Can I Borrow Your Keys?

Sometimes, as a pianist, I dream about what it would be like if I played a smaller instrument like the violin or the flute.

I’d be able to carry it with me wherever I went, and I could always play the same one. I’ve often heard that players get very attached to their instruments, and it’s no wonder. If I played the same instrument for years and years for both practicing and performing, I’d know that instrument like an extension of my body.

But as a pianist, even though I’m very connected with the instruments I have in my studio and know all their quirks, whenever I play anywhere outside my home, I’ve got to adjust to a whole new instrument.

Half the fun for me as a musician is seeing what I can coax out of the instrument I’m playing on. Every one is different, even if the soundboards are all made with the same type of wood and they build them all to the same measurements. Each one has its own spirit, its own voice.

I knew this long ago, but I really got an object lesson in it when I was looking for a new piano for the studio. I had decided to get a Kawai, and Ted and I went up to look at some instruments at a local music camp.

There were two grand pianos in the same room. Each was a little over six feet long, and they had consecutive serial numbers. I played a few notes on the first one and knew without a doubt that it was the instrument I’d been searching for. It had a warm, rich, mellow sound, like velvet curtains or a $10 mocha. The $10 didn’t bother you because you were too busy enjoying the sweet, creamy richness of it. It sounded more like a seven- or nine-foot grand, and you could really get a tremendous amount of sound out of it, especially in the bass.

The other piano had a reedier sound, and if you pushed it too hard while playing in the lower register, the sound actually seemed to “break”. I only had to play a few notes on this other piano to know that it most certainly was not the one I wanted.

Pianos have thousands of moving parts, and all those parts have to become accustomed to each other and then work together to produce the playing or listening experience. What a lot of people don’t realize is that, when you buy a new piano, you’re not getting something that is just as-is, out-of-the-box. It’s practically got a spirit of its own, and when you bring it into your home, it’s got to adjust.

For the first year, the new Kawai had problems with keys sticking, going flat, and other little annoyances. Now, after almost three years, it’s settled down pretty much. But it’s never static, and something will always need to be addressed, whether it’s wear and tear on the hammers, regulation to make the keys all respond the same way, or whatever.

Like I said, I sometimes catch myself longing to have an instrument I could carry on a plane with me on my travels. But as it is, I always have a surprise to look forward to at whatever recital location I’m going to.

Sometimes the surprises are wonderful, like the time I was maybe the second performer to give a concert on a new nine-foot Steinway that probably cost close to a hundred thousand dollars.

Other times, they’re not so nice, like the times I show up to find upright pianos that people think are terrific just because they’ve got “Steinway” in the nameplate. Sure, Steinway is a good piano builder, but just as not all of Shakespeare’s works are absolutely terrific, not all Steinways are great pianos.

No matter what I find at the recital hall, I’ve got to play it. By the time I’ve reached the recital hall, it’s too late for me to be practicing to try and fix “the hard parts” of my program, so most of my time is spent exploring what the instrument under my hands can and, often more importantly, can’t do.

I think the highest compliment anyone can give me is to say that they never heard the particular instrument sound the way I got it to sound. This happened recently with a very temperamental Steinway that had problems with sticking keys, dampers not returning to the string in time (causing notes to ring long after my finger had left the key), and strange voicing that made the entire top half of the piano sound as if I was trying to play it while there was cotton padding over the strings. Yuck!

When I was little, I’d get really bothered by these kinds of things, and my playing would suffer. I was so distracted by what the piano was doing that I’d forget about what I was supposed to be doing at the piano.

While I certainly can’t say I always play well or even enjoy every instrument I’m confronted with, I can honestly say that, wherever I am and whatever I’m playing on, I’m always striving for the most beautiful sound that can come out of the instrument.

Every piano teaches me something, too. That one with the muffled top notes has rekindled my quest to always have the melody clearly heard so even people who aren’t familiar with a piece can hold on to it and follow it.

I expect I’ll play hundreds, maybe even thousands of instruments by the end of my lifetime. If I learn one thing from each of them, I will always be growing in my art. That’s certainly more than enough to keep me from converting to a violinist!

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2 Comments on “Can I Borrow Your Keys?”

  1. Jim Johnston Says:

    I’d love to hear you play. Because you sure can write. -jj

  2. halfnotes Says:

    Thanks! It’s basicly a lot of discipline in pursuit of a little fun! But if language, whether it’s spoken words or musical notes or visual images, is what defines us, then I think we’d all do well to find some form of it that we’re passionate about and nurture our skill at it so we can communicate with one another.


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