Monday, April 18, 2016

The Piano Diaries PART I

Ever notice that each person is unique? Well, of course. But did you know that every piano is unique as well?

As a pianist of forty plus years, I have played a lot of pianos, from the first crumbly old monster I ever played, that had sticking notes and was missing a few ivories (yes, real ivory), to the big, luscious Steinway nine footer at the Gallo Center for the Arts I got to play a couple years ago. I’m going to attempt here to document some of the pianos I have the opportunity to play. Unless you’re a great name and virtuoso you usually have to play whatever piano is put before you. If variety is the spice of life, then we may need some tums along the way.

Some pianos fight you tooth and nail for every note or chord you attempt, as if to say, "I dare you" like the Kawai studio I played a couple years ago at Disneyland in the outdoor theater near Thunder Mountain. It sounded great, but the touch on the thing was like playing through mud. Every note I played was hard won. I felt like a victor when I had finished. This spring at Disneyland I played a white Yamaha that was quite a bit friendlier. And it was white. The only other piano I’ve ever played that was white was my youth leader’s piano when I was about 15. It was covered in white leather with brass tacks. I know. Tacky. Can’t remember how it sounded.

Now I must digress to electric keyboards, even though the purist in me says they aren't to be compared to acoustic pianos. I play a keyboard every day. Two different ones, in fact. One, I teach on. It is a twenty-something old Technics that has never failed to produce beautiful sound, even if it is digital. Of course there was that time that someone spilled orange juice on it, and we had to send it away for repair. The other is a Roland. Brand spankin' new and brought in to my place of work by the choir director I work for as a kind of Christmas present. It's sparkling sound and crisp touch makes me sound better than I am. It replaced the old keyboard that had a creeping unattached pedal, which replaced the even older Roland keyboard that ever so randomly blasted out middle "G" as if it was a trumpet.

But back to the acoustic. A good piano (and I mean good in the solid, fully classical sense of the word, not just good as compared to better) will work for you. Let me explain.
In the past week I have played on a dozen or so different pianos, and so far the Steinway wins. Well, there were actually three of them. One was at Johanson High School on the stage where I played for Ceres High School's CMEA competition. That piano seemed to anticipate every note before I played it and assist me in doing it. It was an oldie but still in pretty good shape. (I had this same experience with the Steinway at the Gallo Center by the way.) There were a few less responsive notes in the higher register, however. It wasn't exactly on tiptop shape on the outside but its guts were wonderful. I had rehearsed the same music at Ceres High Choir room on a Kawai studio which had a very bright forward quality. The soft pedal was missing and the piano seemed to know it by playing perpetually loud. Back to the Steinways. The other one was at Modesto High in the choir room, which I used to play regularly when I was the accompanist there.  This poor old nine footer looks like she's gotten in the way of a football scrimage, but she plays like a queen. An old queen, but a queen nonetheless. She was half covered with a piano cover and half covered in sheet music. “If you won’t appreciate my sound,” she seemed to say, “then I will hold your music for you.” Can Pixar please make a movie about the life of a school piano?

The third piano (the name was not visible anywhere, but it sure played like a Steinway) was in a music room (not the choir or band room) at Beyer High School. I wandered in and there was a large grand piano looking like the elephant in the room, and taking up about as much room as an elephant would.  I must explain for Beyer High School choir that I normally play a Baldwin studio that is cheerfully doing its job as a rehearsal piano. Its pedals were bent down like broken legs when I first came in to play. It is mildly battered piano with five inches of music stacked on top and assorted trophies perched on top of the music, and whatever doodads the students leave behind  such as ipods, headphones, drink caps, etc. My husband, who may possibly have missed his calling as a mechanical engineer, fixed the broken sustaining pedal for us one day when he had some time off. Back to the third piano. I’ve never played this piano, but when I accidentally discovered it, I fell in love with it. Can you have a crush on a piano? It has very beautiful carvings on the music backboard and the legs. Apparently it cannot be moved into the choir room (I begged) and it has a storied past, which my director friend hinted at. So my goal is to find out more about it, and of course, to play it more often. I may have to sneak into the room and spend the night in the school to do it. Stranger things have happened.

The other piano I played recently is a five foot something Kawai grand that I’d like to buy. It’s sitting at Langlois music. This piano is like that beautiful boy in high school that didn’t know I existed.  In the meantime, my field research continues. It’s a mixed bag. Playing pianos is not as black and white as you might think.

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