By John G. Taylor
Piano players have it easy. It might not always feel that way, but if you’ve ever watched a violinist take his case to the bathroom because he didn’t want leave it behind, or seen a cellist drag her instrument through an airport—then watched the look on her face as she hands it over to be put in the hold—you’ll realize just how easy piano players have it. No one expects us to take our instruments on tour. We get to travel light.
The downside, of course, is that you never know what to expect. In an interview with Voice Of America, Wally Boot, the final tone inspector at the workshop that produces Steinway pianos and a 51-year veteran of the company, described how every piano that passes through the factory has its own personality.
“If it were a bright piano, it would be like a jazz piano,” he said. “If it is a mellow piano, it is more for the house, or for chamber music…a model B, this would be a concert piano.”
But you can’t tell what kind of piano you’ve got just by looking it. Boot’s job is to listen to the instrument and make sure that it sounds even and that everything works. We have to do the same thing every time we sit at a keyboard for the first time. It might look just like the one we have at home or the last one we played, but we can feel, as soon as our fingers touch the keys, those little differences. We can sense it in the action and we can certainly hear it in the tones. It might not be audible to everyone. The audience might feel that they’re hearing a top quality piano that’s perfectly tuned and playing beautifully. And they’d probably be right.
But we’d know. We can feel the difference. We can hear it.
That might sound as though piano players are at a disadvantage. Violinists might have to chain themselves to their cases (or risk having their instruments stolen while they’re buying a sandwich) but at least when they arrive, they know exactly what they’ll be playing (if they preserve the wood using Music Sorb). Piano players always face surprise. We always risk forcing a Bach concerto through a piano that would have been better suited to the thumps of Thelonious Monk.
There are two ways to come to terms with that situation.
There Are No Strange Pianos
The first is to regard every new piano as a new friend. Just as strangers can surprise and please and be interesting in all sorts of unexpected ways, so a new piano can make us smile and happy to a surprising degree. We might not meet that piano again but we can be richer for the meeting we had.
And just as new friends can be fun, there’s still nothing like the familiarity and ease of the company of old friends. There are fewer feelings better than sitting at your own piano and playing your favorite piece of music. And unlike other musicians, it’s always waiting for us at home.