No wrong notes

The piano ain’t got no wrong notes.
—Thelonius Monk

Here is a photo tour of my piano (which I may or may not have mentioned before).

The process of buying this piano was interesting. Being a digital sort of person, and owning a half-decent MIDI keyboard already, I first looked at digital pianos such as the Yamaha Arius, which is fairly affordable and a bit better than a regular electronic keyboard. I went to Chappells and played a couple, and while they were perfectly fine, that’s all they were - fine.

For musicians, buying an instrument is a process of mutual seduction. You want to find the instrument that captivates you, that makes you sound amazing, that you can’t stop playing. The one that seems to fit you like a lover, and responds willingly under your hands. The digital pianos, by contrast, were clean, bland, and sexless (so to speak). I decided I needed to look at acoustic instruments, even if it meant stretching the budget a little to get something of quality (I still had no idea at this point how much I’d end up spending).

So I went to a few second-hand piano shops to look at what was around. Most of what I saw was pretty feeble: poor old broken-down things which were barely in tune, with sticky actions and wobbly voicing. When I told one proprietor what I was looking for, he perked up and said, “Ah! What you want is a musician’s piano.” I was a bit puzzled by this (what other kind of piano is there?). But, when I thought about it, I understood what he meant. People buy pianos for lots of reasons, not all of them musical, and there were some gorgeous shiny black satin beasts in the shop which were clearly made to be furniture.

One shop I went back to a couple of times, because the owner (a piano technician and restorer) was immensely knowledgeable and forthcoming, and quite happy to let me roam the shop all day, plunking and tinkling a variety of ivories at leisure. To his enormous credit, he never tried to sell me a piano (if only all piano shop owners were so wise). Instead, we just talked and talked, played music, drank tea, and let nature take its course. In a corner of his shop was this beautiful old Bechstein:

It looked a bit tired and unloved, and in need of a fair bit of restoration, but it sounded glorious: sweet, dark, and smoky, like brown sugar. I knew I’d found my piano! A couple of months, an action overhaul, a good clean, regulation, voicing, and a very substantial cheque later, it arrived at its new home.

It’s a C. Bechstein Model 9, made in Berlin in 1911. It’s fun to speculate about all the owners it’s had before me, the houses it’s lived in, and the music that’s been played on it.

Since it arrived, it’s very quickly become part of the family, if you like, and I spend many a happy hour in the library plonking through bits of Bach, Beethoven, Satie, and so on. Every day after work and before dinner I’ll have my piano ‘playtime’ (never ‘practice’). Sometimes I like to put on Herbie Hancock and Art Tatum records and jam along, or improvise free-form jazz odysseys like Keith Jarrett. Other times I wind up the metronome and have fun seeing how fast and accurately I can play technical exercises like Hanon, Schmitt, and parallel motion scales.

But the main purpose of a piano, as I’m sure you’ll agree, is to play Bach, and that I do in full measure and with huge joy. There’s something wonderfully accessible about great music. If you love works of art, it’s usually something you can only experience as a consumer. You can’t sculpt your own Henry Moore, or paint your own Mona Lisa. But you can buy or download the sheet music for a Bach prelude, and hunt and peck your way through it.

There’s no level of musical ability where you can’t play Bach (or anything else for that matter). You may do more or less justice to it depending on your technical skill and musicianship, but even I (hesitatingly, and with many wrong notes, despite what Thelonius Monk says) can produce those marvellous sounds and, for a moment, be the conduit for the magic.

And there really is nothing like a real piano. When you play it, it plays you back. You can feel the momentum of the hammers flying up to the strings and back through the linkages and keys to your fingers, and hear the sympathetic harmonics of every note across the hundreds of strings, resonating and singing like Tibetan bells. It’s alive in a way that even the most sophisticated electronic instruments can’t be: a messy, complicated, organic life, which makes it a never-ending joy to play.

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