The other day I cleaned my grand piano. I can’t begin to communicate what a monumental statement that is for me. It’s not that it was that dirty it’s just that for as long as I can remember, I’ve dreamed of owning a grand piano, but it never worked out for me.
That is until this September when my beautiful 1929 walnut finish six foot Blüthner grand was delivered and (eventually) coaxed into the house.
For years I suffered from terrible piano envy. I would watch TV programmes with people pontificating from an armchair with what was obviously a very expensive, often seemingly unused Steinway or other grand piano in the background. Usually the piano was being used to prop up various picture frames, or even worse, flower vases.
Now I just grimace a bit at the waste of a beautiful instrument and chuckle because I now have my own. And it is entirely free of picture frames, flowers vases or fringed throws.
My very first piano was an 1898 Köhler and Campbell full upright player piano, also called a pianola. It played like a normal piano, but would also play from a roll inserted in the front of the case. It worked by pumping a pair of foot pedals which controlled a pneumatic mechanism inside. The rolls had perforated holes that corresponded to the keys, so when a hole passed over the trackerboard the key would play.
I adored it. It had a strange grainy finish that we suspected was mahogany underneath, ivory keys that were chipped along the edges and sliced your thumb when you attempted glissandi, and the tone would change depending on the weather. It came with a huge selection of rolls. The bellows had a leak so it was a test of endurance to get through a roll. My parents would occasionally have parties and challenge someone to get all the way through Rhapsody In Blue without passing out.
I used to love digging through the really old antique rolls. They were songs I didn’t know, and the rolls were so old they were tattered around the edges so you would get the odd stray note sounding in the bass or very high treble.
When I was a teenager and decided I was going to be a rock star, I stupidly asked my parents to sell the lovely old piano so I could buy an electric one. What a mistake. I didn’t realise the difference it made practising on a ‘real’ piano, so when I got serious about going to music college and began practising six hours a day, we had to rent a small, ugly upright acoustic.
I picked this piano out of loads of more attractive ones because I liked the tone and the heavier action on it. The salesman tried to talk me into something prettier. I think I must have thought it made me a better pianist practising on a heavy action, but I think in the end all it did was injure me. This was a little Kawai and I really liked it. I had it in my bedroom so I could practise whenever I wanted to. I must have driven my parents mad.
During this time, in order to fit in enough practice hours, I was also using two different pianos at my high school. One was a darling old full upright that this lovely, slightly eccentric English teacher had in her classroom. She’d taken a liking to me and invited me to come in after school and play on it for an hour or so while she graded papers.
The band teacher already had a pianist in the school orchestra, but accepted me in the class so that I could spend the class time practising on the school’s prized Steinway grand, which lived in a cupboard in the cafeteria/auditorium. I used to wheel this big black instrument out, peel back the cover, and play furiously for the 50 minutes allocated to me. I never knew what the cafeteria staff made of this, as they were preparing for the lunch rush, but I did catch them watching me a few times.
For a long time after I left school, there were no significant pianos in my life. After high school I attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. The practice pianos there were so well-used that the action was terrible on them. This made it a challenge to go in and perform for an adjudication or exam on a proper grand piano in the piano department, where it felt to me like playing on a lead keyboard. When I returned to California, I flitted from place to place, and only ever had a (very nice) Roland digital to practice on, but it wasn’t the same.
After a few years, when I thought I’d found a place I’d like to stay for awhile, I bought an old battered upright off a friend. He was reluctant to part with it, but couldn’t keep it and I paid too much money for it, even though it still wasn’t very much. It sounded terrible, but at least it was an acoustic. I set about cleaning it, even taking the action out and apart and cleaning it thoroughly before piecing it all back together again. I was very proud of myself for actually getting it back in working order, until I made the mistake of trying to put the action back in without help and got it jammed inside the piano. This story still makes my mom laugh.
I sold that piano when I moved north to Washington State in the 1990s. Again I was piano-less for some time, but eventually came across one that someone was giving away to anyone who could take it away. It was another old upright, of similar age to the previous one. It didn’t sound much better but it had a beautiful old hand-carved cabinet. I loved the look of it.
Eventually, after I’d moved to Seattle, I got rid of that one (though I wanted to keep the music stand, it was so gorgeous). I was finally earning enough money teaching piano lessons to buy a ‘proper’ piano (e.g. one that wasn’t 100 years old and falling apart). I made the mistake of trusting the local used car salesman – sorry, piano dealer – who assured me the shiny black Kawai upright I was buying was not a grey market one. These were pianos that, at the time, had been manufactured for East Asian countries and were not designed for the Western U.S. climate but were still appearing on the U.S. market. When it started to have problems and I got a technician in, he said the glue was coming apart inside and its days were probably numbered without expensive restoration. I was devastated, as I really loved the instrument, and felt I’d been taken advantage of. I was so proud that I’d been able to buy a ‘good’ piano with my own money, and felt terribly cheated.
When I met my husband and knew I would be moving to London to a flat up two flights of twisty stairs, I realised I’d have to sell the Kawai. I was back to practising on a new digital, which was wonderful but still not the real thing. I discovered you could book the rehearsal rooms at Steinway Hall in Central London so I’d go there occasionally and indulge myself in playing a wonderful grand piano, hoping there wasn’t anyone famous next door.
After seven years, we decided to move to Orkney. Out of the proceeds of the sale of the flat, I was going to buy myself a piano. I had dreams of a grand, even a baby grand if it had to be, and went shopping. I found exactly what I was looking for – a 1930s Bluthner six foot grand. It was beautiful, and sounded amazing. It was also £18,000. About £15,000 more than my budget.
I let myself be talked into a Weber 48” upright with a ridiculously shiny, high-gloss cherrywood finish. It is a gorgeous thing, though hard to keep fingerprints off the lacquer. It has a really good, strong tone and feels good to play. I was so happy to have it, though trying hard to stuff down the disappointment at still not being able to afford a grand piano. It was, up till then, the best piano I’d ever owned.
Occasionally here in Orkney I would go to Stromness Town Hall and play their Steinway grand (since replaced by a Fazioli). I would come home in a foul mood, suffering from the green-eyed grand piano jealousy monster.
Then three months ago the most amazing email came into my inbox while I was on the Isle of Wight on holiday. Someone I knew was replacing her grand piano with a new one – with a Kawai, as it happened.
Her piano was my dream piano (well, the next one down from the Bosendorfer 7′ I knew I would never, ever be able to afford): a 1929 Blüthner six foot grand. I was stunned. I had no idea how we would afford it, but it just had to happen.
And it did. It sits in the hall across from my shiny, pretty Weber, which seems a bit forlorn now, and will probably be sold.
I stroke the Blüthner every time I walk past it. It speaks to me every time I play. I’m still learning its voices and moods, but it’s warm and kind and encourages me to delve deeper into the music.
I cleaned the case the other day – gently and carefully, and brought out the beautiful inner glow of its wood finish. It’s awaiting its first tuning, but has held surprisingly well after the move and sounds glorious.
I’m over the moon, and happily still surprised by its presence every time I come down the stairs and see it waiting for me.
Excuse me, I feel some Bach coming on that needs to be played…..
Wishing you a very happy Christmas,