Pianos and Reminiscences

I read today that Steinway and Sons is going to be taken over by a private equity group. I hope that they do a good job of managing that 160-year-old company; I’d for certain hate to see an institution like that disappear, along with all the music it represents.

Steinway is one of those names that when spoken or read, you know immediately what it means. It’s the preferred instrument of concert pianists, and for a reason.

I’ve played a Steinway, and the experience was marvelous. I could even call it transporting. They have a wonderful response to touch, which makes them really reflect the performer’s personality. I had a few minutes alone with the instrument in the main auditorium space of our old high school, which was laid out like a movie theatre, with a stage, orchestra pit, audience seating area, and loges. The piano was on the stage, and had recently been tuned as there was an upcoming concert performance. I wasn’t that good, but – in that space, for that few minutes, I was Arthur Rubenstein…

My ear used to be good enough to tell what kind of piano was being used. I can still tell a Steinway – they have this wonderful warmth through the middle registers that no one has been able to duplicate, except Young Chang – and even the Young Chang pianos can’t quite replicate the lower-register resonance that Steinways have. Baldwin pianos ring like a bell all the way from their top registers to bottom; and the least pretty sound comes from Yamaha pianos – they all sound like robots – they make the music, but there’s no personality. You might as well be playing a synthesizer, because you can program more personality into the electronics.

The piano I grew up with was an A.W. Smith and Sons, what was called then a ‘concert upright’. It was made to have enough sound to fill a big hall, but to be able to store in the same space as an upright piano. I don’t know where my folks got it, but it was used. It was solid quarter-sawn oak, with an oak sounding board – unusual, but very, very, VERY heavy. And it was LOUD. We had a blanket on top of it to quiet it down. If you opened the top, it would be deafening in a small space. The only unfortunate thing about it was that although it was in fair tune, it was a full tone low, and I remember my Mom saying that to correct it would cost about four times what the piano cost in the first place. And about half the cost of a good used spinet piano.

When my wife and I moved into the last house it shared with us, there were a group of fellas helping who were the ranch-hands at the dairy farm where we’d been renting one of the hired-hand houses. The owners were grateful to us for our work in fixing up the ranch-hand house (we’d be fixing or painting something every other week, and I rebuilt/re-plumbed the bath in it); and we must have done a pretty good job for them – their son was getting married and would be moving into that house we’d fixed up! So to say thanks, the hands pitched in and helped us move. They had their stock truck in which they would carry their prize bulls to market, and they transported that piano in it. They had a chunk of 2″ plywood, and as we were rolling the piano from the truck to the front door, the weight of that piano made a scary bend in that piece of plywood. The fellas looked at me and said, “You know, that plank never bends – even a little bit – when we’re walking a bull up it…”

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