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Do Pianos Have Souls?

April 6, 2013 2 comments

I’m about to give grandma the pill, as President Obama would say. In the case “grandma” is my piano. My parents first purchased this piano 51 years ago from Gimble’s department store in Pittsburgh. Department stores sold pianos in those days, usually from an upper floor. My grandfather gave them the down payment for it. I was 7 at the time, and had for some time been picking out tunes on any piano I happened by. Within a year I started lessons. Alas, I wasn’t destined to be Van Kliburn or Rudoph Serkin, but I still play and, basically because I show up and am not shy, I am in a band and have accompanied several amateur shows over the years. As Liberace used to say, I ain’t good, but I got guts.

Anyhow, the last time my highly capable tuner/technician stopped by, he cast a gimlet eye over the beloved old piano. “You know,” he said, “You’re better than this piano.” That is, the mechanism has worn quite a bit in a half century of use, so it’s not nearly as responsive as it could be. He pointed out how the keys had become uneven. Ever look at yourself in fluorescent light and suddenly every imperfection stands out? The tuner said¬†he could get it in shape all right, but strongly implied it may not be worth the cost given that it was, after all, a 51-year-old department store piano. Hardly a vintage Bosendorfer.

Fast forward to last week, and my sister offered to give me her piano. They’re ready to start downsizing. It’s only 10 years old with very little playing mileage. It’s a Yamaha, a better instrument to begin with, and it just sits there. Soon in it will be on a truck from Massachusetts. That means the old one has got to go.

But still, it feels like casting out an elderly member of the family. You don’t sit and interact with a mechanical thing for 50 years without partially merging with it. Dogs use their noses to sniff out the emotional state of other dogs and people. So doesn’t it stand to reason that in 50 years of hard work at that piano, the wood might have absorbed the emotional emanations or pheromones I’ve produced sitting at it in times of joy and sorrow, triumph and frustration?

Lots of mechanical machines acquire personalities and become like partners. Like cars. C’mon, you know it’s true. Computers don’t. It has to have moving parts. Motorcycles do. Go to one of those tourist antique railroads, watch the steam engine and tell me it’s not living.

Look at these louts, the internet is full of videos like this, people having fun wrecking pianos that someone once purchased, full of ¬†promise and potential. Then there is the annual Baker Piano Drop, something they do at MIT. Shouldn’t a piano at least be disassembled peacefully, the metal parts melted down and the wood burned respectfully?

My mother is not quite as sentimental about the piano as I am. She told me, “Oh, it’s just an old piece of furniture.” My wife sides with her on this one.

And so the old Schroeder is about to go ignominiously on Craig’s List, unless you know someone who wants to give it a good home. “Console upright piano, 51 years old, lovingly maintained….Bach, Beethoven and Chopin don’t convey”

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