baldwin has seen me through senior recitals, a music major, and sleepless nights of practice -- for me and the rest of my family, who had to listen to me practice the minor-key wails of Prokofiev into the wee hours of the night. I wrote my first songs on the Baldwin, both cheesy pop-song progressions proclaiming my crush on the thoughtfully artistic boy-next-door and dark odes of despair when said boy began dating my best friend.
So yes, I eventually learned to love the Baldwin as well, though without the intensity of my first love for the Kawai. In the end, it was another lesson for a young girl with the tendency to fall in love with inanimate objects, an affection that transferred from security blankets to magic stones found in the backyard to a small jewelry box that played a ballerina waltz when opened. By the time I had fallen in love with the Baldwin, it was tempered by the knowledge that all good things come to an end, and that even the things I dearly loved could be whisked away by a man with a handlebar mustache and a pick-up truck.