I’ve been decorating the living room, and the piano was really getting in my way – too heavy to move! Solved that, (thanks Muireann) with a bit of lateral thinking and a long pole.
So my imaginary blog reader is now asking themselves: Why is she on about pianos? Can she even play the piano? Naah… I can pick out a tune with one hand, I can make up and instantly forget a random cluster of pleasant-sounding chords and seemingly connected notes. I sometimes think I don’t really have a right to own a piano, given how little I make of it. However it got me thinking about my relationship to the beast in the parlour.
The first piano I had anything to do with was my Gran’s. It was a black, highly polished upright, very respectable with thickly coated keys that slipped under my fingers very satisfyingly, and I remember it having a nice rounded deep mellow tone.
it was a place for silver framed photographs and glass paperweights, and in my extreme youth, for posting shiny new Christmas pennies between the keys.
As we each got old enough to show sufficient interest my Gran started teaching us to play. As she lived several miles away this was too sporadic to have much impact, but I remember announcing my intention to learn properly when I was about seven. In this I was heavily influenced by my then school teacher the lovely Miss Woodward (who played clarinet) and some jealousy of my old sister who at the time was current recipient of Gran’s efforts to inculcate some music in us.
I remember my Mum asking me very earnestly whether I really meant it, and me being rather cavalier in saying yes, having not the slightest idea what I was signing up for. I think we were on a train at the time, on our way to our annual holiday at a once imposing Victorian seaside resort that was rather down at heel by then, but that’s a whole different story.
I’m not sure about the exact circumstances but it’s my story, so if I’ve elaborated or rolled incidents together that’s my prerogative.
As I remember it, this holiday was the first week of the school summer break and therefore coincided with my birthday, and when we got back Mum announced that a lady round the corner would be giving me lessons once a week in future. This lady (was she called Mrs Gardiner?- it’ll do) had two very impressive grand pianos side by side and nose to tail in her living room. Her house was an exact replica of ours, but seemed bigger, I can’t imagine we could have got two grand pianos into our house. I don’t remember how much this cost but it was measured in Guineas I think seven for ten weeks. There wasn’t really any such thing as a Guinea any more, but it was a delicate way of asking for more than a pound. So once a week I went for a lesson, before school, and a couple of times a week I went to practice when Mrs Gardiner had no other pupils.
Not long after this, another neighbour, Mrs Hall of whom I was very fond, offered the use of her piano for practice, so instead of Mrs Gardiner, I went to Mrs Hall most evenings for an hour at her small upright in her very dark back living room.
And then mum bought me a piano. I think Mrs Gardiner sourced it, as it came from a house in her road, where the incumbent had died. It cost five pounds, and probably cost more than that to get it shifted down the steep garden steps and up the road to us.
This was a beautiful piano. A double hammered upright in walnut veneer, we called her Emmeline – she had scrolled feet and tiny candelabra barely big enough to take cake candles and had two bronze medals awarded at a Paris exhibition… not personally I assume. The piano tuner Mr da Souza, was in love with her. I loved that piano. I held a concert for Mrs Gardiner and Mrs Hall to celebrate her arrival. I think it was probably at this point that I realised not everyone was quite as enthusiastic about my vast musical talent as I was. My dad once made some comment about me thinking I would have to choose between being a world-famous author or a world-famous concert pianist; I took him seriously at the time…
Mrs Gardiner began giving lessons at my school and I got to hear how much more talented her other pupils were compared to me, and because (I think!) I now could have free lessons at school, I was also put in for piano exams at the conservatoire in Blackheath.
I passed, but I didn’t enjoy the experience – I don’t think I was very well prepared, either in my ability, or my understanding of what was expected. I remember Mrs Gardiner commenting that she’d had feedback about her pupils all being rather tentative in their touch. I think she was terribly hurt by this and we all thrashed the piano conscientiously for a bit then went back to our lady-like habits.
I can’t remember when I stopped having lessons, or when I stopped playing, but I know I got very self-conscious about playing Emmeline. I know there was one occasion when I went to practice before breakfast and just sat there, looking at her, thinking it was too early and someone would hear me.
Mum sold Emmeline to be turned into a drinks cabinet… She says it wasn’t quite as bad as that, but I remember it distinctly, and still regret it.
My next piano was rescued from an empty flat when I worked in housing. I was still uncomfortable about people listening to me play, so I wouldn’t put it against a party-wall, and consequently it ended up living in the hall. This was an almost dead piano. The piano tuner said the frame was cracked and euthanasia would be kinder. I resisted – there was nothing more soothing after a tough day at work than to crash about on a piano that gave as good as it got. So there it stayed in the hall, until the house had to be underpinned, (no connection!) and it was ridiculous to store it, so I gave it away.
I missed it as soon as it had gone, but it was many years until I got the latest. Neighbours were moving and the children had outgrown wanting to play. I went round and looked a bit doubtfully at this enormous rather unattractive player-piano. Mindful of the old wreck I’d rescued before, I got in touch with the piano tuner, who referred me to a player piano specialist.
The specialist looked it over said it was rather a good piano but that the player function was adrift, and I rashly decided to give it house room, rather against A’s wishes.
“Will you play it?” she asked suspiciously.
“It will play itself,” I replied, having not asked enough questions.
Men came to move the monster 2 doors up to its new home … well they tried … player-pianos weigh about twice what a normal one does. two hours of cursing sweating and effort from the men and mild hysteria from me, and the monster was squatting in my dining room, a little too close to the door, but notionally where I’d asked for it to be. The men went mopping brows and still cursing. And there it still sits: I only want it moved a couple of feet but it is completely impossible without specialist equipment. Occasionally I worry that it will actually cause the need for more underpinning.
Then I discovered that this type of player piano (an Angelus) was discontinued in the late 1920’s and you can hardly get rolls for it, almost any other make would be no problem. The specialist said there was no point fixing the mechanism unless I had something to play on it. Sometimes I think about taking out the pipes and bellows to relieve the weight.
The neighbours sometimes comment when they hear me playing, but I don’t mind so much these days.
It does have a nice tone though.
So what if the E sticks in wet weather?
And so what if I really wanted was a clavichord?
Off to play it while there’s no one in!
copyright Cherry Potts 2011