Thursday, December 10, 2009

In which he plays his first Steinway (long-ish)

About three weeks ago, I met some old college buddies in Nashville to watch Vanderbilt get destroyed by Kentucky* in football. Eh, it happens, one gets used to it. (Rice fans, testify! Can I get an "Amen!"?)

* - A truly unrelated observation: can somebody explain to me why Kentucky fans travel in such numbers to watch their team play football? Dudley Field, home of the Vanderbilt Commodores, seats roughly 40,000 people. Come game day, there were 30,000 Kentucky fans in attendance. Basketball, I get, but what interest do Kentucky fans have in football? Professor K, can you help me out here?

Nashville is a comfortable drive from 41 miles west of Chicago, but part of the weekend involves some Friday afternoon golf. Driving in time for tee-time would mean getting up and hitting the road around 4 AM, which is a lousy way to start a busy weekend that also includes late night card-playing and such. As luck has it, one of my buddies is a surgeon in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, and that represents a comfortable stopping point. So I rolled into Dr. C's driveway late Thursday evening, caught up on current events, debated the Public Option, and went to bed.

Next morning, I woke up to an empty house, save me and two Chihuahuas*. Dr. C was visiting some patients he'd worked on the day before, and his wife Penny was delivering the kids to school. I put on my running shoes, and went out for a run. On the way to the front door, I noticed something that had escaped my attention the evening before... a large grand piano. I took a closer look at it and saw that it was a Steinway, which I guessed to be about 6' or so.

* - What is it with our friends and Chihuahua pairs? Thankfully, all dogs survived this visit.

So I immediately scrapped all other plans, and went to town on the piano. At least, you'd think that, knowing me. Well, I didn't. Volleyball season is fast approaching, and I'd been getting away from that "get in shape" thing I have to do these days just to be able to play. And besides, something didn't feel right about sitting down at this beautiful piano without, you know, permission or something. So I headed out with my Blackberry and headphones, and went for a run around Dr. C's neighborhood.

That took around 45 minutes. During that time, I talked myself out of the very sensible decision to ask permission to play the piano, and used that as motivation to get back to the house quickly. I justified myself thusly: "Why inflict my poor playing upon my kind hosts? They should be spared that."

When I got back, I was unpleasantly surprised to learn that I had locked myself out. The only creatures inside the house were the two yappy, unhelpful, and very agitated Chihuahuas. For 30 minutes, I alternated periods off stretching and canvassing the outside of the house for the proverbial spare-key-under-the-rock / statue. (Admit it: you have one, don't you?) The whole time, trying (and probably failing) to look perfectly innocent. Finally, in response to a text I had sent him, Dr. C told me where I could find the key, and voila, I was back in the house.

The dogs looked at me like, "Oh, it's you. Never mind all that hollering we were just doing."

By this point, I was very much looking forward to playing the piano. But there was a problem: my hands were frozen stiff. They were useless. It was probably 40 degrees that morning, and I had been outside for over an hour by this point. I could not play the piano at all. I tried anyway, of course, but it was awful. And about this point, Penny, Dr. C's wife, returned. And heard, oh, about 45 seconds of the misery I was inflicting on the piano. And said, in that sincere way that Southern folks can when they say something nice that flies in the face of all available evidence, "You play beautifully."

We got to talking, and Penny told the story of how they acquired the piano. Dr. C has an aging rich Uncle with no heirs, and wanted to do something nice for his nephew. About two years ago, they met at the Steinway store in Louisville, played a couple of pianos, and chose this new mahogany O. It took about an hour.

Since then, the Steinway techs have been by a half-dozen times to service the piano, most recently two days before my arrival. Apparently the Steinway people are a little fussy about how you treat their product... they say things like, "Uh, Mrs. C, there is too much dust on the instrument, you folks need to pay a little closer attention to that." And "Dr. C, those Southeast-facing windows will allow morning sunlight to fall upon the instrument" (they like to call it that, I guess) "during the Winter months. You are going to have to move it to a new location, please." They take notes on these things, like a doctor maintaining medical records, and are unhappy when they find their advice / suggestions from the previous visit go unheeded. I guess this is all part of the Steinway experience.

Penny went on to tell me that the piano isn't played very much. Dr. C played as a child, but rarely today. Their children take lessons on it, but don't practice as much as they should. The older one would be really good if he practiced. And Penny doesn't play at all, which you might have already surmised by her review of my playing.

Dr. C got home shortly thereafter. We all had breakfast together, cleaned up, and still had some unscheduled time. I sat down once more (with permission this time), and took a go at I Due Fiumi and my most recent recital piece, the first movement of the Clementi Sonatina. I had to play from memory, since I didn't bring any music (that'll learn me). I played these things well enough the second time around to get a good feel for the piano.

Of course it was amazing. Neutral in all respects, which I believe most Steinway folks regard as a good thing. Bass? Plenty, but somehow not booming. Treble? Wonderful and clear, but without that bell-like ringing our church piano (a Kawai RX-2) has. The touch was heavier than either our Casio or PT's small Emerson grand.

The Verdict (keeping in mind, of course, that I am a true novice when it comes to any sort of "real" piano, much less fancy-pants models like a Steinway O... basically, I know nothing about what I am talking about):

A beautiful piano, one I'd take in a heartbeat from any willing rich, heir-lacking Uncles. Or Aunts, distant cousins, or strangers on the street. But to be perfectly honest, it sort of left me shrugging my shoulders. I guess I expected to be floored by playing a new Steinway. You know, the sort of experience that melts the hearts of hardened men. This was nothing like that. In fact, to my hands, the progression of key weights, from heavy bass to lighter treble, was not nearly as smooth as I expected. The sustain didn't hold as long as I'd like but this is probably a matter of taste, and could be adjusted.

For what it cost (for those of you scoring at home, that would be around $60k, and Steinway is infamous for their refusal to discount), I expected more. I guess I expected it would have made me a better player, but alas, it'll take more than a fancy piano for that to happen.

- Aw2pp, who is nowhere near as with-it-and-hip as he makes himself out to be… Case in point: his use of “with-it-and-hip” in this tag.


pdxknitterati/MicheleLB said...

It's good to try many, many pianos, any chance you get! Some pianos are magical, and it feels like they help you play better. Some are just a big name. I love flirting with all pianos! It's like speed dating. And probably equally dangerous; occasionally one steals your heart.

GranDeb said...

First, amen to the Rice football comment.....even Vandy beat us this year....arrggghhh! Saw the thrashing in person!

Second, I looovvve playing a beautiful Steinway....picture this...or maybe try to hear sister and I played in a Pianorama...and it was actually recorded - on vinyl!! One hundred Steinways, four parts to each of the 5 pieces, all playing at the same time!!! It was truly phantasmic!! (consider me way more 'with it' using that kind of vocab!!) haha