The Literature of the Piano

“I’d like piano lessons,” said my daughter, and, yes, of course, I said, that would be terrific. She was only six. How could she know that she was giving me permission to relapse into yet another time-wasting obsession, with the possibility of acquiring yet another library on a subject? Now, under cover of being a good parent, I could once again dive into a literature, slip off to internet chat rooms late at night, wander into stores that had been around forever but that I had never had an excuse to explore, and contemplate an expensive purchase. But mainly I like to read about that kind of thing.

“Of course,” I said, benevolently, the noble father. But I was thrilled; such interests had been largely off limits since donning the responsible hoodie of the parent. In earlier years, I had been there with photography, wooden boats, ice hockey, tube amplifiers, all pursuits offering a deep literature, and the chance to spend money. Right away, I knew full well where I was headed: Worst of all are the Internet forums, where I will undoubtedly cruise late at night, recklessly picking up useful-seeming advice from strangers hiding behind screen names. (Why does Dennis care quite so much about the grey market, one must wonder?)

Not all interests spawn literature of equal quality. The literature of the tube amplifier and the literature of hockey are as one in their paucity. Tube amplifiers are lacking an oeuvre, certainly, because, well, they just kind of sit there. The dearth of good hockey writing is a little more mysterious, but it may be a sport that knocks the lyricism out of people.

The piano, like wooden boats, seems to spin off more books than actual piano players, judging by the number of books that I have read on the two subjects and the number of wooden boat owners and accomplished piano players that I have met. For the amount of soaring prose generated, too, these two objects share the Empyrean. When I was obsessively reading about wooden boats, writers were always going on about how they were alive, had molded with the water, what have you. And so with the piano and its ethereal mellifluousness, et cetera.

As far as the number of literate admirers, I can think of no other musical instrument that compares to the piano. Stabs have been made at a few, of course. There is a small genre of violin books. Annie Proulx did write a novel called The Accordion, but no one got very excited about it, as far as I could tell.

There are piano movies, of course, too. Think how alluring was the madness of Geoffrey Rush in Shine. Yeah, he was crazy, but wouldn’t it maybe be worth it to play a piece like the “Rack 3?” There is The Piano; The Piano Teacher; and the tragic love affair in Once, unconsummated but made real over the keys; the joyful songs in The History Boys, played by English schoolboys experiencing their special kind of love for one another, whatever it is.

As for the books, I am doing my best to read all of them, but only six months in I am a long way from that. I read NPR’s Noah Adams’ book about a year spent trying to learn the piano, in which he goes to every length, from buying a Steinway, to ordering some kind of computer software to teach him. Tricia Tunstall, in Note by Note, writes of twenty years teaching boys and girls to play. Charles Rosen’s Piano Notes was an odd addition, for it seems aimed at people seriously considering making a living as a concert pianist. There are many to go. The microscopy of the obsession is relentless. There is a whole subgenre of books on the making of a Steinway, down to the least mystical details. And there is yet too a book about Glenn Gould’s personal Steinway; he spent a decade trying to get it perfectly tuned.

Probably best and most obsessively disordered of all was Perry Knize’s perfectly titled Grand Obsession, a book, as far as I could tell, about essentially going crazy, though it purports to be merely the recounting of her efforts to get her Grotrian grand piano properly tuned. Knize, in her forties, decides she must learn to be a concert pianist, and this leads her to need a piano, which leads her to stores on the east and west coasts and in the Midwest. She finds an obscure brand at Beethoven pianos in New York, and it plays perfectly there, but not so well after it has been shipped through an icestorm to her home in Montana. And so years of strange behavior on her part ensue, from flying a tuner in from New York, to visiting the piano maker’s factory in Germany, all in search of a vanished sound. (As an author, I am frankly curious to know how she managed to sell a proposal for a book about getting a piano properly tuned.)

Combining two oft-pornified subjects, the piano and Paris, there is The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, romancing the strangeness of the French, who, apparently, uber-quaintly, will not sell you a piano unless you have a reference. As with seemingly every author of every book on the piano, Thad Carharrt walks into a piano store hoping to buy a cheap little upright to plink away on, and ends up with something much more esoteric and expensive, after the piano salesman, all of whom seem to be Svengalis, somehow upgrades him to an antique baby grand way out of his budget. Same thing happened to Knize and Adams.

It’s quite an upsell, when you realize how, like good dogs, very nice pianos are always trying just to walk into your life. For such a lovable and charming instrument, capable of producing book after book on its wiles, there are an awful lot in the thrift shops, and even, here in the city, alone on the sidewalks. I passed a perfectly good Yamaha on 2nd Avenue the other day.

In this odd combination of ability to entrance, and frequency of discard, the piano must only be matched, again, by the wooden boat. What other objects elicit at once so much passion, and yet spend so much time freezing in barns, or waiting in antique shops for suitors who shall never come?

I live six blocks from a thrift shop, and it is one of my current pleasures to go there once a week, and to usually find yet another beautiful piano available for not much. There have been a multitude of spinets, and one glamorous baby grand made by the venerable Chickering. This week there is a Janssen, a small piano which must have been made in the thirties; it looks to be made of cherry, if that’s possible, and the intricacy of the woodwork is breathtaking. It was actually built in New York, which, I have learned, was once one of the great piano-building capitals. So many were built that there were worries for a time that wouldn’t be enough trees in the country to keep going. Steinway is still here, of course, but I read on the Internet that it is not the same. Of course not.

I have a digital keyboard, now, as a kind of placeholder. There are no books about digital pianos, that I know of, though they outsell the real thing by a decent margin. They do not need to be tuned, for one thing, and this must take some of the fun out of the journey, for perfection is clearly not as interesting as the attempt to reach it.

Once you start playing the piano, though, you do get a chance to feel some of the romance that fills the books; not necessarily at home with your teach-yourself-piano book, but sometimes it happens while traveling.

I finally played a Steinway, and the right kind, last week, down at the Gallery Inn in San Juan, Puerto Rico. It was in a music room overlooking the water. It must have been nine feet long. It had been built in 1934, and belonged to the father or grandfather of the hotel’s owner. He had gotten it from music department of Yale, and it had spent fifty years at the family home in Connecticut, before being shipped down. They moved it into the conservatory with a crane, over the hotel and through the courtyard window. There amid books and candles and thick drapes and heavy wood furniture and old scores, I played some of the easy note piano I had been practicing, and for the first time, felt walloped by the full romance of the pursuit, the mellifluous sonorities, the sense of… well, it seemed like the kind of scene I could put in a book, and the strangest part was that I actually kind of wished I was reading about it.