In which I learn of a gap in my education
I bought a new piano last month.
Actually, I bought two new pianos last month. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I bought a new piano twice.
My old piano, a Baldwin Howard console spinet (may it rest in peace) had been a member of the household for over 25 years; I bought it used when I first came to New York, despite the fact that it showed signs of an already checkered past, including a side panel near the keyboard that looked as though it had been gnawed on by beavers. I’ve written a lot of music at that piano, rehearsed a lot of singers, learned a lot of shows. But its long history finally caught up to it. Over the last several years, every time a piano tuner has opened the case, he or she has heaved a deep sigh and jerry-rigged another repair. Finally last fall, one member of that fraternity (after the sigh) said to me, “I could order parts and repair those keys. …but why?”
The time had clearly come. So I hied myself to Beethoven Pianos on West 58th Street and spent an afternoon in their crowded basement showroom, standing in front of all the upright pianos putting them through their paces, looking for that magic combination of touch, sound, price and appearance—appearance because my piano is in the living room of my New York apartment, which also (along with price, of course) explains why a grand piano was not an option. I quickly determined that forty-eight inches was the maximum height for my new piano—I often write standing up with a score pad on top of the piano, and I’m not a tall man.
I finally settled on a brand new Pearl River, a Chinese-made piano for a very good price. We set a delivery date, shook hands and parted the best of friends.
I shall gloss over the details of the actual delivery—one of the piano movers was a new man, literally on his first day on the job, and it was a little tense. But finally they got Pearl in place, and I sat down to play. And realized with a sinking feeling that something…was….wrong.
The keyboard seemed very high off the ground. I cranked the bench up. And up some more. And up to its maximum height, at which point I could indeed play, but felt as though I was precariously perched on a ladder. I suddenly realized that I’d never actually sat down to play the piano in the store; it was crowded, they didn’t have benches in front of every piano, and why would I bother? Piano keyboards are all the same height off the ground, right?
Wrong, as it turns out. Now, I’ve been playing piano for over forty years, and professionally for over twenty-five, and since pianists don’t carry their own instruments, I’ve played hundreds of pianos in my life. Of course not all of them have had their keyboards at the correct height—which is a royal pain in the ass—but I’d always figured that the problem was with the bench, or lack thereof, or the dolly (since pianos don’t roll very well on those tiny little wheels, they’re put up on dollies more often than not). Somehow I’d missed the fact that different models of piano have their keyboards at different heights. Twenty-eight inches off the floor is fairly usual, but they range from twenty-six to the Pearl River’s gargantuan thirty-and-a-half.
I spent a day and a half trying and failing to convince myself that it really didn’t matter. Then I went back to Beethoven Pianos with my hat in my hand and my tail between my legs, begging them to let me trade my brand new piano for another one. (They were very gracious.) This time I brought a tape measure, and dragged a piano bench all around the showroom. I left with a delivery date for my new new piano, a Yamaha UX with a comfortable twenty-eight-inch keyboard height. It was delivered a couple of days later by an expert team of piano movers, and it’s been tuned—by the tuner who first tuned that old Baldwin Howard all those years ago, as it happens. He told me that I’d gone from a bicycle to a Ferrari.
I’m playing more, and writing more at the piano instead of at the computer, both of which I regard as positive developments.
Most of the piano pieces that became Seventeen Windows (due out on a CD of that title from Albany Records next month) were written at that old Baldwin, with me imagining how it would sound on a real piano. Now I’ll be able to write piano music without having to imagine so hard. Meanwhile, here’s Jenny Lin playing Window I from the CD: